Sometimes a dish evolves based on what ingredients are in the refrigerator and pantry. When I want to create something specific like pad siew or clam chowder, I ensure that I have the proper ingredients on hand. But what happens when I don’t?
I rarely follow recipes and prefer to develop a dish based on what I have learned from experience or improvisation. Some cooks are by-the-book, step-by-step, process-oriented rule followers. I follow my instincts and let the food guide me.
Yesterday, I prepared ingredients for a four-course Thai dinner and beer pairing event for a group. For pad siew, I trimmed out the bone and fat from a half-dozen pork steaks and sliced the meat for the dish. Being a frugal cook not prone to waste, I tossed the pork bones with some meat attached into a pot of boiling water. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the broth. I knew I wouldn’t make guay thiew, a Thai soup similar to pho, because I cook that often and knew I’d need a break from Thai food after this private event.
After the bones had boiled, I removed them, let them cool, pulled off scraps of meat, returned the pork to the pot and discarded the bones. On a whim, I grabbed some dried shiitake mushrooms and added them to the stock with a dash of salt and pepper and sliced shallot. I set the pork stock aside and continued prepping for the Thai dinner.
The following day I scrounged around the refrigerator, seeking inspiration for a dish to make. I brought home no leftovers from the dinner and the refrigerator was mostly barren since I had used up most everything the previous day. I spied the pot of pork stock, pulled it out and set it on the stove to heat. I added another cup of water and a can of white hominy which pairs well with pork.
At this point, I had pork, shiitake and hominy but no clue what I was making as a dish. The three main ingredients formed a strange trio that pulled in different directions. Shiitake leans toward an Asian dish but that’s not what I wanted. Instead, I tried to think of them as merely mushrooms that provided umami and blended well with the succulent bubbles of fat that whirlpooled in the simmering broth.
Hominy drew me toward the South, the Southwest and Mexico. I didn’t have lime, cilantro, poblano pepper, beans or corn to develop a Southwest-inspired soup or Mexican posole. I scanned the pantry, grabbed dried ground sage and added a dash just to nudge the process forward. The soup lacked soul and depth of flavor. Turning back to the frig and freezer, I pulled out a jar of homemade lemongrass vinegar, a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce and smoked ham scraps from Burger’s. The vinegar substituted for fresh lime juice and, along with the hot sauce, added acidic pop and bite to the stock. The ham built a foundation of salt and smoke that complemented the pork, hominy and broth. Again this push-and-pull arose between Asian and Mexican culture and cuisine with undercurrents of the South that wasn’t quite any of them.
If I had envisioned this soup with the same ingredients from the start, I probably would have started by sauteing pieces of smoked ham with onion and shallots to caramelize them and create a potent soup base. Odds are that I would have added some guajillo pepper and headed for Southwest territory. Instead, the result was something lighter that still had pronounced flavor. I ladled steaming soup into a bowl and stared at it. It tasted savory with a touch of smokiness, spice and acidity but felt incomplete. The dish lacked color and something to add freshness to this earthy soup.
I remembered that I had a bag of baby Chinese broccoli leftover from the Thai dinner. I grabbed a couple of stalks, rinsed away grit and dirt, and sliced the stalks thinly as if they were green onions. I left the leaves intact. I added the Chinese broccoli to the hot bowl of soup and let it steam for a minute. This last-minute addition added a light crunch from the stalks that contrasted with the chewiness of the hominy and ham. The steamed greens provided vibrant color and a hint of vegetal flavor, brightening the overall dish.
A spoonful with ham, hominy and Chinese broccoli reminded me of the South, where the broccoli stood in as a distant cousin to greens that had been cooked all day with a ham bone. Another spoonful with pork, shiitake, shallot and Chinese broccoli with a sharp finish of vinegar and chili sauce veered toward a spicy Thai or Vietnamese soup. And so it went with each taste, mixing and matching in a harmonious blend.
Not all of my cooking turns out well when I let the process unfold and allow found ingredients to guide my instincts. When it works, it is more than some awkward fusion of cuisines achieved by slapping together disparate ingredients and techniques like Lego blocks. The rewarding result is a dish seemingly made from nothing that turns out to be something. Sometimes, food that satisfies can flaunt the dictates of a cookbook and skirt the boundaries of a culture’s cuisine.
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