Life Lessons From Clearing Out the Pantry and Freezer

IMG_4015I feel most comfortable at home when my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator are full. It feels cozy and secure. I like having staples nearby to mix with my scores from the summer farmers’ market. It’s nice to be able to make dinner for a friend at the last minute with the never-ending supply in the kitchen. Sometimes, though, the bounty can be too much.

This summer in an effort to save money and reduce waste and make space and clear out, I have been playing a game to deplete the contents of my kitchen. I have also tried to limit my purchases of new food this summer. Except for a little birthday haul, I limited my visits to the grocery store and the farmers’ market. Sure, I have had some odd dinners, but mostly my little personal challenge has been a fun experiment in cooking and ingenuity.

IMG_4012Luckily, my pantry is mostly full of healthy and basic and versatile staples:  dried beans, dried fruits, nuts, lots of grains and pasta, dried red chiles, and some assorted canned goods. The freezer is full (still) of frozen green chile (it’s like the chile must be breeding and multiplying), lots of icy brown bananas, frozen vegetables, some chicken, a little fish, and vegetarian burritos that I make on occasion. Still, there are some mysterious odds and ends that make it difficult to ponder what to make.

I am stymied by a can of pumpkin in the hot temperatures of summer and a can of cream of chicken. Last week, I housesat for a good friend and he sent me a text saying that I should eat up the roast chicken and green chile that were in his refrigerator, lest they spoil. Tuesday night, I made an amazing tortilla soup (minus the tortilla) with the chicken, green chile, onion, a carton of chicken broth, a can of diced tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder (I was out of garlic, but had some really old garlic powder in the pantry). The recipe called for corn, but I substituted a can of hominy and that cleared some space on the second shelf in the pantry and will become a regular recipe in my repertoire, easy and fun to make and yummy and filling.

IMG_4013In my over-enthusiasm for fresh arugula, I was wondering what to do with the surplus before it spoiled. On the same night as making the soup, I tossed the arugula in the blender with olive oil and some old Parmesan cheese and made a boatload of bright green pesto. Pesto is one of my favorite go-tos as a solution for extra greens that you don’t want to waste. I hardly ever make pesto from basil, but from large amounts of spinach and extra arugula. You can freeze the pesto and then have a bright bit of green summer in the middle of a cold winter. I froze some of the pesto, but just this afternoon, I boiled water to cook some brown rice pasta (my excitement for this pasta and a mid-spring sale collided in buying four bags) and spooned a bit of the pesto into the warm pasta with a small scoop of water for an easy summer mid-afternoon dinner.

I love the economy of this. I love finding new ways to use up old ingredients, discovering new recipes that call for my greatest hits ingredients. In early June, I made my favorite chili in the crock pot and invited a friend over who doesn’t really cook. We poured wine and talked and she acted like I was a genius in the kitchen. I thanked her and then confessed that it was really more about spice, soaking the beans, and the magic of the crock pot. She took the rest of the chili home and said she feasted on it for the rest of the week.

I pull out a couple bags of green chile to thaw and will make chile rellenos later this week with some eggs and cheese. It’s soothing and healthy and fun to plan meals using just a few ingredients. I am getting back into shape and have been losing weight again. Happily, though, it’s been more about cooking and eating the way I like to eat: homemade, simple, basic ingredients, mostly vegetarian with a bit of chicken and fish. Variety helps, and that’s where new recipes or new variations of old favorites make all the difference. In the middle of a hot summer evening, sometimes cooking is the last thing I really want to do. That’s when a salad or a bit of pesto and pasta can do the trick.

I feel lucky that I have these ingredients and this food, when so much of the world’s people do not have the food or the wonderful problem of getting to use up extra ingredients. Yes, I have made a donation to the local food pantry, but I am encountering my own economic hardship, and so my summer pantry game has been a blessing. I know that families can have a hard time stretching their food dollars to provide healthy and nutritious and appetizing food, but my pantry and freezer are good anecdotal evidence that you can buy healthy food on a tiny budget. My arugula binge was due to a grocery store markdown of organic produce and frozen vegetables are a mainstay. Finding ways to use up every bit of a chicken and every scrap of produce is a challenge that I take on seriously and passionately.

I hate to throw away food, and so I freeze overripe bananas in their brown skins. I just found an article that suggested lightly thawing three bananas (and peeling them, in my case) and feeding them into the blender to make an alternative to ice cream. If it turns out well, I am eager to have some choices instead of my regular habit of using the plethora of frozen bananas for an addition to my protein shakes or loaves of banana bread (which I haven’t made in a while). Thanks to my shelf of cookbooks to pique my imagination and also to the internet posts from cooking blogs that answer my searches for “what to do with. . . ”

What peeks out to me from the pantry can be inspiring or uninspiring, depending upon my frame of mind. I realize that this is a metaphor for life. What we have:  our talents, our skills, our friends and family, our situations, is there. What we do with it and how we react to it is our choice. The lessons we learn can either be taken to heart or we can relearn them over and over again, until we really do learn.

I look in the pantry and freezer and I see possibility. I see abundance. I see the space that is forming as I use up the ingredients. I see freedom and the idea of making new choices; maybe I don’t need to have a completely full freezer and pantry at all times. Perhaps, I can learn to buy smaller and live leaner. Maybe, instead of yearning for what is not there, I can celebrate what is there. I can celebrate the love in friendship, while I learn to love myself and find peace with what is. I can invite friends over for dinner and celebrate the solo times that are quiet. I find new recipes and new approaches. I celebrate the old and reliable and realize that some things I have been doing quite well all along.

What is lurking in your pantry? What is your surplus? What are you making space for? Are you getting rid of the hatred and regret? Are you finding the peace that was there all along? Are you finding that a new recipe for familiar ingredients might be the reinvigoration that you need? How can we find a way to make something from leftovers and the blessings of bounty? How can we find a way to share instead of waste? How can we celebrate ourselves? How can we love ourselves truly and fully? How can we love others? Can we find peace with what is?

We can. We can start by deciding. We can look deep within and be okay with it. We can love, without reserve and condition. We can find new, even with old frozen brown bananas.


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