Deep winter this year has been brutal. Here in Charleston, the deep freeze has barely lasted a week but has destroyed gardens and plumbing and kept (me) at home sitting close to the fireplace.
Lucky for me that my friends are happy to brave the elements and come to my house for a meal. And lucky for them, I make meals that are good for our souls.
It is at this moment that cooking (and shopping) from the pantry becomes essential and the best way to use all the bits and pieces and delicious ingredients accumulated in my cupboards throughout the year—cleaning out the larder and fridge and making a clean start in the New Year.
I don’t mean using the expired tins of tuna or stale crackers, nor that salad dressing from 2015.- Please throw those away! I mean creating dishes to include items like dried mushrooms, roasted peppers, cannoli beans, and spicy jellies that, perhaps, are not on my regular rotation.
Dried mushrooms are fabulous when combined with fresh ones to add flavor, substance, and texture to sauces and soups. They have now become part of my winter staples. Jarred roasted peppers add flavor and color to rice dishes and salads and are essential to garnish hors d’oeuvres when in a pinch. With cannoli beans and garbanzos, I can make a quick side dish for grilled fish or shrimp, and they puree beautifully, adding creaminess and body to warm winter soups.
In the fridge, I always end up with bits and pieces of cheese, both soft and hard, that can be transformed into creamy cheese sauces (by simply melting them with a little cream…!) or savory biscuits to serve with drinks. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with the combinations, but be aware that blue cheese will probably over-flavor everything else.
One of my favorite sauces for pasta is diced tomatoes marinated with garlic and olive oil and pieces of mozzarella, brie, goat cheese, or any soft cheese you have at hand, and then tossed in with the hot pasta that will gently melt the cheese to create a decadent dish perfect for any time of the year.
Bread and all of its cousins also take up room in the pantry or fridge, and day-old bread can be transformed into all sorts of savory and sweet puddings. Use leftover bread to make croutons and bread crumbs. Use brioche and croissants to make bread puddings for breakfast or dessert.
Making a point of using these things I have around makes me feel clever and virtuous. It is fun to experiment with ingredients I haven’t used before and get creative with the things I have around. That jar of jalapeno jelly adds great flavor to store-bought mini-quiches; fig jam is perfect on paté de foie gras, and those leftover pieces of chocolate make a delicious hot chocolate drink when melted with almond or coconut milk.
A dear friend gave me something I had never had before: a jar of her famous homemade bacon jam, and it has been so fun to experiment… I have tossed it with roasted Brussels sprouts adding depth of flavor and smokiness, used it to garnish a turkey burger, and topped roasted baby potatoes for an appetizer. And, of course, as a layer in a BLT, there is a reason why it is called Bacon Jam! Truly an all-around jar of goodness. And yes, good for the soul too.
Warm soups are soul food. Especially the ones with few ingredients…. that boil and bubble for a few minutes, creating goodness and happiness all around. Starting a meal with soup elevates the meal to dinner party status, however basic and rustic it may be. They can always be dressed up with lovely garnishes like roe, caviar, or foie. I adore pureed lentil soup served with garlic croutons and fresh foie. Now that is good for the soul!
And with this, I leave you. And a wonderful recipe of nutty cheese bites that can live in your freezer until you are ready to bake them and use them to serve with drinks or to garnish soups.
The Serial Hostess
Nutty Cheese Bites
Use a combination of hard and soft cheeses to make these biscuits - about half and half. And, of course, you can mix pecans, almonds, and even hazelnuts that will give a wonderful depth of flavor to the biscuits. You can definitely switch out regular flour for almond flour.
Makes about 50
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 pound mixed cheese, chopped or shredded, rinds removed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
In a food processor (or by hand in a large bowl) pulse together the pecans, flour, butter, and cheese. With the motor running, add the whole egg and egg yolk and mix well into a thick dough.
Divide the dough into three pieces and roll each into a log. Wrap each piece with parchment or plastic paper and chill until hardened; about 1 hour.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the wrap from the logs and slice them into 1/4-inch slices. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until golden; about 10 minutes.
Transfer to a cooling rack and serve warm.
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