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When it comes to stocking the pantry and refrigerator, all of us – no matter how frequently we cook – have a short-term memory problem. Although we delight in loading up our carts and hauling our goods home, our grocery gusto tends to fizzle out: About a fourth of what we buy gets ignored, goes bad and ultimately must be thrown out.
All of this wasted food is contributing to a serious mounting garbage problem. According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, the 2010 expose on food waste, Americans toss about half a pound of food per person per day, enough to fill the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium.
To suggest that we simply eat up what’s on hand is stating the obvious but not always realistic – life is unpredictable, after all. But if we can also resist the urge to buy new food while making a dent in our respective larders, that’s when we’ll get out from under this wasted food avalanche. That’s why we’re launching Eating Down the Fridge.
EDF is about savvier shopping and efficiently working through (and eating down) our pantries to get the most bang for our food bucks. The idea is not to become austere but mindful.
To get started, I recommend a week-long EDF "cleanse" to develop a true appreciation for what you have on hand. Of course, if the idea of a staying away from the grocery store for an entire week is too much to bear, consider an EDF weekend or 48-hour stretch during the week. Do what feels realistic within the context of your own life.
Be creative, but keep it simple and refrain from strange: After a few days, it’s easy to get swept up in the spirit of food economy, but applesauce is not a good match for lentils, and there’s no way you can go through three jars of mustard in a week, no matter how hard you try. If you prepare meals that are just too weird to eat, you’re defeating the whole point of the challenge, and you’ll be less likely to repeat the experience. Equally important, the process is meant to help you use things up before they’re past their prime, not to resurrect decaying perishables from the refrigerator morgue.
Think of the EDF as a way to overhaul the pantry or give it a tune up, to use up the old so that you can bring in the new. It should never feel like a compromise or punishment. I try to do an EDF on a quarterly basis and it really keeps this cook on her toes.
To get you on your way, I’ve shared a template for a frittata, which essentially is a skillet egg pie. It’s a last-minute supper (or weekend breakfast) main using just the basics, with tons of options depending on the season and the depth of your veggie crisper.
4 to 6 large eggs
½ to 1 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil (neutral oil is also fine, and so is butter)
½ medium-size yellow storage onion or 1 shallot bulb, peeled and sliced thinly
1. Beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper.
2. In a 10 or 12-inch ovenproof skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until slightly softened, about five minutes.
Add-on options while onion is cooking:
Up to 1/2 cup sweet peppers, diced
1 medium (or 2 small) potatoes, cut into half and then into thin half moons, parboiled in salted water for about 4 minutes, drained and patted dry.
Add-on options after the onions have softened:
About 4 cups greens (chard, spinach, baby kale or mustard greens), stemmed and coarsely chopped or cut into chiffonade: Turn with tongs to coat with the onions and oil, season with salt, pepper and/or chili flakes, squeeze of lemon, and allow to wilt, about 4 minutes. (Add a drop or two of water if the pan gets dry.)
1 to 2 cups zucchini or summer squash, sliced into thin rounds (an additional tablespoon of oil may be needed): Saute -- in batches if necessary – until tender and just slightly softened and maybe a little brown, 5 to 8 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Reduce heat to medium-low and distribute the cooked vegetables evenly in the skillet.
4. Pour the beaten eggs on top, tilting the skillet to ensure even distribution.
Add-on options after the eggs are added:
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, mint, cilantro, basil, dill, or ½ teaspoon dried oregano or thyme: Sprinkle evenly on top of the eggs.
5. Cover and cook until the eggs are just set, about 15 minutes.
6. Preheat the oven to the broiler setting.
Cheesy add-on options to be sprinkled on before the broiler:
About ¼ cup feta, ricotta, goat cheese or grated hard cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino)
7. Transfer the skillet to the oven and broil, 3 to 4 minutes. You’ll see that the frittata will puff and brown.
8. Remove the skillet from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes. Slice into wedges and eat warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
For more than a decade, journalist and chef Kim O’Donnel has dispensed cooking advice at numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Culinate and USA Today. Kim is the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook and most recently, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. Based in Seattle, she is the founder of Canning Across America, a collective dedicated to the revival of preserving food. Follow her on Twitter.