“That’s it—I’ve had enough! I, of all people, should not be doing it this way!”
Ever have one of those enough-is-enough moments? As I was once again staring at my refrigerator with its combination of very fresh, slightly worn, and “what-are-you-still-doing-in here?” produce, leftovers, and half-eaten jars of miscellaneous mayhem, I hit the turning point.
“OK, family,” I announced. “I will not be buying one more ounce of food until we have eaten every single morsel of what we already have.”
My rant was spurred by my newly instituted budget austerities, and the obvious yet uncalculated cost of what I was about to throw in the garbage. I heard a staggering statistic once that something like 15 to 30 percent of our food budget goes in the trash: sporadically used condiments and half-eaten canned goods; good-intentioned yet left-to-rot produce; the two pounds of this or that “wonder food” that were purchased after reading about its healthful properties in O magazine.
I’ve also read that the average food budget per household is $175 per week. This sounds low to me, as I spend that much and we only have two or three folks eating—although I do tend to buy the more expensive stuff. Wasting, let’s say, 20 percent of $175 comes to $35 per week, or $1,820 per year…wow, you mean I could have those sweet high-heel boots I’ve been eyeing—plus a few outfits to go with them—if I just get better at food usage? I’m in! (OK, I’m not that shallow: I’ll also spend some of that saved money on more meaningful endeavors as well, but, really, you should see those boots…)
Anyway, after I calmed down a bit did a hearty refrigerator clean-out, I realized that I may have overreacted and we would not have to go through every last grain and bean in the house before buying some fresh produce. However, I was determined to see how far I could stretch what I already had in stock. It was Friday, the day I normally go grocery shopping. My grocery bills normally run $150–175 a week, depending on how many high-tickets items—such as my favorite balsamic vinegar or a bottle of wine—I need to restock, or buy fresh—such as a nice piece of wild salmon or halibut. This number used to be much higher before my oldest daughter went to college and there was a family of four eating at my house full time. Now it’s primarily my youngest daughter and I, with many meals also being shared with my partner, Jim. Still, I’m astounded by how much of my income goes to food—can anyone else relate?
So with a clean refrigerator and a good dose of determination, I set out to get creative with preparing meals using what I had. The first few days were easy, as the obvious spaghetti and sauce and stir-fry veggies over rice were employed. By day three all salad greens were gone and I was left looking at a motley crew of bits and pieces of once whole and vibrant vegetables. I was a bit concerned at this point, as I had to come up with lunches for my daughter to take to school—as well as making dinners for three. I decided a store trip was allowed to get some fresh arugula and only a bare minimum, to make sure my daughter was covered.
I ended up doing better than I thought. It was Memorial Day and our local co-op and natural foods stores were closed, so I ventured into a big-chain supermarket nearby. What luck! For $10 I bought a container of fresh arugula, three pieces of corn on the cob, a nice watermelon, and a can of tuna. I felt so victorious!
That night we enjoyed a wonderful kitchen-sink pasta dish complete with three different kinds of of pasta (to use up three opened bags), some local sausage I had bought the previous week at the farmer’s market and had frozen, a can of cannellini beans, and the last of the kale with an onion, garlic, and some sun-dried tomatoes. Oh, and I had some leftover pesto too. Not enough for everyone to put it on their pasta, but just enough to add flavor to the sauté of miscellanea!
Then came taco-salad night. We had sautéed corn and onions, which we added to a half pound of ground meat found in the freezer, canned black beans, guacamole (we cheated and had Jim bring over some from his place), raw cheddar cheese, corn chips, and canned salsa, all piled high on a bed of arugula. Another successful dinner!
To round out the week, tonight I’ll use the last of the veggies in the drawer (cauliflower, carrots, and a potato or two), two-week-old snow peas (luckily they were still were edible after a good trimming), and some freshly cooked chickpeas that I’m soaking as I write. I’m preparing a lovely coconut curry vegetable dish and serving it over rice. I have a bunch of chapatti flour as well, so why not use it? This will be great with a smattering of ghee!
Tomorrow I’ll visit one of our local farmer’s markets. I’ve made a list of meals we can create from items already in our pantry with only a few added fresh ingredients, so we’ll see what the local farms can supply. At the co-op I’ll splurge on some juice my daughter loves and lots of nuts for her daily trail mix snack, and only buy what I know we’ll consume this week. I’m shooting for a $100 food bill—and being $50 closer to some new heels.
So how’s your pantry?
To help clean it out I’ve included my Kitchen-Sink Curry recipe. Just add your own bottom-of- the-bin veggies and your creativity and let me know how it goes.
Serves 4 or more
2 tablespoons ghee or cooking oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
4–5 cups diced vegetables (e.g., potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli)
1 can chickpeas (optional)
1 can coconut milk or yogurt or cream or milk
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Cashews and raisins to garnish (optional)
Heat the ghee or oil in a large sauté pan at medium temperature until it start to shimmer. Add the mustard seeds and stir for 10 seconds, add the curry and cumin (or whatever spices you can find that smell like they will taste good together). Sauté 15 seconds and add garlic and ginger. Sauté for 1 minute, making sure the spices and aromatics do not burn. Add the vegetables one at a time, starting with the firmest. (If using potatoes it’s good to steam them for 5 minutes first to help them soften). Sauté each vegetable until it starts to become tender and add a pinch of salt; then add the next vegetable. When all vegetables are added, add another pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to become tender. Add the coconut milk or yogurt and canned chickpeas, plus another pinch of salt and simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Check for veggetable doneness. When to your liking, add lemon juice and garnish with nuts and raisins. Serve over rice or with chapattis.