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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Empty-the-Pantry Challenge

Husband and I both love to cook. On our second date, I went to his house for dinner, and he made me a delicious Thai curry -- with sauce from scratch. We spent our years in graduate school cooking together, cooking for each other, having dinner parties, and generally enjoying food every chance we could get.

Fast forward 10 years, and we have two children, two full-time jobs, and far less time every day than we used to. We still love to cook, but on a daily basis, we tend to do what I think of as "cheater cooking." We'll throw rice in the rice cooker, chop up some chicken and veggies for a quick stir fry, and then pour on some delicious organic sauce from Trader Joe's. Or we'll rotisserie a chicken and just have steamed veggies on the side. On "ambitious" days, he'll make a big pot of Tortilla Soup, which involves mincing all the random bits of peppers, corn, onions, or other appropriate veggies we've got lying around, sauteeing some chicken, and tossing it all together with crushed tomatoes, water, spices, and (of course) tortilla bits. It's a very good soup, but hardly up to our previous standards of curried squash or whatever else we used to do that was more complicated.

Please understand, I'm not criticizing your cooking here, simply lamenting the falling off of our own creative outlet. We are both toss-and-taste cooks. Which means that although we like to read recipes a lot, when it comes time to cook, we do so by feel and taste more than by measurements (except when baking): we toss into the pot whatever seems right, simmer a while, taste, and adjust with more tosses.

What all of this has translated to lately is that we buy a lot of shortcut ingredients -- packages of Japanese curry sauce cubes, jars of Mojito Marinade, organic pasta sauce, bottles of plum chipotle dipping sauce, and so on. Ever on the lookout for things that will enable us to cook lots of different kinds of foods quickly, while not compromising our food standards (no hydrogenated oils, no high fructose corn syrup, no empty calories except as an occasional treat), we have a tendency to buy lots of interesting looking jars that slowly make their way to the back of the pantry or fridge as new jars full of interesting flavors get put up front.

So, our fridge and pantry (and freezer; we're always stocking up on promising cuts of meat / poultry / fish that are on sale) are full to bursting. It's annoying. They're so full we can't find anything, and then we just end up buying a fourth can of coconut milk -- and no one needs that much coconut milk with no specific plan to cook a single recipe that calls for coconut milk.

I know that the food organized among us recommend weekly meal plans to combat this wasteful purchasing. But toss-and-taste cooks, even ones who find it necessary to prepare an entire meal from scratch in under 20 minutes because the children are melting down before their very eyes, get all twitchy when you suggest making a weekly meal plan. It interferes with their cooking mojo, which depends on spontaneity. (Nevermind that the kids are eating eggs and tortillas for the second time this week because of lack of time to cook something more complex. The last shred of our former love-to-cook selves is contained in this illusion of spontaneity. Let us keep at least that.)

So, because we are also a bit controlling, and we both love a good bargain, I started an Empty-the-Pantry Challenge with myself. (Yes, I know you have to be pretty type A to enjoy a contest with yourself. Whatever. I'm an oldest child.) The best part of this challenge's design is that it fosters creative cooking while at the same time reducing the excessive grocery hoarding that plagues our cupboards. Here are the very simple rules:

(1) Grocery shopping happens only one day a week. (Previously, we'd stop by the store while out doing other errands at least three times a week. This led to a lot of impulse purchases.)

(2) The only items that may be purchased on grocery day are fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and staples that have been emptied in the past week or won't make it till the following Monday (e.g. flour, soysauce, coffee). In all cases except staples, purchases should reflect quantities that can reasonably be eaten in a week. After all, it's not like we won't be back at the store next Monday.

(3) The purchase of any more sauces, marinades, simmer mixes, fabulous flavor bases or novelty ingredients (dates? a can of escargot? we have both in our pantry right now!) is completely forbidden until the ones we've got are used up, even if this takes until next January.

(4) The purchase of any more meat/poultry/fish of any kind is completely forbidden until every last shred of a given protein food currently in the freezer is gone. So, no buying hamburger if there's any other cut of beef in the freezer, even if the hamburger is gone.

(5) Meals will continue to be well-balanced.

Now: COOK!

It's amazing what has happened as a result. For six weeks, I bought not a single bit of meat, fish or poultry, not a single sauce. I cut our grocery bill in half every week. I can see the pantry shelves. And, we got creative again. It's become a fun challenge to see what I can rustle up using a box of corn muffin mix, black beans, one pork chop, and two huge ripe red peppers. (The answer? A cumin-spiced stew, that also contained onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro and tasted great with a side of cornbread.) Now that I've been doing this for a while, the grocery bill has climbed up a little, as I have to buy some meat and canned goods. To help avoid the impulse buys ("it's on sale, buy several!"), I'm trying hard to make the first grocery shop of the month be the one where I restock the freezer and canned goods; then all other shopping trips follow the rules above. This way, things don't languish in the freezer for months, and I don't overbuy every single week.

So, if your grocery bill is getting you down, or you're tired of those packages of unidentifyable meat that end up at the bottom of your freezer, or you have 8 packages of half-used pasta on your shelves (which we did at one point!), try this little challenge. You'll save on gas by not running constantly to the store; you'll save money by eating what you've already got; and you might even find yourself inspired to pull down a cookbook again in order to find a recipe that features some ingredient you forgot you ever had.

But don't say I didn't warn you if an unintended consequence of this is that you have to spend two hours scrubbing down the inside of your refrigerator once you can actually see it again. I'm not the one who let the apricot jam dribble down the back of the shelves behind 28 jars of pickled something and three half-eaten loaves of bread. Honest. I'm not.


It All Started With a Kiss said...

Okay, I read "mojito marinade" and lost all concentration. That sounds YUMMY.
So what DO you do with cans of coconut milk? (I have 4)

MommyTime said...

Try Thai curry recipes. I also have a great soup recipe that is curried pumpkin (or dark orange winter squash like butternut or acorn) with coconut milk added. There are also some great desserts. Try epicurious.com, where you can put in a key ingredients and search recipes that way. Have fun!

MIQuilter said...

Hmmmm.... I wonder where in our genetics this is coded.... cause I do this periodically too! I'm currently working on all our weird bits and pieces to get down to a manageable level before the big G comes to live with us. I have a sneaking suspicion that he might not be quite as into the 17 types of curries we have the ingredients for at home as we might be. Hopefully, since cooking for himself for a few years, he has gotten a BIT more adventerous than he used to be. I remember him visiting about 3 years ago. Husband went to panera and got a bakers dozen bagels and some cool cream cheese for breakfast one morning. When offered a bagel, G said, "I've never had one and I don't think I'm going to try it at this point". Seriously. A BAGEL. We can only hope.

cy said...

my pantry has the opposite problem...i probably need to buy more sauces (though i do have 8 opened boxes of various types of pasta!).

OHmommy said...

We cook the same way.

Every week I shop the outer walls of the store for fresh ingredients. Once a month, I venture inside for our staples.

I never have a menu planned and when I have a taste for something I head over to epicurious where you can type in what you have and they will find something.


LceeL said...

Can I come to your house to eat?

Kimmylyn said...

I am with Iceel.. when can you come over and cook for me??


Fawn said...

Sounds just like our house, our freezer, and our cooking style. But we come by the stocking up honestly - when we lived 2.5 hours from the nearest decent grocery store, we got used to creating a little "store" for ourselves...

For "it all started with a kiss": Thai curry is a great suggestion for using coconut milk - I love coconut milk! You can also use it as the liquid for cooking rice to give it a lovely different flavour (and toss in a bit of cumin and ginger, too). A couple of months ago I threw some frozen pork chops into a casserole dish with a can of black beans and a can of chicken broth, stirred in some Chinese red chili sauce and stuck it in the oven until the chops were done. Damn, that turned out to be good on rice! Why haven't I made that again?

Mrs F with 4 said...

I can honestly say I've never knowingly used coconut milk...

But I'm up for the challenge.

And at least the refrigerator has been scrubbed to within an inch of it's life (can you hear it calling for mercy?) prepatory to The Mother's Inspection.

foolery said...

My husband cooks Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. The girls and I have one night of Stupid Food and one night of Reasonably Stupid Food on the two nights my husband is working. Then I cook from scratch on weekends. Lately, though, my scratch cooking is getting less and less adventurous. Oh well -- they love Meatloaf Night better than almost anything!

My pantry is well-stocked with staples and spices, but not so well-stocked with adventuresome foods. Maybe that's what I'm doing wrong.

mommypie said...

Oh, I SO need to do this. You would absolutely freak out if you saw MY pantry.

Jen @ Daily Mish Mash said...

This is a great idea and so I'm joining the challenge with you! So you can stop being a control freak and having a contest all by yourself now. :)

Lisa said...

What did you just say... You had me at the Thai curry. Just started drooling there.

We need to clean out the fridge and panty somethin' fierce. When you mentioned stuff stuck to the fridge shelves, I had to wonder if you snuck into our house and opened the fridge? Cause that's exactly what ours looks like!

Amber said...

Ugh. Just today I vowed to start using more things from my pantry. I tried to use some evaporated milk and turns out it expired two years ago.


mommythe said...

the easiest tastiest sautee i've ever done recently is korean bul go gi. all you need are a couple of ingredients and the right cut of meat all thrown into the pan, leave it until it simmers, taaa-daaa! if you want i can give you the recipe. as much as i am tired and over-worked, i can NOT eat good food.

Lipstick said...

Loved this post-I am currently doing the same thing with my pantry....my food is way more basic (embarrassingly basic...I ended up with 3 jars of pickles but no coconut milk).

lattemommy said...

I'm totally jealous that your husband cooks with you. Mine doesn't have a clue in the kitchen. He can barely make the kids a grilled cheese. I'd love to have that camaraderie in the kitchen to help boost my enthusiasm around cooking dinner.

I love your challenge, and I admire your creativity!

MommyTime said...

Lipstick, you say pickle I say coconut milk -- it's all the same; it's about hoarding the completely useless novelty ingredient that you forgot you had. :)

Jen, Lipstick, Mommypie, Lisa, Amber, and Mrs F (and anyone else interested) please jump on the challenge train. If I had any kind of tech savvy at all, I'd make some kind of button or something, and then create an actual challenge where there could be some sort of prize for the person who went the longest time without buying a pantry item (without the caveat that everyone in the house is still eating there). But, alas, I have no such skills. Still, I welcome companions! Keep me posted on your progress.

MIQ, a BAGEL? Hilarious!

OhMommy, why am I not surprised that you figured this out already? :) You're a savvy one.

Lceel, and Kim, and It all started..come on over any time. Just give me two hours' warning first (see today's cleaning post...)

Mrs F no doubt wins the clean fridge award for the coming month (Mother is there three weeks, correct?), so the rest of us are out of that competition. Rest easy on your laurels, Mrs F! And eat an extra bitter chocolate muffin as a reward. :)

MultiplesMommy said...

Hey MommyThe, I would love, love, love the bulgogi recipe--I've only ever had it in a restaurant, and loved it!

I, too, suffer from the overstock syndrome. And what is it with coconut milk??? I think I have 3 cans. I DO have an awesome thai chix recipe that I use it for, but otherwise, it just languishes in the pantry! I think I'll try your challenge, too, MT.

Steph said...

We have been trying to do he same thing the last couple of weeks so far so good. Thanks for the post!

Betsy Bird said...

I swore I wouldn't comment on this post until I'd finally gone through my refrigerator to see just what I had. The door had been open so long it was about 60 degrees in there, so I've taken a break, but so far I can report I am in desperate need of a recipe that uses pickle relish, fish sauce, and Swiss cheese. Any suggestions?


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