No plan for dinner? Experts in the kitchen and keepers of the family budget both say the responsible thing to do is to cook what you have. Just open the fridge and figure something out. If you think that’s easier said than done, welcome to the club. Many of us have just enough cooking skills (and recipe ideas) to get us through the weekly meal grind, but not enough chops to whip up the extra squash and leftover half a steak into a delicious dish.
But perhaps you underestimate your abilities. Figuring out what to do with random ingredients takes some consideration, some time to rifle through the recipe catalog in the mind, to recall a few childhood dishes or some old and new additions to the potluck table. Sort of a stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session.
JUST EAT IT HI
Film screening, chef challenge and panel discussion:
Where: ‘Iolani School, 563 Kamoku St.
When: 5 to 8 p.m. April 28
Tickets: $45 chef challenge and screening, $30 students; $10 film screening only, $5 students
Info: Visit alohaharvest.org
That was the approach this basic home cook took when faced with the challenge three professional chefs will tackle April 28 at ‘Iolani School: transform a few unexpected ingredients into something good to eat. The challenge is part of the event Just Eat It HI, a benefit for Aloha Harvest, an Oahu food-rescue service that transports surplus food donations to agencies that feed the hungry. The event includes a screening of “Just Eat It,” a documentary about food waste and food rescue.
The challenge has chefs Mark Noguchi (Mission Social Hall & Cafe and Pili Group), Ronnie Nasuti (Tiki’s Bar & Grill) and Lee Anne Wong (Koko Head Cafe) each receiving the same rescued ingredients, with their resulting dishes to be sampled by those in attendance. Rather than compete for best dish, their efforts will demonstrate the variety of ways the ingredients can be prepared.
A couple of weeks ago, my own visit to Aloha Harvest’s Kaimuki office yielded these foods: a bunch of fresh kale, a tub of cottage cheese and a can of Spam. The brain-wracking commenced immediately. First thoughts: recollections of Mom cubing Spam and adding it to instant macaroni and cheese, cousin Lynne’s lasagna recipe that calls for cottage cheese, and the thought that kale would go well in so many dishes.
Then my friend Betty Shimabukuro mentioned that her own mac-and-cheese recipe calls for cottage cheese. Why not add the Spam and kale? she suggested.
Sold. I went to work: Betty’s recipe creates pure mac and cheese, calling for whole milk and cheddar along with the cottage cheese. Because the recipe doesn’t feature add-in items, I was concerned about how the saltiness of the Spam would affect the flavor balance. And because so many folks (my family included) can’t tolerate lots of dairy, I experimented with soy and coconut milks, both sweeter than cow’s milk, as replacements.
A combination of half soy, half coconut delivered a distinct coconut flavor straight out of the oven. For folks who love the taste, it actually works — the flavors somehow go together. By the next day the coconut presence had mellowed considerably. My final version includes half the amount, for its sweetness, and more soy milk, though the dish would probably be fine with just the latter.
As for the Spam, the concern was color and texture, and concentrating the yummy flavor. That was easily addressed by cubing and pan-frying it until it turned dark brown and crisp. To tame the assertive “green” taste of the kale, a quick saute with garlic did the trick.
And though the recipe calls for dry elbow macaroni, I used what I had in the pantry: casarecce shaped into a narrow, twisted tube, and gluten-free penne rigate, ridged penne tubes. I parboiled both because they are thicker than macaroni, then divided the sauce between them.
The rest was uber-easy: blending the cottage cheese with the milks, incorporating the rest of the ingredients and baking.
The result: A hearty mac-and-cheese accented with nicely textured Spam morsels and complementary sauteed kale — success!
MAC AND CHEESE AND SPAM AND KALE
1/2 pound elbow macaroni or other pasta (can be whole wheat)
5 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves sliced into strips
1 can Spam, sliced into 3/4-inch cubes
1 pound shredded cheddar
2 cups whole milk (substitute with soy milk or 1-1/2 cups soy and 1/2 cup coconut milk)
1 cup cottage cheese
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
If using pasta other than elbow macaroni, bring pot of water to boil and par cook pasta for 2 minutes. Drain and set aside. (Elbow macaroni does not need to be precooked.)
Meanwhile, in pan over medium, add 2 teaspoons oil. When hot, add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add kale and saute a couple of minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
To same pan over medium, add remaining oil. When hot, add Spam cubes and fry until all sides are deep brown. Remove to a paper-towel-lined bowl and set aside.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. In greased 9-inch baking pan, mix macaroni, cheddar, kale and Spam, reserving 1/4 cup cheese.
Puree milks and cottage cheese in blender; add mustard powder and pepper. Pour over mac and cheese mixture. Cover tightly in foil. Bake 30 minutes.
Remove from oven, remove foil and stir. Top with reserved cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan. Return to oven for 30 more minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before cutting. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 780 calories, 50 g fat, 24 g saturated fat, 130 mg cholesterol, 1,450 mg sodium, 42 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 41 g protein
Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., a nutritionist in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa.