When our Auntie Tesmelina would harass waiters to wrap even the tiniest scraps of leftovers into a doggy bag, we kids would roll our eyes. But when those morsels joined leftover bread in her delicious Italian rebollita, or when she would ply us with our favorite creamy rice pudding made from uneaten Chinese-restaurant rice, we’d excuse her obsession with thrift. “She’s from the old country,” Mom would say, as if that explained it.
Years later, as a fanatical cookbook reader, I came to appreciate the ingenious way all the aunties from every culture could turn the doggy bags of life into something exquisite to eat. Often the best dishes, whether redneck chili con carne or a Chinese clay pot of duck tongues and black fungus, were cooked in a single pot, saving scarce fuel. And although there was always plenty of room for improvisation, eventually the best impromptu creations were repeated, refined and turned into reproducible recipes that became the comfort foods of the world.
Old-country one-dish meals served in Los Angeles can taste authentic because we have factories pumping out all sorts of products, from Vietnamese hot sauce to Persian herb mixtures. And enterprising farms near the city also grow and supply produce like the edible chrysanthemum leaves found in Korean or Japanese cooking, and the epazote for Mexican dishes.
There is a major difference, though. Back home, many one-pots used grains, beans, pastas and other inexpensive ingredients to stretch protein, or even substitute for it. A pot of beans and rice gussied up with only an ounce or so of meat might be the entire meal. But here in the states, with protein foods abundant and cheap, the dish could be embellished with half a chicken or a lamb haunch. A perfect example is the Romanian staple mamaliga. Some might view this polentalike cornmeal as Oliver Twist–inspired fare, but bourgeois Romanians acquired a taste for it during WWI when forced to rely on peasant fare. In the hardest times, they ate it plain. At Mignon in Hollywood, L.A.’s longest-running Romanian restaurant, an order is simply two mounds of mamaliga topped with chunks of feta-style brinza cheese and a large hillock of sour cream. The dish can have the same addictive lure as macaroni and cheese, or bread pudding. Mignon’s waiter suggested that for only $1 extra I could have a smaller portion of the cheese-garnished mamaliga with four nicely made stuffed cabbage rolls. In the American style, that’s what I ordered, though this meal wasn’t cooked in just one pot.
Looking into the kitchens where one-pot meals are prepared, I noticed three basic styles. The first, soup or stewlike dishes, may incorporate food also cooked for other meals. The Asian a.m. favorite congee, a soupy porridge of cooked-down rice, is one example. Some of the best congee comes from Har Lam Kee, a sliver of a place in Monterey Park. Lines out its door every morning bespeak quality in this most competitive of restaurant areas. The secret is intensely flavorful broth and meticulously fresh toppings, some 15 in all, including Shatin-style fresh chicken, fresh seafood and the inevitable “pork offals.”
A second one-pot style relies on preserved foods. Every cuisine has its root cellars, its pickle jars and its smokehouses. Old-time German farm fraus would cure sausages and shred and salt several hundred cabbage heads for the sauerkraut they used all winter long. These would end up in dishes like the hunter’s stew, served at the charming and inexpensive Golden Duck in Chatsworth. The sweet mellowness of the dish results â from blanching the kraut and a long simmering with sautéed onions, juicy Polish-sausage slices, little bits of beef and a touch of sweet paprika.
In southwestern France, where peasants refined the “confit” as a way to preserve poultry in its own fat, they could depend on duck and goose, plus cured sausages, to create bounteous cassoulets from their larders. Mimosa’s cassoulet is a beautiful casserole of preserved (as in dried) white beans supplemented with preserved duck, onions cooked in duck fat, sausage, and a little pork. It is a delicious example of how cooking today can, in one serving, use the same portion of meats that might have once fed several families.
Lowly salt-cod, the preserved, dried fish that once stocked the larders of African slaves, shows up in many Caribbean and South American one-pots. At the Brazilian Itana Bahia, bacalhau de iaia is slowly cooked in a coconut broth with a perfect balance of potatoes, red and green pepper, onions, and tomatoes. At the Jamaican Kingston Café, the cooks make catadupa green by stewing the soaked, desalted cod with onion and fresh cabbage.
The third one-pot style, cook-at-the-table hot pots, is warm-and-fuzzy comfort food for people from cold-climate Asian countries. The steaming pots were once sources of heat as well as nourishment, when families gathered around them at the table to cook and to eat. Cooks of the household loved serving these dishes, for here was a rare opportunity to sit throughout the meal and visit with everyone.