September Challenge: Taming the Pantry!

Dear Prairie Ave,

Well, it’s been five weeks since we started this Clear The Pantry challenge. And I have to report, I’ve gone over….extended to a fifth week. Because that’s how bad things were. I know the photo can’t capture it, because I forgot to take the before pic (actually, my phone ran out of space and the photo was deleted. Look. You know how bad I am at technology). Here’s what I learned….

I also had a “save for later” (why?!) item. The bluegrass soy sauce that you got for me, what, a year ago? Two? Well it’s fantastic! And I’ve been gobbling it up in recipes like sprouted mung bean and fried tofu stir fry, tahini dressings, smashed cucumber salads, and many more. It’s deep, this one, and I love it. 

I remember you saying sometime long ago that I was “preternaturally averse” to carbs. Well I am. Unless I’m running tons of miles. So I had a lot of flours and other carbs to go through in my pantry. I made chickpea crepes, farro for salads, cornbread, and pasta. PASTA! Me! That was actually delightful. It’s high summer here in the south and so I made a special little pasta dish with an italian mushroom toast as a side. I’ve made this a bunch. You just have to figure out the proportions but it’s divine: 

What, dear friend, is our next challenge? We just did something global, so let’s do something specific. 


Ash Street South

Dear Ash Street South,

This challenge was so much fun!  I agree – week five was easy to complete as an add-on week because even now, there is still an entire shelf of untouched, unopened items.  And because I love lists and categories, I’ve distilled the process by which our pantry items accumulate into three separate categories:  1) As you mentioned, there are specialty items you buy for a dish or two but after making that dish, you have a surfeit of that particular item leftover and it takes a long while to use it.  For you, the carbs. For me (and also for you LOL), is the seven different vinegars all currently in various stages of completion.

2) The special “save for special occasion” category. That bluegrass soy sauce you mentioned finally using? I have TWO bottles of it waiting…untouched.  Why?  Because the bottles are so cute and small and only available for purchase in one, remote, out-of-the-way place that it got marked in my mind as “special” and therefore I keep saving it for a “special” occasion. Same with those tiny jars of goat milk caramel. It’s so tasty that we now have a stockpile of it that we can’t seem to open and consume because it’s so special. Even this past month those jars were not cracked! But that inclination leads me to category #3, which is the category I find difficult to combat.

3) Fear of deprivation and “running out.”  While I cognitively understand that I will not run out of food and I will not starve, my lizard brain fears both of those things.  And so the freezer stock ups and pantry fill-ups are a way to stave off the feeling that someday, at some point, I might run out of some thing that I want, and that is going to feel really shitty.  And so the extra bottles of mustard and ketchup, artichokes, canned tomatoes, oyster sauce. All that lives on the top shelf, unopened, waiting the day they get to take center stage in a meal. Because dammit, when I need more bbq sauce PRONTO, I can just reach up there, grab my spare molasses, ketchup, mustard, and apple cider vinegar and not miss a beat! Relief for future self not experiencing perceived deprivation of homemade bbq sauce!

But that fear of loss really bumps up against another really pleasing feeling, and that is of open space, minimalism, and order.  And so over the past month, as I finished items, consolidated others, and gradually watched as the space in my pantry gave way to clean, organized shelves, that feeling of aesthetic pleasure at its minimalism sat cheek-to-jowl with a latent internal doomsday clock.  And I had to sit with it and remind myself:  no one is going to starve.  I can have a pantry filled to the brim in less than an hour if I run to the store.  With all the abundance and choice and availability of things, the hardest thing to do is remind my lizard brain that there is abundance, choice, and availability and I don’t need to store things up like a squirrel ferreting its nut collection in spots in preparation for a hard winter.

Hmmm…so next monthly challenge.  Min wants to do a “No Restaurants October” which since you and I both rarely eat out anyways, I don’t think will be too hard to implement.  What if we each had to cook 3 new recipes from the Hettie Mackinnon cookbook in the month of October and write up a report of each?  I am very guilty of loving the reading of cookbooks but rarely cooking out of them so this might be a good push for me!

Prairie Ave North’s Pantry: Forgot to take a true before pic, so this is midway through and then the final week.

Dear Prairie Ave,

Let’s have a little cross-country chat. You know I love a good food challenge. How many have we had over the years? I’d returned from a summer away in the mountains, and the thing I miss most during summers is being in my kitchen. Especially backpacking so many miles, I spend a lot of time dreaming of food and dreaming up recipes.  
This year, I returned home to a worrisome state. The left front bracket of my oil and vinegar shelf (yes, I have a massive shelf dedicated to just these things) was bending under the weight of its contents. And my catch-all snack drawer? Abysmal. An embarrassment.  I tidied up a bit but that wasn’t going to do the trick. So I sent out a clarion call, a charge to us both….A four week food challenge!……buy no packaged goods, only fresh foods (and for me tofu and tempeh), and start whittling away at those bottles, boxes, and packages. The A-sha noodles that have been sitting in there for over a year? They will be eaten. The 200 year old ¼ cup of panko bread crumbs on the shelf? Gone!  The shiro mitten that’s sat for 6 months after an inspired late night, online purchase? An Ethiopian feast is imminent! One of the things I love about this challenge is that it’s forced me to think out of the box, to use ingredients that aren’t my normal go-tos and to make them central to what I’m cooking. Last night I needed to make spicy vegan mayo but I’m out of store bought mayo. So I did my research and found an amazing spicy vegan mayo recipe on the Korean Vegan ( ) that rocked! It’s been two weeks now and in that time, my grocery bill has been almost halved and I’m nearly to the point where I can open my pantry door in the presence of others without dying of shame. I mean, the near existential dread of running out of a spice or an ingredient still simmers under the surface, but so far, this has been a great challenge for a little fall cleaning. How’s it been going for you, dear friend? 

Dear Ash Street,

Your pantry challenge could not have come at a better time! After weeks of traveling that included a stay at an Airbnb where a pantry shelf came crashing down, and another Airbnb where I threw out a collection of spice jars that expired in 2013, I returned home with gimlet eyes and a clear mission: expired, dated pantry items might be okay in an Airbnb, but not in MY house dammit!

It has been super satisfying seeing the space in the pantry grow. Bean and ham soup last week, and black bean chili this week have (mostly) cleared out the bean stash that was lying there stagnant. Baked two loaves of bread to finish off some all purpose flour that was getting old. Made arancini balls for the first time ever to finally use up two opened and half-used bags of panko (what is it with us and panko?!?). And my big pet peeve is when two or more items in the same category are open and half-used (like the aforementioned panko) because what that usually means is that the pantry was too chaotic for me to realize I already had one open and stuffed in the back somewhere so thus bought a new one and opened THAT one, thereby adding to the chaos! So I have consolidated balsamic vinegars, red wine vinegars, and furikake and now my bottom shelf is looking neat and organized!

I also have used up some specialty items I had been “saving” and thus made some pleasant discoveries — like the Smoked Bourbon salt rub I picked up in Louisville…two years ago…is really tasty! I put it on grilled steak and loved it. So now I know it can enter the regular spice rotation since it will get used.

I’m viewing the freezer and fridge as an extension of the pantry, and so that half-finished jar of artichokes — gone! The bag of frozen cilantro — used! Next up are two open, half-used bags of polenta. It will feel very satisfying to make something with those. Like…why do I have one opened bag of polenta, let alone two?!?

You know, we should have done before/after pictures! Since we’re midway through the challenge, how about we post pictures of the after?

Thanks for this idea, Ash Street!!!


Prairie Ave

We took an impromptu roadtrip to DC over Memorial Day weekend and although it wasn’t the main purpose behind the trip, we did stuff ourselves full of tasty treats throughout, like fresh handmade pasta at Sfoglina Pasta House, crackling baguette sandwiches from Bread Furst, an icy cold frosé/margarita blend at Tonic and coffee and snacks at Little Red Fox. But by far and away our favorite stop was at Bete for Ethiopian in Silver Springs, MD. It’s something we don’t have easy access to in these here parts and I feel like I am in a constant state of longing for injera and misir wot after leaving my beloved Ethiopian Diamond back in Chicago those many moons ago. Upon our return to the non-Chicago Middle West, I’ve been fermenting a bowl of teff and have ordered a big shiny silver platter to spread my homemade injera on. If all goes well, I’m hoping I’ll have some pictures to share!

Min celebrated the end of fourth grade by coming home and making two fresh cheeses. The first, on the right, is a fresh buttermilk cheese with chives from the garden. The second we made today, a ricotta using white vinegar as the coagulant. Both are supremely tasty and so easy! You basically just need cheesecloth and milk. The buttermilk version you don’t even add an acid. We held on to the whey and have been sipping it from a snifter.
When we lost our beloved curmudgeon early last summer, we thought we would wait at least a year before bringing another dog home. But in late February, a series of unforeseen, serendipitous events culminated in us bringing home Barclay de Tolley. He’s a breeder rescue dog, which I had never heard of before, but a friend alerted us to this wonderful purebred rescue organization located in a town just about 20 miles north of here. Barclay (née Buddy) is only 2.5 years old. Typically, breeder dogs are released to this rescue organization when they’re quite a bit older and have aged out of serving their “purpose” *ahem, cough cough.* Good ol’ Barclay here refused to copulate and so there he was, patiently waiting for new owners! Never having raised a breeder rescue dog, it has been an interesting learning curve. He is whipsmart and is eager to please, and when outdoors, seems to just be a normal dog. But inside the house, he’s Barclay 2.0. He doesn’t really “get” what a house (or people IN a house) are about. Gradually he is willing to leave his safe spot for some time spent in the kitchen if it’s quiet, or by the living room couch on rare occasions. But for the most part, he is content to spend his time curled up in his little quiet nook, snoring like a mofo. Outside he is a pouncing, bouncing, wagging epitome of golden retriever joy-fulness. It has been fun watching him learn how to be more like a dog.

Min always encourages me to try new recipes and has been requesting Moroccan for awhile. I kept putting it off, thinking it would take too much time, but the other night, I went for it, and it was easy and delicious. Beef tagine with dates and chickpeas over pearl couscous. Min whipped up a Moroccan coffee to go with it that involved fresh grated nutmeg, lots of ginger, and a healthy dose of cinnamon and sugar. I used a Jamie Oliver recipe that Min deemed “inauthentic,” according to the YouTube cognescenti. But for my first try, I was happy with it. Maybe a tad on the sweet side. Next time I’d reduce the amount of dates and tomatoes and up the spices.