Stocking up, stockpiling, supermarket sweeps: 2020 has, for many of us, changed the way we shop.
Even though we know, rationally, that there are enough tins of tomatoes and bags of flour to go around, our instinct can still be to have a surplus. There is something reassuring and comforting about crossing a fully stocked larder off the to-do list.
It’s not, I have to say, an instinct I share. Not when it comes to shopping, at least. I just don’t want 15 cans of chopped tomatoes taking up space on my pantry shelves. The few times I have succumbed to overshopping, it never seems to work out. I may well have 15 cans of tomatoes, but they’re of no practical use to me unless I also remember to pick up the garlic and onions, to stock up on the olive oil, and to make sure I already have the sugar, red-pepper flakes and sprigs of thyme I’ll want in order to make the tomato sauce those cans make me crave.
For it’s not the tins I want to stock up on in 2020, it’s the sauce itself. It’s here — in the cooking, rather than the shopping — that my instinct for stacking, stockpiling and shelf-sweeping kicks in. I’d far rather buy, say, four cans of tomatoes at a time, then pair them with all the bits and bobs I have at home to make a big batch of sauce.
That is where it all comes in: the glug of oil, the clove of garlic, the single onion, the teaspoon of maple syrup or sweet balsamic vinegar that needs finishing up, the basil or coriander leaves looking for a good home, the cumin seeds that could be given a new lease of life by being lightly toasted and blitzed. Any sauce made like this — using spices, herbs, vinegars and stray vegetables on hand — will always be so much more than the sum of its slightly neglected parts.
The starting point for a sauce could, of course, be a bunch of tins lurking in the back of your pantry, but, equally, it could be the result of a trip to your greengrocer or farmers’ market. A bagful of red bell peppers and fresh tomatoes will make a sauce you can use in all kinds of contexts. It could go toward a giant couscous cake, or, instead, spooned alongside yesterday’s leftover turkey meatballs or tomorrow’s pan-fried tofu. It could go with scrambled eggs in the morning, a cheese sandwich at lunch, or spread over a seeded cracker and topped with some tangy cheese in a snack before supper.
If you can, always double or triple any sauce you make, so half of it can be sent on its way into the fridge or freezer. Once stacked on the shelves, these premade, ready-to-go sauces will provide all the comfort and reassurance anyone thinking about that to-do list needs. And it is the kind of stockpiling and shelf-sweeping that will, I hope, be one of the legacies 2020 leaves us with in the kitchen.
And to Drink …
This savory, mild dish will go well with a lot of different wines in every shade. It’s made with pearl couscous, sometimes known as Israeli couscous, which made me think of Middle Eastern reds. These wines are often made from grapes associated with southern France or other parts of the Mediterranean, like grenache, cinsault and carignan — fruity wines, but not overpoweringly fruity. You could also try Spanish versions of grenache (called garnacha in Spain, where the grape originated), or a bobal from Manchuela. Many reds from Languedoc will be blends of these grapes. Or open a southern French rosé, as long as it’s dry and sturdier than the wispy wines intended to last only the length of summer. Among whites, I’d look for a good chenin blanc. ERIC ASIMOV