Earlier this month, Morning Edition launched a new food project called Cook Your Cupboard, inspired by a dilemma many of us have faced before: a mysterious food item in the pantry, bought for an unusual recipe or on a whim, that we simply don't know what to do with. Morning Edition asked listeners to send photos of their baffling ingredients to npr.org/cupboard, where home cooks gave each other many creative recipe suggestions.
Now, British cookbook author Nigella Lawson, whose most recent book is Nigellissima, joins NPR for the first radio segment of Cook Your Cupboard. In each installment, we'll get chefs and other food experts to give advice to one lucky submitter. First up is Marcy Misner, who lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Misner sent in a photo of apple cider vinegar, almond milk and dried red beans, which Lawson calls a "very, very eclectic mix." Her impulse is not to approach the items separately, but to unite them: "I have been trying to think if there's anything I could use all three ingredients in," she says. Her first suggestion: vegetarian chili and cornbread.
"In a huge pan, cook the beans with onions, garlic, red bell peppers, and whatever spicing you like (I tend to go for the coriander [cilantro], cumin, cardamom axis). Add some chopped tomatoes and a tablespoon of cocoa (to give it a bit of bitterness) and cook that for a long time. Top it with cornbread — you can make a buttermilk substitute by adding a teaspoon of cider vinegar to a cup of almond milk and leaving it for five minutes. If the cornbread recipe calls for honey, leave it out, since the almond milk will add a bit of sweetness."
Lawson recommends using the cornbread as a topping rather than a side dish, for a simple reason: "Anything that's in one pot reduces the washing up."
Looking at just the almond milk and vinegar, Lawson recommended a breakfast dish: almond-milk pancakes. But she noted that cooks used to working with regular milk need to be careful when substituting almond milk.
"You could make really exquisite and healthful pancakes. If you have some overripe bananas, chop them up and mix a teeny bit of cider vinegar, some almond milk (use less almond milk than you would regular milk, since it's a bit more watery), some flour and an egg, and you've got some low-GI breakfast pancakes."
"Make a tangy syrup with cider vinegar and sugar and some chopped-up red bell peppers. Then soak and cook your red beans. Put them all together, jar them and leave them for a month, and you've got a relish."
"You could make a rather delicious regular mashed potato using almond milk — and you can use cauliflower in place of potatoes, and blend it with almond milk to make a soup or a mash. Because of that subtle sweetness, the almond milk, it takes off some of that very aggressive cabbage-y undernote of cauliflower. (Mark Twain said of cauliflower that it was just a cabbage with a college education.) You could make a really good soup flavored with whatever spices you wanted."
"Cook the beans, and mash them as if you were making hummus. Then spread that on some small little bits of bread, so you've got almost like crostini or bruschetta."
Misner was worried about whether cooking the apple cider vinegar would take away some of its health properties. On that front, Lawson says she shouldn't worry: "I have also been looking into the health properties of apple cider vinegar, and many claims are made — scientific endeavor doesn't entirely back all of them up," Lawson says. "So I would not overdo ... cider, because there are many bad effects as well as good effects, but I do think that a little of everything is fine."
"It's a very good way of using up whatever produce you get that's inexpensive and in season. Cook it up with some chopped onions, brown sugar (or white is fine, too), cider vinegar and some apples (the pectin qualities of apples means that whatever you use tends to set). You can put it in jars, and it can last up to a year."
Misner, who does home canning and jarring and even makes her own cider vinegar, likes the idea of making and jarring chutney. It's all part of her strategy for surviving the snowy months in Michigan. "The winters are kind of long," she says, "so I do a lot of stuff to keep myself busy during the winter. I hate to sit. So cooking is kind of my outlet, to keep my mind busy during the day."
Lawson says the Cook Your Cupboard project is similar to what she does in her own kitchen. "Monday is, generally speaking, my fridge clear-out day," she says, and she regularly makes roasted vegetable dishes combining whatever she has leftover in the fridge. "To me," she says, "your project is what real cooking is about. It's not about going out shopping for a new recipe every time you cook. It's about opening your cupboards and opening your fridge and going from there."
Want to join the Cook Your Cupboard project? Right now we're asking for a spice you have in your spice cabinet that you can't figure out. If you've got some garam masala or bay leaves hanging around that you never touch, head to npr.org/cupboard and show us a photo. You'll get advice on your spice from fellow home cooks, and you might even get to come on the air with one of our chefs.