The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
My standard meal-planning routine went something like this: Survey various cupboards/fridge/freezer, determine that there is "nothing" to eat, go to grocery store and buy more food, pack new food into already stuffed cupboards/fridge/freezer, make dinner, repeat a couple of days later. Note the quotation marks around "nothing."
My carb cupboard alone could probably feed a family of five for a couple of weeks. Of course this would be great news should we enter a Walking Dead-type doomsday scenario in the near future (it is 2012, after all), but for now my stockpile of non-perishables and frozen fare feels more like an indicator of wasteful, indulgent, never-lived-through-a-depression weakness, and lets not even get into financial implications of a mostly store-to-table diet. My latest challenge (to make meals using only the supplies I've already got in my kitchen) seemed sound on all levels.
Sound, but not necessarily easy. Food for me is about so much more than sustenance. Dinner is something I usually start thinking about in the morning and within reason – the sky's the limit. (Want to try out Jamie Oliver's tuna tartar recipe – off to the fish store, and so forth). By now you're probably thinking how spoiled is she, and it's true, I am, but so are a lot of you. In his book American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom explains how waste is as intrinsic to the American diet as apple pie. He points to a cultural shift that occurred in the last decade or so: "More people are watching food TV and reading about food in glossy magazines. We are eating more frequently in restaurants and when we eat at home, we expect that our meals should be of the same quality." And lest you start judging our southern neighbours, recent research shows that in Canada we throw out a whopping 40 per cent of our edibles every year.
I began my anti-waste week by taking stock of what I did have on hand. After disposing of certain unusable items like frozen hot dog buns that look like ice sculptures, I made a mental list of the most useful and plentiful items: I have a lot of pasta mostly because a few years ago I saw a nativity scene made entirely of uncooked noodles and thought replicating it might be a fun Christmas craft. (I gave up after only two wise men.) I also have an obscene amount of bacon and strangely lots of chickpeas. I Google "pasta + chickpeas + bacon" and find a recipe for pasta salad that looks so delicious I decide to try it out at a dinner party.
Pasta salad, I should mention, is well within my culinary wheelhouse. If I was feeling braggy, I might even say that I'm famous for my pasta salads. Instead of my usual fresh herbs and veggies, I toss in some frozen spinach, chili flakes and douse it all in parmesan cheese (parmesan wedges seem to have been reproducing in my cheese drawer). The end result looked delicious and tasted … a lot like cardboard mixed with chickpeas. Fearing my fellow diners might think I had "lost it" in the pasta salad department I explained the challenge and silently cursed the friend who told me that frozen spinach and fresh are interchangeable.
Not every attempt was such a grand failure. One of my favourite pantry lunches was a recipe I dubbed "Grown-up Zoodles": Zoodles with hot sauce, Worcestershire, pepper and parmesan. Like ticking off items on a to-do list, I felt supreme satisfaction every time I emptied a can or fried up a long-neglected batch of frozen wontons.
The challenge is difficult in the same way any diet is difficult: I want to order Swiss Chalet; instead I make black bean soup (can of black beans, can of salsa, onion, broth cube – presto!). I want to buy groceries to make the amazing looking bang bang chicken from the new issue of Food & Wine; instead I defrost a bag of paneer so that I can finally use the jar of President's Choice Korma sauce that I bought back when PC first introduced Indian products. That particular meal ended in disaster. (Note: Just because something doesn't have an expiration date stamped on it doesn't mean it can't go bad.)
By six days in I had freed up a lot of space, saved quite a bit of money and eaten a lot of legumes. As for any grander implications, this is obviously not the kind of diet one could adopt for any extended period of time, but I plan on making a diligent effort to use the things I have in my cupboard. (Mr. Bloom recommends rotating the contents of refrigerators – if you can't see something, you are less likely to cook with it). If all goes well, I hope to be less equipped for a hostile zombie takeover.
TIPS FROM READERS
My favourite ghetto go-to meal is pasta with tuna. Olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and juice, capers and a can of Italian tuna. Easy, sleazy, tasty. - Malou Andino
Pasta carbonara: eggs, bacon, parmesan and pasta and maybe some frozen peas if you have them. It's so good, and so bad for you! :) - Kelley Cooke
Stir-fry with any leftover or frozen veggies, any kind of protein and a combination of sauces from your condiment collection. - Katie Musgrave
THE NEXT CHALLENGE
Improve your memory. This week, learn a poem (or if you still have nightmares about Grade 10 English, it could be lyrics to a song). Let us know how you fare. Sign up at fb.com/globelifestream