Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The cleaning stage of grief

I've never spring cleaned like I spring cleaned this last week. Focus of mania: the pantry. Loose birthday candles, light bulbs, jars of chutney, kitschy Fire King china bought in thrift shops, precious china bequeathed by deceased loved ones, gag food gifts (canned spotted dick), bags of Chinese mushrooms, rock sugar, bonito flakes, teff flour, vases, fondue kits, and skewers had accumulated in such unruly masses that I often couldn't find things I knew I had. And so I bought more -- more Chinese mushrooms, rock sugar, bonito flakes, etc. 

The other day I took everything out. I sent the kitschy china and much more to Goodwill, and threw out any foodstuff that looked like it might kill us. Then I cooked an enormous pot of ancient beans and rice for the chickens, and put everything else that was remotely edible in a bin. See photo at top. It doesn't look like much, but it is much.  The goal is to empty the bin, and to that end I have been improvising our meals. I've been more creative than usual in my cooking. Also, not coincidentally, less successful.

Here's what I made the other night. 

Pasta puttanesca
The puttanesca was, in fact, very successful. I made it without looking at a cookbook so I can legally print "my" original, totally unoriginal recipe: Saute one big chopped onion and 5 cloves chopped garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Add one 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, 2 TBS capers, 2/3 cup wrinkled black olives that you have torn into nice, meaty chunks, 5 oil-packed anchovies that have sat in your fridge for several years and which you have roughly chopped, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, a pinch of red pepper flakes, lots of black pepper, and salt. Simmer until it looks like sauce (25 minutes) and toss with a pound of boiled spaghetti. Huge hit. 
Strawberry jam cake. I made many jars of strawberry jam last spring, labeled them prettily, then forgot to give them away. They have been cluttering the pantry and making me sad. It doesn't seem polite or generous to give away year-old jam and as a family we only eat so much jam, ergo: strawberry jam cake.

Here's the mediocre recipe I concocted using spice cake as a rough guide: Cream a stick of butter with 1/3 cup white sugar and 2/3 cup light brown sugar. Beat in 3 eggs until combined. Add 1/2 cup about-to-expire Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 cup strawberry jam, and 1 cup flour. Pour into a buttered 9-inch pie plate and bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. It's extremely damp, sticky, supersweet, fragrant, and a rich, nutty brown -- not the best cake that's ever crossed your lips, but you could d0 worse.

Palm sugar ice cream. Thought this might complement strawberry jam cake. Coarse and gritty, palm sugar has a low glycemic index and an earthy, even dirty, quality that I kind of like. But the bag I bought last year had overstayed its welcome, so I devised this way to get rid of it: Heat a cup of cream and a cup of milk in a saucepan. Whisk 6 egg yolks with 1/2 cup palm sugar and whisk in some hot milk. Pour mixture back into saucepan and, stirring constantly, cook gently until it forms a custard. Strain. Cool. Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla. Freeze in your ice cream machine. Or, better yet, just put the palm sugar straight into the trash. The putty-colored ice cream had a funky flavor and no one, including me, wanted to eat it.

Fruity teff cookies. My niece Stella helped me create these cocoa-colored mounds of horror.
We started with a standard shortbread formula, then substituted teff flour for some of the white flour. (I've had great success baking with teff, so I was genuinely hopeful.) Stella requested raisins, so we added "tiny raisins" (a.k.a. currants, of which I have several pounds) and, in an attempt to produce a fluffier cookie, an egg and some baking powder. The cakey blobs we pulled from the oven a short while later had a repugnant sandy texture and tasted salty and altogether vile. 

So there you have it. An off-road cooking adventure like this is fun every once in a while, and helps me appreciate recipes.


  1. What a wonderful post! I am much more inclined to just pitch everything into the trash. Kudos to you!!!

  2. I am sad, too, over your strawberry jam. I am in the same situation (I think, I haven't looked yet) with some marmalade, both an orange and a meyer lemon with vanilla bean.

  3. Good for you! You are far better at this than I am. When I clean the pantry I end up buying more things to empty what's in there (which is why my pantry is rarely cleaned out).
    If you have lots of walnuts hanging around, the Smitten Kitchen Walnut Jam Cake might be an excellent opportunity to justice to the jam. This is so easy I cooked it for my inlaws while we were having dinner. This is the kind of cooking feat I usually can't pull off.

  4. Fun post! It's sort of like the home version of Iron Chef America. ("Your secret ingredient is... palm sugar!" I recently found out that the chefs actually know the secret ingredient in advance, so don't feel bad that yours didn't turn out well.)

  5. I have pantry-cleaning envy, and can see how that would be a constructive way to channel your grief. I'm glad the puttanesca, at least, worked out.

    Any chance you might try the method the woman in the NYT last year practiced in the wake of her sister's death, of reading a book a day and blogging it? I do very much miss your book reviews, and hope I don't offend by writing this.

  6. I have never been able to muster up enthusiasm for puttanesca, but I must admit that yours sounds delicious. I will attempt.

  7. ok this sounds mean but im just commenting! but i actually thought that the ice cream was the best thing that you made tht night besides the pasta

  8. Year-old jam is fine! Especially if you didn't put the date on the label! But even if you did, that's the whole point of canning. Give it away proudly.

  9. this is wholly unlike you tipsy. but not unwelcome. a confirmed recipe zealot all of a sudden flying blind. i love you label of "off-road cooking." it sounds like the title for a cookbook about cooking not out of cookbooks.
    what ice cream is thanksalot referring to? did i miss that in the post?

  10. I love this post. The idea that you will use up everything in the box before buying new reminds me of a column years ago by Mike Royko. He would buy a cart full of groceries and only restock when all food was gone. he had some descriptions of the things he made when he was down to only a few things, it was hilarious!