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Professional chefs pride themselves on a skill that makes mere mortals wet themselves: They can stick their head into any pantry—even your little skank hole in Mount Pleasant—and prepare a gourmet meal from what’s on hand. They don’t need a cookbook or an issue of Food & Wine. They don’t even need to make a run to Harris Teeter for ingredients. Frankly, it’s a skill we could all use. These days, with scattered food shortages, I feel like three children die in Bangladesh every time I toss out leftovers I’ve allowed to rot in the fridge. I can’t imagine how many people worldwide would slit my throat just to get access to the food wasting away in my kitchen. Isn’t it high time that America shed its well-deserved reputation as the most wasteful nation on Earth? You bet it is, and we’re here to help.
Starting with this issue, Young & Hungry launches a periodic feature in which we invite a chef to peer into a pantry—maybe even your little skank hole in Mount Pleasant—and make a meal for two out of what they find. If we save just one partially eaten roast chicken from a trip to the Dumpster, we’ve done our job.
Equinox chef Todd Gray was the first to accept the challenge at my little skank hole in Takoma Park. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like an impending chef visit to lay bare the farce that is city health codes. My wife, Carrie, and I have prepared some killer (but non-lethal) dinners with ingredients pulled from a kitchen that would force your average health inspector to slap a condemned sign on the cupboards. Underneath a 3-foot stack of discarded boxes and Whole Foods sacks in our pantry, I found soiled napkins that never hit the trash can, a crumpled bag of dog food (circa 2005), and one dead, desiccated wasp. From the fridge, I dumped out a potato dish so foul I dry-heaved.
The irony of throwing away a giant plastic bag of food prior to Gray’s arrival was not lost on me. But embarrassment is a powerful motivator. By the time the chef and his wife, Equinox GM Ellen Kassoff Gray, arrived around 2:30 p.m., our kitchen was as sterile as a burn unit—well, if you ignored all the beagle hair gathered in the corners. The Grays, however, had little time to admire my CYA cleaning job; the chef was between shifts, and Kassoff Gray had to pick up their son from school that afternoon.
The sad truth was that I had few proteins for Gray to work with. I seriously considered throwing the chef a bone—literally—by picking up some meat to stick in the refrigerator. But I figured cheating wouldn’t serve anyone; my only last-minute deceit was to buy a nasty little onion at Safeway, which Gray ignored anyway in favor of a previously hacked-up specimen in the crisper. “You always want to use the older ingredients first,” Kassoff Gray said.
Gray briefly considered using our leftover marinated lamb kebabs, but he ultimately couldn’t resist the idea of cooking with the Mediterranean-style sausages that I had purchased at Let’s Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray (which wins my vote for worst-named butcher shop ever). The chef pulled a package of pappardelle from the freezer, a can of stewed tomatoes from the pantry (off of which I had earlier dusted dead bug parts), and pickled garlic from the fridge.
Then Gray spotted something on the shelves that I had forgotten I owned—a jar of D.L. Jardine’s Cowpoke Artichoke salsa. “It’s great,” he exclaimed after a sample. “Oh, that’s got a kick!” Kassoff Gray added. The chef’s entree had come into focus: a spicy pork Bolognese by way of Morocco. Gray sautéed the sausage, pickled garlic, and onion in Crisco oil before deglazing the pan with some previously opened Chardonnay. He then added the salsa, sage, and canned tomatoes before applying the final touches: several fat pats of butter, generous shavings of Parmesan, dried apricots (which Kassoff Gray reconstituted in boiling water), and a garnish of toasted almond slices.
For a salad course, Gray initially envisioned rolling up a handful of ingredients—including slices from my year-old pickled jalapeño eggs—inside a romaine leaf. But mid-prep, he changed course and instead composed a salad using a romaine leaf as a base. On top of it, he layered iceberg chiffonade, chopped-up kalamata olives, julienned wild Lebanese cucumbers, and feta cheese. (OK, so I have good ingredients at home. Sue me.) He then drizzled the salad with a vinaigrette made from mint, lime, honey, and a 50-50 combination of canola and olive oils. That way, the chef noted, the salad won’t get “overrun with the flavor of olive oil.”
Clearly on a roll now, Gray decided to make a dessert from some idle eggs in the fridge. He spotted triple sec and Grand Marnier on our liquor cart in the living room. From each bottle, he poured short streams into a bowl along with four egg yolks, sugar, and the juice from a single orange. Gray beat the zabaglione mixture in a double boiler for minute after agonizing minute—until I thought I’d die from exhaustion just watching him. Meanwhile, Kassoff Gray took a hand mixer and whipped heavy cream and vanilla until it bubbled up like some washing machine with too much detergent. Yep, it was a mistake. She whipped up milk by accident. It would be the only time either of them wasted a single ingredient.
Out in the living room, Todd and Ellen began to set their finished plates on the table. I eagerly dug into the Bolognese without prompting. The supple pasta played off the crunchy, toasted almonds, while the reconstituted apricots provided little bursts of sweetness, just enough to temper the fiery sausage and sauce. My salad was a tad overdressed, but its composition was flawless—salty, creamy, acidic, and sweet flavors in every bite.
The crowning achievement, however, was the creamy zabaglione poured over canned mangos and apricots, sliced kiwi, and a few broken ladyfingers. The dish tasted rich, sweet, and (dare I say?) fresh, but it also struck me as too difficult to make for the average home cook, which I told Gray. He immediately suggested an alternative: preparing a vanilla and Grand Marnier-spiked whipped cream, which you could spoon over sugared canned fruit. Sweet!
But you know the best part of this meal? It didn’t cost me a dime. Well, other than the money I spent days—or years—ago on ingredients.
If you’d like to offer up your little skank hole for a future edition of Shelf Reliance, e-mail email@example.com.