Shift from Warm and Cozy to Fresher, Lighter Meals
Story by Lisa A. Listwa
If you’re anything like me, sometimes the best intentions for a well-stocked kitchen result in some forgotten goodies lurking in the darkest corners of the freezer, or pantry. Over the last few years, I’ve made it part of my kitchen routine to check the freezer and pantry regularly for ingredients when I do my meal planning. I’ve found this especially helpful to do with the change of seasons as we make the shift from cozy, warm winter meals to fresher, lighter fare for spring and summer. I do the same when we move into autumn, but somehow it’s the shift from winter to spring where I find I need the most help.
On a recent “clean out the kitchen” day, I found quite a few buried treasures. Here’s what I found in my kitchen along with some ideas for how to use them up and move them out in time to make room for the switch to spring and summer meals.
IN THE FREEZER
Much of what lands in my freezer is the result of my efforts to avoid food waste in my kitchen and to preserve summer’s bounty for use during the cold winter months. Another habit of mine is to make a double batch of a meal and freeze the rest for another night. As good as I try to be about all of that, I am not always as good at the follow-up part of the process and occasionally I kind of forget what I have stashed.
- several containers of frozen grated zucchini and yellow summer squash
- homemade pumpkin puree from Thanksgiving pie baking
- one pre-made pie crust
- homemade butternut squash puree
- egg whites
- a container of three-bean vegetarian chili and a bag of frozen cornbread muffins
- a container of hamburger goulash
- one quart container of spaghetti sauce leftover from a baked ziti recipe
- leftover turkey and ricotta meatballs from I can’t even remember what
Zucchini and squash: For the most part, if you can use one, you can use the other. Start off with classic bread or try a lemon poppy seed summer squash bread. Quick bread recipes are plentiful in recipe land and easily converted to muffins, so go ahead and make some for an easy grab-and-go breakfast option. Add to your pancake or waffle batter. Need to satisfy your sweet tooth? Zucchini brownies and chocolate chip cookies with zucchini and dried cranberries are favorites here. Zucchini or squash both make a lovely creamy soup on their own or go ahead and add to any other soup or sauce that could use a vegetable boost. I have added ours to chili, sloppy joes, and spaghetti sauce. Grated zucchini makes great fritters and you can always put a twist on your potato latkes. Add zucchini to quiche, frittata, or lasagna. In my recipe dives, I’ve found a great muffin using egg, quinoa, cheese, and zucchini, veggie burger recipes, and even tortillas made from zucchini and cheese.
Pumpkin puree: With that pie crust on hand, the easy answer here is to make another pumpkin pie, of course! For another sweet option, try pumpkin chia pudding. Pumpkin puree is great for stirring into your morning oatmeal or yogurt. Try whipping up a pumpkin alfredo sauce for pasta or vegetables or stirring puree into chili or sloppy joes. Try pumpkin spice snack bites or energy balls, or pumpkin quick bread or muffins. Pumpkin puree, garlic, and a little bit of cream cheese can turn a side of mashed cauliflower into something next level.
Butternut squash puree: Squash puree can do pretty much anything the pumpkin puree can do so give one of the ideas above a whirl. One of my favorites for butternut squash puree is to use it with black beans and cheese to make quesadillas.
Pie crust: You can use that pie crust to make homemade mini cinnamon rolls or several varieties of cookies. Make cheese straws to serve with soup or chili. Cut into smaller portions, pie crust makes a nice foundation for individual breakfast crostatas.
Egg whites: We love a good hollandaise sauce here, but I hate wasting the egg whites. I freeze single whites using an ice tray. My favorite go-to for leftover egg whites is homemade fried rice. (Bonus points for speed if you have pre-cooked rice on hand in the fridge.) Scrambled egg whites make for an easy breakfast and egg white frittata is another delicious option. For the sweet tooth crowd, angel food cake, pavlova, marshmallows, mousse, and even chocolate brownies will make good use of your egg whites.
Leftovers: With ready-to-go meals from another night, cleaning out the freezer is as simple as heating up what’s already prepared. The three-bean vegetarian chili and the cornbread was a total no-brainer. The container of hamburger goulash required only the addition of some hot buttered noodles or rice and a side of vegetables. Sometimes odds and ends come together for a whole new option. I warmed up my spaghetti sauce and turkey meatballs on the stove, loaded that into steak rolls with mozzarella and provolone cheese for meatball subs that were better than takeout.
IN THE PANTRY
I’m a lot better at keeping track of and using items from my pantry. What I end up with most often “forgotten” is a partial box of pasta or the end of a bag of dried beans or lentils from a particular recipe. I also tend to lose track of those “storage” vegetables like onions, potatoes, and squash. My best recommendation for keeping things in the pantry moving on a nice regular rotation is to take a look at what you have and have fun with your Pinterest boards!
Pasta is pretty easy to use up – grab a sauce (like the leftover stuff from the freezer!) or toss with some olive oil and some vegetables and/or protein and you’re all set. Leftover lentils easily become a lentil soup or mujaddara (Lebanese lentils, rice, and caramelized onions). Potatoes are great all alone or stuffed with your favorite protein, chili, or vegetables. Homemade fries or latkes. Onions come and go pretty fast around here, but when I end up with an abundance, mujaddara comes to mind and I recently found a recipe for red onion “blossoms” that sound delicious and look beautiful.
When it comes to managing the pantry, I picked up some great tips and habits from Tamar Adler’s book An Everlasting Meal (see my Feb. 24 blog post). Most of the time using pantry staples is a question of seeing what I have at the ready and figuring out what to do with it. This week I wanted to use some abandoned cannellini beans and the Internet led me to pasta fagioli. I had a partial box of ditalini pasta hanging around, canned diced tomatoes, and plenty of onions. The fridge offered up carrots and celery. Some crusty garlic bread finished off the meal.
IN THE FRIDGE
My fridge door is where half-bottles of things I bought for a particular recipe go to die. Once again, my best suggestion is to take inventory first. Toss what simply has to go, no matter how much it hurts. With what remains, start with the ingredient and go from there. Half a jar of harissa? Serve on a baked sweet potato or with warm pita and humus. Leftover Asian stir fry ingredients? I try to remember what we used them for in the first place and make it again. Horseradish? Great on sandwiches along with your favorite mayo or mustard, mixed into mashed potatoes, or as a crust for baked salmon or steak. A bit of adobo paste jazzes up your favorite burrito or quesadilla. Use jams and jellies on toast, oatmeal, or yogurt.
My other challenge in the fridge is making sure I use fresh produce before it gets too old. We have been part of a summer CSA for several years and I have grown accustomed to planning our meals around the week’s harvest. But despite our best efforts, sometimes those vegetables just don’t get used fast enough. To solve my vegetable problem, I turn to one of my “three S’s” – smoothie, soup, and stir fry. These are great ways to use those less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables so they don’t go to waste. Too many tomatoes? Homemade tomato juice takes seconds. Bumper crop of bell peppers? Make pickled peppers or hot pepper relish. One of my favorite things is using not-so-crispy greens to make “green soup.” Yes, it’s a thing and my carnivore husband actually loves it. Go figure. I’ve learned that you can do a variation on basic pesto with just about any combination of something green and some kind of nut. Freeze your pesto in ice cube trays to pop into recipes any time.
These are solutions based on what I found in my kitchen, but you can easily springboard from here to come up with your own. No matter what forgotten treasures you find in your own freezer or pantry, start with the ingredient on hand and hit the internet or your cookbook collection for ways to use what you discover. Most importantly, have fun with it and remember that spring is just around the corner!