I grew up learning to cook what’s on hand, and now it’s my pandemic superpower

Ruth Terry

THE WASHINGTON POST – Because of my mother, I’ve always eaten very well. Growing up, Mom cooked an array of dishes, from rice with squid – the ink stained the grains and imparted a mineral flavour – to simpler fare like garlic-rubbed meat chops with red beans and rice, a perennial comfort food that I still make regularly. She is the queen of the pressure cooker, which she used to turn out wholesome soups and stews, such as split pea with cauliflower and ham.

Dessert was frequently guava paste and salty white cheese served with hot chocolate made by dissolving cinnamon-scented chocolate tablets into evaporated milk. Sometimes, we had my favourite, pain au chocolat.

You’d never guess how poor we were from the abundance of our table. In reality, Mom conjured most meals from ingredients we had on hand: beans and lentils, meat bought on sale and frozen, herbs and vegetables from her garden. Goya guava paste and Mexican chocolate were modestly priced treats with long shelf lives. Even my beloved chocolate croissants were donated day-olds from the community food bank.

Like many people from immigrant families – my grandmother was part of a wave of Puerto Rican economic migrants to New York in the 1950s – I learned to do a lot with a little when it came to food. Early in the pandemic, I noticed that many of my friends from more affluent backgrounds did not.

For them, picked-over grocery store shelves or not having the exact ingredients a recipe calls for are sources of stress, not a moment for culinary experimentation. They fail to see the glorious potential in a pile of disparate ingredients. In a way, I’m lucky. My family’s financial constraints necessitated ingenuity and improvisation. It is the only way we know how to cook, and it has been my superpower during the pandemic.

Black Bean and Squash Stew. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

History is on my side. Wars, pandemics and other crises have always spurred food innovation on personal and industrial scales. Some of us just show up better prepared.

“It’s during the times of greatest hardship or duress that you see some of the most creative expressions in the kitchen,” said Ashley Rose Young, a food historian for the Smithsonian Museum’s American Food History Project. “And it’s not only that they’re innovative or creative, they can also be incredibly delicious.”

Enslaved Africans, she noted, shaped American cuisine using only basic rations: salted meat, leftovers from plantation kitchens, what they could grow. Wartime gave us new technologies such as canning and products such as margarine – a gastronomic war crime, in my opinion. In post-Soviet Cuba, cookbook author and TV personality Nitza Villapol taught people to make such inventados (inventions) as marinated eggplant steaks or potato-based mayonnaise.

Even now, “A lot of Cubans talk to me about how they are proud to innovate in their kitchen. They’re proud to be able to come up with recipes that are very frugal and use the most cheap ingredients possible,” said anthropologist Hanna Garth, whose new book, Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal, was released this year. While more affluent Cubans lament the continued necessity, “the ability to sort of roll with whatever is available is a more positive thing among lower socioeconomic status people.”

The art of improvisational cooking emerges in times of scarcity but may be just as easily lost. For example, the skills to transmute wartime rations into satisfying dishes that used less wheat, sugar, fat and meat than their peacetime predecessors were quickly subsumed by convenience foods, said President of Oldways Sara Baer-Sinnott, a non-profit group that addresses public health through heritage-inspired dietary guidelines and education.

Later, when women began to increase their participation in the workforce, “Mom wasn’t there cooking dinner every night with an apron or looking beautiful when her husband came home,” she said. “So convenience and necessity and growing population just changed things.”

This was certainly true for my father’s African American family, who were proudly part of DC’s Black middle class. By the time I came along, Grandmommy, may she rest, prized kitchen convenience over taste and nutrition. She relied on MSG-laden onion soup mix to tenderise roasts. Bland frozen vegetables cut into weird little cubes and instant mashed potatoes were her preferred side dishes. Thirty years later, I still remember the particular gloom of lemon Table Talk pies with their floury pastry and cloying industrial filling that left a plasticky coating in my mouth. Grandmommy took no delight in cooking, and you could taste it.

Nine months into the pandemic, I’m making condiments to stave off hopelessness. To roasted veg, I’m adding a tahini vinaigrette made with forgotten kombucha that had turned to vinegar, fresh garlic and, my mother’s go-to herb, thyme.

I’ve recently become enamoured with the magical emulsion that is classic French vinaigrette; I adore it on roasted broccoli. I garnish everything, including tacos and tuna salad, with what I call “slaw”, an incandescent magenta concoction – the colour alone makes me smile – of onions, red cabbage and caraway seeds pickled in sweetened white vinegar. I take 2020’s lemons and preserve them for an intense hit of salt-sour tang on tagines and my signature breakfast hash: onions fried in niter kibbeh, with chicken and collard greens.

Beans, with their cultural relevance and personal significance, provide the most comfort. Since the pandemic began, our pantry has become a visual feast of kidneys, creamy cannellinis, orange lentils and dark olive mung beans.

My partner and I use our new pressure cooker almost every day to make refried beans, bean dips and bean salads dressed simply with olive oil, macerated red onions and heaps of fresh herbs. Rich and earthy tomato-based bean stews, such as this one I make with butternut squash, are the only thing I’m looking forward to this fall.

There’s a sense of triumph from my slapdash cookery. Nourishing myself with what I happen to have in my apartment feels quietly revolutionary, a shaking of the fist at the year trying to kill everyone. Cooking with what’s on hand reminds me that I still have agency in this precarious world – if only over what I put on my plate.

BLACK BEAN AND SQUASH STEW

Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: One hour, 15 minutes

Eight servings

Stewed beans make an appearance in just about every cuisine, but these, which rely on a tomato base and a cilantro-heavy blend of herbs and aromatics known as sofrito, reference Puerto Rican and Cuban styles.

Sofrito is generally made ahead, but here, rather than blend the cilantro, onions, garlic and peppers together, food writer Ruth Terry first caramelises the onions and combines the other ingredients separately. This adds depth of flavour as well as a bit of sweetness to complement the roasted pumpkin.

You can cook the beans from scratch in advance or use canned. Either way, reserve some of the bean liquid from the pot or can to thicken and add flavour to the stew.

INGREDIENTS

Four cups (26 ounces) peeled, seeded and diced butternut squash

Four tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

One large white onion, diced (about 11 ounces)

One large red bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 1/4 cups)

1/2 large bunch (two ounces) fresh cilantro leaves and stems, plus more for garnish (optional)

Eight cloves garlic

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Three (15-ounce) cans black beans (about five cups), drained and liquid reserved

One (28-ounce) can tomato sauce

Two tablespoons tomato paste

Freshly ground black pepper

Cooked rice, quinoa or couscous, for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the butternut squash, two tablespoons of the olive oil and the salt and toss to combine. Spread over a rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes, or just until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, heat the remaining oil until shimmering.

Add the onions and cook, stirring until the edges start to brown, about five minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn light brown, about 10 minutes.

While the onions are cooking, in a bowl of a food processor, combine the bell pepper, cilantro and garlic and pulse until very finely chopped and uniform but not fully smooth – this is your sofrito.

Add the sofrito to the pot and raise the heat to medium. Add the thyme and stir until aromatic, about one minute. Add the beans, roasted squash and stir to combine.

Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste and one scant cup of bean cooking liquid or brine. Taste and add more salt, if needed.

Bring the stew to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until slightly thickened, seven to 10 minutes.

If you prefer a thicker stew, simmer, uncovered, for a few more minutes, until your desired consistency is reached.

To serve, ladle the stew into shallow bowls or over rice, quinoa or couscous, and garnish with cilantro and a drizzle of olive oil, if using.

NUTRITION

Calories: 318; total fat: 8g; saturated fat: 1g; cholesterol: 0mg; sodium: 94mg; carbohydrates: 52g; dietary fibre: 14g; sugar: 11g; protein: 13g.