Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Things That Don't Expire

I have spent a lot of time in the past few months trying to cook and eat things before they go bad. I have been ignoring the items that last forever, or close to it. For all of you who have been throwing out pantry items with me, here are some things that you don't have to toss.

Bear in mind, unless otherwise stated, all of this refers to items in their original, sealed packaging which are kept in a cool, dry, and clean place protected from light and bugs. (Like an ideal pantry.) Once opened, the clock starts ticking.

Foods that don't expire

Salt: Salt is a rock. It is billions of years old before it is brought out of the earth, refined, and put into cylindrical paper containers with a convenient pour spout. There is an hourlong episode of Modern Marvels that goes into it in more detail. Besides which, salt is one of the methods of preserving foods.

Alcohol: While you probably don't want to keep Chardonnay indefinitely, the hard stuff keeps a good, long time. Similarly, unopened containers of extracts, like vanilla, are alcohol-based and keep well. The second method of preserving food.

Sugar: The third method of preservation. My only caveat is that it generally comes in waxed paper bags, so you have to make sure the integrity is good. Honey fits into this category, as well as corn syrup, pancake syrup, and molasses. I'm not going to count brown sugar because it has a higher moisture content, yet they still insist on packaging it in boxes or plastic bags. It sounds weird, but it should probably be marketed in containers similar to coffee cans.

Vinegar and other fermented sauces: I keep opened vinegars in the fridge to make them last longer, especially Balsamic, but unopened ones won't spoil. Soy sauce is a fermented sauce similar to vinegar, plus it has loads of salt in it. Not going to go bad if it's in factory packaging. A recurring theme, pickling in vinegar is a method of preservation.

Pasta & Rice: For the last major method of preservation, we go to dehydration. Older pasta can take a little longer to cook, but it's perfectly safe. This does not include high-protein grains such as brown rice.

Things you can keep a lot longer than the expiration date

Anything dried: Nuts, beans, and brown rice are high-protein products. I keep mine in the freezer, in which case they do last pretty much forever. At room temperature, you should use them within a year or two of the expiration.

Cans & Jars: The expiration is usually three years from date of packaging. I will use a canned product up to about a year after it "expires". They probably are good for some time after, but I have an issue with eating anything that expired in a previous decade.

Flour: Originally, I was going to put this in the "doesn't expire" category, but last week I tried to use some flour dated 2007, and it was definitely no longer good. As with rice, you can keep it in the freezer to lengthen its shelf life. Fortunately, they sell flour in sizes appropriate to any kind of use. If you really don't use it, but need it for one recipe, go get some out of the bins at specialty markets like Henry's. You spend less money, and don't waste it.

Cereal: The packages aren't perfect, so you really shouldn't keep them more than a year past expiration. Stale Cheerios are not a good way to start the morning.

Whole coffee beans: If you grind your own beans, they keep a lot longer. But then you have to grind your own every morning. To many, it's worth it. I'm usually too lazy in the morning to clean the grinder.

Things that really do expire when they say they do

Baking Powder: The chemical reaction starts to decline significantly around the expiration date.

Baking Soda: See above. However, it is still good for freshening the refrigerator. Generally, I buy a box in the fall when I start baking. In the spring, that becomes the fridge box and I buy a new one for the inevitable post-Passover baking extravaganza. I know Arm & Hammer tells you to change the box more often than that, but a clean fridge can handle it for six months. Just shake the box every few weeks.

Spices and herbs: They don't expire, exactly, but they definitely become less pungent six months after opening. You find yourself using more and more to achieve the same effect. If it bothers you, toss the can and buy more.

Tea and ground coffee: See above

Yeast: Even if you keep it in the fridge, the little guys die after a few months.

Oil: Even the most refined oils and shortening will go rancid eventually. If you notice the color change, get rid of it. Old oil might as well be motor oil, especially if you try to fry in it.

If anyone knows other helpful hints, any input is welcome.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bleu Cheese Mousse

This is my absolute favorite recipe from the Garde Manger textbook. It turns crumbly bleu cheese into a smooth, fluffy paste that is great as a filling for canapés, on those little cocktail ryes, or as a dip for vegetables. You can also mold it around grapes, roll them in crushed nuts, and it makes a seriously addictive appetizer.

Being a professional text, the original recipe makes way more than most home cooks need. I have scaled it down and changed some of the proportions to make it work with supermarket quantities.

4.4 oz bleu cheese (or 4 oz. The closest package size)
3 oz cream cheese (Philly has the ounces marked off on the package, like a stick of butter.)
1/3 C whipping cream
salt and pepper to taste

1. In food processor, purée bleu cheese and cream cheese until smooth and all the lumps are gone. Add salt and pepper to taste.

2. Whip cream to soft peaks. Fold into bleu cheese paste to make smooth mixture.

3. Chill for at least 2 hours. Can be piped, spread, or used as a dip.

Makes approximately 1/2 lb, enough for 8 as a dip, or around 2 dozen canapés.

Difficulty rating  :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chocolate Breakfast Rolls

Happy Saturday morning.

Anyone can make cinnamon rolls. Recipes for that are plentiful, plus the lazy can "bake" them out of a whack-a-can (what I call those Pillsbury refrigerator tubes). This is way more impressive.

It doesn't mean you have to get up at 3am on a weekend, either. Most of the work can be done the night before. Pull them out of the fridge in the morning, go back to bed for an hour, and finish baking at a decent hour.


2/3 C milk
1/4 C butter
1/3 C sugar
2 tsp yeast
2-3 C flour
dash salt

1. Warm milk, butter, and sugar to 100º. Butter does not need to melt. Stir in yeast and let sit 5 min to activate.

2. In stand mixer, stir together 1 C flour and the salt. Stir in milk mixture and beat with paddle into a smooth batter, about 2 minutes. Add another cup of flour and beat again. Transfer to kneading board and knead in as little flour as possible until dough is smooth. The dough should seem silky and fragile. Place in oiled bowl and let rise 1 hr.

3. Punch down dough and let rest for 10 minutes. Roll into 16" x 10" rectangle.


2 tsp sugar
2 tsp cocoa powder
*1/4 C chocolate chips
*1/4 C crushed walnuts
1 Tb butter

1. Stir together sugar and cocoa powder. Add nuts and chips.

back to the rolls:

4. Melt butter and brush evenly over surface of dough, all the way to the edges. Sprinkle filling evenly over rectangle, leaving 1" of a long side clean.

5. Starting on filled long side, roll up into a log. Seal with clean side. Slice into 9 equal pieces and place, cut side up, in buttered 8" x 8" square pan. Rolls will not touch. This is the point where you can cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge up to 12 hours.

6. Let rise in a warm place for 1hr. Bake at 400º for about 20 minutes, until golden. Let cool slightly before adding glaze.

Cream Cheese Glaze

2 oz (1/4 C) cream cheese
1 Tb butter
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/2 C powdered sugar

1. With an electric beater, cream together cream cheese, butter, and vanilla.

2. Add powdered sugar and beat until creamy. Spread on rolls immediately.

Makes 9 rolls. I'll let you decide how many that serves.

Difficulty rating  :-0


Cinnamon rolls: Substitute cinnamon for cocoa powder and golden raisins for chocolate chips.

Apple rolls: Substitute cinnamon for cocoa and one small, petit diced apple for chocolate chips.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Streusel Topping

Slightly different than the Oatmeal Streusel in the last post, this is an all-purpose topping for any recipe calling for streusel.

You can easily make it more interesting by adding recipe-specific spices, but I like to have basic mix on hand. You can make a batch and freeze it for months until it's needed. Saves a little time later on.

1 C flour
1/4 C sugar
6 Tb butter

Sift together flour and sugar. Cut in butter to make coarse crumbs. Use immediately or freeze.

Difficulty rating  π

Apple Coffee Cake

This is a recipe from Grandma's recipe box that I made a lot of changes to. The first time I tried to make it, there was no milk in the recipe. The paste it made was much closer to noodle dough than cake batter. As long as I had already made one change, it made sense to keep going until I had what is easily my favorite fruit coffee cake recipe of all time. You can substitute pears or peaches for the apples. I've never tried it, but I bet raisins would taste great.

I justify using almost a whole stick of butter (over 1 Tb per serving) by saying that there's a lot of real fruit in it. Oh, like that makes a difference!


1 C flour
1/2 C sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 C melted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 C milk
2 apples, chopped into bite-sized pieces (I do 1/2" dice)
oatmeal streusel (see below)

1. Butter an 8" square or 9" round cake pan. Preheat oven to 350º.

2. Sift together dry ingredients.

3. Combine egg, butter, and milk, and add to dry ingredients to make a thick batter. Stir in half the apples. DO NOT add any more milk to thin out the batter. A lot of moisture will cook out of the fruit, and you have to consider that as part of the liquid ingredients.

4. Spread mixture in pan. Sprinkle top with remaining apple chunks. Top with streusel.

5. Bake for 50 minutes. Turn off oven and let sit for 10 more minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly before serving.

Serves 6

Oatmeal Streusel

1/4 C flour
1/4 C quick oats
1/4 tsp cinnamon
2 Tb sugar
3 Tb butter

1. Stir together flour, sugar, cinnamon, and oats.

2. Cut in butter to make coarse crumbs.

Difficulty rating  :)

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Two months into The Pantry Project, I admit I'm getting tired of it. What started out as a challenge and a way to experiment with foods I don't often eat has become almost a burden. So, I'm cheating.

When this started, I donated as much food as I felt was reasonable. Since then, I have discovered more items and triple-checked the expiration dates on others. My temple is having a food drive for Yom Kippur, and I'm taking just about everything in its original packaging with a valid expiration date. Keeping some gravy and cranberry sauce for November, but even the last few jars of pimientos are going in. What are people who need to go to a food pantry going to do with pimientos? Any unopened boxes of tea are in the donation, even if I like that kind. Three bags of noodles and one bag of rotelli pasta. The rest of the olives and the last jar of mushrooms. Two boxes of Rice-a-Roni. One Angel Food cake mix. And many assorted items. The most useful donation is a can of black beans. I wanted to use it myself, but it is a huge can, over six servings. I am certain there is a family who can use that in one meal.

This does not mean that the Project is over. I had to pick up a new can opener because mine has had it. There's still two opened packages of macaroni (more mac & cheese for me this week), three opened packages of noodles, brown rice, walnuts, baking chocolate, and several cans of veggies that I know how I'm going to use. This doesn't include sauces and other less-perishable items that I can use at my leisure without worrying about them going bad.

I want to be done with this in time for baking season. Then you'll get to see how I really cook.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Foccacia is a close relative of pizza and pissaladiere. It just sounds fancier.

This was a really expensive way to use half a can of olives and less than two cups of bread flour. I counterbalanced the expense of the pesto by buying string cheese sticks for the mozzarella. A one-ounce cheese stick is 33¢. Eight ounces of shredded mozzarella is $3.49. Do the math.

Up until now, all my recipes have called for "Flour", meaning All-Purpose Flour, which is on the softer side and adapts to many uses. Softer flours like pastry and cake flour have less gluten, meaning less chance of overmixing and getting a tough product. Self-rising flour is a waste of money because recipes hardly ever call for it, and even then you don't really need it. Just use twice as much baking powder as what the recipe calls for. Bread flour is harder, produces more gluten strands, and can therefore support the weight of pizza toppings. It is also left to rise longer than the average dough, to develop texture. Some foccacia recipes have the dough rise twice before shaping. I don't like sourdough, so I'm opting for the shorter fermentation time.

Technically, I'm calling this four portions, but if you don't have any side dishes, expect it to serve two. Or, cut into strips and serve as an appetizer.

1/2 C warm water
1 tsp yeast (1/2 packet)
1 tsp honey
1 Tb olive oil + more for brushing
*approx 1-1/2 C bread flour
1 tsp salt
*cornmeal (For a later discussion. Suffice it to say, there's a lot)

1 small eggplant
1/4 C pesto
*4 oz olives, preferably niçoise
4 oz shredded mozzarella

1. In a bowl, stir together water, yeast, honey, and olive oil. Let sit 5 minutes to activate yeast.

2. Preheat oven to 350º. Cut off top of eggplant and slice in half lengthwise. Rub lightly with a few drops of olive oil. Bake for 1-1/4 hrs, until soft.

3. While eggplant is baking, stir 1/2 C flour into yeast and water to make a batter. Beat in another 1/2 C flour and the salt to make dough. Transfer to lightly floured board and knead until smooth, adding as little flour as possible. Place dough in lightly oiled bowl and let rise, covered for 1-1/4 hrs.

4. When eggplant is mushy, remove from oven. When it's cool enough, scoop out insides with a spoon and chop coarsely.

5. When dough has at least doubled, punch down and transfer to bread board. Let rest 10 min.

6. Scatter cornmeal on a baking sheet. Don't skimp, or the foccacia will stick. Gently stretch dough into a rectangle-ish shape approx 8" by 12". It will shrink back a bit, but that's OK. Transfer to baking sheet and patch any holes. No one will see them. It's our secret. Rub lightly with a few drops of olive oil and let rise for 30 minutes.

7. Preheat oven to 425º. To top: Smear top with pesto. You can use a brush or your hands (just wash them first!). You can go all the way to the very edge, unless you want some crust. I put the cheese on last, but I think it looks better to put it on next. After that, add your chopped eggplant and the olives. I sliced my olives in half, but whole is just fine. Bake for 25 minutes, until it starts to brown and the cheese is melted and a little toasty. Serve hot.

Difficulty rating  :-0

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pasta Salad

For our annual choir Rosh Hashannah pot luck, I resolved to make a dish using as many pantry items as possible. It came out tasting pretty good, considering it was my first attempt ever at a pasta salad. I'm actually not much of a pasta person, but there's a lot of it in the pantry to use. The mushrooms turned out to be really nice. One can was shitake, and the other was whole button mushrooms. I'm so glad to be done with the boring, sliced mushrooms.

The great thing about pasta salads is that you can put pretty much anything in them. Vegetables can be canned, fresh, or cooked. You could add shrimp, tuna, or leftover chicken. Dressings can be anything from a simple vinaigrette to a creamy mayo-based dressing. Pesto can be a great sauce for it. This is just what I happened to make.

*1 lb spiral pasta
* 1/2 C Italian or other dressing
* 1 4oz jar diced pimientos
* 12 oz canned mushrooms
* 1 6oz can olives
1 lb grape tomatoes
salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste

1. Cook pasta according to box's directions. Drain and rinse.

2. Drain canned vegetables. Rinse to reduce salt.

3. Slice grape tomatoes in half so they don't squirt when you bite into them.

4. Toss together pasta and veggies. Add dressing and toss salad. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill for at least 1 hr before serving.

Serves at least 12, really more like 20

Difficulty rating  π

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Three Shelves

I feel like I have reached a major milestone in the Pantry Project.
As a reminder, this is what it looked like when I started.

Today, I got it down to three shelves.

Not only that, but I scrubbed each shelf and the walls around it, plus wiped (and in a few cases, washed) all the cans and jars I put back. I discovered that the "shelf paper" on the upper two shelves was actually wrapping paper that had been taped down. The now-empty shelves are not currently holding anything, so I just washed them and I'll reline them whenever I need to use that space.

Yes, there are some things on the floor now, but that was intentional. We moved the wine rack and the case of wines that don't fit on the rack from the closet down the hall into the empty space below the bottom shelf. This means I got something off the floor of another closet. The important thing is that no food products are being stored in an unsanitary place.

The vertical shots I've been taking of the pantry do not really show how wide it is. It's almost twice as wide as the doorway. Now that there are only three shelves, I can get a horizontal shot of most of it. Imagine about six inches on each side of the shot.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Shopping Smart

I've had several conversations recently about the merits of buying from Costco and various other shopping strategies. From these discussions I have produced several grocery shopping truisms and other ways to make your grocery dollar go farther.

1. Big-box stores: Costco, Sam's Club, and the like are not evil, but you have to go in with a plan. It's too easy to get distracted by the free samples and buy ten pounds of potato salad that you are never going to finish before it turns. Some things do save money in bulk. Paper products are a biggie. Meats can be a great deal. My dad has a FoodSaver vacuum thingy. When he buys meat or fish at Costco, he portions it out into one or two servings per pouch and freezes it that way. He can just pull it out in the morning and it's defrosted in time to cook for dinner. But you must label and date anything you freeze. Small items tend to make their way to the back of the freezer and hide there until you forget what they were. The key is to buy things you actually use frequently enough to justify buying a whole case. If you use one can of mushrooms or olives a month, a case may be too much for your household! However, if you have four kids who all eat the same kind of cereal for breakfast, Big-box stores can be a lifesaver.

2. Coupons: I clip coupons only for things I intend to buy before the expiration date. I also clip coupons for restaurants and fast-food places. There is always at least one Souplantation coupon in my purse. Rarely will a coupon entice me to buy something new or something I don't usually buy. Even the ones I do clip often expire before I get to them. Plus, you must comparison shop. Often, the store brand is cheaper than the name brand would be after the discount. Also, many require you to buy two, or even more, of the product to get the discount. You have to decide if it's something you will use.

3. Buy in season: This does not only apply to produce, but that's a good place to start. Pay attention to what grows when. Usually, when fruit or veggies are at their peak, they get really cheap. Once, cherries were so cheap that it was actually a better deal to make a pie from fresh than canned. Of course, then I had to pit them, but I digress. Meat can be in season, too. Everyone knows that turkeys get incredibly cheap at Thanksgiving. Hot dogs and ground beef are on sale at every American holiday. There are terrific deals on lamb at Passover and Easter. Passover is also your best chance to get ground lamb, since butchers are taking the meat off the shank bones. Don't be afraid to ask the meat counter if they have something. Sometimes, they have cuts in the back simply because they haven't wrapped them yet or don't have anywhere to put them.

4. The clearance aisle: A day or so before meat's "sell by" date, the butchers slap discount stickers on them. I got a 5 lb leg of lamb for $14 because it was the day before it "expired". I just froze it until the time was right. Today, I bought about 9 4-oz portions of skinless boneless chicken breast for $8. I bagged and labeled what I didn't cook and put it in the freezer. Recently, Vons started discounting dairy items on their expiration date. If you're going to eat that cup of yogurt today, or use a pint of whipping cream, go for it. Unfortunately, they don't freeze well. Also discounted are discontinued items, boxed or canned foods slightly past their expiration, and torn or damaged packages. Use your best judgment.

5. Consider alternatives: We all get into the habit of shopping at our favorite store, where we know where everything is. Try a new store once in a while. Farmer's markets often have hard-to-find items, but they won't be bargains. I love the bins at Henry's (Sprouts). Oatmeal is often only 70¢ per pound. Quaker runs about $1.30. A couple of produce markets near me carry produce at much better prices, but they aren't as pretty as what you get in the supermarket chains. This only matters if you're not going to chop it up or otherwise disguise its original form. And they usually let you bag your own, so you can get half a pound of grapes, instead of two pounds that will spoil before you can finish them.

6. Make a list: Planning ahead is the best way to save money. Decide what you're going to cook before you leave home, so you can see what ingredients you already have. That way, you don't end up with six jars of pimientos because, while you were buying one for that night, you bought one more "for the next time". There will always be impulse buys, but a list will minimize them because you will walk down fewer aisles.

If anyone has any other ideas, please share!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Brown Rice

I only started eating brown rice a few years ago. I knew it was better for me than white rice or pilaf, I just didn't know how to cook it.

There is no fast way to cook brown rice. Unless you buy one of those pre-cooked packets, it's going to take an hour. I've become a fan of Alton Brown's method, but with a few modifications. For example, setting the oven lower allows you to cook the rice alongside chicken or pork, and for about the same amount of time.

*1 C brown rice
1-1/2 C water or broth
Any seasonings you want: salt, pepper, parsley flakes, other herbs, chopped mushrooms or pimentos, minced onion, minced garlic - go crazy!

1. Place all ingredients except water in an oven-safe casserole with a lid. Stir to combine and preheat oven to 325º.

2. Boil water. Pour boiling water over rice and seasonings. Stir briefly, cover, and place in oven. Cook for 50 minutes, and do not "check" or stir while baking. Serve immediately, but remember that the casserole is extremely hot!

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

Grandma Sophie made this pie every year for Thanksgiving. I always thought it was some generations-old recipe handed down through the years. Turns out this pie was first devised in the 1950's and made popular by Mamie Eisenhower. Many versions of it exist, but this one does not require a double-boiler. Once you've tried it, you will never go back to the dense, baked version.

Because of the whipped egg whites, this recipe makes slightly more filling than most deep-dish pie crusts can hold. I usually put the leftovers in a bowl and it becomes my Thanksgiving Day lunch. Or, you could fill two mini-crusts. A double batch makes 3 slightly less-filled pies.

*1 pre-baked pie crust (flour or graham cracker)
*1 envelope unflavored gelatin, softened in 1/4 C cold water
3 eggs, separated
*1-1/4 C canned pumpkin (for 1 9" pie)
2/3 C milk
1 C brown sugar, lightly packed
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each ginger, nutmeg, and salt
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tb powdered sugar

1. Beat egg yolks slightly and add, in saucepan, to pumpkin, brown sugar, milk, and spices. Mix well and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. You actually do have to stir it, or it will spew pumpkin lava all over your stove.

2. Cook until custard consistency, meaning the eggs are cooked. If you can't figure that out, get a thermometer. Eggs cook at 135º, and just about all pathogens are killed by 165º. This takes 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in softened gelatin. Place in fridge to chill for about 2 hours.

3. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form, gradually adding vanilla and powdered sugar. With the same beater, beat custard slightly to break up the gelatin. Fold custard into egg whites, being careful not to stir too much and deflate the chiffon. You can actually hear the egg-white bubbles popping.

4. Pour filling into prebaked 9" deep-dish pie shell. Chill for at least 2 more hours before serving. Garnish with whipped cream.

Serves 8

Difficulty rating  :-0

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Early Thanksgiving

Why do we get to have certain foods only at Thanksgiving? I love all that stuff. Aside from the turkey, I always have a tough time narrowing it down to only several side dishes. There are just too many possibilities.
Starches: Stuffing, rolls, rice (which has many subdivisions), potatoes, mashed potatoes.
Vegetables: green bean casserole, spinach, asparagus, sweet potatoes, corn, salad.
Dessert: Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie, cheesecake. And don't forget the gravy and cranberry sauce. No wonder the average Thanksgiving meal can be over 3,000 calories!

Many of the cans in the pantry are those kinds of foods. I don't feel like waiting almost three months to have a turkey dinner. I'm not making the whole bird, and almost got a duck instead, but there were some turkey legs on sale at the market.

The Menu

Leg of Turkey with *gravy and *cranberry sauce
*French's green bean casserole (using white sauce base, salt & pepper, and mushrooms instead of cream of mushroom soup)
*Brown rice with pimientos (why not!)
*Pumpkin Chiffon Pie