Some people want every meal to be made to order; once their food is in its finished state, it will never again see the inside of a refrigerator again. Hint: I am not one of those people.
I get anxious when parting ways with the last three tablespoons of stew, a picked-clean T-bone, or a Chinese takeout container half-filled with cold, hard rice. I have no shame asking the waiter to Drop. That. Plate. when one tries to clear the remains of ravaged crostini. I like food. I really like saving food.
For home economists like me, a meal tastes even better sauced with the satisfaction of knowing you salvaged what someone else might have tossed. In The Road, the protagonist in the fills up the bathtub with water in preparation for the post-apocalypse. With enough of that water and the contents of my always overstuffed cupboards, I’m pretty sure I could feed myself and some friends through three months of end times.
You probably could, too. The EPA says that we generate 34 million tons — as in 68,000,000,000 pounds — of food waste every year. I see it happen in my own house on a much smaller scale. I have a lot of storage space, and it’s packed to the gills with dried chiles, cornmeal, juniper berries, and other odds and ends that were used once and then left to age ungracefully in the back of the cabinet.
The idea for a reclamation potluck came up during a chat I was having with my like-minded pal, Rachel, extolling the virtues of making meals from those cupboard orphans. Wouldn’t it be great to have a potluck where you have to make something with the stuff you already have in the house?, we thought. This would be especially fruitful for us food editor/writer types, as we tend to squirrel away weird samples and fancy food stuffs into the backs of our pantries and freezers.
The rules for a Reclamation Potluck:
- Use something you already have in your fridge or cupboards.
- Cook the kind of thing you would normally eat for dinner — no need to get fancy
- Share with your friends
And you know what? The idea seemed to bring out our cooking friends’ A game. Rachel made a huge pan full of tangy grits plumped up with a broth made from random cheese rinds, along with cider-vinegary black-eyed peas, rich with andouille sausage. Francis brought some marrowy, meaty beans made with beef bones and rendered salami fat, which he talked up on Twitter for the half hour prior to actually coming to the party. When he finally arrived, he put them on the stove to rewarm, stuck the handle of a spoon into the pot, and held it out for me, imploring, “Just taste the FAT, man; that’s just the FAT.”
JJ took some leftover frozen pork belly gaeng hang lay and threw it together with vegetables and thin rice noodles. He was humble and unassuming about it, but the dish was spectacular. You’d never have known that the sweet, tender, fatty pork, stewed with fragrant spices and plenty of whole kaffir lime leaves, had been resurrected from a cryogenic state. It reminded me of my dad’s nightly dinners, in which he’d mix leftover stir-fries into a bubbling broth with a packet of ramen; A toothsome noodle can revive anything.
Obvious benefits include clearing out your pantry to make room for new stuff, not letting food go to waste, and seeing friends. We covered a broad range of cuisines and flavors, which is one of the things about a reclamation potluck you just have to embrace:
For my part, I’ve been dying to use more of these salt-packed anchovies that have been sitting in my fridge, waiting for me to be interested in puttanesca sauce again. I also figured that, as the host, I could provide some greens for what was sure to be a starch-heavy table. This bagna cauda recipe is loosely based on one by Suzanne Goin in Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I really upped the anchovy count and decreased the amount of butter. All the salt is in the sediment, so be careful when you salt to taste. Any leftovers can be tossed into a salad the next day. If you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll also have reclamation leftovers to pad out your meal.
Bagna Cauda with vegetables
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 stick butter
15-20 salt-packed anchovies, soaked, deboned, filleted, and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
Vegetables for dipping, such as fresh radish, endive, blanched cauliflower, blanched broccoli, blanched carrots, boiled fingerling potatoes, blanched artichoke heart
Maldon sea salt
Heat olive oil and butter over very low heat until the butter is melted. Add anchovies and stir until they dissolve into the oil. Add garlic and thyme and cook for just one minute longer, being careful not to brown the garlic. Taste for salt and add as needed. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice in there.
Squeeze more lemon on your vegetables. Sprinkle with Maldon. Serve the sauce with a spoon so it can be spooned over the vegetables. Reheat as needed.
For more inspiration, I highly recommend Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal. It’s a modern handbook for home economists, full of lots of brilliant dinner renewal tips.