Foodstuffs to Empty a Pantry

(or: Culinary Ingenuity, Part III)

This doesn’t sound like a thing anyone wants, does it?  The shadow of empty cupboards, or a fridge with nothing but old condiments inside, the wolf of hunger scratching at the door: it haunts us, even those who have never actually suffered from the want that image signifies.

On the other hand, most of us are also familiar with opening the fridge, finding it full of items, then shutting it while muttering “There’s nothing to eat!”  Whatever is there takes too much work to prepare, or there’s so many different types of food that none of it can be combined in an appealing way.

I’ve written before about peculiar methods of cooking food, and weird ways of using up leftovers.  But the current concern is, in essence, meta­-leftovers: the pearl barley my mom gave me that I never use, the two cans of peanuts I bought (one by accident) for a single Thai recipe, the shrimp in the freezer that get passed over for fresh chicken or ground beef or sausage.  The items that sit and sit and sit, because it’s easier and tastier to use lentils or pasta or the fresh vegetables of the day.

But, as with books, no food can sit forever.  There’s a built-in deadline of spoilage, and my own frugality tugs me to use it before I lose it.  This means you, 1.5 canisters of steel-cut oats!  And you, 3 sheets of nori in the corner!  And you, canned beans that I occasionally buy and rarely cook.

It’d be a lie to call myself any sort of minimalist, but one particular bit of Francine Jay’s book The Joy of Less that has stuck with me is her comment that when we get rid of whatever it is we don’t really enjoy, we give ourselves more room for what truly delights us.  Surfaces are to be free for activity.  The less that’s in storage, the easier it is to see what we’ve kept.  Decide what to keep, not what to throw away.

I’ve spent a few afternoons organizing my mom’s canned goods, cupboards, and pantry – enough to know that the deeper and fuller the storage, the harder it is to remember what exactly is in there.  What do I need to replace?  What do I need to use?  Do I actually have that particular spice or mix or can of water chestnuts, or did I make that up?

In my ongoing attempt to be able to see what is in my house, and, specifically, in my pantry, I’ve tried, of late, to use as much as possible of the items there before purchasing more.  This has resulted in reorganizing my canned goods to see whether I have the necessary for chana masala and rajmah chamal (over barley or bulgur, of course), making my sausage-lentil-kale soup with farro instead of lentils, and trying to figure out to do with all the pecans and walnuts I bought.  A tart dough full of nuts?  Homemade Nutella?  Some kind of eggless cookie?

This feels especially appropriate in the days leading up to Lent – and, as it happens, demands far more creativity (Chesterton would approve).  The bananas in the freezer were *intended* for nut bread, but since I have one last egg and no yogurt, I could make them into fake ice cream by blending them with cocoa powder, and use the aforementioned homemade Nutella to top it.  The bag of frozen vegetable scraps could make veggie stock for barley risotto.  There’s some shrimp and bacon lingering in the freezer, which could bulk up soups or pasta sauces.

It’s like I’ve finally come to understand what MFK Fisher and Tamar Adler were talking about.  But more on them later; I think I’ll go use my lone egg to make half a batch of crepes.

Culinary Ingenuity

At work, we have the standard Mr. Coffee Coffeepot. We also have a French press, which an associate brought in a few years back. She ostensibly brought it in so anyone needing an afternoon jolt, not a full pot of coffee, could make a quick cuppa. I’ve wondered since if she didn’t just want to unload an object taking up space in her home, as no one ever uses it to make coffee. The last time it was used as such was the time I grabbed still-warm water from the water-heater to make coffee during a power outage.

More frequently, I use the French press to bring the water-heater water to boiling point for tea. It probably resents me for being its only user and filling it with such existential angst (“Am I a coffeepot, or am I a teapot?  O, if my manufacturers were to see me now!  Alas”).

…less frequently, like today, I use it to boil broccoli, asparagus, or green beans for part of my lunch. It seems a bit odd, but it works better than microwaving my veggies, and hey, built-in strainer! I also maintain that it’s less odd than making salmon with a coffeepot, or bibimbop on a waffle iron, or grilled cheese sandwiches with a flatiron:

Do your circumstances ever call for cultural ingenuity?  Please tell me about it!