How many times has this happened to you? You get home after work and remember you have nothing in the fridge. Or maybe you stop at a watering hole for happy hour and end up inviting half the bar over for a party, even though you haven’t been to the grocery for days. It’s happened to all of us at one point or another. So what do you do? You ad-lib baby. Ad-lib your ass off.
Cooking isn’t always about following recipes exactly. Think about it, where do recipes come from in the first place? Cooks experiment, try different things. And then when something works, they put it in a book and end up having their own afternoon talk show. But how do they know what might work? Ah, see there’s the secret. Just like painters know what colors go well together, good cooks know what works together flavor wise. Spice trinities for example. Mozzarella, tomato and basil for another. A good chef will also have building blocks at his disposal, items that he can work with to create new things.
So what the hell does this mean for us, the normal day to day cooks? If we take the time to learn the basics, we can work around any emergency. What I’m going to do is start a regular posting about just this. I’ll take an example of a spice trinity, or building block and show how that helped me when I zoned out and forgot to stop at the market. First up, as you may have guessed, pesto.
What is a pesto? Technically, pesto comes from the word pesta, meaning to crush or pound. We have a word, pestle, that comes from the same latin root. So, pesto is a sauce made with crushed herbs, garlic, nuts and oil. We tend to think of pesto as being basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil. While that is certainly a pesto, it’s not the only pesto. Okay, so we now know what a pesto is, how’s that going to help us? Let’s say you want to make a nice pasta dish and you don’t have any tomato sauce. Pesto is wonderful mixed into warm pasta. But who the hell keeps pine nuts on hand? Experiment. Try a different leafy herb, maybe some arugula? Or how about pistachios in place of pine nuts? Remember, the key to good ad-libbing is to have good material at the core.
How did I put this to use? The other night I had some flat iron steak that I had to use. I really didn’t have much else to work with, no rice and really didn’t want potatoes. I did have some egg noodles and some fresh asparagus that we needed to use up. I thought about making sort of an ossobuco, but I didn’t have any tomatoes or tomato sauce. I did however have some left-over basil from an insalata cabrese I had made. So I decided to go the pesto route. AUGH! No parmesan cheese! Okay, no need to panic. What does the cheese give to a pesto? Saltiness. I do have a tin of anchovies…AHA! So I made a pesto of basil, garlic (if you don’t keep garlic around, shame on you), almonds from some mixed nuts we had, anchovies and olive oil. I spread a little of this pesto over the flank steak I had cubed, and stuck it in the fidge to marinate for an hour or so. In the meantime, I cooked the egg noodles to al dente, drained them, and placed them in a towel covered bowl. After the steak had marinated I diced up a couple of strips of bacon, rendered it down, then tossed in the cubed steak and a little white wine. I let that cook for a bit until the steak was tender and the wine reduced. I then took some asparagus, tossed them in sesame oil and some garlic powder, salt and pepper, then roasted them at 350 for about 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them, you want them done, but still crisp. Right before the asparagus was done, I tossed the cooked pasta into the pan with the steak, and added the remaining pesto a little at a time. Don’t go crazy with it. You want to use the pesto to lightly flavor the steak and pasta, not the other way around. Serve with the roasted asparagus and viola. Ad lib goodness.