You know the scene all too well: The door of your refrigerator is open and there you stand, peering into its depths. There's food in there, of course. You've got some beets, some chocolate sauce, Parmesan cheese, some milk, some butter, pickles, mayonnaise, capers left over from a party recipe, carrots beginning to grow hair.
Minutes pass as you stare at the food -- a blank and somewhat worried look on your face -- while you wish that somehow things would magically rearrange themselves into the ingredients for a meal.
Arthur Schwartz knew that scene, too. As restaurant critic for the New York Daily News, he'd come home those nights when he wasn't reviewing to face a half-empty refrigerator and a half-empty pantry. "I'm out almost every weekday night eating in restaurants, but there are plenty of nights when I just can't face a waiter," he says. "I end up staying home and rustling up whatever I can rustle up."
Yet instead of meeting those moments with despair, he rose to the challenge. Aided by the expertise gained from being a food writer and editor for over 10 years, he was able to create a repertoire of emergency recipes. And now his culinary inventions born of necessity have just been published in a new book, "What to Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House to Eat" (HarperPerennial, paperback, $15).
Give him a jar of peanut butter and he makes peanut butter soup. Give him some dried fruit and he turns it into dessert by steeping it in boiling hot ginger tea with a sliver of lemon rind. Give him a carton of eggs and he hands you back a serving of quick skillet souffle.
Give him a box of spaghetti and he's fearless. He may start off with one of his favorites, spaghetti all'Amatriciana made with tomato sauce, bacon, onion and hot pepper. "I make that a lot, even for company.
"And when I really just do something simple for myself, I would tend to just make spaghetti with garlic and olive oil. With some hot pepper in it. I love that. That's as basic as you can get. And I have been known, when there really has been nothing in the house to eat, to just have mustard on spaghetti," he adds laughing.
Need more of a demonstration? About a month ago he found himself faced with the need to find something to drink for a visiting tot, but there were no soft drinks in the apartment. He took maple syrup out of the refrigerator, mixed it with seltzer water and made maple soda. The child liked it and all the grown-ups liked it too, especially when he added a bit of bourbon to theirs. "They wanted a real drink so I added bourbon. Well, that was fabulous, a maple bourbon soda."
Too many people, he says, think of their cupboard as just a place to store items they use with their fresh fish, fresh vegetables, chicken and meat. "They don't think of their cupboard as a storehouse for food. They don't really think of making a simple dinner out of the foods they can store in their cupboard. But basically here you have all the high carbohydrate foods like rice, pasta, grains -- all the things we're supposed to be eating more of."
The secret, Mr. Schwartz says, is to plan for emergencies. He has learned to stock his cupboards and refrigerator with staples to forestall those moments of panic in the kitchen.
"I'm pretty methodical about this," he says. "I never go to the supermarket without buying certain things whether I need them or not. Somehow they always manage to get used. There's always an emergency."
The recipes in Mr. Schwartz's book are arranged by ingredient: anchovies followed by apple followed by bacon, bananas and barley -- ending with tortillas, tuna and yogurt. "If you had every ingredient listed in the table of contents, you probably wouldn't have to leave the house for a year," he says.
But he has singled out some ingredients as staples. Here is his list:
* Spaghetti or macaroni. "That's basic. There's always something you can put on it."
* Milk. He keeps it on hand for his coffee in the morning, but also uses it for making sauces, for baking and as a soup base.
* Eggs. "They leaven, they lighten, they bind. They serve a lot of functions besides being delicious just to eat on their own," he says.
* Olive oil, butter or vegetable oil. "I know everybody's watching fat these days but you have to have some kind of fat in your life to cook with. I choose olive oil above the others. Besides being healthy, extra virgin olive oil has a lot of flavor. I would always have butter around, too, even if it was just a stick in the freezer, in case I wanted to bake something. Also I think eggs taste so much better made in butter."
* Vinegar. "I think you need vinegar to perk up and give an edge to dishes that might otherwise be kind of flat. And rice vinegar tastes different from cider vinegar which tastes different from wine vinegar. So with a few bottles of vinegar around, you've really got a lot of flavoring possibilities."