Self-awareness can be a sticky wicket, especially when my idea of who I am comes smack up against the reality of who I actually am. Exhibit A: the kitchen cull.
For years, I hemmed, hawed, and dithered over renovating the kitchen. This wasn’t for lack of ideas about how the room should look and work; Lord knows I’ve got plenty of those. And it wasn’t because the kitchen didn’t need work; in my last column, I established the appalling condition of my culinary workspace.
Those years of hesitation stemmed from dread of two drudgeries: the dismantling of the old kitchen, and the disruption of a major construction project.
I have finally decided to take the remodeling plunge, and I’m ready (I hope) for the rapid-fire decision-making and rapider-fire check-writing involved. I have solved the problem of living with constant construction dust by arranging a temporary move to an upstairs apartment in our building. But the pack-up-the-kitchen project is making me squirm.
OK, here it comes: My name is Adam Ried, and I am a pack rat.
Sure, I have this fantasy in which I’m one of those minimalist cooks who can do wonders with just the bare essentials — a chef’s knife, a cast-iron skillet, and dinner’s on the table. But I’m afraid my kitchen cabinets tell a different tale.
I will, for instance, be forced to reckon with questions such as this: Do I really need six loaf pans? (Seven, if you include the Bundt loaf.) Six might seem a bit excessive, but what about the holiday baking season? I mean, I like baking little fruitcakes for the neighbors. (And believe it or not, I have a fruitcake recipe that people actually love.)
Well, maybe I can bid the Bundt loaf adieu.
Next up: Two large salad spinners, both broken yet still perfectly capable of keeping greens fresh for at least a week in the fridge. OK, the blue one has three cracks and a busted handle, so maybe its time has come.
Moving on: Four colanders, three ice-cream scoops (hey, I wrote a book on milkshakes, after all), four blenders (again, the book), four V-racks, three ladles, five steamer baskets, and two fish spatulas, which have seen precious little use since my roasted-whole-fish phase.
And two molinillos (I’ve written several stories on hot chocolate), two potato ricers, two mandolines, and two box graters. An adjustable pastry cutter, a mooncake mold, paella pans, cazuelas, a Romertopf, and a fondue pot.
We shall not even speak of muffin tins, pie plates, baking dishes, or coffee-making apparati.
Apparently this kitchen has more storage space than I realized.
Difficult as it is to jettison formerly-forgotten-now-suddenly-beloved cookware, there’s a delightful flip side to this project: emptying the pantry. My favorite kitchen game is cooking with just the ingredients on hand — no running to the store allowed. Of course the food cupboard, freezer, fridge, spice rack, and liquor cabinet are all fair game, and the ideas come fast and furious.
That half a bag of pitted prunes, those last few walnuts, and the splash of Marsala at the bottom of the bottle will become prune-walnut bread for my friend with the prune obsession. (I know the recipe calls for Madeira, but Marsala’s what I have to finish, so it’ll have to do.)
Those last few olives, that jar with three lonely cherry peppers in brine, the drizzle of heavy cream, and the last pound of frozen chicken tenderloins fairly scream “Utica Chicken Riggies!” to me. I learned about riggies — a spicy, creamy, tomatoey pasta dish particular to Utica, New York — when I wrote about them last year for Cook’s Country. Sometimes when you develop a recipe you don’t revisit it for ages, if ever, but riggies made it into the regular rotation.
In the freezer there’s half a bag of shrimp, two more tablespoons of tomato paste, a container of shrimp stock, and the last bag of the best grits on earth, Anson Mills’ antebellum coarse. So naturally I see a big platter of shrimp and grits in our near future. My great friend Kay, one of the best cooks I know, owns Anson Mills along with her husband, Glenn, and their shrimp and grits recipe is a smash hit.
Thinking about all this makes me almost breathless with anticipation. Empty, empty! I want to see caverns in the freezer! Canyons in the cabinets!
Perhaps the best idea of all though, the one I return to again and again when the dire need to clear a path arises, is enchiladas. Others may make soup or stew to create space, but I wrap whatever can’t run away fast enough in tortillas and smother it with simple chile sauce.
Are these enchiladas authentic and spiritually streamlined? No way. Would Diana Kennedy approve? I seriously doubt it. But that’s not the name of this game. Making the most with what’s on hand is, and in my world, filled as it is with half bags of frozen corn and spinach, cans of beans and tomatoes, ends of cheeses, and stray dried chiles, enchiladas never fail.
It’s a great dinner for a chilly spring night and a small triumph over the groaning cupboards, all in one. And surely this means there will be enough space to hang on to that mooncake mold.
Adam Ried writes about food and cooking from Boston.
Related recipe: Garlicky Bean and Corn Enchiladas with Red Chile Sauce
Adam Ried's regular gigs include a weekly Boston Globe Magazine cooking column, spots on the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen,” and frequent articles in Cook’s Country magazine. His most recent book is Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes.
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