One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do you stay inspired to create new recipes?”
In the movie version of my life, I tell people that inspiration hits me when I’m strolling a market overseas, or rereading old cookbooks while I sip tea on my comfortable couch. But the actual answer is, sometimes I don’t stay inspired. Sometimes I have no ideas at all, and start furiously mapping out plans for a second career, Googling how long it would take to become a botanist.
In these moments, I find it most useful to do anything but try to be creative. I repot a plant, take a hot yoga class, attempt minor accounting work. But where I often land after these activities is at home, sans groceries and extremely hungry, turning to my (admittedly well-stocked) pantry. Here, I let the primal, emotional need for something delicious take over, rather than my intellect, which demands that every opportunity for making dinner somehow relate to work.
Turns out, the primal, emotional need almost always involves beans. Probably the brothy, spicy variety, loaded with bitter greens. I will not apologise for my predictability.
Depending on how much time I’ve got, the beans are either dried (preferred!) or from a can (realistic!). But regardless, they are cooked in lots of olive oil with whatever combination of fried onions, shallots and garlic I have on hand (I’m big into the “and” here). I might add some tomato paste or a few anchovy fillets, but here, I’m adding harissa, which I like to caramelise in the olive oil just as I would tomato paste, and some fresh or preserved lemon. If you want the spiciness but aren’t stocking harissa paste, red-pepper flakes, a little bit of cumin and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste will get you close.
From there, I simmer everything in chicken broth because it’s what I keep around. (You can use vegetable broth if you are vegetarian or vegan.) The final texture of this dish can be soupy or stewlike, depending on how much you cook down the beans — I like to sort of smash them with the back of a wooden spoon, encouraging their creamy interior to thicken the broth.
Once the beans are as soupy or stewy as I please, I add an entire bunch of broccoli raab or kale, which I always have in my refrigerator because I love my dark leafy greens in any and all applications. Whatever I’m working with, I strip the leaves from the stems, chop the stems and add them to the beans as they simmer. I toss in the leaves at the very end, just to wilt them down.
This satisfyingly creamy bean stew is lovely and perfect all on its own, but you can also garnish it like a bowl of chili. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s a fridge clean-out free-for-all, but I do use this as an opportunity to use up the last of that odd bit of feta or pecorino, whatever fresh herbs I have lingering (parsley, cilantro, mint, dill), and sometimes that last egg (fried and crispy, or medium-boiled and sliced, please).
This pot of pantry staples might not seem like much, but it is a nice reminder that it’s OK to empty yourself of ideas from time to time: The act alone might lead you to your next good one.


Spicy White Bean Stew With Broccoli Raab
Not quite a fridge clean-out situation, this extremely flexible stew can use up much of what you’ve got on hand. It’s vegetarian by nature, but feel free to start the pot with sausage, slab bacon or leftover ham if you’re feeling more omnivorous. If you can’t find harissa, use tomato paste and a pinch of red-pepper flakes for spiciness.

Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 40 minutes

1 large bunch (or 2 small bunches) broccoli raab or kale, thick stems separated from the leaves
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 medium red or yellow onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons harissa or tomato paste
Red-pepper flakes (optional)
3 (15-ounce) cans large white beans, such as cannellini, butter or great Northern, drained and rinsed
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 preserved lemon, thinly sliced, or 1 lemon, halved, for squeezing
2 ounces feta or other salty cheese, such as queso fresco or pecorino, crumbled
1 cup parsley or cilantro, leaves and tender stems
Fried or medium-boiled eggs, for serving (optional)


1. Tear broccoli raab or kale leaves into bite-size pieces and set aside. Chop the stems into about 1/4-inch pieces; set aside.

2. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add garlic and onion, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and sizzled at the edges, 4 to 6 minutes.

3. Add harissa (or tomato paste and a pinch of red-pepper flakes), and stir to coat in the oil. Cook until the harissa is a nice brick red colour, the sugars start to caramelise and the oil turns a nice vibrant fiery orange colour, about 2 minutes.

4. Add beans, and season with salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, crush a few beans to release their creamy interior.

5. Add the broth and reserved stems, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until you’ve reached your desired consistency (less time for a brothier soup, more time for a thicker stew), 15 to 20 minutes.

6. Add broccoli raab or kale leaves and preserved lemon or lemon juice, and stir to wilt the greens. Season with salt, pepper and more red-pepper flakes if you want it spicier.

7. Serve with feta and parsley, and with eggs, if you like.