"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Whatcha Got Stew (Good Food From the Pantry)

I don't know about you, but around here, we go through some pretty lean times at the end of most months. My husband is a free-lance mechanic, and that seems to be a boom-or-bust business. Sometimes we are flush, and sometimes we are flat broke. There is an inverse linear relationship here - when we have plenty of money I complain about his long hours, and when we are all enjoying lots of Papa time, there's no money in the bank. Ah well, such is the life of the self-employed, and it has it's compensations. I'm not complaining. Why, if we decided to, we could take off for Mexico next week and not have to worry about his having a job when we came home. We ask permission from no man, and that kind of freedom is worth a lot.

Nevertheless, it is true that for a couple of weeks every now and then, we don't have the cash to just trot down to the grocery and buy whatever we feel like for dinner. In point of fact, as you who have been following this blog for some time are well aware, trotting down to the store for a ready-made meal is not really our style. In my ideal world, I would be cooking almost all our meals from the raw ingredients I have managed to put by from what we produce ourselves here on our own land or traded for with our neighbors. There will always be exceptions, of course - we don't grow any staple grains, for example - but it gives me a big fat feeling of satisfaction and pride to be able to open the chest freezer and pull out a pork roast or a leg of kid for dinner. To tell my kids to run out to the henhouse and grab me a couple of eggs so I can bake a cake. To head to the garden and pick a mess of greens to make a risotto.

But in these Northern climes, we live by the seasons, and this is the long fallow season. Late winter and early spring is the leanest time of all. Perhaps if I were very knowledgeable about wild foods there might already be wild food to glean - I bet nettles and fiddlehead ferns are not far off - but surely not enough to keep a family of five fat and sassy. No, if we are to live off the sweat of our brow at this time of the year, it will be the sweat of last year's brow, carefully preserved. And while it is true that I still do have plenty of last year's meat in the freezer and even a few quarts of frozen berries and some canned cajeta and assorted pickles, the preserves I am personally responsible for would make a piss-poor meal at this point. Shoulder of goat with blackberry sauce and canned beets, anyone?

Well, yeah, if we absolutely had to. Luckily, we don't. Like most of you, I live off the fat of the grocery store. My trouble is actually a problem of abundance rather than poverty. At the end of the month, when I am short of funds and scrounging around in the depths of the fridge, I often find myself with too much of something rather than too little. Maybe I bought green peppers or collard greens on sale and now am faced with having to use up a rapidly aging surplus. Maybe there is a drawer full of slightly flaccid potatoes or sprouting onions. I think everyone who shops for food and tries to manage a pantry (hello, fellow housewives!) regularly finds that they need to take stock, use up the usable and toss the unusable. The challenge is to turn an unappetizing pile of slightly past it's prime produce into a delicious meal that your family will not just grudgingly accept but actually consume with relish.

I think the secret to being able to do so is on having a well stocked pantry. I won't try to lay out what constitutes my own basic stocked pantry in this past, since I already did that just a few months ago.
There's Nothing to Eat (Pantry Management)!
This post will give you a good idea of how to lay in a good, shelf-stable, varied food supply capable of creating a wide variety of quick to prepare meals with minimal fresh ingredients. Of course, the main variable in whether or not you will be able to create appetizing meals out of limited pantry stocks is your own personal knowledge base. This is where I justify my compulsive cookbook purchasing. Although I rarely actually follow a recipe verbatim, I do love to read cookbooks in bed, as though they were novels. I credit this habit with helping me to create a giant mental rolodex of ideas suitable to using up almost any combination of leftovers.

For example, today my search of comestibles turned up the following items that I decided must be used or tossed:

several pounds of carrots (I had bought a ten pound sack on sale)
a head of sprouting garlic
two softish yellow onions
some wrinkly ginger
a lot of limp green onions

Deciding what to do with such a large quantity of carrots, I had a few ideas - I could grate them for salad. I could grate them and make carrot cake. Neither of those options would use up all the carrots - nor would they provide a solid meal. So I decided to make carrot soup. Mature carrots (never buy "baby" carrots - they are just adult carrots carved down into "baby" shapes) are a great source of carbohydrates as well as various vitamins. There are at least dozen varieties of carrot soup, and a short consultation of my pantry led me to a soup that would also make use of the rest of my sad old produce.

African Peanut Soup is one of those wonderfully adaptable foods that can be endlessly adapted to absorb any number of ingredients. Most traditional recipes use yams as the orange-colored starch, but long simmered carrots will work just as well. All I needed from the pantry was a big spoonful of peanut butter, some frozen stock (if I had had chicken stock I would have used it, but as it happened, what I had was a half gallon of shrimp stock. Anytime you make anything with shrimp, for Pete's sake get shell on shrimp and simmer the shells for stock), a can of diced tomatoes, and a quart of milk. Again, as it happens, I had surplus milk because of the baby goat who died yesterday. I had asked the grapevine, and the grapevine had provided me with a couple gallons of fresh raw milk. Now that the poor baby is dead, I have a surplus of milk. The green onions would provide a pretty, sharp flavored garnish, but if you have cilantro or parsley those would work just as well.

As it happens, last night's meal provided me with some leftover white rice. The freezer will provide a couple of pork chops. Put it all together, and that, my friends, is a fine, fine meal. In February, no less.

African Peanut Stew, Pantry Style

-ten or so full sized carrots, roughly chopped
- one or two yellow onions, roughly chopped
- three or more cloves of garlic, smashed
- an inch or two or ginger root, peeled and chopped
- a tablespoon or so of frozen orange juice concentrate, or juice of two fresh oranges
- a few tablespoons oil

saute the above vegetables in the oil until onions are translucent. Add one quart or whatever you have of homemade stock - whatever kind - chicken, shrimp, mushroom. There's nothing wrong with bullion cubes if that's what you've got. I like bullion cubes as a long-term pantry staple, and I use them regularly. It just so happens that this time I had some frozen shrimp stock. Also add the orange juice concentrate and a cup of water.

Simmer gently until carrots are softening - about 20 minutes. Remove vegetables to a blender canister with a slotted spoon. Blend well with a quart or so milk. Pour back into stockpot. To blender canister, add two big spoonfuls peanut butter (maybe three ounces?) and a can of diced tomatoes. Home canned tomatoes would be fine. If you have tomato paste instead, use about one third of one of those small cans, and add 12 ounces water. Blend well. Add to stockpot. Mix well with a whisk. Add salt and pepper to taste. When flavors are well melded, ladle into bowls and shower with minced parsley, cilantro, green onions, chives, or whatever you got. If you don't have any fresh herbs, add fresh ground black pepper, red pepper flakes, and maybe some lemon juice.

If you happen to have some leftover white rice or a baked potato, ladle the soup over the top. This is good and nutritious. It makes great use of pantry staples like peanut butter, stock, frozen orange juice concentrate, and onions and garlic. My kids ate it up tonight with great relish, and I was happy knowing it was not only cheap but also highly nutritious.


Denise said...

You know that you can freeze the ginger and onions. I freeze my ginger whole and just grate/slice off what I need. The onions I just dice up and freeze. You can use the onions in soup and anything baked.

WeekendFarmer said...

Sorry about the loss of the baby!!

For the goat milking...maybe you can find someone on CL to do the work of milking in exchange for some fresh milk?

Hope Spring is very near to you : ) !

Snohomish Shepherdess said...

It's either feast or famine, isn't it? I try to make and freeze half of favorites when in feast mode, to pull out when we down shift into famine mode. I try. And like you say, this time of year for families growing their own foods, those frozen and home canned goods have lost some of their appeal. I can just hear your kids wailing, "Oh no, not beets again!" With mine, it's the frozen caulifower. Spring cometh, and none too soon, if you ask me!

berryvine said...

I know what you mean about lean times at the end of the month. This soup sounds wonderful!