"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

There's Nothing to Eat (Pantry Management)!

Most of us with teenage children are probably used to them sauntering into the kitchen (at 11:30 saturday morning), opening a cupboard or the fridge, and moaning "there's never anything to eat around here!" As parents, we look into the fridge and see that in fact, it isn't bare at all. To adult eyes, it looks full of food.

In my house, I hear this all the time. Not just from my kids and husband, but from family and friends when they come over. Actually, what I hear is "How can you have so much food and nothing to eat?" Obviously, there's a difference between teenagers and other adults, who can in fact cook. The teenager probably means you are out of his favorite cereal and he considers it a hardship to have to eat his second favorite cereal. Grownups mean there is nothing to eat without having to take inventory of the pantry, sit down and consult a recipe book, and then spend an hour cooking.

Many of us are trying - for reasons ranging from simple thrift to religious encouragement to fears about the Zombiepocalypse - to build up some food storage. There are any number of reasons to have storable food on hand. But here's the thing - unless you are into MREs, stored food isn't generally amenable to quick snacking. For the most part, food storage is going to consist of dry goods like rice and beans, flour and sugar and salt; canned goods (home canned or store bought); and for those of us with a chest freezer, meat and other frozen goods. Generally speaking, heat-and-eat processed foods are not big on the home food storage list. They are too expensive.

Speaking of expense - even those of us who aren't into storing food may choose simple, unprocessed foods as a matter of economy. A homemade meal of - oh, say, chicken and vegetable curry with basmati rice and lentil dal is only about one tenth the price of the same meal bought in frozen form from Costco or Trader Joe's.

And some of us just like to cook, the old fashioned way. I admit, I am kind of a stick in the mud (I don't, for example, own a microwave) but I was highly amused when I was trolling the aisles of Trader Joe's and saw vacuum packed, fully cooked rice. What? People find boiling rice too challenging these days? Really?

Now, I have sympathy for people looking for a quick snack in my house. I am fairly far over to the crunchy granola side of the spectrum. Someone peeking into my cupboard is a lot more likely to find a home canned jar of pickled beets than they are a box of toaster pastries. In the freezer, it's going to be haunch of goat instead of frozen pizza. And my fridge is pretty much a solid wall of weird home farm products distinguishable only to me. I really don't expect anyone else to be able to tell the goat milk from the yogurt from the jar of clean white rendered lard. Six kinds of homemade cheese. Many of the things in there are pretty off-putting: someone recently threw away my ziploc bag of sourdough starter. I'm sad - it was from a 75 year old strain. But I can see why someone who didn't know what it was would throw it out. Then there's the kim chee sitting out on the counter, in it's second week of fermentation.

I don't mean to suggest we are purists - quite often there IS a frozen pizza in the freezer or some boxed mac n' cheese in the pantry. We have instant oatmeal for school mornings. My husband is prone to impulse purchases of Lucky Charms and Flamin' Hot Cheetos. But it's true more often than not that if you want to eat something beyond a bowl of yogurt with honey or an apple with cheese, you're going to have to cook. I happen to love cooking, but even the most enthusiastic chef gets tired of making two or three meals a day from scratch. Nobody wants every meal to be a marathon gourmet session. Preparing quick, easy, and relatively healthy meals from scratch without tiring yourself out is largely a matter of having a good pantry. I'm going to lay out for you my personal bare-bones pantry - the hardworking rotation that gets called upon over and over week after week. Most of these items are also food storage items; of course at any given time you will have fresh local fruits and veggies depending on the season and the produce of your own garden.

I tend to break up my pantry into a few categories. The most important is "staples." That is, the backbone starch that will be the bulk of calories in most meals. Here I am only listing those that are quick(20 minutes or less) and easy to prepare -

- white rice
- red lentils
- bulgar wheat (the base for tabouli. It needs no cooking at all, just soaking in very hot water)
- potatoes
- quinoa
- pasta (hooray for pasta!)
- canned beans of all descriptions
- corn tortillas

Choose your "staple" first - it more than anything else determines the character of the meal. You can use the same protein and seasonings with different staples and have totally different meals. The next category is "proteins." Again, only the quick and easy are listed here. A whole chicken is a great protein, but it's not what you want when your kids are whining that they are about to die from starvation. Most of these come in cans.

- tuna (love this! If you eat a lot of tuna, choose chunk light for the lower mercury content. If you eat a little, go for solid white albacore)
- canned chicken breast
- sardines (not anchovies - those come later in the flavorings section)
- canned shrimp
- canned clams
- small cuts of beef or pork for the freezer. Small thin cut pork chops or thin cuts of beef like skirt steak can be removed from the freezer and cooked without thawing.
- tofu. I like the shelf-stable extra-firm for cubing and pan frying.
- canned beans. These are both a starch and a protein.
- cheese

Before we move on to flavorings, pick a starch and a protein. It could be potatoes and cheese. Or pasta and tuna. Quinoa and tofu. Okay - moving on - the last category is flavorings. These are the bottles and jars that clutter up the back of the fridge. Stuff like chutney, ketchup, salad dressings, mustard, etc. Also I am including a few fresh items that I try to always have on hand. Here are the ones that I absolutely can't live without (in no particular order):

- olives. I buy those giant jars of kalamata olives at Costco, and we go through them, too.
- mustard
- capers
- lemons and limes
- garlic
- chiles, both fresh and dried
- parsley
- good quality soy sauce
- selection of oils, including sesame and something like walnut or hazelnut
- fresh ginger root
- cilantro
- hot sauce
- selection of vinegars
- a good selection of spices - all the basics like cinnamon and cloves and cumin, fennel, allspice, thyme, oregano, etc plus good quality blends like curry powder and harissa

Okay. Now we have some choices to make. We have the skeleton of the meal - starch and protein. Sometimes that choice will suggest your flavorings. For example, if we picked pasta and tuna, to me that cries out for a nice Italian treatment. Grab a pan, pour in some olive oil and saute some chopped garlic, olives, capers, and red pepper flakes. Pour over the pasta and tuna, then shower with minced parsley. Hit it with a shot of lemon juice and BOOM, there's supper.

If we chose potatoes and cheese, we might go in a couple of different ways. My family likes Mexican flavored fried potatoes, which would mean something like sliced chilies, garlic, cumin seed, and cilantro. But maybe we want kind of a European thing. Maybe fry your potatoes with onion, green cabbage, fennel seed, caraway, and finish with a little mustard and black pepper. Or, make a potato gratin. Thinly slice potatoes and layer in a lasagna pan with onions and a vegetable like fennel bulb, beets, or parsnips. Cover with cheese and pour over light cream to cover. Bake at 350 until browned and bubbly. I'm just making shit up, here.

Quinoa and tofu might suggest a far-east treatment. While the quinoa simmers, pan fry the tofu cubes in a little sesame oil along with garlic, green onions, hot red pepper flakes, ginger, and some kind of veggie - chopped kale or spinach sounds good. Toss with the quinoa and add soy sauce to taste. Maybe some lime juice or a shot of rice wine vinegar.

It helps to know which flavorings go together - the Mediterranean grouping, for example, of olives, capers, olive oil, anchovies, lemon, parsley, oregano, thyme, mild peppers... or the chinese soy, ginger, garlic, and chile.... the Mexican garlic, cumin, chile, lime, and allspice.... these blends are easy to get the hang of with just a little reading. I suggest the excellent "world of the east vegetarian cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey for all eastern hemisphere cuisines and Sherri Lukins (sp?) "All Around the World Cookbook" as a great, fun to read resource.

Have fun in the kitchen!


Olive said...

Great post Aimee.

Aimee said...

Thanks Olive!
I can't believe I forgot to put eggs in the protein section.

Denise said...

Oh and they have hard boiled eggs at the store too. And at easter time I noticed that they actually had colored eggs...I think people are way to lazy when they cant even boil an egg...what's it take about 10 minutes? Maybe they need instructions for this :)

Dea-chan said...

Yay for storage food!

Denise, the only good reason for packaged hardboiled eggs is: I was at the doctors office, and stopped at a little coffee shop in the complex. I bought a juice and two packaged hardboiled eggs. Granted, foresight at my own house would have prevented this...

sunset pines farm said...

that was an awesome post, Aimee. I feel the same way-to the untrained eye there is no food in my house, but if you asnd I got together we could whip up dozens and dozens of meals without even blinking,just by grabbing a few things from the pantry and the freezer.
My 12 year old says the same thing, too, by the way, mere moments after my return from my weekly shopping for stuff we don't grow or trade.

Nekkid Chicken said...

Have you tried grapeseed oil? Love cooking with it.

My kids favorite thing to cook is kinda veggie???

But, I just make a pot of rice for them. They heat up a can of Campbells cream of mushroom soup and dump it over the rice. We have this when hubby is on nights.

So easy, you crack me up.
(STILL) :O) Mal

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Fi said...

The lack of quick meals is a problem for people committed to eating real food. I have my standby staples for when I don't feel like a big cooking session but I've never thought to plan it out and teach people. Neat idea.

City Sister said...

I always hear "there's nothing to eat" from my husband and mother in law...When there are so many choices available (If you know what you're looking at) I don't know how he can say that.