Some of the most lean moments in my financial past still live and breath in me as a consumer, a cook, and now as a citizen of the world battening down the hatches and planning for an unpredictable number of days, weeks or even months of social distancing and quarantining for Covid19…and then the possible, shall we say, aftershocks of the virus returning again and again until this is all sorted out?
I keep remembering little tricks about how I made food last at the times in my life when I was the most strapped, or at least income insecure (college, post-college, freelance and contracting as a designer). I thought it would be fun to share some weird, but also maybe fairly handy tricks for dealing with a confusing supply chain of available and mysteriously missing ingredients.
- Good old Top Ramen. It is cheap-as-hell, and maybe twice as versatile. Start by removing the spice packet and save it for later, when the end times are upon us and we’re roaming the woods with only the clothes on our backs and pocket room for packets only. You can do so much with that brick of noodles, you don’t need the packets just yet. Use homemade stock instead (see tip three) for the broth. Or skip broth altogether and use some cream cheese or butter or a little bit of sesame oil and miso paste. Add pretty much anything. Eggs, meat, jerky, veggies, seeds oh…and now you’re obviously making your own everything bagel seasoning, amirite?! I’m sure I could try to think of something that would dissuade me from eating ramen in a pinch, but that would be rich, seeing as how I have literally eaten it as a burrito filling with cheddar cheese. What can’t Ramen be if only we think positively? Oh yeah, and you can also break up the noodles and use them as a crunchy topping on salads! Brilliant!
- Fried rice or rice, in general, can not only be filling and simple but like ramen (above) you can add all kinds of odds and ends that you might need to use up and make a delicious and nutritious dish. If you have a rice cooker or Instapot make sure you have a giant bag of rice or several different kinds in smaller portions. I recently needed to both avoid taking my dog to the vet and settle his stomach. Rice to the rescue. Rice can be used in making grain-based burger patties as well. Yeah, in fact, just stock up on all the grains. If you’re intimidated by what to do with them or how to cook them, you can always check out my post about giving advice for stuff like that. I’m here for you!
- Second only to Ramen in the use-up-everything category is stock or broth. Stop throwing out the ends of carrots and the ends and leaves of celery! Stop throwing out the bones from chicken, beef, lamb, or whatever other meat you eat. Put it in a slow cooker and consider how little the electricity costs to run a perpetual broth (read about that here) that will make everything from your rice and grains to sauces and gravy. It is also healthy, cuts down on food waste, and economical for getting flavor out of your food.
- If you’re on the take-out bandwagon (yay!) save all of those napkins, utensils, and packets of whatever comes with your takeout. Who knows when the fear of TP being wiped from the earth will come true (see what I did there), and guess who will have napkins to replace them…yup…it’ll be you. Also handy for that whole wandering the woods scenario we hope to avoid. Packets of stuff probably include flavor and salt. Maybe spices, oil, soy sauce, “cheese”, and things you can make sauces, marinades or dressing out of. I’m not kidding! I still occasionally realize I’m out of something I need and visit my packet collection, usually to find something that will get me out of that bind without a trip to the store.
- Fire and foil. It sounds like a name for my autobiography, but I recommend making sure you have tin foil and some way to build a fire or grill in some way. For one, it is fun and simple. But beyond that, if something unexpected with the power grid, you’re all set (besides that pesky refrigeration issue, but I’m ignoring that for the moment). Cut up vegetables and/or meat/sausage/fish into equal-sized pieces. Make bowls out of tinfoil and add the cut pieces plus oil and seasonings. Close off the bowls and make sure they’re sealed nicely. Throw them on the grill or in the coals of the fire, turning for oh, a half-hour, depending on your heat and size of packets (you’ll get the hang of it). Then open them up and either pour out onto plates or bowls. This is my favorite camping food technique as well. Be sure to add some potatoes. Those are my heroes of this dish.
- Mix it up. If you usually eat all fresh veggies and you’re not getting as many, be sure to grab a variety of beans, corn, beets, tomatoes, carrots, and other miscellaneous canned and pantry veggies. These can be used in place of fresh when you’ll be cooking them anyway like in soup or fried rice. You can also mix up canned beans, corn, tomatoes, and chilies with fresh tomatoes and onions for delicious cowboy caviar or tostada topping. The more you stare at what you’ve got in the pantry and freezer, as you think of the sparser fresh produce you’ve got to work with, the further you can stretch those fresh items.
- Leftover makeovers are the crowning jewel of my creative kitchen urges. Sometimes it is just not justified to cook something new because….too many leftovers. And let’s face it we’re all bored and we want to do stuff. Heating up leftovers is going to become increasingly soul-crushing. So use what you’ve got as a challenge. Here’s an example. I made a big pot of vegan chili last week. I froze about half of the leftovers so it will be new again in a few weeks. The other half I used in three ways. One: I mixed some with pico de gallo and we ate it as an appetizer while we sat outside with a couple of beers. Two: I layered it in a casserole pan with sauteed chicken breast, corn tortillas, cheddar cheese and Spanish rice (also leftover) and made Enchilada Casserole. And three: I layered it on corn chips with cheese and baked, then topped with red onion and fresh tomatoes…nachos for dinner.
As I think of more useful tips to get you thinking about combining the pantry and freezer with the fridge and leftovers, I’ll add to this post. We’re all facing different limitations with municipal quarantine orders, food supply changes, and of course, our own varying needs with avoiding or being able to venture out. I’m happy to help you with figuring out your cooking challenges, but also to seek local solutions in your community whether you need help, or can help, and how.