Something Special from Nothing Special at All

In the famous children's story, Stone Soup, a meal is prepared for an entire village by people combining everything they can muster into one pot - started by a stone in boiling water. In your own kitchen, you can do the same thing for your family and/or guests. It's a simple matter of tossing out the usual conventions and rules and mixing whatever edibles you might have around. The results can be both surprising and delightful.

I think I first encountered this notion when I found out that the dish of my mother's I was most partial to - one she called "Mushy-Kushy" was, in fact, whatever was left in the refrigerator at the end of the week, thrown into the electric fry pan with a couple of potatoes. My own earliest experiments were with salads. I discovered, in a situation driven by unexpected guests and desperation, that almost anything edible, either cold or warm, can be combined with salad greens, dressed and served as something delicious!

Nuts, cheese, croutons, vegetables (cooked or raw,) cold cuts and fruits - almost anything can be a wonderful addition to a salad that no one has ever tasted before - because no one has put the particular ingredients you have at hand into a bowl at the same time. Even dressings can be combined to create unusual, distinctive and mouth-watering flavors.

From salads, I stepped it up to the natural home for all unnatural combinations- the wok. Wow! Some fresh veggies, maybe pieces of pre-grilled tofu, a handful of pasta, some sauce(s), a tad of left-over seafood, meat or chicken on a high heat for ten minutes with a little peanut oil and although I can't tell you exactly what you will wind up with, I can pretty much assure that it will taste a whole lot better than you would have expected.

Of course, part of the success of any such 'alchemical' creation is the deliberate absence of any apology or explanation whatever. So far as anyone eating the dish is concerned, this is a carefully prepared and well thought-out dish! In the theatre, they say that if an actor flubs or misspeaks a line, simply "leave it in." In most instances, the audience will never know the difference. In the kitchen, the same idea applies.

Alchemical may be a tad of an overstatement as the activity here is not really one of creating something from nothing. More precisely, it is the art (and fun) of creating a great whole from the sum of basic and, most importantly, available parts. It isn't making gold out of nothing - but it just might be making gold out of base metal (lead!)

Stews are also likely menu milieus for making up an original one-time-only combination dish. The basic guideline is simple: If you like the taste of everything you put in, the cumulative product will taste different, but really GOOD. Everything will taste different because of the interactions of the various flavors and textures - but, for the most part, it will be good to eat and something genuinely new and imaginative.

So, the next time your hard pressed to decide what to cook for a meal and don't have the time to go out shopping, open up the fridge and your cabinets and let your imagination roll. Each time you will invent and present something totally unique and genuinely special. Be brave. There are better options in most homes than the desperation bowl of cold cereal or toast with jam.

Photo: DavidAaron, Of himself by himself