Simple ingredients can make amazing food

Kay Harrod Published:

Putting good food on the table doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, most chefs support this theory as they turn ordinary fruits and vegetables into culinary delights.

What it does take is a bit of thought, creativity and a sense of taste. It’s one of the problems of cafeterias where cans of vegetables and fruits are merely opened, warmed and set out to serve.

Ever had banana pudding out of a can on a buffet? How blah is that? Plus I have decided I am too old to eat bad, bland food.

Remember the rule: fresh is always best; frozen is good and forget anything that is canned except tomatoes and maybe Allen’s green beans which you can quickly turn into a pot of green beans almost as good as cooking fresh – but never just out of the can.

I have the luxury many days of being at home since I am semi- retired. My indulgent “soap opera” is daily at 1 p.m. on ABC, The Chew.

This cooking show has turned my thinking about cooking around. In fact, for me it is an incredible learning experience – almost like going to a favorite class and being inspired – but no tests.

After watching one afternoon, I was motivated to head to the kitchen to see exactly what I could cook up for my own dinner – using only ingredients I had on hand.

Talk about a lab experiment, this was one. I began to explore and bring ingredients out of the refrigerator, pantry and freezer.

There is a French cooking term – mirepoix – pronounced “meer pwah.” It refers to a combination of celery, onion and carrot. I always keep these three ingredients on hand.

Mirepoix, raw, roasted or sautéed with butter or olive oil, is the flavor base for a wide variety of dishes, such as stocks, soups, stews and sauces. The three ingredients also are commonly referred to as aromatics.

The ‘holy trinity’

In Cajun and Creole cooking, onion, celery, and bell pepper are called the holy trinity. In Italian, it is soffritto, which is a combination of celery, onion and fresh garlic. I most always have a bell pepper and fresh garlic.

The cost of a bulb of garlic, a bunch of celery, a bell pepper, a pound of whole carrots and a couple of onions is about $5 and you can create almost anything you want and have absolutely more choices than you realize.

In my fridge, I found all of the above plus about a half pound of button mushrooms and four very ripe tomatoes. Normally I don’t keep tomatoes in the refrigerator, but when they get to the very ripe stage I do.

From the pantry I pulled a couple of medium-sized red potatoes and a pint jar of tomatoes I had canned this summer and a carton of beef stock.

Outside I cut a bunch of fresh thyme and some oregano.

At this point I could have gone in any direction and so can you – just by keeping a few things in the pantry and fridge - none of which are going to break the bank. Your spice cabinet can be your friend if you don’t have fresh herbs.

With all these ingredients washed and ready to go, I realized it was just a matter of what I wanted to fix.

Think about it. I could make a pasta sauce and use the fresh mushrooms. All this would require, in addition, is pasta of some form, and perhaps some parmesan cheese; both I had.

I could stew a chicken, create a pot roast or stew if I had the meat to go along with it. I didn’t.

Bingo: I could make a soup and I began to look deeper into my refrigerator where I found some kale I had cooked. I love kale in soup.

Eureka! In the freezer I found about eight ounces of frozen peas and with some digging, a bag of smoked brisket pieces I had squirreled away in September.

Returned

to the fridge

Back into the fridge went the green pepper and the mushrooms; saved for another meal. I diced carrots, an onion, celery, potatoes, fresh tomatoes and a couple of cloves of garlic. I drained the kale and chopped it up.

I tied up some of the fresh thyme and oregano and threw that into the pot as well, along with some kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper and some marjoram from the cabinet.

I turned on the heat under the pot, added the pint of canned tomatoes and its juice, the carton of beef stock and about three cups of water.

As the mixture came to a boil, the aroma of soup filled my house on a cool afternoon and I knew my dinner was on its way.

Once it came to a boil, I turned down the heat to medium low, put a lid on the pot and let it simmer for an hour or so.

I wished for some pearl barley, but I didn’t have any. I love barley in beef soup. I also like shoepeg corn and lima beans, but I didn’t have those. My point, it’s vegetable soup – if you have it and like it, add it.

After about an hour and a half, I pulled out the herbs and threw them away. I tasted for salt and pepper and added some of both.

I added the smoked brisket, which I had chopped.

Now some might question why I didn’t add the brisket at first to flavor the soup.

First, it was already cooked and to cook it any more would have broken down the meat.

Secondly, remember this brisket had been smoked and that flavor could have been intense in the soup.

Adding it about 30 minutes before the soup was done, allowed it to flavor the soup enough to be nice and rich, but not have an over powering smoked flavor.

After the meat addition, I turned the heat back to medium, covered the soup and let it cook about another 30 minutes. I then added the frozen peas. I always add them last because I don’t like the look of “dead” peas in my soup. I like them bright.

With that addition, I put the heat on low, left the pan uncovered and let it sit on low until I was ready to eat.

From start to finish, it probably took me about two and a half hours to have delicious soup. Most of that was cooking time, which freed me to do whatever I wanted.

Good food does not require all day and in the case of many of the recipes I see on “The Chew,” I am amazed at what is often prepared in “real” time on the show.

The web site: http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/the-chew/recipes.

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