We all need a little black dress, or its equivalent. It's versatile, can be adorned every which way and carries us through all kinds of events in a fetching manner. A perfect little black dress buoys our confidence, puts a bit of sass in our stride and makes us smile a tad more easily.
Lately, I've been thinking of certain dishes as the kitchen equivalent of that little black dress.
Other people might call these dishes specialties or favorites, but I think of it a tad differently. Yes, you can call such dishes personal specialties but there must be other elements in order to qualify for this category. The dish must be versatile and you must be able to adapt it quickly and easily based not only on what is in season but also on what is at hand at the moment. And it really should be something that you cook intuitively, as well, without the training wheels of a recipe.
I have several little black dresses in my kitchen repertoire. An obvious one is risotto, which can even be made successfully when the pantry is almost bare.
Another is skirt steak, which is so versatile and so delicious no matter how you prepare it. I always cook it in the same way: I sear it for 90 seconds (2 minutes if it's particularly thick) on both sides, let it rest, covered, for 5 minutes and cut it into into thin slices. Then I serve it atop salad greens, braised greens, farro, barley, creamy polenta, pasta, rice or quinoa and dress it with a soy-based sauce, an herb sauce or a creamy sauce. Sometimes I top it with salsa and it never fails to draw sighs of praise. Indeed, a friend recently called skirt steak I marinated in Morcoccan Chermoula sauce and serve over farro and white beans one of the best things she's ever tasted.
Basic potato soup, which can be dressed up in countless ways to please almost anyone, qualifies, too. Add grated cheddar cheese and sliced fried sausages for a great picnic dish or chill the soup, add shelled Dungeness crab or poached oysters and serve it at a candlelight dinner on New Year's Eve.
The possibilities are endless, as potatoes cooked with aromatics and stock and water are about as close to an artist's palette as cooking ever gets. Even though potatoes always retain some of their own earthy flavor, they blend beautifully with everything from peas, artichokes, sorrel, spinach, chard and kale to tomatoes, peppers and chiles, winter squash, cabbage, mustard greens and a huge array of cheeses.
Do you have a little black dress in your pantry, a favorite dish that you've never thought about in this way before? If so, maybe you can take a minute to tell us about it "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
I've been making this soup for decades and here's how I do it at home: I saute whatever aromatics I have in olive oil, butter or bacon fat and then add whatever tomatoes I have. In the summer, that usually means fresh. When tomatoes are not in season, I use canned tomatoes — whole, diced, pureed, whatever is in the pantry — and I use whatever broth or stock I have in the freezer, unless I've just made a new batch. I don't measure anything. After the flavors come together — usually in a about 10 to 15 minutes — I let the soup cool slightly, puree it with an immersion blender and serve it with whatever accompaniments or, to continue the analogy, accessories, I happen to have on hand. If I'm alone, the soup lasts through four or five meals.