I'd like to introduce you to my treasured friend Meredith Martin-Moats. If you've ever known a woman who rescued animals, built community resources, and sang high lonesome harmony with a twin at each hip, then you might know someone a bit like her. She's a superwoman, but she's also one of the most down-to-earth people you'll find. I asked her recently to share some thoughts on reducing waste in the kitchen and cooking mindfully (see Meredith's post on a great muffin recipe that uses overripe fruit). In typical Meredith fashion, her words took me back to a simpler time, yet revived my interest in learning something new:
Because wastefulness is such a part of our culture it can take lots of time and baby steps to rethink the way we function in our kitchens, and I've come to be a big believer in moving at a slow and steady pace. Taking on too much just becomes overwhelming and leads to burn out. Now, this might not work for lots of folks but for me it really does. And that's to find rewards in less. For me, reducing waste and living simply is a spiritual practice. I know that might sound weird to some people, but that holds true for me. My point here is that I think learning to reduce waste should include some deep thinking about why it matters to you in the first place. Yes it's cheaper and yes it makes sense, but it's also not the easiest way to live in our modern society and if those changes are going to really take root in your life it seems to me that a person should consider really looking at why they want to make those changes. When you find the answers to those questions then it becomes much more like a fun challenge and less like hard work.
Something I learned from my grandmother is to have a few super simple, super cheap dishes that you know so well, and cook often enough, that you can make them without thinking. One of those things for us is pinto beans and cornbread. It's a super simple food, and I'm a huge fan of simple foods because they're so flexible, they taste better as leftovers, and they can stretch your grocery budget like nothing else can. Plus, the ingredients are easy to buy locally or to grow yourself. You can dress it up with garlic and balsamic vinegar (I like to saute my garlic until it's kind of crunchy almost, like a little garlic chip atop the beans), or add cheese and onions. The possibilities are endless. I can't imagine a life without beans. And my kids love them too. My grandmother (her name was Golda Faye Taylor McElory) always had a pot of beans on, and now when I make beans I feel transported back to her small house in my hometown. She was born in the 1910s and she knew how to cook well and cook on a budget. So beans are not only versatile and cheap, they're also a comfort food. She also often made fried potato patties---another simple dish.
Depending on where folks are from there are different similar staples. When I first started to really try and reduce waste in the kitchen and rely on local and whole foods, I often found myself tapping into memories of my grandmother in her kitchen. She lived very frugally and she never wasted a thing. But her food was always so delicious and there always seemed to be an abundance of it. So I started thinking about what she did and thought about the way she set up her kitchen and the contents of her shelf and fridge. Whenever she cooked meat she always saved the bacon grease for the beans or greens. She always made a skillet of cornbread---a simple item that can turn a boring pot of beans into the ultimate comfort food. She never threw her food scraps in the trash---they always went into the compost bucket. Most meals were simple, but every now and then there were special treats like chocolate pies. They had a small garden in their yard; farmer friends from the rural areas outside of town brought them veggies at harvest time. And she had a big deep freeze full of peas and corn and beans. There was chow-chow and pepper sauce to liven things up, and in the summertime always fresh tomatoes and peppers. So, I think tapping into the memories of your older relatives who had no choice but to live on less is a great resource. If you live in a different area from where you grew up, look to the older generations in your area to see what foods they cook often. It will vary in each region, but the concepts will be similar. I channel those memories and combine them with new things I've picked up---like the muffin recipe, for example. And I'm still learning and nowhere near where I want to be. But that's okay. It's a slow process. --M. M-M
In my family, beans and cornbread were a common simple meal as well, and isomething I still turn to when I need to settle myself down and focus on simpler things. But one of my favorite pieces of advice here is to "look to older generations in your area to see what foods they cook often." No wiser words have been spoken about what you should be cooking tonight. For me, peppers stuffed with a dirty rice-style concoction is a great example of this--something regional that I've learned to cook to use leftovers from other local specialties. I think if you keep looking to the traditions, you're on the right track.
- 1 lb. ground beef, Italian sausage, or a combination (or 2 cups chopped leftover chicken, pork, shrimp, etc.; or cubed tofu; or 1 15-oz can of beans)
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil (optional)
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 stalks celery, sliced
- 1 red or green bell pepper, diced, plus 5 whole bell peppers of any color
- salt and ground black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
- a Tablespoon or two of chopped fresh basil, parsley, or thyme (or a dried teaspoonful)
- 1/4 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable broth (or water)
- 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Cajun or Creole seasoning (Tony Cachere's, Paul Prudhomme, or other seasoning blend you like)
- 1 cup cooked rice
- dashes of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, cayenne, tomato paste, salsa, pesto, or other similar flavorings you like
- 5 slices cheese, for top (I used pepper jack)
- Preheat oven to 375.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, brown beef or sausage until no longer pink. (If using leftovers, skip to step 2.) Remove from skillet, drain, and set aside.
- In the same skillet, over medium-high heat, saute the onion, celery, and bell pepper until tender, about 7 minutes. (If there's some grease clinging to the inside of the pan, use that to saute in. If your pan is clean, use the Tablespoon of olive oil.) Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.
- Add garlic, scallions, and herbs, and stir for two or three minutes (the pan should be getting dry). Add broth, wine vinegar, and seasoning, stirring well.
- Add rice and reserved browned beef or leftover protein, stirring to heat through. Reduce heat to low and taste a bit to make sure it's well seasoned, adding dashes of this or that until it's perfect. Remove from heat.
- Rinse the whole bell peppers and slice off the tops near the stem. Remove core, seeds, and membranes. Find a baking dish that will hold the peppers, preferably with sides that will hug the edges of the peppers a little bit. Place peppers in baking dish and fill each to the top with the rice mixture, packing down a little as you go so they get really stuffed. Add a few tablespoons of liquid to the bottom of the dish, broth if you have it or water if you don't (to help the peppers steam).
- Cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil, top each pepper with a slice of cheese, and bake uncovered for another 10 to 20 minutes, until peppers are tender, filling is hot, and cheese is bubbly.
note: make this dish richer by stirring a little ricotta or grated cheese into the rice mixture.
And here's another great Louisiana recipe for leftovers: Riz Jaune.