Here in California we love to brag about our abundance of wonderful seasonal ingredients and how that makes good food easy. That's more or less true, but I have to confess that I've also always had a sneaking admiration for those cooks who can whip up something from nothing.
Sure, it's wonderful to be able to just pick up a sack of Ojai Pixie mandarins and a box of medjool dates and call it dessert. But you've really got to admire someone who can take a couple of wilted zucchinis, a sprouting onion and some canned tomatoes and turn that into something delicious — the real-life equivalent of the proverbial stone soup.
I've got my own version, and, in fact, it does start with something hard as a rock. In a battered plastic bag in the deepest recesses of my refrigerator, I've got a hidden stash of gold: rinds from used chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Whenever my wife finds them, she pulls them out and asks disbelievingly: "You're saving these?" And probably 98% of people would have the same reaction.
But those rock-hard rinds are flavor bombs, packed with umami. Simmer them in a pot of beans, in a soup, even in a tomato sauce, and you probably won't actually taste Parmesan, but you'll certainly taste the difference.
Those rinds can also take on a more starring role. One of the trending preparations in restaurants right now is Parmesan broth — at its essence, simmered Parmesan rinds. It makes a wonderful light sauce with a subtle nutty, buttery flavor that serves as a complementary backdrop to all kinds of spring dishes.
There's a little more to it than simply boiling rinds, of course. I start mine with a combination of chicken broth and water — half and half is a good starting point. Most canned stocks and broths are better appreciated for the flavors they imply rather than the ones they actually possess. And in this case, even a good homemade stock would be too strong by itself. You want to taste the cheese, not the chicken.
With that I simmer some sliced garlic and a handful of whatever herb trimmings I have from prepping the other ingredients. Again, this is an Italian-style broth, meant to be subtle.
It's not quite something from nothing, but it comes pretty close.