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.  And so on.

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, and so on.

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.

Throw the Lumber Over, Man!

Yesterday was the day of ashes, the reminder that we are all of dust and one day shall return to it.  So begins the penitential season of Lent, a time for reflection, repentance, and sacrifice.

Today a plethora of people are setting out into a variety of wilderness, a time of self-abnegation.  Some give up foods, be they meat, sweets, other snacks, or alcohol; some avoid the use of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, or various other sorts of social media; others set out to devote more time in prayer and pondering.

This time of sacrifice underscores the truth that man does not live by bread [or meat, or Internet, or sleep, or work, or play] alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.  So many of the objects or activities surrounding us, demanding us, consuming us could [should] be set down.

On that note, here is a longish excerpt from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), wherein the three men are planning what to take on a river-boating trip.  It expresses some of my dad’s maxims, but with more vigour:

The first list we made out had to be discarded. It was clear that the upper reaches of the Thames would not allow of the navigation of a boat sufficiently large to take the things we had set down as indispensable; so we tore the list up, and looked at one another!

George said:

“You know we are on a wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

George comes out really quite sensible at times. You’d be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man – all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness – no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine – time to listen to the Æolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heart-strings around us – time to –

I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.