Eating Down Fridge: Guest Blogger Julia Watson



Julia Watson is an ex-foreign correspondent turned freelance food writer with her own Web site, eatWashington. She's also written on food for The Washington Post and NPR and has published two novels, "Russian Salad" and "American Pie" -- neither of which are about food. Her article on eating at French night markets will appear in the May issue of Gourmet magazine. A veteran fridge and pantry hoarder, Julia dishes up advice for the uninitiated in her essay, below. She'll join me Thursday at 1 ET for the special EDF chat.


It was the Sunday brunch gazpacho that made me realize there’s a skill to serving leftovers that’s not just about the food. It’s about how you’ve stored it.

I’d made a batch of Vietnamese iced coffee to serve with the chocolate mousse cake. And saved it in a juice bottle. I’d also made a pale peach-colored gazpacho that I saved in another juice bottle. You don’t need telling that the two are not compatible flavors when poured together into the tureen in a moment of pre-lunch panic.

My fridge is like a small boy’s closet. Things topple out when I open the door. Those little bowls from Chinese supermarkets are to blame. I bought them for the fabulous Chinese feast I’ll never give and they’ve become food coffins, filled with leftovers under a crime scene drape of plastic wrap. I lived in Moscow when there was nothing to eat but cabbage, potatoes, and meat butchered by chain saw -- and sometimes none of that. So I can’t throw anything out.

Instead I’ve built a support system to make something out of nothing: bottles of sesame oil, soy, Sriracha, jars of anchovies, capers and fermented black beans. I’m never without bacon (unopened, it’ll last longer than me), Parmesan, garlic, ginger, onions, lemons and tomato paste. I always make too much pastry so I can freeze small lumps to turn leftover meats into empanadas, old cheese into pies and wrinkling apples into tarts. In the store cupboard there’s always pasta, dried beans, lentils and rice -- and a sack of M & Ms. (You know of a better emergency dessert?)

Number one on the list of leftovers management is: Don’t kill yourself. It’s not worth the money saved by eating leftovers if you give yourself botulism (and you won’t impress yummy-looking doctors in the Emergency Room when you’re throwing up). Filled fridges are like gardens: you need to weed them. Check your little treasures regularly. If you’re storing mozzarella, change its water daily. If you’ve got a spare egg yolk keeping fresh in a glass of water, change that water too.

On the other hand, some things don’t need tossing just because they’ve changed color. Those furry blisters on yogurt won’t harm you (isn’t it just free penicillin?). But mow them off the surface with a teaspoon to stop the spread. Blue on cheese? Scrape it off. Fuzz on soft cheese rind? Ditto.

Keep a watch on Parmesan. It turns into a brick good only for breaking windows from one day to the next. Grate it and bag it before it gets to that stage. Keep the rind in a plastic bag or the freezer for tossing into minestrone, bean or tomato soup for extra flavor. (Fish out before serving.)

Some things are really not worth turning into leftovers. If it stinks like a swamp, toss it. If you don’t like pasta salad -- which in my book is useful only as drywall filler -- toss leftover pasta.

Also, keep a tight rein on your imagination. Just because you want to use something up doesn’t mean it will make a good dish. I can tell you that pork chops baked with blackening bananas make a stupendously disgusting combination.


EDFers: How are you coming along with the challenge? Weigh in with your own dose of advice, kitchen reports or lessons learned in the comments area or today at 1 ET for this week's What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 10, 2009; 7:30 AM ET Eating Down the Fridge
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Who would have thought stuffed peppers were so easy, and that I had all the ingredients?
I had clearly planned this meal, since the ziploc bag read "peppers for stuffing."

What's in them? asked the boyfriend.

Last night's chicken, last night's rice, the little peppers that were in the bag but clearly were too small to stuff, onion, garlic, the last of the shredded iceberg lettuce, 2 slices of swiss cheese, a sprinkle of herbs from the jar labeled "Nana's Herbs" and some curry powder, tossed in a frying pan in walnut oil (ha! I found something to hold me over with the olive oil almost gone!)

Wow!

Posted by: capecodner424 | March 10, 2009 8:53 AM

Last night's meal went well--a standby recipe of mine, Taco Soup, which I always keep the ingredients for but hadn't made in awhile, so the ingredients were piling up!
Tonight I'm going to experiment with Chinese chicken recipes. I went on a Chinese cooking spree awhile ago, bought all the spices, etc., and now they are still hanging around. Time to bring them out of retirement.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | March 10, 2009 9:09 AM

i'm loving the EDF challenge! last night was "everything but the kitchen sink stir-fry", which is pretty self explanatory :) i have a question......i found a bag of shrimp in the back of my freezer that has been there for about 6 months. it was from the fish counter, i guess i never cooked it so threw it in the freezer after i bought it. can i still use it? they are gorgeous jumbo tiger shrimp, but i'm not sure if they are still good......i'm breastfeeding so i want to make extra sure they will be safe to eat. thanks!

Posted by: sp1103sd | March 10, 2009 10:26 AM

Last night's dinner was great...I ended up going out! So, the green coconut curry with fish and rice must be made tonight, since the fish is thoroughly thawed at this point.

Not cooking dinner meant that I had to scramble to pull lunch together, since there were no leftovers. I grabbed a can of Progresso soup and some Wasa crispbread out of the cupboard. Of course, once I got to work, I realized I have a lunch meeting! See a theme here? Maybe not my best week for EDF. However, breakfast was the end of the fresh strawberries from last week with a little plain non-fat yogurt and some cereal out of the cupboard.

Posted by: BMore_Cat_Lover1 | March 10, 2009 10:49 AM

My daughter is home sick, so it was the perfect opportunity to clean out and really examine the pantry. The fridge and freezer weren't too bad, since our week-long power outage in December forced that issue. Surprisingly, other than a very old carton of almond milk that I can't bring myself to throw out and a partially exploded bottle of blackstrack molasses that I am certain was a source of iron during my pregnancy with said daughter (she's 9), I don't harbor much that I don't use eventually...but I am enthusiastic about tonight's dinner - spaghetti with white clam sauce, 'cause those bottles of clam juice and cans of chopped clams have been in there for a really long time waiting for this inspiration.

Posted by: holdenfoodie | March 10, 2009 10:52 AM

We did a great little brunch using up a leftover loaf of bread that was hogging our freezer space. Quick luxurious for a pantry meal!

Picture here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maggiejane/3339560103/

Posted by: maggie-pithyandcleaver | March 10, 2009 11:35 AM

Made soup last night - another fairly foolproof way to get rid of stuff. Onion, celery, and carrot sauteed in olive oil, then mixed in a healthy amount of curry powder. Chopped up two large sweet potatoes and added to the pot with water (next time I would use broth of some kind I think). When all of the veggies were soft, I added a frozen chunk of what I had believed to be coconut milk (good thing I was right!). Pureed the whole thing with my immersion blender. The curry and coconut milk with the sweet potatoes tasted great!

Posted by: Agfras | March 10, 2009 11:35 AM

So far, so good on EDF week. Last night, we had Italian wedding soup using up the last of the homemade chicken stock, a handful of frozen meatballs, the half bag of spinach in the crisper and a loaf of bread that I had doubts about but turned out to be fine. Tonight, breakfast for dinner. German apple pancake (really need to use or lose those apples). Breakfasts so far are cereal and frozen blueberries. And leftover soup for lunch today!

Posted by: ipayattention | March 10, 2009 11:44 AM

Last night didn't go too well. A hot chicken salad that used up rotisserie chicken turned out to be more of an appetizer than dinner, but the family actually ate it so....And I cut up leftover pita into triangles and baked into chips when I realized it was more of a spread than a main dish, so another item gone!
The other day for lunch, I was really pleased to find all the ingredients for a great tuna burger from Cooking Light. I had an aging tuna steak in the freezer, and lime juice and lime peel, too. All the rest of the ingredients were in the fridge! Mediterranean tuna cakes with citrus mayonnaise. "Wow!" it says on my copy, in red crayon. (You can get it on their website.)
The family was skeptical when I brought up this idea. But I reminded them that our first venture into Pasta Carbonara was when the shopping was overdue. They sort of agreed to try. My 10-year-old said she was tired of trips to the supermarket!

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | March 10, 2009 11:55 AM

Last night we re-heated soup for dinner and are having "burrito guts" (aka rice 'n beans) with all the fixings for lunch today. The hard work begins tonight.

Julia's advice on not tossing items just because of a little mold really hits home. Ditto for grating the parmesan before it gets too hard really hit home. So true.

I'm a big fan of this challenge, by the way and posted about it here: http://www.wastedfood.com/2009/03/10/eating-down-the-mountain/

Posted by: WastedFood | March 10, 2009 12:15 PM

We had a "fend night" last night. I think we both ate some leftover potato salad and nibbled on some other stuff from the fridge.
I had a lunch today so I didn't pack anything.
I have to work through dinner tonight so it'll be "fend" again!

Posted by: earlysun | March 10, 2009 12:28 PM

Our second dinner was tofurkey sausage with couscous and the dregs of a bag of frozen green beans. How great it felt to throw away THAT bag!

The sausage could have used some dressing up, which it got for lunch today, sliced, sauteed and smothered with some pasta sauce.

REVELATION: Who needs paper napkins? We've officially switched to cloth.

Posted by: tlkennon | March 10, 2009 1:33 PM

Little Miss Eye of Round here...

I broke into the curry last night for my stuffed peppers and really enjoyed it. I can't go too hot on things (except horseradish, where I seem to have no limit...go fig!) but I really want to break more into my spice cabinet than I have been.

I generally just apply steak rubs but I think I need to open up.

I'm planning to toss the eye of round into a crock pot with probably onions and/or potatoes, with spinach sauteed in garlic on the side.

Can you wonderfully talented foodies help me out with some spicing/herbing ideas?

Posted by: capecodner424 | March 10, 2009 2:16 PM

Capecodner424:

I'm wary of eye of round in the crockpot. I think it will turn out to be very stringy, tough and not very tasty as I think eye of round doesn't have enough fat in it to stand a long braise in the crock pot. I might instead try roasting it -- brown it in skillet and then oven roast at 300 until it hits rare on the meat thermometer. Slice thin.

But if you must crockpot it, my go-to herb for beef is thyme sprigs. It might also benefit from a huge dollop of horseradish.

Posted by: khachiya1 | March 10, 2009 2:40 PM

Challenge has been going well so far. I was surprised by what was in my freezer. I knew the content of my cabinets much better. We had quesadillas for lunch on Sunday with the rest of the Swiss and some of the Gouda. To make them heartier I sauteed a leftover tofurkey sausage and added it to the filling. Sunday dinner we never quite made it home for so we had a snack out. Lunch yesterday was leftover pork loin and potatoes. We're having the last of that for dinner tonight. I made bean soup with what we had on hand for lunches the rest of this week and assembled the dough for the artisan bread last night. I'm going to use some of the dough tomorrow to make hoisin chicken buns and more for dinner rolls on Thursday (my responsibility for a potluck). The only dud so far was my morning cereal on Monday, the milk soured overnight and it was not nearly as appetizing as I would've liked.

Posted by: jenrellis | March 10, 2009 3:14 PM

Capecodner,

Try that eye of round in your pressure cooker. I like to use a couple of allspice berries and a cup of red wine with beef in the pressure cooker. Maybe some onion also. After it cooks, you can mix in some flour or cornstarch for a nice broth, cook some egg noodles, and some sort of green veg.

I have a pork picnic shoulder that I need to come up with a few ideas for. Most of it will go to barbecue, some will go into a stirfry tonight. I'm thinking I'll make tacos with some of the cooked meat. Any other ideas?

Posted by: janedoe5 | March 10, 2009 3:40 PM

Janedoe5 -- how about braising it in milk? I followed a wonderful recipe from Gourmet and it was a hit -- I think it was a salt & pepper rub, brown in a skillet and then in goes the milk. It took a while but was good.
And you've covered every way I've used pork :)

As for your suggestion, I have everything but the pressure cooker. Can I do this in a regular dutch oven and just plan to wait longer?

Posted by: capecodner424 | March 10, 2009 4:21 PM

A poster on the What's Cooking chat today mentioned leftover corn tortillas in the fridge. My suggestion: Make chips.

Cut or tear the tortillas into quarters. Place a folded paper towel in the bottom of a microwave-safe dish and loosely pile the tortilla quarters on top. Microwave on high for 4 minutes.

Remove the bowl from the microwave and let sit for a minute or two. (The oven will be filled with steam, so be careful.)

Extract and discard the paper towel.

Using your fingers and a fork, pry apart the tortilla quarters that have stuck together, and again pile them loosely into the bowl. Microwave for 2 minutes.

Remove bowl and again separate any quarters that have stuck together. Microwave 1 minute.

By this point, the tortilla quarters will be dry and firm. Microwave in 30-second intervals, and check the chips every time. Toss as needed, to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the bowl

Chips are ready when they're crispy and a very light golden brown. Discard the dark brown ones, which are burnt. Serve with your favorite salsa or dip. They're best warm but will keep in a airtight container.

These make a nice fat- and salt-free alternative to store-bought chips. And if you're doing something else in the kitchen, they don't really take much time.

Posted by: mattintx | March 10, 2009 4:52 PM

Mattintx, thanks for passing this idea along (this is me, the poster w/ all the leftover tortillas)! My only problem is that (BION), I don't have a microwave. My only option would be to "fry" them in oil, yes, on top of the stove? Thanks for the idea, though--I"ll remember it!

Posted by: chrishpl | March 10, 2009 6:18 PM

I had all the leftover small tortillas from today's chat. In the spirit of EDF and all the suggestions, I took out some chunked (cooked) chicken pieces from the freezer and cooked to thaw; diced up some green pepper and scallions (want to save the yellow onions for soup and more...) and sauted them in olive oil; shredded some cheddar and mozz cheese, and mashed up some butter beans (only can I had in the pantry). Added cumin, s&p to them...then layered all this on the tortilla in the skillet. Worked out great! My son actually liked them, esp dunked in salsa, and once I added salad and a few steamed snow peas (boy, got them just in time!), we had a great meal. Wow, I'm thinking I should do EDF for *TWO* weeks--still have leftover tortillas, now chicken pieces, etc...plenty to last us. Thanks all for the great tortilla ideas, I want to try the suggestion to cook them in the oven...

Posted by: chrishpl | March 10, 2009 6:23 PM

Tonight I used a bag of eggplant that I had peeled, blanched and frozen, from my garden this summer. I made a sauce out of a can of tomato paste and some heavy cream (left over from Valentine's Day! but still good), plus garlic, thyme, etc. and some parmesan cheese. I added whole wheat pasta, tossed in the eggplant and sauce and then baked the whole thing with a little mozz on top. It was pretty good, for an improv job. It makes me look forward to my first crop of eggplant this summer!

Posted by: ElDee | March 10, 2009 8:24 PM

Credit Mrs. Blade for a great idea. We were given a basket of dried fruit as a Thanksgiving gift from a guest (friend of a friend who stayed with us). In the basket were some dried figs. Wealso had some Kalamata olives that had recently earned tenure in our fridge. My wife's idea: olive fig tapenade! We had everything else on hand and it's tasty. Two partially open jars of olives and some never to be eaten dried fruit done gone!

The rest of the menu is light Italian. I made some tonno sott'olio (tuna steak poached and marinated in olive oil) a couple of weeks ago and we had a friend over to share it. It's going on a maché salad with the marinating oil drizzled over it along with a little pomengranate vinegar. Finished off with gnocchi and romesco sauce.

I am beginning to see the weak spots in the larder. Bread & crackers are a clear one. If it wasn't EDF week, I'd have picked up a baguette over at Best Buns. As it stands, we're using up the rest of the crackers and maybe we'll make some fresh tortillas this week. We certainly have enough masa! [Bought too much when making tamales over the holidays.]

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 10, 2009 9:10 PM

capecodner: not sure about a dutch oven. I guess it is worth a try. Thanks for the pork idea. I made the stirfry tonight (big hit with girls age 7 and 10). I also cut off several sections and froze them for next week or the following week. I have two pretty small sections, probably 4 oz., that may be put into bean soup, and one larger (maybe 6 oz) that I am not sure about. Maybe another stirfry in a few weeks. Then I put the rest in my dutch oven and roasted at 325 for 3 hours. That will be barbecue and tacos, or maybe just barbecue two nights. So that is meat for six meals for under $6 (5.75 lbs at .99/lb)

I'll have to try your milk braised pork another time. I didn't have enough milk to do this and have enough milk to finish out the week, but it does sound good.

Posted by: janedoe5 | March 10, 2009 10:12 PM

crishpl:

I always make tortilla chips in the oven. Spray a cookie sheet with oil spray, place cut up tortillas on the sheet (I can get six tortillas worth of chips on one sheet), cook at 375 for about 10 minutes, turning the cookie sheet half way through for even cooking. Sometimes they need another minute or two to crisp up. Occasionally I remember to spray oil spray lightly over the chips before baking. Usually not.

Posted by: janedoe5 | March 10, 2009 10:17 PM

FairlingtonBlade, isn't olive tapenade a goodie? Your dinner sounds magnificent -- as for the bread, are you game to try the NK method I shared on Monday? Got 6 1/2 cups of flour to spare? I just made a 3rd loaf from the batch of dough...

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 10, 2009 10:17 PM

Hey Kim!

I'm loving the challenge. I wouldn't have thought of making olive tapenade (though full credit to my lovely spouse). It's fun trying to make something interesting from what you have on hand.

I'm enjoying the bread bits, though haven't commented. I wish I'd bought some yeast as part of the preparations for the week. I remember hearing about the book (I think it was on Splendid Table) and we're eager to give it a try. Just as soon as the challenge is over...

Looking forward to reporting on the 3rd night tomorrow.

Cheer!

Paul (aka The Fairlington Blade)

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 10, 2009 11:20 PM

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