Urban Forager

Using up leftovers, like pasta in this spaghetti pie, makes for delicious adventures.

Comfort food has been key to getting through these profoundly weird times while satisfying the desire for wanderlust. My cooking rhythms have been chaotic to say the least.

Reigning in the over-buying and the subsequent over-eating, I’m at a point of craftily using leftovers to satisfy. Looking at the contents of my fridge as a road map of sorts, I can navigate a culinary adventure, however humble.

If you look at recipes as stepping stones to a meal, it frees you up for adventure. For example, it’s okay to substitute red onions for shallots. And a handful of freshly chopped herbs, whether a recipe asks for it or not, perks up anything from salads to pasta and stir fries. Don’t have sour cream for baking? Try yogurt with a hit of lemon juice. Don’t have chicken? Use pork, or tofu. Flexibility is key.

A note on thriftiness as an aside, if you have nurtured a bunch of green onions in a glass of water on the windowsill for the last while — they really do keep growing — they’re handy chopped finely and added to dishes, but also to homemade butter. Making butter is easy, and is a way to use up any leftover whipping (heavy) cream. Just over-whisk until it separates, strain off the whey and fold in green onion or herbs, even a bit of lemon zest.

It’s a miracle slathered over a slice of no-knead bread, or even melted over a piece of baked fish. My other “cheap trick” is once I finished a “live” lettuce — the ones attached to a tightly woven root ball — I planted the stem and root in my garden.

Lo and behold, I now have baby lettuces sprouting up!

But my journeys to dinner have become two-fold: not only as pride in being creatively thrifty, but as a way to evoke delicious travel memories while using up ingredients. Those Proustian moments evoke powerful feelings and recollections, and mine have always centered around food. I can always be taken away to Mexico with a finely crafted Margarita or batch of guacamole, but the other night, while using up my stash of dried chilie peppers, I was instantly transported back to Oaxaca, with a fiery coastal mole.

The sharpness of the chilies, slightly tamed with the distinctive aroma of corn masa to thicken the stew, bolstered with tomatillos from my last year’s harvest, became a deeply comforting ambrosia reminiscent of a time and place.

Pasta, that comforting carbohydrate, is another humble ingredient to evoke memories. My go-to dishes, based both on simplicity and frugality were inspired by a three-month trip to the Amalfi coast in southern Italy.

The first dish is revelatory in nature while using pantry staples: garlic, olive oil and flakes of chilie. Known in Italian as alio, olio y pepperoncino, chopped or thinly-sliced garlic is slowly sauteed in fragrant olive oil to a toasty brown, with chilie flakes thrown in at the last minute. That mix is then tossed into spaghetti with the optional snowy topping of parmesean cheese. It’s highly addictive and evoked in me memories of lemon groves and seaside vistas. I lived on the dish during my trip – that and pizza! It’s easy to make, especially when you’re not up to cooking a big meal, or when there’s not much in the larder.

And it’s great for lunch, dinner or a late night snack. The second dish, spaghetti pie, I first enjoyed in Naples at a neighbourhood pizzeria and is a marvel for using leftover pasta. Noodles tossed with prosciutto, cheese and an egg mixture is baked until set and served by the wedge.

I often substitute jamon serrano for the prosciutto, but meat is not necessary — toss in any leftover vegetables, or a handful of frozen peas, and some cheese (parmesan is fine but so is bargain mozzarella, taleggio or ricotta for something fancy). The ratios vary but I’ve arrived at two-to-three cups of pasta to eight-to-10 eggs, one-half cup of milk or cream and baked at 350 degrees F in a glass pie plate for about an hour, or until set. I’m certain you can use any kind of pasta from rotini to penne with equal success — go for it!

Serve it warm or cold, no matter. A big salad or maybe a tomato sauce on the side but it’s not necessary. It’s a great way to clean out the fridge, a waste not, want not journey to delicious adventure.

With fork and pen in hand, and a passion for culinary adventure, Shelora Sheldan, a Penticton writer, cook and traveller, goes in search of the delectable.