There was a time, 20 or more years ago, when I thought I had to have every ingredient listed in a recipe or I couldn’t make the dish. I’d either pass that recipe by, or I’d hit three grocery stores trying to find obscure things, like tarragon or pink peppercorns or sheep curd. Those days are long gone.
If I learned anything from southern hosts, it’s this: Use what you have.
I always marvel at cooks who consider recipe ingredients a good “suggestion.” They rarely have on hand spices like tarragon, because they know dill or basil is a good substitute—and far more common in recipes. They know any bouillon cube does wonders in heating up canned vegetables when fresh aren’t available. They interchange cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and allspice. They’re experimental on a whim, and I adore that.
I watch these same women step outside and return with a centerpiece made from whatever’s growing in their yards—daisies, herbs, a tender branch. A vintage glass ashtray becomes a wine bottle coaster. A funky glass holds a tea light.
It’s a gift to be unconcerned the fifth dinner chair came from the home office and doesn’t match. Who cares about your chair when you’re laughing and eating delicious food? Odd coffee mugs are great when you’re in a group and lost track of yours on the counter. You can’t miss the cup that reads “Ask me about my lobotomy,” now can you?
And you know what? It’s OK to use the jarred pasta sauce—whether you run out of time or just don’t have it in you to make it from scratch. No guest has ever complained about my Ragu sauce in the fanciest of recipes. Likewise, it’s just fine to serve macaroni and cheese as a side. It’s considered a vegetable in the South! Bonus points if you throw on a breadcrumb topping and bake it. Who could turn that down? Seriously.
So, if you’re hesitant to host because you think everything has to match or be fancy or look exactly like the recipe photo, I’d like to encourage you to let those thoughts go. Just invite someone over and use what you have. I can tell you firsthand, your guests will be delighted to take part in whatever you’re offering. Now, about that lobotomy…