An Expert’s Guide to a Kitchen Spring-Cleaning

by Laura Geraty

The end of winter is upon us. Every day the temperature creeps up just enough to ensure that there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel. Like all hopeful New Englanders, it’s about this time that I pull out my spring and summer apparel and embark on my annual spring-cleaning. (As long as there’s no snow on the ground, gosh-darn-it I’m going to wear my flip-flops!)  But did you know that spring-cleaning should extend beyond your bedroom closet? Remember that what lurks behind your pantry and refrigerator door deserves a thorough review too.

I have become an expert at this line of housework for two principal reasons. First, I’ve adopted my mom’s habit of stock piling for winter. I have enough canned, frozen, and packaged food to keep my stomach satisfied through any snowstorm. You won’t find me battling for a spot in the grocery checkout line minutes after the local news station warns a blizzard is on the way. I’ve been prepared since September! Unfortunately, our wintry weather rarely amounts to more than an inch or two, which means the majority of my precious emergency stores remain untouched. Chicken breasts are left to grow icicles in the dark hollows of my freezer, and oat bran gets lost in the shadowy no man’s land of the back corners of my pantry cupboard.

Second, I’ve inherited my dad’s thrift. His special “everything but the kitchen sink” meals taught me that long abandoned ingredients can still be made into something worth eating. I admit that my concoctions might not measure up to the meals I prepare with freshly purchased produce, but the satisfaction gained from knowing nothing has gone to waste enhances food’s flavor. As long as my provisions haven’t hit their due date, they’re fair game and I’ll find a way to use them.

So, here’s a rough guide about what should stay and what should go.  I’ve also included several flexible recipes to help you use up those items that are on their way out. Just think, the more you use up now, the more room you’ll have for the fresh local produce that is just around the corner!

Tips

  • Whole grains: Each whole grain has its own shelf life. I’ve suggested the information below, assuming that grains have been stored properly. In general, all whole grains should be kept in sealed, airtight containers in a cool, dry, and dark place. The easiest way to determine whether your grains are still fresh is to take a quick whiff. Whole grains should be slightly sweet smelling or odorless.
    • 2-3 months: buckwheat, flaxseed, Job’s tears, millet, rye, sorghum
    • 6 months: brown rice
    • 1 year: amaranth, barley, farro, Kamut®, oats, quinoi, spelt, teff, triticale, wheat
    • Indefinitely: corn kernels, wild rice

Note: Whole grain flours do not last as long as their counterparts. Depending on the whole grain flour type, use between 2-6 months.

  • Spices – There is much disagreement in the food world about how long spices should be kept. While they won’t spoil, dried herbs can lose their potency. As with whole grains, your nose is as good a tool as any to discern whether your herb of choice has any juice left in it. Rub it between your fingers so it may release its oils. If a (good) odor remains, go ahead and keep it.
  • Nuts and seeds – Refrigerated nuts and seeds last up to 4 months in the refrigerator and up to 9 months in the freezer. To be sure, taste before serving.
  • Canned soup, fruits and vegetables: Depending on the food’s acidity, canned goods can last between 18 months and 5 years. The higher the acidity (i.e. tomatoes, fruit and fruit juices) the shorter the shelf life.
  • Frozen meat: My personal rule of thumb is that frozen meat should be used within 4-6 months. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service claims that frozen meat can be kept indefinitely, but suggests a shorter freezing time for food quality purposes. Remember, once meat is thawed, it must be used immediately. Do not refreeze it!
  • Frozen produce: As long as fruits and vegetables are packaged correctly, they can retain their quality for about a year.

Flexible Whole Grain Bread

(Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “Almost No-Work Whole Grain Bread” as seen in the New York Times)

As long as you keep the wet to dry ingredient ratio consistent with the recipe below, your bread should be delicious. Of course, if you’re a lover of Wonder Bread, this might be a little too hearty for you.

  • 3 cups whole grain flour (whole wheat, rye, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, cornmeal – whatever you have on hand)
  • ¾ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (canola, vegetable, or olive)
  • Optional: 1 cup add-ins (dried fruits, seeds, or chopped nuts; ½ cup quinoa, millet, oatmeal, or other whole grain soaked in enough hot water to cover)

1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a large bowl. Add 1½ cups luke-warm water and stir just until incorporated. The mixture should be thick, but moist enough that kneading would be difficult. Add water 1 teaspoon at a time if the mixture seems dry. Cover with plastic wrap and let the mixture rest for at least 12 hours. When the dough’s surface is covered with bubbles, you may gently incorporate the optional add-ins if using. Your dough is now ready for step 2.

2. Transfer your dough into a loaf pan lightly greased with half of the oil. Brush the rest of the oil over the top, cover with a cotton towel, and let sit until doubled, about 90 minutes.

3. Bake the bread in a 350ºF oven for approximately 45 minutes. It should be a deep golden brown and a knife inserted into the center should come out clean.

Spicy “Insert-Your-Frozen-Meat-or-Vegetable-Here” Chili

Like most soups and stews, this chili is extremely adaptable. Feel free throw in whatever beans, vegetables, or meat you have on hand. Just be sure to pre-cook your meat, as its cooking time is not figured into the recipe below. Also, if you don’t like hot food, scale back a little bit on the spices.

  • 3 chopped yellow onions
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 3 cups chopped vegetables (I prefer a combination of red and yellow peppers, but zucchini or any variety of squash would be welcome additions)
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 15-oz. cans drained and rinsed beans (black, kidney, garbanzo, or pinto beans)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 cups pre-cooked meat (chopped steak, chicken or turkey breasts; ground pork, beef, turkey or chicken)

1. Saute the onions in the olive oil until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped vegetables, chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper and salt and allow vegetables to soften for about 3-5 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and 1/2 cup water and let simmer for 30 minutes.

2. After 30 minutes, add the beans, cilantro and pre-cooked meat. Let simmer for another 20-30 minutes.

Best enjoyed with tortilla chips, sliced avocado, sour cream, and a twist of lime.

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