Last week I was talking to my BFF Joyce, who's been my BFF for 37 years, since before anyone used BFF, or IM, or a PDA or even a PC.
We are the kind of best friends forever who can admit to each other their worst sins, deepest fears, mortifying humiliations, unimaginable frustrations, and the occasional politically incorrect thought or George Clooney fantasy.
For the past few months, Joyce has been cleaning out her apartment. Cat-shredded furniture? Gone. Books so old the pages have fused together? Gone. Clothes that don't fit, phones that don't ring, cassettes for a long-abandoned tape player? Gone.
Old spices, older canned beans, mysterious frozen things in her pantry? Gone, gone, gone.
Yes, I confessed, I need to do that, too.
With the Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad in one hand, and this food storage chart in the other, and a flashlight in my third hand, and a copy of The Perfect Pantry database (hmm... is that geeky?) in my fourth hand, I set out to do a bit of pantry tune-up. The time had come to dig into the nooks and crannies of my spice rack, storage shelves, fridge and freezer.
The time had come to set some things free.
[I'm often asked about what's included in The Perfect Pantry. Each item must pass this test: it must be used as an ingredient; it must be something I use more than once; it must be either used in more than one way, or used in one way over and over again. So, while I always have Fresca, for example, you won't read about it here, but you might read about orange or pomegranate juice, because I use it in cooking.]
First, I packed for donation to our town's food pantry assorted jams, jellies, mustards, pasta, and other non-perishable souvenirs we've purchased but haven't managed to use in the past year.
Next, I looked for duplicates, and triplicates, and five-plicates (how much instant couscous do we need at one time, really?) and packed the extras for the food pantry, too.
I set aside all of the spices that are more than a year old, to test them for potency. Any spice in a jar so dusty that I can't see what's inside will likely be a candidate for the compost pile. I hope the deer and rabbits who feast on the composting table scraps appreciate a bit of seasoning with their food.
No surprise, but I found some items that no longer meet the test for inclusion in The Perfect Pantry. I'd kept them in my pantry, thinking I would use them more often, or more creatively.
These still have a place in the kitchen, but in a supporting or occasional role:
- Frozen artichoke hearts (haven't been making as much paella lately; for everything else, I prefer fresh artichokes)
- Sliced bread (I'm off most bread and on to oat-bran pitas, so I only keep frozen sliced bread for sandwiches for house guests)
- Maple-chipotle grill sauce (it was a fad)
- Cowboy ketchup (another fad)
- Curry leaves (can't find them very often)
- Dried galangal (a poor substitute for the fresh galangal rhizome)
- Fruit sherbet (other than stuffing it in lemons, or putting some on fruit salad, we eat it straight from the carton)
- Pickling spice (I have all of the individual components, and can mix my own)
Now there's room for some new things, like:
- Fino sherry
- Aji amarillo peppers
- Sweetened condensed milk
Best of all, I discovered, lurking in the recesses of the pantry, some ingredients that inspired me anew:
- Mexican chocolate: in chocolate pudding, maybe?
- Curry powder: a potato salad calls to me.
- Five-spice powder: a noodle salad calls to me.
- Frozen fruit: 'tis the season for fruit soups.
- Sherry vinegar: some panzanella variations?
- Chickpeas: I want to learn to love them. Truly love them.
The inventory in my more perfect pantry today stands at a slimmed-down 226 items.
Have you looked through your cupboards, spice rack, fridge and freezer lately?
What's out? What's in? What's new?
Adapted from the Stonewall Kitchen web site, this recipe will use the last of the Maple-Chipotle Grille Sauce in my pantry. If you don't have this, use your favorite sweet barbecue sauce. Serves 8.
1 tsp canola oil
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups zucchini, diced
1 cup red bell pepper, diced
1 can (4 oz) green chiles, diced
1 tsp ground cumin
1-1/2 cups fresh corn kernels
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or this time saver from the supermarket)
1 bottle Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce (or 11 oz sweet barbecue sauce of your choice)
8 (8") flour tortillas, warmed for 10 seconds in the microwave until flexible
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for 1 minute. Then add the garlic, and cook for 30 seconds. Add zucchini and bell pepper, and cook for 3-4 minutes, until soft. Stir in 1 cup corn, plus the canned chiles and cumin.
Spread 1/2 cup Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce in the bottom of a 13"x9"x2" baking dish. Mix another half cup of sauce into the vegetables. Place generous 1/3 cup vegetable filling in the center of a tortilla. Sprinkle with cheese and roll to enclose the filling. Place seam side down in the baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas and filling. Cover enchiladas with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup corn and remaining shredded cheese. Bake until heated through and cheese is melted, 30-45 minutes. Serve hot.
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