Mother of Invention

The pantry isn’t always well-stocked. Sometimes you have to improvise. We gave 12 staples to three chefs, let each add one ingredient of his own, and turned them loose.

Old Mother Hubbard

Went to the cupboard

To give the poor dog a bone.

When she came there,

The cupboard was bare,

And so the poor dog had none.

She went to the baker’s

To buy him some bread.

When she came back

The dog was dead!

Maybe Mother Hubbard could have checked her freezer, or even another cupboard. Surely she would have found something she could have put together for that old dog, thus saving herself all those subsequent trips to the undertaker’s, the alehouse, the tavern, the fruiterer’s, the barber’s and so on. An onion, a couple carrots, some meat? Salt and pepper. Water.

     The kitchen scramble—throwing together a meal with limited options—is so commonplace that it’s inspired a variety of online “pantry challenges,” in which cooks are given a list of ingredients and tasked with creating a dish. We thought we’d see what three Virginia chefs could do with the idea. We gave them a list of a dozen long-lasting ingredients the home cook is likely to have on hand: frozen meat, frozen vegetables, legumes, canned or sun-dried tomatoes, root vegetables, onions, garlic, pasta, rice or some other grain, eggs, flour, oil or butter, and seasoning—dried herbs and spices. (Water, salt and pepper are freebies.) Though we thought the list offered plenty of flexibility, we also allowed each chef a wild-card ingredient of his choice.

      Chefs, we found, are not used to a limited larder. Responding to an early version of the list that cited “canned or dried beans or legumes,” one chef balked at using ingredients that aren’t the freshest of the fresh. We told him that there was no requirement to use the whole list. “Celery?” asked another. “Not listed, but basic larder stuff.” We said no, although celery still found its way into two submissions (it seems that chefs are versed in the ways of blanching and freezing vegetables to carry them through the winter). The same chef asked, “Got milk?” We put our foot down at milk. We’re always running out of milk.

      The chefs—Jerry Bryan of Virginia Beach’s Coastal Grill, Patrick Dinh of Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg, and Philip Newton and Richard Houser of the Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview—created dishes ranging from humble and comforting to flat-out elegant. Guys? We’ll see you at your place around dinnertime.


Richard Houser and Philip Newton, The Harvest Table, Meadowview

Richard Houser graduated from Emory & Henry College with an art history degree and provided illustrations for Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. His 30-year career in the restaurant industry has allowed him to stay well fed throughout his artistic pursuits.

After growing up in the restaurant business, Philip Newton graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., in 2003. Four years later, he joined with Richard Houser and Dr. Steven Hopp to start the Harvest Table Restaurant, dedicated to sourcing menu items from local farms and suppliers. He lives in Abingdon with his wife, Allyson, and four children.

Meadowview Square, 276.944.5142,

1 bunch celery, diced

1 large onion, diced

1 large red bell pepper, diced

2 medium carrots, diced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1⁄4 cup all-purpose, unbleached flour

1⁄4 pound butter

1 whole roasted chicken, pulled from bones

(a 3-pounder should yield about 2 pounds of meat)

1⁄2 pound cooked ham, diced, or 1 pound cooked bacon

1 quart chicken stock (wild card)

grits, cooked

Over medium heat, sauté vegetables in butter until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the spices, and cook an additional minute. Stir in the flour and cook for another minute. Begin adding stock a little at a time, adding more as it thickens. Turn heat to medium-low. Add chicken and ham or bacon, and cook for 5 minutes. Salt to taste. Pour over grits to serve. Serve with dark beer—the darker the better.

Chefs’ note: This is a hearty chicken gravy with pork, vegetables, etc. that we serve over cheesy grits—one of our more popular dishes and almost completely local for us.

Editor’s note: We’ll try cheesy grits next time. It worked great this way.


Jerry Bryan, Executive Chef and owner, The Coastal Grill, Virginia Beach

Jerry Bryan has cooked with culinary luminaries including Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Dennis Foy and Craig Shelton. Since 1989, he’s owned the Coastal Grill, a 15-time Golden Fork Hall of Fame award-winner that features freshly caught seafood (the co-owner is a commercial fisherman) as well as beef, fowl, lamb, pork and more. The Grill is lauded for its straightforward, elemental approach to preparing regional products, high quality and modest prices. 1427 N. Great Neck Road, 757.496.3348,


4 lamb shanks

2 large yellow onions, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

3 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups red wine (which you’ll drink with dinner)

6 cups chicken stock (wild card)

6 ounces tomato paste

3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon dried thyme

salt and pepper

all-purpose flour

olive oil

Marinate shanks in olive oil and chopped garlic overnight. Salt and pepper them, then dredge in in flour. In a large Dutch oven, brown them in oil till golden-brown on all sides. Remove shanks and set aside—keep them warm. Add onion and thyme, and sweat for 5 minutes. Add celery and sweat 5 more minutes. Toss in the garlic and carrots. Deglaze with red wine, and then add the stock and tomato paste. Return shanks to the Dutch oven, bring to a simmer, cover, and bake at 300 degrees for 4 hours. Remove shanks, and strain the liquid. Return shanks to the liquid, and keep warm.


2 cups French green lentils, rinsed

1 onion, quartered

2 stalks celery, cut into 3-inch pieces

1 carrot, peeled and cut lengthwise into quarters

4 cloves bruised garlic

2 bay leaves

enough canned chicken stock and water to cover lentils (5050)

Place all ingredients in a baking dish and cover with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 75 minutes or until soft. Discard vegetables.

To finish, place about half of the lentils in a serving dish, set shanks on top, and ladle sauce over shanks. At the restaurant, we garnish with tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Enjoy with hearty red wine such as Rioja, Grenache or Shiraz.

Here’s what you do with the rest of the lentils: In a skillet, heat a bit of olive oil; sauté a tablespoon of chopped garlic; add about a cup of 1⁄4-inch slices dried chorizo and toss for a minute; add a cup of lentils and toss for a minute; add 1⁄2 cup stock and a handful of scallions and heat through. Salt and pepper to taste, garnish with a bit of parsley, and enjoy with cheap red wine.


Patrick Dinh, Executive Chef, Tuscarora Mill, Leesburg

Patrick Dinh began his restaurant career at age 12, sweeping and mopping the family deli on weekends. Soon after graduating George Washington University with a degree in finance, Dinh began cooking in fine D.C. restaurants. At age 25, he went west and, in 1989-90, worked with California cuisine pioneer Jeremiah Tower. His mother’s illness brought Dinh back east in 1991, and in 1992 he took the chef’s position at Leesburg’s Tuscarora Mill Restaurant, where he’s been ever since. Thanks to his love of food and his international aesthetic, “Tuskies” has been voted best restaurant in Loudoun County eight years in a row and also received a Top 100 restaurant designation from Washingtonian magazine. 203 Harrison Street, Leesburg, 703.771.9300,


1 cup all-purpose flour

2⁄3 cup milk (wild card)

2⁄3 cup cold water

3 large eggs

teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons melted butter

Blend wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix well. Let rest 30 minutes. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Ladle in 2 tablespoons crepe batter, and tilt the pan in all directions to coat the bottom of the skillet. Flip the crepe after about 40 seconds and cook an additional 30 seconds. Slide crepe onto a plate and repeat (crepes may be stacked).


4 Amish bone-in chicken breasts

salt, pepper

cracked pepper


onion, diced (1⁄2 cup)

carrot, diced (1⁄2 cup)

Debone chicken breasts, leaving the skin on, and season with salt and pepper. Reserve the bones. Press cracked pepper into the skin side of the breast. Set aside. In a medium sauce pot, sauté bones with the onion, carrot, a pinch of thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. After about 5 minutes, add just enough water to barely cover the bones. Bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes, then strain, reserving broth.


2 large onions, sliced into 1⁄2-inch half-rings

pinch dry thyme

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

broth as needed

4 tablespoons butter

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, caramelize the onions and thyme in the oil, stirring often—about 30 minutes. In a blender, combine cooked onions and just enough of the reserved broth to half-cover them. Puree until smooth. In a small pot, stir the butter into the puree. Season with salt and pepper.


8 highest-quality sun-dried tomatoes in oil, julienned very finely; reserve 2 tablespoons of oil

1 pound mixed frozen vegetables (peas, carrots, corn, broccoli), fully thawed and drained (very important)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1⁄2 cup diced onions

1⁄2 teaspoon garlic granules

salt and pepper

In a medium skillet and over medium-high heat, add oil, brown the onions for 2 minutes, add half of the tomatoes and the garlic, and cook 1 minute. Add thawed vegetables and sauté 1 minute. Add 1⁄4 cup onion puree. Fold everything together, then set aside to cool completely. Fill 8 crepes with about 4 tablespoons each of vegetable filling, and roll into a cigar shape. Place rolled crepes on a cookie sheet, rolled edge down.


Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat a large, oven-proof 12-inch skillet over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, carefully place prepped chicken breast skin-side-down and cook 4 minutes. Turn the chicken breasts and set skillet in the oven to cook for 15 minutes. At the same time, place the rolled crepes in as well. Heat the onion velouté (do not boil). After 15 minutes, check chicken for doneness.

to plate

Warm four large dinner plates. Place a 1/4-cup pool of onion velouté into the middle of each plate. Cut each crepe in half and at an angle (“on a bias,” we say in the kitchen) and arrange 3 or 4 halves on the plate. Set a chicken breast atop the crepes, and baste with onion velouté. Garnish with spots of velouté and the remaining sun-dried tomato slivers, and drizzle around some tomato oil. Serve immediately. Suggested wine: Corcoran Vineyards 2007 Viognier.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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