Lessons from my mom: how to make "something" out of "nothing"

It's dinner time, and once again I discover myself a little unprepared. No worries. I have a pot of stock on the stove and some leftover chicken; I'll just make soup. I always have vegetables around for soup.

Except when I open up the fridge I remember I forgot to order groceries at our co-op last week. The only thing I have in the fridge besides the chicken is two-thirds of a head of celery and a single stalk of broccoli. I don't even have frozens or leftovers I can throw in. Oops.

Going out for dinner is not an option. What am I going to do?

As I was growing up, my mom was the mistress of making "something" out of "nothing"--pulling together meals seemingly out of thin air. I've inherited her uncanny ability, which comes down to an intelligently stocked larder and a good understanding of tastes.

I had broth, celery, broccoli and leftover chicken. With such a limited ingredient list, what could I cook?

One of my favorites is clear Asian soup; there are hundreds of different varieties, from Vietnamese pho to Japanese dashi. When I was pregnant with Josie, one of my cravings was for Chinese chicken noodle soup at a particular dim sum place in Old Town: clear golden broth, chunks of chicken, thin, firm egg noodles and a variety of barely-cooked Chinese greens. A little garlicky, very gingery, entirely soul-satisfying.

I can't eat there any more; those noodles are wheat, and the soy sauce has wheat, too, but I recreate that soup gluten free all the time. That's the taste profile I decided to go for, and the broth made it easier--when I'd chucked everything in the pot with the chicken carcass I'd thrown in a big piece of ginger that was about to go bad.

After a quick reconnoiter, I found Asian rice noodles (not pasta) in the back pantry and yellow onions in the potato drawer. I strained the broth and put it back in the pot with the chopped celery and broccoli, thin-sliced half-rounds of onion and the diced chicken.

While the veggies were heating through, I boiled some water in the tea kettle; when it was ready, I put the rice noodles in a big bowl and poured the hot water over them. In about ten minutes they were soft and it was time to eat. I put the noodles in soup bowls and ladled the broth, chicken and vegetables over the top.

It was delicious, as good as if I'd planned the whole thing! And in a way, I had. I'd paid attention to my mom and put her method to work. I didn't learn how to make this particular set of ingredients work from her, but knowing what flavors work together and keeping a variety of unperishables at the ready just in case? That's what I learned from her. She'll be pleased to know I was paying attention. :)

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