The other day, when snow and ice prevented me from the serious weekly trip to the grocery store, I turned to my cupboard for ideas. Cathy had just written me that she’d made borscht and I remembered the cabbage-beet borscht I make from time to time. I’d lost the actual recipe long ago, but I remembered that with a certain number of canned goods, a cabbage and an onion, you could make a hearty pot of soup.
Then I put in a pinch or two of thyme, a can of chopped tomatoes, a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, and a can of beets with their juice (Note: I had whole beets in a can so I diced them. Of course, you could use fresh beets instead, and I felt a little guilty using canned beets, so I later added some beets I’d roasted in the oven wrapped in foil, then diced).
Then I added about 6 to 8 cups of light broth or mixture of water and broth (chicken or vegetable) and a bay leaf, and let the whole thing simmer for about an hour.
As you can see, the soup turns a lovely color somewhere between coral and plum. Now here’s the part that makes it borscht-like: the sour-and-sweet. Many traditional borscht soups (beet soups, basically) are naturally sour from fermentation, but you can achieve a similar flavor by adding lemon juice or vinegar to the soup before serving, and balancing the acidity with a little sweetness from brown sugar or honey.
I used a few tablespoons each of lemon juice and brown sugar — how much and how sweet or sour is a matter of taste.
With a piece of dark bread and maybe a little cheese, it’s good peasant food to warm you up on a winter day.
Other meals can emerge from the cupboard (and freezer) too — like the black-bean salad I made yesterday.
I started with a can of beans, some corn from the freezer, and a little bulgur from the cupboard. In the summer I like cherry tomatoes in this salad, but for this winter version, I used more-available fresh ingredients: green onions, cilantro, and red pepper (and of course, you could use bottled roasted peppers or frozen peppers instead).
Dressed with a little oil and fresh lime juice, salt, cumin and ground chipotle (one could add some diced jalapeno or hot sauce for more heat), it’s another quick and simple meal –and all from what I had on hand.
For this time of year, when we non-Californians are deprived of the pleasure of farmers markets and farm stands, it may be worthwhile to take a look through the pantry (cupboard or freezer — what have you) and see what you have.
The contents of those long-neglected cans, bottles, jars or packages — with a little help from the produce department –just might lead to the next inspiration….
p.s. I try to always have lemons, onions, olive oil and some pecorino cheese on hand. With three of these four ingredients, along with some dried pasta and some capers I keep in my fridge, I can always make lemon linguine (or spaghetti or fettuccine) for supper.