One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do you stay inspired to create new recipes?”
In the movie version of my life, I tell people that inspiration hits me when I’m strolling a market overseas, or rereading cookbooks while I sip tea on my couch. But the actual answer is, sometimes I don’t stay inspired. Sometimes I have no ideas, and start mapping out plans for a second career, Googling how long it would take to become a botanist.
In these moments, I find it best to do anything but try to be creative. I repot a plant, take a hot yoga class, attempt minor accounting work. But where I often land after these activities is at home, sans groceries and extremely hungry, turning to my pantry. Here, I let the primal, emotional need for something delicious take over.
Turns out, the primal, emotional need almost always involves beans. Probably the brothy, spicy variety, loaded with bitter greens.
Depending on how much time I’ve got, the beans are either dried (preferred) or from a can (realistic). Regardless, they are cooked in lots of olive oil with whatever combination of fried onions, shallots and garlic I have on hand. I might add some tomato paste or a few anchovy fillets, but here, I’m adding harissa, which I like to caramelize in the olive oil just as I would tomato paste, and some fresh or preserved lemon. If you want the spiciness but aren’t stocking harissa paste, red pepper flakes, a little bit of cumin and 1 or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste will get you close.
From there, I simmer everything in chicken broth . (Use vegetable broth if you are vegetarian or vegan.) The final texture of this dish can be soupy or stewlike, depending on how much you cook down the beans — I like to smash them with the back of a wooden spoon, encouraging their creamy interior to thicken the broth.
Once the beans are as soupy or stewy as I please, I add broccoli raab or kale. Whatever I’m working with, I strip the leaves from the stems, chop the stems and add them to the beans as they simmer. I toss in the leaves at the end, just to wilt them .
This satisfyingly creamy bean stew is lovely and perfect on its own, but you can also garnish it like a bowl of chili. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s a fridge clean-out free-for-all, but I use this as an opportunity to use up the last of that odd bit of feta or pecorino, whatever fresh herbs I have lingering (parsley, cilantro, mint, dill), and sometimes that last egg (fried and crispy, or medium-boiled and sliced).
This pot of pantry staples might not seem like much, but it is a nice reminder that it’s OK to empty yourself of ideas from time to time: The act alone might lead you to your next good one.