I worked in professional kitchens for about five years. But I don’t think anything I did taught me more about cooking than making family-style meals for the staff, which generally involved finding whatever leftover, borderline suspect scraps were sitting in the walk-in, and making something edible. You MacGyver a meal out of random ingredients, go wild with your mad scientist shit. There was the time someone made a bean stew, which someone else turned into a casserole the next day, which on the third day I turned into fritters for what became a sort of Mexico-via-the-Middle-East-falafel-wrap thing, with onion salsa and yogurt and tortillas and cilantro and mint.
All cooks have their fallbacks. I’ve worked with a sous chef who made way too much savory bread pudding. Or a guy who cooked shakshouka every damn day. But at their best, staff meals are a dizzy synthesis of leftovers—and nothing is more fun to cook. Since you are now not going shopping too often, you'll likely arrive at days with a hodgepodge of ingredients. Here’s how to make something edible.
Curry accepts all.
For the moment, set aside ideas of tradition and authenticity. The fact is generic curry powder will make a good stew or soup that you can put pretty much anything in and have it taste pretty good. You need to use enough salt, and ideally some citrus, and probably a bit of sugar. Add leftover meats, tofu, cooked legumes, and whatever droopy vegetables you find in your fridge. Add some sort of broth or coconut milk or tomato sauce or heavy cream. Eat it over rice, or just in a bowl.
For instance, say you bought a bunch of parsnips and potatoes. Well cook some onions and garlic, add the diced parsnips and potatoes, add broth or heavy cream and water, a good deal of curry powder, salt, lemon, some sugar. Puree it. Soup!
Pretty much anything can be a burrito.
I have made Greek burritos, with spiced chicken, dill and lemon rice, raisins and yogurt. I have made Indian burritos with curried dal and basmati. You can also take it the opposite direction. Want Mexican burritos but only have pita? You can make it work.
Learn what flavors go together.
I probably use The Flavor Bible more than any other cookbook—it has few recipes. Instead, it tells you what flavors go together. You probably know that cauliflower likes curry and dried currants. Don’t have those? Well, roasted cauliflower also goes with chocolate.
Season it right.
As long as you have enough salt, fat, and acid, and pay attention to general similarities (yogurt can replace crema in your Mexican food—milk can't), most things are edible together.
Get some fish sauce or anchovies.
If you’re cooking kale and it’s boring, add a few drops of fish sauce. Ditto that tomato sauce. Ditto that stir-fried cabbage. Ditto that pan of pasta. Or that roasted broccoli with garlic and parmesan.
I always have the following around…
Rice, canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, ginger, fish sauce, anchovies, soy sauce, dried red pepper flakes, black pepper, curry powder, vinegar, lemons or limes, salt, sugar, honey, various fats (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil), dried beans, eggs, canned coconut milk, parmesan, flour, dried pasta, yogurt, hot sauce. To that end:
If your food turns out weird, cover it in hot sauce.
It only sort of matters what kind. Tapatio on stir-fry? Surely.