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

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