Sometimes, I buy a bag of potatoes at the grocery store for no reason. I mean, obviously they’re for eating (or making potato batteries, potato stamps, or unscrewing a broken light bulb), but I buy them without any particular recipe in mind. Sometimes we blow through them. Baked potatoes make great lunches. Potato salad is one of the eight recipes my husband likes to make. But other times, they sit in the cupboard and wait. And wait and wait and wait. Eventually, I find myself scrambling to make something with five pounds of potatoes before they rot.
That was me yesterday. Plus I had a half-used tub of ricotta and a half-shredded ball of mozzarella. Marinara in the pantry. Half a wedge of Parmesan. About ten minutes later (maybe twenty, since the baby woke up from her nap halfway through and I had to do much of the layering with a cranky kid on my hip–a chunk of Parmesan rind makes a tasty and effective teething toy, by the way) I’d sliced about two pounds of potatoes with my Japanese mandolin and assembled something like a lasagna.
It was delicious. Even my kids thought so. Cheese, potatoes, tomato sauce–what’s not to like? And it was one of those dishes I felt kind of proud about, even though it took minimal effort, because I managed to cook something before it went bad. In this case, a couple somethings.
When I first learned to cook, I wasted a lot of food because after I’d used a cup or a tablespoon for a recipe, I didn’t know what to do with the rest. I often tried. Say I had half a pineapple left from making pork and pineapple kebabs. I’d go online and find a recipe to use it up (pineapple salsa!) and then end up with leftover cilantro, which I’d put into rogan josh, which would leave me with a chunk of fresh ginger, unless of course I had a chunk left from marinating those kebabs and was smart enough to peel it and put it in the freezer. But mostly, I’d stare at the pineapple for days thinking I should use that every time I grabbed a carrot from the crisper until it turned to a sweet-smelling mush. Or it would be the cilantro that got left behind, especially since I was and am useless at remembering those final fresh herb mix-ins or garnishes. I had a hard time keeping up. And while I definitely felt guilty about the waste (did you know that in America, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted?), I also lamented my inability to improvise.
You see, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side was an excellent cook. Lots of German food. Lots of sausage. I remember she had this huge Lazy Susan in the center of her table and she’d load it up with gorgeous food and I have no idea what this food was but on the rare occasion we drove up to visit her (she lived half the length of California away) I always looked forward to lunchtime.
I never cooked with Great Grandma. I don’t recall seeing her cook; she was the kind of hostess who didn’t let you see her sweat. But there was a time when she fell quite ill and my dad went to stay with her for a while (you know she was a wonderful woman when her grandson-in-law loved her enough to live with her and be her aide; you also know he was a wonderful grandson-in-law) and though she was not up to playing hostess, she still liked to cook, so my dad saw how she worked. He said he marveled to see her poking through the fridge, taking some boiled potatoes, half an onion–whatever she had left over–and improvise something delicious.
When I was learning to cook, I felt accomplished when I followed a complicated recipe or managed a successful flambé. I tried to cook to impress. Nowadays, I feel accomplished when I cook without recipes, even if it’s just pasta with cheese on it. I’ve finally learned enough that I can guess and eyeball instead of reading and measuring, and I know how foods react with each other and what flavors go well. From time to time I still do cook to impress, but when the macarons collapse or the sauce separates, I’m starting to understand how to save them, re-purpose them, or just eat the “ruined” food and laugh at myself.