In the news:
The pantry made me do it: Shrimp, simply Spanish
How to Cook Everything: Mark Bittman shares a recipe for Last-Minute Sort-Of-Spanish Shrimp.
The New York Times
You might think, from looking at the recipe title here, that this is a story about shrimp. It's not; rather, it's a story about the pantry.
Aside from the absolute essentials you can barely cook without — like salt and olive oil — the answers to an oft-asked question "What should be in my pantry?" really depend on a variety of things, including how often you cook, what your storage space is like and how much money you can invest.
My first limitation is space, but I still tend to overbuy, cramming things into the already overcrowded cabinets, fridge and freezer — and succumbing to the occasional moth attack, which causes me to clean out older dry goods and start over again.
Still, I sure would rather have too much stuff than too little, especially since it is my nature, once I'm home, never to leave to buy anything. If my plan — which is almost always last minute — includes the use of onions, garlic, parsley, cumin or lemon, and I find I don't have one or more of those things, I'll figure out something else. I've always believed you can substitute for almost anything. (There is, of course, the obvious fact that you can't make roast chicken without a chicken.) And I believe that that kind of flexibility, practiced over the course of years, leads to an enjoyably eclectic, personal, eccentric kind of cooking.
I'm not saying that it's always the best, but that it's not bad. And I'm saying that if you have a well-stocked pantry, along with some familiarity with the basics of cooking and a relaxed attitude, you can make dinner happen pretty quickly. Here's an example of how that works.
One recent night I got home unexpectedly late, drained and hungry. I had with me some shrimp, which I didn't bother to peel; I have this perhaps naive belief that the shells add some flavor to the final dish. But that was a rationalization: In truth, I was simply too hungry to mess around. I turned on the oven, pulled a foil-wrapped half-loaf of bread that had been in the freezer for a few days and threw it in there. The 15 minutes it would take to defrost and crisp determined the rest of my schedule.
I put a thick film of olive oil in a skillet, turned the heat to low, chopped a couple of garlic cloves and added them. And, really, I could've stopped then, because I had a lemon, and there are few things in this world that you can't make delicious with olive oil, garlic and lemon. But simply because it was easy enough, I pulled out a couple of different groups of spices and herbs. Some of these (cumin, for example) I am never without; others (fresh herbs) are always a matter of chance. In one little group I had a couple of dried chipotles, some saffron, cumin and parsley; in the other I had soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil.
I went "Spanish." I use quotation marks because I've never seen a chipotle in Spain, though they do use pimenton, which is arguably pretty close to ground chipotle, not that they'd ever call it that.
As the garlic was turning blond, I added a chipotle, a pinch of saffron (which I have bought by the ounce for 20 years from a place called Vanilla-Saffron Imports, saffron.com, an ounce lasts a long time) and the cumin. I wished I'd had a tomato, because I love the way tomatoes break down in olive oil, and then I could've served the whole thing over pasta, but, hey — I didn't.
All of this had taken maybe 15 minutes. I unwrapped the now-defrosted bread and left it in the now-turned-off oven to crisp up. I cooked the shrimp, which took another five, and finished the dish with lemon and parsley; it would have been fine with either, or neither. All in all, not bad.
LAST-MINUTE SORT-OF-SPANISH SHRIMP
Time: 15 minutes, tops
Yield: 2 servings, or more with pasta or bread
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 pinch saffron
1 dried chipotle, left whole
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¾ to 1 pound shrimp, peeled or not
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley and lemon wedges for garnish
1. Put the olive oil in a skillet just big enough to hold the shrimp in one layer and turn the heat to low. Add the garlic and adjust the heat so that it barely sizzles; when it colors nicely, add the saffron, chipotle and cumin, and stir for a minute or so. (All of the seasonings can be adjusted to taste.)
2. Add the shrimp and season well with salt and pepper. Raise the heat a bit and cook, turning once or twice, until firm, five minutes or less depending on their size. Garnish with parsley and lemon, and serve.