This is an installment of NPR's ongoing Cook Your Cupboard, a food series about improvising with what you have on hand. Have a food that has you stumped? Submit a photo and we'll ask chefs about our favorites.
Harrison Gowdy of Dayton, Ohio, has developed a reputation among friends and family of liking everything and wasting nothing.
"Sometimes I'll even find things like Swiss chard dropped off on my doorstep," she says. And sometimes she receives foods that stump her.
To Cook Your Cupboard she submitted a photo of various Indian spices, a gift from her traveling sister; some guava paste from a friend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and coconut oil.
She discussed these things on Morning Edition with NPR's David Greene and with self-described home cook Mollie Katzen, author of the forthcoming cookbook The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation. Katzen, who specializes in vegetarian cooking, had a few suggestions:
It's a combination of guava pulp and often sugar and pectin. A popular item in Caribbean and Spanish cuisine, "its favorite food companion is cheese," says Katzen — such as manchego.
What To Do With It:
Take slices of Guava paste and equal parts cheese and wrap in tortilla, phyllo or empanada dough.
Place it between layers of vanilla cake batter and bake.
"Guava plus cheese or guava plus cake: ticket to popularity," says Katzen. "It's one of those easy things that makes you very impressive."
Spices From India:
Katzen suggests grinding them all up together in a coffee grinder devoted specifically to spices.
What To Do With Them
"Grind them up and call it curry powder," says Katzen.
Or put the spices in a tea ball — and infuse basmati rice with the spices as it cooks.
It's solid at room temperature, but it's not a trans fat, says Katzen. It also has a high smoke point, which basically means it's good for frying if you want your food really crisp.
What To Do With It
Use it as an oil for making popcorn. ("It imparts a very subtle coconut flavor," Katzen says.
Fry the homemade curry powder in the coconut oil and fry battered vegetables in it.
Bonus Beauty Tip:
Katzen says that if you have tamarind pulp with seeds, don't trash them — they can be used for facials. Follow that up with some coconut oil, which, she says, is a great moisturizer for skin and hair.
If you have culinary conundrums, join the Cook Your Cupboard project! Go to npr.org/cupboard and show us a photo. You'll get guidance from fellow home cooks, and you might even be chosen to come on the air with a chef.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is time again for Cook Your Cupboard. This is our food project where you submit photos of food in your kitchen that you're not sure how to cook up, and then one lucky submitter comes on our air and gets some advice from an expert. Today, we're joined by Mollie Katzen. She's author of the famous "Moosewood Cookbook," and she joins us from Berkeley, California. Mollie, good morning.
MOLLIE KATZEN: Good morning, David. How are you?
GREENE: I'm very well. Thank you.
GREENE: And we should say, you are among the most famous chefs, in terms of cooking vegetarian dishes. Is that right?
KATZEN: It's true, although, I never refer to myself as a chef. I refer to myself as a home cook. But if you want to call me a chef, please feel free.
GREENE: You're OK with that.
KATZEN: That's right.
GREENE: Okay. Well, great. Well, we have the submitter, who we chose, on the line with us. Harrison Gowdy, are you there?
HARRISON GOWDY: I am. Hello, David. Hello, Mollie.
KATZEN: Hi, Harrison.
GREENE: And Harrison, you're joining us from Dayton, Ohio.
GOWDY: I am. I'm in lovely Dayton, Ohio today.
GREENE: And I understand it, you kind of pride yourself on being an adventurous cook.
GOWDY: Yes. I cook what I have, and I don't like to waste things. And I have a few items right now that I don't know what to do with.
GREENE: Let's get right to it, then. What are the items? Tell us what has you stuck.
GOWDY: Well, I do get a lot of gifts from friends of food items. So I had a friend...
GREENE: Oh, they bring you their leftover items to cook.
GOWDY: Sometimes, you know, I'll even find things like Swiss chard dropped off on my doorstep, but...
GREENE: I need a friend like you, Harrison.
GOWDY: My friend lives in Ft. Lauderdale, and she went to her market, and one of the things she brought me was guava paste.
GREENE: Guava paste.
GOWDY: And I'm...
KATZEN: In every American kitchen, there should be some guava paste.
GREENE: Who can live without guava paste?
KATZEN: Guava paste, it's kind of hard, right? Would you say it's sliceable, your version of it?
GOWDY: Yes, it's sliceable.
KATZEN: Its favorite food companion is cheese. And so the easiest thing to do, if you have a favorite empanada dough or if you like working with phyllo, is to just take slices of the guava paste and combine them with probably an equal amount of cheese, and wrap it up in your favorite wrapping. Bake it till it's crisp, and just serve it as, like, a little appetizer or turnover.
And another really fun thing to do with guava paste is to take your favorite vanilla cake, put the cake batter in the pan, half of it, and then lay on some slices of guava paste, and then put the rest of the batter on so it becomes this kind of surprise pink filling. It gets kind of soft and jammy.
GOWDY: That sounds wonderful. That sounds very easy to do.
GREENE: OK. So that's item number one. What's next?
GOWDY: My sister went to India, and she brought back spices for all of us. I have...
KATZEN: Oh, yum.
GOWDY: ...whole nutmeg, which is easy to use, some tamarind...
KATZEN: Is it, like, a glob of tamarind pulp?
GOWDY: It is. It's a glob. Yes.
KATZEN: OK. Can look at it and see that it's got seeds and membranes in it, or is it pure pulp?
KATZEN: OK. Are you a tactile type? Because the fun thing is to get in there with both hands, you know, roll up your sleeves and kind of squeeze it through your fingers to get out the seeds and the veins. Then you've got your tamarind pulp. And, to me, the best thing to do with tamarind pulp is to make homemade Pad Thai.
And, you know, everything else in the Pad Thai would be pretty easy to find. The thing about tamarind is...
GOWDY: Yeah, we have great groceries stores, and I know we can get all the stuff. I've made Pad Thai before, so it'll be really fun (unintelligible).
GREENE: You're a Pad Thai expert already.
KATZEN: Oh, you are - I'm talking to the sage here.
GREENE: You're ahead of the game.
KATZEN: So this is - but I just want to also mention that tamarind is way sour, so don't...
GREENE: Is that a good combo then? I mean...
KATZEN: ...lick your fingers.
GREENE: ...Pad Thai for dinner, and the guava cake for dessert?
KATZEN: Absolutely. Do it.
GREENE: All right. Okay. Guava paste, Indian spices, and the last on the list?
GOWDY: Coconut oil.
KATZEN: Ah. That's a kind of in item right now. But coconut oil is interesting because it is the only vegetable saturated fat, but it's not evil. In fact, there are some nutrition researchers who actually feel that coconut oil is a healthy oil. It's got a very mild coconut flavor. It's very good for frying. My Jewish grandmother would be very confused by the fact that I actually use it for frying my Hanukah latkes.
Coconut oil has a very high smoke point, so it's one of those oils that you can take to a very high temperature without it kind of breaking down and being unstable. So if you want to fry something really crisp, it fries beautifully.
GOWDY: That sounds wonderfully. Thank you so much for the great ideas.
GREENE: So Harrison, what is - what's your game plan, here, after hearing all of this?
KATZEN: Well, I'm definitely going with the Pad Thai and then the guava cake, because that sounds lovely to me.
GREENE: Well, this has been fun. Cook Your Cupboards submitter Harrison Gowdy joining us from Dayton, Ohio. Harrison, thanks a lot. Happy cooking.
GOWDY: Thank you.
GREENE: And Mollie Katzen, her cookbook coming out this fall is "The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation." Mollie, thanks so much.
KATZEN: Thank you, David. And bye-bye, Harrison.
GOWDY: Bye. Thank you.
GREENE: And before we go, let me tell all of our listeners that you can submit your own baffling kitchen items with a chance to come on the radio with a chef. Head to npr.org/cupboard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.