Friday, July 11, 2008

Empty the Pantry Challenge

Thank you to Andrea (aka MommyTime) for this awesome post. Andrea, you've inspired me!

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.

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