I am a big fan of cooking from nothing. Which is to say, using up random ingredients from the fridge, freezer and pantry to make something new and often unexpected. I come up with many delicious dishes that way; I enjoy the intense satisfaction of consuming my stores, of not allowing things to go bad, of tapping my culinary creativity and resourcefulness in new and exciting ways. A few weeks ago I did something marvelous with chickpeas, pistachios, oregano and garam masala. What began as a pantry-cleaning exercise ended with a good and nourishing meal.
I love cooking on the fly, creating meals without having to run to the grocery store. Which could explain why I used to watch Ready, Set, Cook! so frequently back in the mid-'90s glory days of the Food Network (though Sissy Biggers was totally annoying).
Cooking from nothing is a year-round hobby. However, summer elevates this art form to an entirely new level: when I'm inspired to cook from nothing in July and August I can draw from the fridge, the freezer, the pantry and...the garden! In the summer, cooking from nothing benefits greatly from the shot of freshness that only a lush backyard garden can provide.
Some cooking-from-nothing dishes are one-off opportunities, not to be replicated again until such time as the random disparate ingredients again find themselves lurking around the house. But every so often what begins as a thrown-together, whatever-is-in-the-house "recipe" becomes, over time, an Actual Recipe that I cook over and over again. Every so often, orphaned ingredients create a truly winning flavor combination, a meal to which I return time and again. So it is with today's gem, couscous with cubanelle peppers and fresh mozzarella. I first made this dish several summers ago, when my bountiful cubanelle peppers were ripe for the picking, weighing down their respective plants with their gorgeous light green selves and pleading with their tiny little imaginary pepper-voices: "Pick me! I'm ready!"
So I harvested. And got to rooting around the kitchen to see what else I had that would complement the peppers. I found some onions, Pecorino (I always have some Pecorino on hand; I cannot live without it), some fresh mozzarella cheese, almonds in the freezer, a few homegrown tomatoes, a Mason jar brimming with couscous. I diced the peppers and onions into the teensiest dice, sauteed them until their flavors mingled subtly and perfectly, then tossed them and the other found ingredients with the cooked couscous. The dish was flavorful, sunny and impossibly fresh-tasting. I was so pleased with the result I made a mental note that this concoction was worth remembering for the next time the cubanelles were ready.
Served warm, couscous with cubanelles and fresh mozzarella is a meal unto itself. At room temperature, it is a perfect salad to round out a summer meal of grilled chicken or cedar-planked salmon. It's tasty the next day -- and the day after that -- as the flavors mellow and really start getting to know each other. It's also a perfect lunch; just grab it on your way out the door and make your fast-food scarfing co-workers jealous.
In addition to using my homegrown cubanelles in the couscous, tonight I used a variety of onion called "candy" that I picked up at the local farmers' market last week. See, I'm raiding my own larder, as well as that of others! Additionally -- and rather appropriately -- I didn't happen to have any couscous on hand this evening. But in the true spirit of cooking from nothing, I did have at least a pound of Israeli couscous just sitting in a big jar waiting for genius to strike. So tonight it took the place of its smaller-"grained" cousin.
Cooking from nothing, you are so much fun and so very satisfying.
COUSCOUS WITH CUBANELLES AND FRESH MOZZARELLA
This recipe halves quite easily.
3 c. couscous or Israeli couscous
6 T. olive oil
1 medium white or yellow onion, finely diced
2 medium cubanelle peppers, finely diced
2 green peppers, finely diced
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
3/4 c. whole almonds
2 T. fresh oregano, chopped
2 T. fresh basil, chopped
1 1/4 c. Pecorino cheese, grated
1 tomato, diced
4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
Bring 4 cups of water to a bowl in a large saucepan. When the water is boiling, add the couscous and stir briefly. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover partially until the water is completely absorbed, about 10-15 minutes. Place the cooked couscous in a large bowl and mix with 3 T. of the olive oil. Set aside.
Place the remaining 3 T. olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Sauté the onion, cubanelles and green peppers until the vegetables are translucent but still slightly crunchy. Stir in the kosher salt and black pepper. Remove from heat and add the pepper mixture to the couscous; stir to combine. Return the skillet to the stove and toast the almonds over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, then add the toasted almonds to the couscous mixture along with the oregano, basil and Pecorino. Toss to combine.
Let the couscous stand for about 5 minutes to cool slightly, then add the tomato and fresh mozzarella cheese just before serving. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, adding a pinch more if you think it needs it. Garnish with a little extra grated Pecorino. Can be served hot or at room temperature.
Makes about 12 servings.