Earlier this month, Morning Edition launched a new food project called Cook Your Cupboard, inspired by a dilemma many of us have faced before: a mysterious food item in the pantry, bought for an unusual recipe or on a whim, that we simply don't know what to do with. Morning Edition asked listeners to send photos of their baffling ingredients to npr.org/cupboard, where home cooks gave each other many creative recipe suggestions.
Now, British cookbook author Nigella Lawson, whose most recent book is Nigellissima, joins NPR for the first radio segment of Cook Your Cupboard. In each installment, we'll get chefs and other food experts to give advice to one lucky submitter. First up is Marcy Misner, who lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Misner sent in a photo of apple cider vinegar, almond milk and dried red beans, which Lawson calls a "very, very eclectic mix." Her impulse is not to approach the items separately, but to unite them: "I have been trying to think if there's anything I could use all three ingredients in," she says. Her first suggestion: vegetarian chili and cornbread.
"In a huge pan, cook the beans with onions, garlic, red bell peppers, and whatever spicing you like (I tend to go for the coriander [cilantro], cumin, cardamom axis). Add some chopped tomatoes and a tablespoon of cocoa (to give it a bit of bitterness) and cook that for a long time. Top it with cornbread — you can make a buttermilk substitute by adding a teaspoon of cider vinegar to a cup of almond milk and leaving it for five minutes. If the cornbread recipe calls for honey, leave it out, since the almond milk will add a bit of sweetness."
Lawson recommends using the cornbread as a topping rather than a side dish, for a simple reason: "Anything that's in one pot reduces the washing up."
Looking at just the almond milk and vinegar, Lawson recommended a breakfast dish: almond-milk pancakes. But she noted that cooks used to working with regular milk need to be careful when substituting almond milk.
"You could make really exquisite and healthful pancakes. If you have some overripe bananas, chop them up and mix a teeny bit of cider vinegar, some almond milk (use less almond milk than you would regular milk, since it's a bit more watery), some flour and an egg, and you've got some low-GI breakfast pancakes."
"Make a tangy syrup with cider vinegar and sugar and some chopped-up red bell peppers. Then soak and cook your red beans. Put them all together, jar them and leave them for a month, and you've got a relish."
"You could make a rather delicious regular mashed potato using almond milk — and you can use cauliflower in place of potatoes, and blend it with almond milk to make a soup or a mash. Because of that subtle sweetness, the almond milk, it takes off some of that very aggressive cabbage-y undernote of cauliflower. (Mark Twain said of cauliflower that it was just a cabbage with a college education.) You could make a really good soup flavored with whatever spices you wanted."
"Cook the beans, and mash them as if you were making hummus. Then spread that on some small little bits of bread, so you've got almost like crostini or bruschetta."
Misner was worried about whether cooking the apple cider vinegar would take away some of its health properties. On that front, Lawson says she shouldn't worry: "I have also been looking into the health properties of apple cider vinegar, and many claims are made — scientific endeavor doesn't entirely back all of them up," Lawson says. "So I would not overdo ... cider, because there are many bad effects as well as good effects, but I do think that a little of everything is fine."
"It's a very good way of using up whatever produce you get that's inexpensive and in season. Cook it up with some chopped onions, brown sugar (or white is fine, too), cider vinegar and some apples (the pectin qualities of apples means that whatever you use tends to set). You can put it in jars, and it can last up to a year."
Misner, who does home canning and jarring and even makes her own cider vinegar, likes the idea of making and jarring chutney. It's all part of her strategy for surviving the snowy months in Michigan. "The winters are kind of long," she says, "so I do a lot of stuff to keep myself busy during the winter. I hate to sit. So cooking is kind of my outlet, to keep my mind busy during the day."
Lawson says the Cook Your Cupboard project is similar to what she does in her own kitchen. "Monday is, generally speaking, my fridge clear-out day," she says, and she regularly makes roasted vegetable dishes combining whatever she has leftover in the fridge. "To me," she says, "your project is what real cooking is about. It's not about going out shopping for a new recipe every time you cook. It's about opening your cupboards and opening your fridge and going from there."
Want to join the Cook Your Cupboard project? Right now we're asking for a spice you have in your spice cabinet that you can't figure out. If you've got some garam masala or bay leaves hanging around that you never touch, head to npr.org/cupboard and show us a photo. You'll get advice on your spice from fellow home cooks, and you might even get to come on the air with one of our chefs.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have a new food project at MORNING EDITION. It's called Cook Your Cupboard. We launched it earlier this month. We asked people to go send us photos of up to three food items that they had hanging around their kitchen and they weren't sure what to make with. Well, it is time for our first radio segment of Cook Your Cupboard, where we get chefs to offer their expert advice to one lucky Cook Your Cupboard submitter.
Our first chef is one of this program's favorite chefs, Nigella Lawson, who joins us from the BBC in London. Good morning, Nigella.
NIGELLA LAWSON: Good morning.
GREENE: Thanks again for being here.
LAWSON: It's always a pleasure. You know that.
GREENE: I want to introduce you to the lucky person who submitted a photo from her pantry. Her name is Marcy Misner and she's on the line with us from her home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Marcy, you there?
MARCY MISNER: I am. Good morning.
LAWSON: Hi, Marcy. Hi, nice to speak to you. I'm afraid they've sold you a pup in me. I'm not actually a chef. I'm a home cook.
But never mind, I'll do my best not to disappoint you.
MISNER: Well, I haven't stopped smiling since I learned I'd get to talk to you. I'm sold. Thank you for this.
GREENE: And where do you do your shopping? Where are you buying these items, Marcy?
MISNER: Sault Ste. Marie is a pretty small town. There's no big-box stores. There's no Trader Joe or anything. We've got the farmers' market, which is wonderful. And, of course, it gears up more in the summertime.
GREENE: And you have your own garden, too.
MISNER: I do. It gets bigger every year.
GREENE: And, Marcy, what has you in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, up there on the Canadian border?
MISNER: My husband's in the Border Patrol, so we moved up here 10 years ago. He's from Michigan so we moved up to be a little closer to home. We lived for seven years in the desert Southwest in the Imperial Valley in California.
GREENE: So you stay on the edges of the country.
LAWSON: That's a big change.
MISNER: It really was. The winters are kind of long...
LAWSON: I wish...
MISNER: ...so I do a lot of stuff to keep myself busy through the winter. Cooking is kind of my outlet. It's the way I keep my mind busy through the day.
GREENE: It's a good outlet.
LAWSON: Yes, I'm the same as you. I understand exactly.
GREENE: Marcy, remind me the three items that you have there in your cupboard.
MISNER: Apple cider vinegar, almond milk and the dried red beans.
GREENE: OK. And, Nigella, any thoughts on what Marcy can do with that eclectic mix of items?
LAWSON: Well, it is quite difficult. I have been trying to see if there's anything I could use all three of these ingredients in. I sometimes do a vegetarian chili and I use larger red beans, but small beans would be absolutely great. Cook them really quite a long time with some garlic and onions, red bell peppers, whatever spicing you like - I tend to go for the coriander, cumin, cardamom axis.
Add some chopped tomatoes. Now, I cook that for a long time and I add just a tablespoon full of cocoa to give it that sort of bitterness. Now, I'd cook it in a huge pan and then later on I make a cornbread topping - in other words, so you've got the complete meal. You might want a salad on the side.
Now, I was wondering, normally when you make cornbread - at least I do - I use buttermilk. You can make buttermilk out of regular milk, just by having a cup of milk and adding a teaspoon of your cider vinegar - any vinegar would do - and leaving it for five minutes.
Now, I wonder if you could use the almond milk in the same way. In which case, I would not add - normally I add a teeny bit of honey to cornbread. But I wouldn't 'cause almond milk is very sweet. And it seems to me, then, you could do pretty well of a whole, complete dish using your very strange and not entirely compatible trio of ingredients.
GREENE: Something delicious from a strange and not entirely compatible trio.
GREENE: Are you taking notes, Marcy?
MISNER: I am.
LAWSON: But otherwise, I was also thinking of a relish. Make a tangy syrup with cider vinegar and sugar and some chopped-up red bell peppers. You know, soak and cook your red beans and then put them all together and jar them, and leave them for a month. So you've got a relish to have with other foods. 'Cause it's all...
MISNER: I like that idea.
LAWSON: If anything I want to say to you, Marcy, about your cider vinegar, I'm a great chutney believer. And all chutney really is produce cooked with sugar, onions and cider. They're a very good way of using up whatever produce you get that's inexpensive and in season at the farmers' market. Cook it up with some chopped onions. I like using brown sugar but there's no reason why you can't use white sugar. Cider vinegar, and it's always useful to put some apples in. Because of the various pectin qualities of apples, means that whatever you use tends to set.
GREENE: That sounds delicious. And, Marcy, you do your own canning and jarring and everything, right? I mean you could make some chutney in bulk.
MISNER: I do. And I've never made chutney before. I think that would be interesting.
LAWSON: You know, it's - the thing is, as well, I mean I had a thought you could make a rather delicious bean mash. I would cook them and I would mash them as if you were making hummus, say, but using...
LAWSON: ...your red beans. And then I would spread that on some small, little bits of bread. So you've got almost like crostini, like the Italians have...
LAWSON: ...or bruschetta. You would eat quite healthily and it would taste delicious. I think people often use health as an excuse for not providing good enough food. All food should be good and all food, if it's real food, is healthy.
MISNER: Yes, I agree you completely.
GREENE: Let me - Nigella, is this a strange thing we're asking you to do? Or do you as a chef often, you know, pick up little things that are hanging around and come up with something new and weird to make?
LAWSON: Constantly. Monday is, generally speaking, my fridge clear-out day. I kind of feel that anything you've got left over that's maybe a bit past its best - as long as it's not actually poisonous, don't worry everyone.
LAWSON: I chop up - I put in a roasting tin and I roast everything together. And it's - just makes life easier. And also, the roast vegetables, I should say, are also great 'cause kids love it on pasta.
GREENE: Nigella, I'm glad we have your endorsement for this project. This has been a lot of fun.
LAWSON: It's very close to my heart 'cause that, to me, your project is what real cooking is about. It's not about going out, shopping for new recipe every time you cook. It's about opening your cupboards and opening your fridge and going from there.
GREENE: Marcy, we have quite a list here from Nigella Lawson. What is at the top of your list? What did you hear that you're just going to dive into the kitchen and start making?
MISNER: I like the chutneys and I like the idea of making a relish from the beans and the vinegar.
LAWSON: Oh, good.
MISNER: And I - before we go, I have - is Nigella still there?
LAWSON: I am. I am. I am.
GREENE: She is.
MISNER: My nine-year-old daughter had to go to school today. I made her go to school, but she wanted more than anything to tell you that she said hello.
LAWSON: Oh, at least say hello back and that you're a very cruel mother.
MISNER: I will make sure they all know that. Thank you.
GREENE: Making kids go to school, that's terrible.
LAWSON: I know. I never heard of such rot.
GREENE: Marcy, thanks so much for being part of this. And happy cooking.
MISNER: Thank you so much. This has been just so exciting.
GREENE: It's been a lot of fun.
Nigella Lawson, thank you again for being on MORNING EDITION, we love having you.
LAWSON: Thank you.
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GREENE: And our next round of Cook Your Cupboard is actually up and running, if you want to be part of it. This time, we're asking for a spice that you have in your spice cabinet that you can't really figure out what to do with. If you have some garam masala or some bay leaves hanging around that you never touch, go to NPR.org/cupboard, show us a photo, and you'll get advice on your spice from fellow home cookers. You might even get to come on with one our chefs.
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GREENE: Well, if that didn't make you hungry for breakfast, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep.
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