Life lessons

038This experiment in clearing “clutter” from my freezer and pantry has led to some interesting realizations.  At nearly 2 months in, I am doing a much better job of using items and organizing items so that I use items before they go bad or expire.  Putting “like” items together is making a huge difference.  I had been doing some of this, but being more intentional and compulsive about it is making some difference.

That said, I’ve come to realize that some clutter is necessary.  So I’ve also started stocking up.

I have a friend who really practices a “just in time” method of inventory and she’s not buying lots of extra items to have on hand just in case.  I realized I was looking across a cultural divide when I recently sent her home with some extra arugula pesto and she said, “I’ll even be sure to get some pasta at the store to enjoy it.”  What?  Don’t you already have pasta in your house?  Several bags and boxes?  Different types and sizes?

I couldn’t imagine.  Luckily I don’t have to.

When I was eating from my pantry last month, having pasta and things like box chicken stock allowed me to come up with delicious dinners without a lot of thought.  I find it comforting to know that I’m going to have those kinds of things in a bit of abundance so I have flexibility “in the moment” without remember to buy those items at the last minute.  These kinds of things include rice/pasta/polenta, baking dry goods, boxed stock/broth, tomato paste and canned tomatoes (if I don’t have my own in the basement), several pounds of unsalted and salted butter (in the freezer!) and a spare jug of maple syrup.  I don’t want to ever run out of maple syrup!

I don’t need to survive an emergency disaster, but I do want to have some abundance to keep my cooking mojo alive and well and ready to go.

Onward.

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The arugula pesto, by the way, was fantastic!  I used a recipe from Williams Sonoma as my inspiration even though I didn’t really measure but instead trusted my eye and taste.  I also used walnuts instead of pine nuts because I always have walnuts but I rarely have pine nuts.  It was really nice for someone who loves the bitter-green-clean taste of arugula without any basil to mask the flavor.

163Tossed with hot pasta and an attempt at two ways of making poached eggs, it made a clean, simple dinner.

I used a bit of the leftovers to make a salad with pasta, corn, and feta cheese.  It was also quite yummy, but I did add extra lemon juice to brighten the flavors.

 

Frugal living

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My freezer clutter is like a storm — messy but beautiful.

A little ways back, I admitted to having a freezer hoarding problem. It turns out, it’s larger than that. I have a fridge hoarding problem. And a pantry hoarding problem. At root, I think, is a lack of a system of organization and therefore I forget I have things or don’t see them. After a while, it’s like they never existed and then they expire and then it’s wasted money.

It’s not a completely terrible problem because I often have plenty of things to make a last minute dinner, throw together a soup, or even entertain some friends.  Having a stocked fridge and pantry is the only way to be able to do that, so I’ve not vowed to go completely austere.  I don’t want to be a person with a super empty fridge and pantry, but I do want to be better and reduce waste.

I’ve resolved to get things cleaned out, organized, and then live conscious of what lives where when it comes to food.

The first step was committing to cleaning out the freezer in my basement. Like many organizational problems, it has to get worse before it gets better. In my case, the worse meant that my upstairs freezer space above my fridge has been super packed with items and they’ve come upstairs to hopefully be used. As a result, every time I go to get an ice cube, I feel a bit of dread opening the freezer door.

I hear or read statistics on food waste that make me feel sick. One I heard recently said something like a third of the food produced worldwide gets lost or wasted. I think I heard once that something like 30-40% of what we buy in the U.S. get wasted.   I forget the exact number, but I was horrified. I was also a bit proud of myself thinking, “as least that’s not me.”

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WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER: The upstairs fridge freezer is packed with refugees from the basement freezer as I try to use things up. If it’s not in front of my face, it doesn’t exist.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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Limited shopping: Buying new frozen corn for a soup recipe that will use many fresh veggies from our farm deliveries and some items from the freezer: bacon and roasted poblano peppers, tomatillos, onion, and garlic from late summer.

I am very, very good at using fresh vegetables I get from the farm. I compost the random bits and peels, but I’ve been trying to be very careful not to waste vegetables. In one way, if I do, I feel a bit like I’m wasting the efforts of the farmers I know who produced those veggies. In that way, the relationship adds an extra layer of accountability that I appreciate.

But my fridge has been a condiment graveyard. I had a raspberry mishap recently that forced a major cleaning of the fridge, but since it happened before work, the process was not as thorough in the putting back as it should have been. I spend many a day looking in my fridge thinking, didn’t I have a bottle of olives open in here? What is that weird looking jar in the back?

I made a public vow to my friend to mostly stop grocery shopping in March. I wanted to eat down the food from my freezer, I said. I did do some shopping – probably a normal person’s regular amount of shopping – and I did eat out, but it was considerably less. The up side was that this month I had some expensive plumbing, cat dental, and physical therapy to also pay for, so my plan gave me some space to take care of those things.

I did eat from the freezer. I used up a package of lamb on some “funky” but edible lamb burgers. My friends were game to give them a try, but Ira the dog ate the most! I used up a huge package of bacon making a very delicious casserole. It was so good, in fact, that I bought bacon a week later to make it again for a casserole party! I used up a random package of breakfast sausage in a couple of preparations. I did have to throw out some very, very, very freezer burned berries which was painful. Two bags were some amazing strawberries I remember eating fresh. My impulse, I’m sure, was to put some in the freezer as a treat in the winter. How sad, really, to then toss them over a year later – probably 2 years! I would have been better off eating them all until I was sick of them at the time. There’s something to seasonal eating and just keeping it in the season. I did find a pound of coffee that has been pretty delicious thanks to really good packaging and the fact that it was whole bean. I have a few more things to use, but I’m getting there.

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The delicious bacon casserole!

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The yummy casserole with more bacon for the greens…

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Making pancakes from the pantry/fridge rather than buying more bread for toast.

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Eating pea/mint ravioli I made by hand LAST spring before we get more peas THIS spring.

I still have a whole chicken in there that fills me with a bit of dread. I’m not sure what to do with it other than make stock, but then it’s jars of stock that go back in the freezer. Worse before it gets better…

Eventually it’ll be empty and I can defrost the massive ice block that is growing at the top. Once clean, I have vowed to do a better job of tracking how I use it and what I put in it. For one, berries are a bad idea since it’s too far away and they don’t last as long in the freezer as one would think. It would be better for things like meat or prepared things like cobblers or casseroles for easy weeknight cooking. I also need a sign or something on my fridge upstairs that reminds me what is down there and when it went in.

Baby steps.

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Making sure to use a winter squash before it goes bad: marinating in a citrus-herb dressing and then roasting in the same marinade. YUM!

It does force me to think about all of my food practices. So last weekend, I pulled every last item out of my fridge and finally took a look at what I had. I had some old stuff. I was embarrassed and horrified. There was an opened bottle of olives in there. Actually, five of them. I had at least three jars of various pickles – all in different locations. But the worst part was what was so old it had to be thrown away.

  • A jar of tahini – not an inexpensive item, and I bet I used about ¼ cup at most
  • Several jars of old jam
  • Some kind of pepper sauce from T. Joes. I bet that was years old!
  • An old bottle of Korean liquer. It might have been ok, but at some point…
  • And several other odd and random jars of old, beyond saving sauces or chutneys

It was horrifying. Looking at the jars in my sink before putting them in the recycling was a wake up call. I may have had a lot of creative or productive intentions when I made the purchases, but my careless use and waste of them was wasting my money. I work hard. I don’t want to waste my money. I don’t want to be a food waster, either.

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Defrosting “spanish rice” from earlier in the winter to eat with fresh greens from the farm.

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A risotto made with vegetable broth instead of chicken stock. This time: beet, celery root, and carrot. And more greens!

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Finally using some dried beans we got from the farm in summer — cooking them up and then putting them into a soup to eat now rather than freezing for later.

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A complete pantry/freezer meal: bolognese and frozen peas from the freezer over parpadelle from the pantry.

I don’t always recommend buying more stuff, but recently I was at a container store (not THE container store) in Portland. I knew I needed to get some items to help organize, so I picked up some shallow containers and some baskets with the idea I’d put similar items in them and it’d make it easier to pull out all I had rather than searching for items like I had been doing.

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One shallow box got used for brandied cherries from my friends and other sweet things like fudge sauce. Another got used for things like jam and other sweet jam-like sauces. One of the baskets got all of my pickles. Another got all of my olives. All of the mustard and mayo is now in the same area of the door and another section has all of the sauces that are still useable. I put all of the salsa in the same place on one shelf. Any random can of anything (tonic water, juice, soda) got put into another narrow and long container. I even moved a shelf that had never really worked to a higher location to make the darker space below it more visible and hopefully more useful. I’m still trying to figure out if that change is working, but at least I finally gave it a try.
I actually drank a can of guava juice while doing the project. One of the tonics got used before the weekend was over. I have no idea when either was initially purchased, but at least they got consumed and not wasted.

It’s been a good week since this happened. I’ve been making my toast in the morning with jam I had in the pantry that I bought in November. I finally opened it and decided to start using it up before opening more jars. I did open a jar of strawberry jam I made at least 2 summers for a little variety and to use it before it was also waste, but they both fit in the little container so it feels manageable. I clearly needed some boundaries.

I made a “victory” tuna salad which was a success on many levels: finished a jar of mayo before it could expire or spoil, used some of the pickles that had previously been hiding, and used a can of tuna from the pantry that had been bought ages ago.

It’s kind of crazy, I know, to be excited about such a simple thing that maybe lots of people do. I want to live a mind-full life, so this seems like a good place to start. I love cooking. I want to be creative. I don’t want to waste my food or my money.

At the same time, I like the feeling of having things “at hand” for making quick meals without having to worry about always running to the store.  I’m always likely to have lots of pasta.  I’m always going to have boxed stock on hand.  It’s just some of the other stuff where I vow to have less so I waste less.  To bring consciousness into my kitchen.

It’s a decent start.