Last night in Ottawa it was -20ºC with the wind-chill. There had been a lot of snow the night before and my bus ride home took almost twice as long as usual. I was happy to be in my warm apartment safe and sound, and wanted something delicious and hardy for dinner. This was a problem. I had hardly anything in the fridge and am a newbie vegetarian -only 5 moths in- so I don’t yet have a large repertoire of veggie recipes. In my past carnivorous days, when the snow fell and my socks were wet, I would have made my grandmothers mouth-watering beef stew. Soft chunks of potato, peas, carrots, and above all, succulent tender shreds of beef; my vovó* Eva was an amazing cook. She never struggled with what to prepare for dinner and could whip up miracles with ease and zero planning. I remembered her making what she called ‘garbage soup’, where she would take whatever odds and ends were left in the fridge and make a soup that was never the same and always delicious. True to her poor Portuguese upbringing, vovó could never bear to throw out the left over chicken that my grandfather didn’t get around to snacking on, the ¼ bell pepper that wasn’t needed, or the soft potatoes under the sink that had sprouted but not rotted. Today, hers would have been a model for the modern eco-kitchen.
Fortified by her memory (and hoping I had inherited some sort of cooking gene) I set out to forage in my kitchen for garbage that could be transformed into a meal. First the fridge; the Brita water-pitcher seemed to laugh at me while I took out the margarine –great start. The door held an army of unhelpful salad dressings and a small cube of mozzarella cheese, which I placed next to the margarine. There were a few carrots in the crisper and I considered them a great find. Once I added an onion and some garlic cloves from under my sink I felt like I was doing pretty well. Moving on to the pantry, which I was happy to see was somewhat well stocked, I added canned kidney beans, caned peas, canned tomatoes, and a box of instant mashed potatoes to my rubbish heap.
I was excited now, the creative juices were flowing, and I was certain my dish would turnout to be a culinary masterpiece and family staple my granddaughters would be blogging about one day. I drizzled oil into a pot, diced the garlic and got it sizzling. I cut the onions into semi-circles and let them go opaque while chopping the carrots. I like to let the onions ‘open’ so I added about an inch of water to the pot and let it heat up. Then I started throwing in everything else; carrots, beans, peas and tomatoes. I didn’t add more water –garbage soup was my grandmothers’ thing– but the resultant mixture was fluid enough to boil and cook the carrots. I covered the pot simmering and started on the mash. Once I was confident the carrots were close to being soft enough, I mixed the two pots together creating a reddish-brown slop that somehow still looked appetizing. I placed the mess in a CorningWare dish, grated the cheese over it, and stuck it in the oven at 350º for about 20 minuets.
I really don’t know what to call my dinner last night, it wasn’t quite shepherds’ pie, it wasn’t quite stew. My best description would be stew-like hearty vegetable mashed potato melt, but I’m just going to lovingly name it garbage stew. Although not the culinary masterpiece I was going for, the dish more than satisfied my need for something warm, flavourful, and vegetarian on a cold winter’s night. It was substantial and my boyfriend enjoyed it, and I used the carrots and cheese that would have otherwise gone bad. I will never make this dish again, because that is not the nature of garbage stew. Next time it will be different, but that’s what is exciting about cooking isn’t it?
Vovó would think so.
*the Portuguese word for grandmother is avó, but neither myself, my brother, or any of our cousins grew out of our baby-speak version; vovó.