Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli on What To Buy and What To Cook
"You can’t just have fourteen days of black beans and brownies and hope for the best."
With supermarket shelves being emptied out, life has begun to resemble an episode of Chopped on Food Network. Gone are the days of picking our own ingredients. Now, our ingredients are being picked for us. Thankfully, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, who has been a judge on Chopped, can tell you exactly what to do with them.
In recent days, she has been posting pictures to Instagram and Twitter of the food that still isn’t sold out, from overlooked okra to fennel fit for a feast—along with recipes for how to make it all delicious.
Here are a few of them:
“I’ve been going to the supermarket three, four, five times a day, just to understand what people are thinking,” Alex told me. “And I’m learning a lot about human behavior.”
“I’ve literally been thinking to myself, ‘What is my advantage of being a chef, and what kind of information can I share that makes me useful in a time like this?’ Because if you’re not a healthcare worker, and you’re not in that system, I think there’s a certain responsibility to try and be helpful with whatever you can impart. So for my part, I think, just reevaluating something that you snub in the supermarket is what I’m on right now.”
This interview is exactly what I had in mind when I started this newsletter—and I want all of you to read through her advice. So I’m going to cut my introduction short and let her words speak for themselves. (Yes, Alex Guarnaschelli managed to chop me out of my own newsletter.)
What she’s learned going to supermarkets—and what to make with what’s still in stock
Alex: People only buy the middle, I find, with meat. The duck breasts and the filet mignons are packed to the beams in the supermarket—and so are the beef shins and the livers. It’s all that middle stuff that people went for. There’s no chicken anywhere in the world. And that makes sense, because everybody can wrap their head around making chicken. That’s actually why I put the beef shin video up.
Editor’s Note: Watch it!
Alex: People have been buying a lot of shelf-stable milk, which I thought was kind of interesting. That stuff can survive a nuclear blast two feet from the carton. I’m more apt to buy a couple quarts of milk, throw it in the freezer, and defrost it when I need it—just roll the dice.
Boy, I would buy ten cans of coconut milk, just to have it. Because you can make a soup, you can make a stew, you can make a marinade. You could make a smoothie. You could make little coconut sodas. It’s just a good thing to have. Unsweetened coconut milk is one of the perfect foods, in my humble opinion. It’s in a can.
Alex: People bought beans. People didn’t buy kidney beans, which I thought was weird. You want kidney beans, you have them in spades. I wonder if it’s just that the body part in the name is turning people off.
[Editor’s Note: J. Kenji Lopez Alt, one of my favorite food writers, recently published a Vegan Chili recipe in NYT featuring kidney beans. If you have the rest of the ingredients, it’s a good, hearty dish to make, especially if you don’t eat meat.]
Alex: I have my chicken fingers and my little spinach-and-filos from the freezer section; little sausage links that I grew up eating for breakfast. I wouldn’t exclude buying a few things like that, just to have some variety. There’s nothing wrong with that.
[Editor’s Note: There’s no better frozen food than bagel bites, which come with motherfucking crisping trays! When I first heard about Covid-19, I packed my freezer with like five boxes of them.]
Rice and Potatoes:
Alex: There’s no rice anywhere. There’s a lot of potatoes.
[READ: Alex’s delicious potato cake recipe, which requires only four ingredients to make: potatoes, butter, salt, and thyme.]
Cabbage, Swiss chard, and other sturdy greens:
Alex: The sturdier greens—bok choy or collard greens; Swiss chard; cabbage, to some extent—that’s what I would really go for. And by the way? This morning, the collard greens and Swiss chard? To the ceiling in the supermarket. To the ceiling. You can make a quick pickle out of collard greens and chard: simmer water with a little salt, maybe a dash of sugar, maybe a splash of whatever vinegar you have.
You can also braise them, cool them, and then just freeze them and heat them up as you need them. Because you want to tenderize collard greens when you cook them, if they go through a cycle in your freezer and come out and you heat them up, what do you care? It’s not like you’re freezing a head of romaine and then defrosting it and hoping to make the perfect Caesar salad. That’s unrealistic.
Meanwhile, cabbage is cheap and you can get a big meal. You can make stuffed cabbage, you can braise it, you can make sauerkraut, you can pickle it. There’s five hundred things to do with it. You know how much cabbage was at the supermarket this morning? 17 cents a pound.
[Editor’s Note: ICYMI—Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen shared cabbage tips of his own in this newsletter just three days ago.]
When I worked in a three-star Michelin restaurant in France, Guy Savoy, he would say to me: “This is a World War II vegetable.” Here we were in one of the fanciest restaurants in Paris, but what I liked about him – one of the many things – was he would serve and elevate things to the noblest form but he also talked about what the bedrock of vegetables were when you didn’t have much choice. He would say: “Oh! Jerusalem artichokes!” “Oh! Potatoes!” “Oh! Cabbage!”
Alex: I would definitely buy a block of harder cheese, so it can keep longer and you can grate it as you need it. We say “whole foods” all day long, but the more whole you keep things, the longer they’ll keep. So if you’re grating from a block, as opposed to having a bag of grated cheese, it’s going to keep longer.
Play “Connect The Dots” with your pantry
Alex: We have a lot of time on our hands that we didn’t bargain for. And that can be anxiety-producing, you know? So my first suggestion is a more macro concept, which is: Make a list of everything you have, and pretend you’re in a restaurant, and you have to stretch it as far as you can.
Number two: Go through your whole pantry and find the protein in everything. Because fat and carbs—boy, isn’t it funny how we can find them? But where’s the protein? In things we don’t expect, like quinoa. Like lentils. Like chickpeas. Anchovies. That has protein.
Take a protein and play Connect The Dots with a starch. And by simply playing that game, you’ll get a lot more out of your pantry. So: pasta with anchovies, and a little bit of anchovy oil. Rice pilaf with chickpeas stirred into it. Taking that pound of ground beef and cooking it, maybe with some spice—paprika, cayenne, chili pepper, whatever you have on hand. Cumin is the most commonly found spice in American spice drawers. [Editor’s Note: Cumin?! #1?!?!]
We’re thinking so much about being fed, and about the necessity of food for life, but you also have to have variety. You can’t just have fourteen days of black beans and brownies and hope for the best.
The Je ne sais quoi of sauces
Alex: Go through all your condiments and put them all out, and see if you can create a little list of flavor concepts that you like that make use of everything. What kind of vinegar do you have? You can make fourteen things with mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce and vinegar—you’ve got twenty sauces.
I would make a vinaigrette. Mustard has a natural thickener in it, lecithin. So it gives body to things. I think when things have a nice texture, there’s a sense of satiety that comes with that. There’s emotional satiety in texture. Mustard has that effect.
So take a good old jar of Dijon, a bottle of cheap red wine vinegar, some olive oil—or even a canola, or a more muted oil, sunflower oil—mixed with a dash of oregano or a dash of cayenne. You could make a curry dressing. I bet you everybody has a tin of curry powder, and they have no idea what to do with it. You could also make a curry mayonnaise by just throwing some curry powder in a little mayo, with a shot of vinegar.
Having a few little condiments and things like that can be really helpful, because if you’re eating things that you may not commonly eat, and you’re kind of feeling like, “Hey I wish this had a little more something,” you really need to consider the emotional je ne sais quoi factor of some sauces. Especially thinking about a few weeks forward. The freak-out-and-buy-ground-beef phase is only phase one. What’s going to be compelling to you in a week?
Organizations that need your help
Alex: City Meals on Wheels, because they deliver meals to food-insecure people, people who are sick, the elderly. I think it’s one thing to say, “Oh no, what am I going to do with my anchovies?” but what about someone who physically can’t go out and get food? What about somebody who’s going to rely uniquely on the support of other people? [Donate to City Meals on Wheels here.]
And No Kid Hungry, because they deal with the school system. This is really where I had my eye-opener. I brought my daughter to school one day and it was snowing, and I came home after schlepping her there in the snow, and I felt a little unsafe on the street, weather-wise, which is pretty rare. And I came home and on my Twitter page, I wrote: “I think De Blasio is being a little de blasé about the weather, and should close school.” And I thought that I was so clever with my little pun, nice college-educated gal there. And someone wrote back, “Did you ever consider how many kids won’t see meals because they rely uniquely upon their day at school to be fed?” And I thought, “Wow. I know nothing.” So, that’s another less obvious, insecure group we need to support. [Donate to No Kid Hungry here.]
Babe Howard’s Tomato Jam: If I have time and a package of cherry or grape tomatoes, I’ll chop and caramelize an onion, slice up and drop in a few cloves of garlic, and bring in the tomatoes once everything’s soft and oily. I set it on the back burner to cook on medium-low heat, add some lemon juice (maybe even zest!) and any number of herbs—dill and thyme are some regulars. The great thing about this is that you can basically let it cook forever and it just gets better, like any tomatoey sauce. Stir it every few minutes, cover it, maybe add some more oil and lemon juice. I’ll stick it in a jar and put it on eggs, in sandwiches, in a pasta; mostly I’ll stand in the fridge and eat it with a spoon, which no one will ever know. It’s very possible that tomato jam is something many people already do frequently and that I’m just late, but when I made it this week I felt like I deserved to be interviewed for this newsletter. [Editor’s Note: Babe has been instrumental in putting this newsletter together. If you need anyone to do research for you, or to look at your writing, hire him.]
Ian Winick’s Homemade Pasta: Most people have flour and eggs around their apartment and homemade pasta is a great way to kill time. Can use AP flour, but I love a mixture of semolina and 00 Tipo flour. Only use egg yolks, so you get that pretty yellow color you just can’t get from boxed pasta. And you’ve got to be prepared to work it and make love to this dough if you don’t have a machine. It’s a labor of love. Got to get it super thin so you can cut it to your desired width. Infinitely better than anything you can buy in the store.
Helen Rosner, who’s posting restaurant merch to her Instagram—which is a great way to support your favorite places to eat while they’re closed.
I try to keep politics out of this newsletter, but I’ll leave you with this tweet from David Chang:
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Until next time…