Part 1: How to Spring Clean Your Kitchen

My fantasy New York City kitchen is waiting for us somewhere in a brownstone below 14th Street. It sits on the first floor just passed the quintessential stoop that I’ve dreamed of since I first watched Sesame Street as a child. Everything in it is blindingly clean. The space is filled with natural light from a rear facing window that looks out onto our tiny backyard garden. The garden is somehow level with the kitchen even though this might be physically impossible. How would I know? I’ve never even been inside a brownstone. But in my dream world I could reach out the window and pick tomatoes fresh from the vine. The stove, refrigerator and sink would never betray the continual cooking that would happen in this central hub of our home. The dishwasher…oh the dishwasher. For one thing, it would exist. For another it would eliminate any sign of mess with almost human ability, making it ever-ready for the next feast to be cooked. And the groceries would run out in perfect time with the next scheduled shopping trip.

In reality our prewar kitchen shows every sign of grease and seems to store extra for those rare days when we’re not cooking. The only benefit to the impossible-to-clean window that faces another building in an alcove almost entirely shielded from sun is that it’s slightly harder to see the mess. Some argue that old buildings in New York City have charm. Hmmm. True. They also have imperfect seams that generate dust and dirt like a smoke machine from a 1980’s hair band.  They have weird cracks in the walls and openings around window frames that demand careful storage of food items so as not to entice small unwelcome guests, that while not taking up much space, would fill the room if they decided to stay. Charming but demanding, New York is not for the faint of heart.

New York Fantasy

Yes. My fantasy kitchen would be hermetically sealed from the outside world before any dishes or pans ever entered it. The appliances would be gleaming, the floors would shine and the maid would arrive every two weeks. Still, it would require spring cleaning each year just the same. I’m talking about the fun kind of cleaning that revolves around food not disinfectant. So let’s talk about food already!

What’s in your freezer, your fridge, your pantry? Did you spring clean yet? Did you spring clean last year? Do you even spring clean? How old is that mystery jar at the back of your fridge? Never mind. Don’t answer that. Just throw it out. I’m sure there’s more where that came from so how do you get started?

Keep| Ditch| Try

I do this often but if you’re not quite as obsessed with your kitchen as I am, you can save it for spring cleaning. Try the “keep, ditch, try” approach and have some fun. The “keep” and “ditch” parts are very satisfying, but the fun is in the “trying” so stay with me. Here’s an easy guide to to getting started.

Keep recent purchases, packaged goods within their expiration date, frozen goods that have been well preserved from freezer burn, foods that are still identifiable and actually look appetizing. Trust your gut with these judgements.

Ditch anything that has expired, smells weird, is no longer recognizable or any known Obama era freezer fixtures. This isn’t rocket science. I know you know how to clean out your kitchen so let’s get to the fun part.

Try using up the contents of what remains in your “keep” pile, especially from the freezer before buying anything new (weekly staples excluded). Use the remains from your refrigerator and pantry to pull your weekly meals together. If this sounds dull or like a chore to be avoided, you’re going it about it all wrong. This is a challenge and an exercise in creativity. If you’re stuck in a cooking rut or just bored with the idea of making dinner every night, it’s time to spring clean your kitchen.

This is a lot like cleaning out your closet. Clutter clearing has been everywhere lately. It’s on Netflix, the New York Times best seller list and on every other blog post I happen upon while browsing the web. It also belongs in your kitchen. Tackle it like your closet. You think you’re going to end up with nothing to wear, but after you get rid of half your closet you suddenly have options. For one thing you can see everything. You can get to items that were previously hidden away behind piles of unworn clothes. Most importantly, everything fits. The same is true for your freezer, your fridge and your pantry. Once you get rid of the old and expired foods you can get creative with what’s left.

The Freezer

Our freezer was a winter wonderland of meats and vegetables covered in a light frost that had accumulated over a long season. There was a lot of ‘use it or lose it’ in there so we used it! This is good for two reasons: 1. it revived dinner ideas that had literally been frozen in time and 2. it reduced our grocery bill. We were left with an alarming number of pork products, one hamburger, chicken broth, various frozen vegetables, arancine (rice balls) that I made and froze last winter (or was it fall ?) and the last jar of mom’s pesto.  We ditched old ginger root, pork fat that we just kept forgetting to use (yes, we store pork fat) and one unidentified frozen object. We do this freezer purge often so there wasn’t too much to throw out. I was eager to make dinner but before you can think about cooking, you have to continue the process with your fridge and pantry.

The Fridge

In our fridge you might find forgotten Chinese food containers, doggy bags from favorite restaurants and the groceries that didn’t get used up before heading back to Philly for a long weekend. The refrigerator is the toughest area for me to keep up with even though it seems like it should be the easiest. I found leftover cavatelli in red sauce that Mike and I made at a pasta making class around Valentine’s Day. There was some sort of half frozen, chocolate concoction that I’d rather not talk about, way in the back where the refrigerator is especially cold and ruins food regularly. Finally I found an old salad  with mushrooms that were half cooked from the vinegar they had been marinating in. Yikes. The “keep” pile was close to expiration so I had to get cooking. I was most anxious to use the cheese tortellini I discovered and already had ideas for them. There was the usual carrots and celery that were hanging on to life by a thread, the end of a head of cabbage, half of a container of mushrooms and one very small piece of pecorino cheese. I was determined to save them. There were onions, of course. There are almost always onions because we buy them every single time we shop. This is my favorite time to use them. They become less potent the longer they’ve been around; so I cry less when I chop them. Note: You really should store onions in a cool dry place outside of the refrigerator to prevent them from getting soggy, but New York City prewar apartment temperatures do not skew toward cool and dry. Luckily we use onions faster than we can stock them.

The Pantry

This is the stuff you think can last forever but most of it won’t. Use the fancy olive oils right away. Don’t save the spices. Oils go rancid and spices lose their flavor. If you get to your pantry in time, you can save more and waste less. I was able to take stock of the items I had and make note of the ones I needed. This means I won’t end up with eight cans of kidney beans and no chick peas. This happens more often than you’d think. I found jars of olives, anchovies and marinated artichokes which I could finally see after ditching a few things. I poured out half of a bottle of cooking-wine-turned-vinegar and I tossed a few spices that may have been with me since my last apartment. It turns out I don’t use curry quite as often as my fantasy exotic cook self does.

I always feel bad when I have to throw food away. I hate waste and try very hard to avoid it, but sometimes it happens. When I was finished with the keep and ditch part of “keep, ditch, try” I ended up with some great meal ideas and a lighter, neater kitchen.

What’s for dinner?

The star ingredient was a jar of mom’s homemade pesto that kept getting pushed to the back of the freezer. The thing with pesto is that once it’s opened and in your fridge, you have to use within a few weeks. This was not difficult. We started off with the obvious, pasta with pesto. We used farfalle pasta which really holds the pesto sauce. When you’re using already-made pesto, this is an auto pilot dinner. It’s exactly what you need after taking the time to clean out the kitchen. It doesn’t even qualify as a recipe. Cook pasta. Reserve ladle full of  pasta water. Strain pasta. Add pesto and a splash of pasta water. Stir and serve. That was just the beginning. We still had plenty of pesto left in that jar. Stay tuned next week to see how we paired the remaining pesto with the food that was left from our spring cleaning. Think pork, vegetables, cheese and more pasta!

If you’re feeling ambitious and want to make your own pesto, you can find the recipe here.