We, like many others, have been using Instacart for the past few months to do our grocery shopping for us. This experience has not been without its challenges.

Pete’s Fresh Market. In response, Instacart delivered some odd choices; for instance, we’d asked for four pounds of bananas and got four bananas; we asked for feta cheese and got ricotta (because cheese is cheese, right?).

Last week, we again put in another big order, including a request for four figs. Instacart delivered four PINTS of figs, about 10 times as much as we needed? What to do?

Carolyn, ever inventive, made an incredibly delicious sugar-rosemary fig cake, using both our surplus figs and our surplus ricotta. It was a fabulous fig cake, and Carolyn would never have made it if Instacart hadn’t, once again, messed up our order.

This experience of utilizing surprise ingredients reminded me of a series of videos that won a James Beard award for friend and Fooditor publisher Mike Gebert. The video series was called “Key Ingredient,” and it involved a string of exchanges wherein one Chicago chef gave another Chicago chef an off-the-wall ingredient – like, for instance, tomato leaves or fish sperm – that the other chef had to use in a recipe.

Because Instacart delivered some ingredients we didn’t ask for (e.g., ricotta and figs), we had to come up with some way to use these unasked-for items, these “key ingredients.”

For the sugar-rosemary fig cake. Carolyn found a recipe online, modified it a little (by, for instance, cutting the recommended sugar in half), et voila: an excellent way to deploy ingredients we hadn’t expected to show up on our doorstep. The rosemary was a beautiful addition, and it gave the cake an herbaceous tingle. Reducing the sugar was a good strategy as almost all recipes we’ve found have directed us to use way more sugar than we really want to eat.

The cake didn’t use all the figs we had on hand, which were starting to get overly sweet, edging on over-ripeness, so Carolyn whipped up a remarkably delicious fig compote. Compote-ing is a beautiful way to use almost-turned fruit; it’s a medieval technique that basically requires just the fruit and some sugary liquid (with herbs and spices added to taste).

To make our compote, figs were cut into small segments, with some added maple syrup, orange zest, and bourbon barrel-aged Madagascar vanilla. Sitting in the refrigerator overnight, it became a kind of jam we smeared on homemade bread for breakfast. Wonderful stuff and immeasurably tastier than any jam we’ve ever purchased.

We’re eager to get our vaccinations and get back to doing our own shopping, though we probably will continue to use Instacart one or more times before we achieve immunity. And now, we’re psychologically prepared to let un-ordered “key ingredients” inspire us to prepare new foods. This experience with the unexpected was kind of challenging, fun, and surprisingly delicious. We’re even kind of eager to see what new, unexpected ingredients will arrive with the next Instacart order.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...