What Can I Do with What I Have? An Ingredient-Based Approach to Cooking Every Home Chef Should Adopt
Ronna Welsh's innovative approach to cooking recently inspired our test kitchen.
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When cooking teacher and cookbook author Ronna Welsh came to the test kitchen, she didn't travel light. Welsh brought lots of "starting points" from her book The Nimble Cook. There were pots of crumbled feta, thinly sliced pickled onions, homemade onion jam, avocado, various types of stock, fresh celery, celery syrup-it was like Christmas for a cook.
What Welsh teaches at Purple Kale Kitchenworks, her Brooklyn cooking school, is an ingredient-driven approach to cooking that takes the emphasis off of buying ingredients for a specific dinner recipe and encourages a home cook to "use what you have," while also providing strategies for prepping components to help you make the best use of what you have on hand. In another break with the usual or expected, Welsh's glorious cookbook doesn't have any food photos, rather it's packed with helpful and beautiful illustrations.
Over her signature celery sour cocktails (made with that celery syrup, lemon juice, and gin) and only after editor-at-large Shira Bocar queried her about the celery syrup, Welsh explained that she feels recipes don't always help a home cook to make the most of what they have, that they don't teach all the techniques needed, and that home cooks can feel defeated easily by them. This is especially true if they still have the chicken breasts they bought for a chicken and zucchini recipe but the zucchini is limp and unappealing in the produce drawer and the chicken feels like a loss, too-it doesn't say dinner without its intended side kick.
Welsh focuses on strategies for improvising meals adapted to personal circumstances. Her book helps a home cook get familiar with an ingredient, whether it's citrus or celery, polenta or pork. If you don't usually use an ingredient, there is information to fuel your exploration. If you cook with one of these ingredients all the time, Welsh will help you move beyond your usual preparations. She wants us to think about the ingredients, like the celery she brought with her: it's not just two thirds of a cup sliced celery for a lentil soup. That bunch of celery has darker green stalks best suited to stock making, tender yellow inner stalks good for crudites, there are leaves, and the stalks you'd slice or chop for soup or salad. Leaving it as a bunch in the crisper drawer is not Welsh's approach. She likes to divide an ingredient into its component parts as one of her strategies for making approachable, appealing options. Welsh hopes to help home cooks feel empowered when they open their refrigerator wondering what they could possibly make for dinner. Eggplant isn't just eggplant. It could become roasted eggplant or pickled eggplant, and both of those preparations could be eaten as is or be the base for other dishes.
It's sort of mise en place taken to the next level. It's a little like meal planning but not as rigid. Most of her starting points will keep for five days in the refrigerator-though some will last much longer than that-and many can be stored in the freezer to extend their life. One of her favorite starting points is an onion jam made simply with thinly sliced onions, butter, stock, a touch of sherry vinegar, salt, and sugar. It cooks slowly with occasional stirring (or hands off in the oven), and the result is a rich, versatile condiment that can be used for a quick French onion soup, tossed with whole grains as the base for dinner, or used to glaze Brussels sprouts before searing them, among other things. There's also an spicy onion slaw we tasted alone and as a salad with greens and feta. Shira was curious how long the slaw lasts. Welsh said it can keep for weeks, adding that it does get spicier over time. That had Shira thinking it would be great with sausages. Senior editor Lauryn Tyrell suggested pairing it with sauerkraut.
Welsh's approach to stock is similarly inventive and had Lauryn enamored. Welsh had brought a cheese stock made with ends of Parmesan, Pecorino, and Gruyère. "What a flavor!" exclaimed Shira. "It makes the most beautiful risotto," said Welsh. Lauryn was impressed by how rich the cheese stock was. Also inspiring to the food editors was Welsh's spring stock, which Shira likened to dashi. Lauryn liked the idea of making a versatile vegetable stock in less than five minutes.
Welsh inspired the test kitchen team with her combinations and innovations. Following her creative approach there's little chance of feeling defeated when you open the refrigerator door after a busy day and wonder what to make for dinner. Welsh is totally fine with ordering takeout but once you look at all the possibilities of an ingredient and make some of her starting points, desperation pizza won't seem necessary. Her organized yet flexible approach to cooking will empower home cooks to new adventures and endless meals.