Over the course of our now nearly year-long isolation from the cruelties of the corona virus, the daily act of cooking has acquired a new and more important meaning. The kitchen, long my refuge, has become sweeter still, an oasis that allows my heart a chance to recoup from the disturbing reality that seems to oppress us all, even if you live, as we do, in a rural southern French village.
The means of escape is simple: I cook. I always have. I love to cook, and for that I’m grateful. But what has been particularly enjoyable, dare I say thrilling, has been to live, like Lennie in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” off the fat of the cupboard, the frost of the fridge, the grace of the garden. Eating has evolved into making good on whatever I can find wherever I can find it, and from this foraging come up with something really tasty. Often, the something I come up with is a something I’ve never tasted before.
Like nasturtium pesto.
My garden in winter is saved from desolation by rampant nasturtiums. They wind their way along the fences, invading the sage plant, lurking in corners where they seem to come up on their own, a spontaneous eruption of sorts.
They are the rabbits of the green world.
But pesto? Who knew? A dear friend sent me a packet of multi-colored nasturtium seeds, with a note saying “pesto?” and my prodigious plants, on the edge of a frost anyway, went into the food processor with garlic, grilled almonds, lemon juice and salt. The whole shebang was gone in an hour on crackers (not easy to find, by the way, as markets are sold out). Full of vitamins, I’m sure.
And I am not a snack person. Next time I’ll boil some pasta, add the parmesan to the mix, and I think we may just have a winner.
I had forgotten what fun real foraging is. I say this even even though my kitchen brims with unlikely ingredients. I fall in love and marry new ones all the time.
But isolation has brought new friends aplenty, maybe because it coaxes a cook’s ingenious, experimental side.
For me, having leftover this and too much that is part of a carefully planned maneuver. You never know when you’ll need an extra grilled sausage to use as a pizza topping, or chick pea flour for socca, the magic pancake you find in Nice. My pantry is often stocked like an over packed suitcase ahead of a short trip, because, well, “you never know…”
And because of that fact, many curries, soups, and frittatas have turned up at our table, made for whatever is gazing at me from the fridge. Examples: steamed broccoli romano, leftover rice or polenta, a few shards of celery root, an extra chicken breast because we bought the large pack to freeze because… you never know.
All this doesn’t include the drier white meat left from a roast chicken because an elderly neighbor loves the wings. We prefer the leg and thigh that go into Butter Chicken with turmeric, chile paste, garum masala, yogurt, grilled crushed almonds and garlic. But if for whatever reason it doesn’t go there, it’s chicken salad with walnuts and capers or tossed into an all-purpose soup along with aging but edible zucchini, beginning-to-sprout potatoes, ever-present sweet onions, leftover long-in-the-tooth white wine and (something I’ve never used often), a bouillon cube, bio, low salt — my savior over the last months.
Spoiled by my mama’s homemade broths, I’ve always made my own bouillon, meat, chicken, fish.
But with no access to the single butcher in our little ville and no visits to the fish market, I’ve had to adjust.
Would I have discovered that frozen monkfish or salmon can actually stand in for freshly caught, especially in fish soups, or for fish and chips?
The odds and ends that lurk in my kitchen along with basic ingredients are in a way like the paints on my palette. You never know what will come together out of that fridge, pantry, or winter garden, and, with appropriate attention, become a work of art never before seen or tasted. Even if the outcome is sometimes just… interesting.
Like chapati made from flammekutche dough, which, by the way, makes great thin hard-to-find crackers (with sesame or chia seeds sprinkled over the top before baking).
Everyone and his mother are now bakers, it seems, depleting even Amazon of yeast and flour. Yet what a great consequence of this pandemic — an outbreak of cooking!
But, how on earth did I run out of crackers? And why are plain crackers so hard to find in France and Italy (except in health food stores)?
Never mind. From now on I’m making my own, and thanks to left-overs, they’ll come in every imaginable flavor.
That’s assuming I can find flour.