Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Prelude to Pantry Zero

It has been too long since I have written. It has been too long since I have been truly inspired and moved to write about food (how so so sad). But now, I find myself in a very strange state that I have never NEVER experienced in my life, having grown up (as my mom and aunt did) with a promise of family, education and food--I find myself alone in a temporary apartment far from home, and what's more, in an apartment devoid of food. An EMPTY pantry. And I have arrived at this befuddling state in a very interesting moment in my life.

I drove down to Los Angeles (six and a half long hours to drive with only the company of the radio) on Sunday. The Friday before that my family was evacuated from our house because of fires burning their way towards us. As my grandmother with a broken leg, my mom (surprisingly hysterical) and I packed our things (my grandfather, dad and brother were all gone) I was in "stay calm" mode, not thinking about the possibility that I could be leaving my childhood home for the very last time. That very sobering thought hit me as I ate dinner in my best friend's house (her family, bless them, took us in). It was possible that I would never prepare another meal in the kitchen where I learned how to cook (that first batch of chocolate chip cookies). Did I save the right things? What would I miss? I looked at my small collection of things deemed worthy of being saved--family photos and videos, my brother's artwork (saved on his computer), important documents (all in a fire box anyway), some of Grammy's valuable paintings...that's about it. Everything else is replaceable--even expendable--luxuries. (But, thank goodness, my house was fine (the fires were contained under 1/4 mile of dry grass away from our property) and I didn't have to face that reality....)

This brings me to my point. We don't really need much. In life, and (let's connect this to our pantry problem) in the kitchen. So I've been in my empty temp apartment, no furniture, no power (a problem that had better get fixed soon or my building's manager is going to get yet another earful), and no food, for 4 days now. And while the whole no power thing is more extreme than necessary, this very simplified existence has really put some of life into perspective for me. At first I was frustrated and frazzled (not helped by the lingering shock left by the fires) by not having these comforts of living. But now I'm finding peace in it. And with no fridge or snacks lying around (and not enough cash to be willing to eat out all the time) I'm really rethinking my relationship with food.

There are some different dogmas about food that I have been grappling with. I have been raised to enjoy food, not only to nurture my body but to fill and comfort my soul as well. Then there's the idea introduced to me by a very influential teacher/mentor in high school, that we should "not live to eat, but eat to live." I like both seemingly contradictory views, and haven't been able to find a marriage of the two. Now, as I stare at this empty pantry, I see a perfect opportunity to do just that. Find a balance. Work in the opposite direction from my Auntie Fe. I want to fill my new home with essentials. Food that is versatile and healthy and satisfying for my body and soul, but not so extravagant that I feel like food is something to live for, or invest my happiness (and money) in. I can build a pantry that will keep me far from needing a "Pantry Zero" operation.

I’ve started with good whole wheat bread, organic peanut butter and local honey from the farmer’s market (all these things don't need a fridge and are amazingly comforting and nutritious--whole wheat + legume = a complete protein!). When I get more settled in my permanent apartment (the lease starts in July) and finally get power and fridge, I plan to start slow and simple. Here are the essentials that will be the first things to hit those shelves:

Brown rice
Basic spices
Good olive oil or vegetable oil
Whole wheat bread

With some fresh produce there is so much that can be done with these simple ingredients. And so my new apartment resolution is this: to live as simply as I can, because the parts of life that are out of my control (like fires) are complicated enough as it is.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ruthie's Challenge - Part 1

Since "Pantry Zero" was initiated, I haven't had time to blog here until today, having obsessed completely over the last month on who should be the next President of the United States. So now, that has passed, he's in, we can continue our pursuit of innovative tastes, familiar ground, and chic and tasty gustatory frugality.

Which brings me to Ruthie's Challenge. Everyone, I hope you all remember Ruthie, my office spouse (please, I know its the San Francisco Bay Area, but I'm straight and she's a hetero-married mother of two).

Ruthie has been so motivated by Pantry Zero that she's personally challenged me, due to a completely unrelated turn of events, to a Pantry-inspired meal. It seems that the shelves in her pantry are getting replaced and that has caused huge displacement and an exciting discovery for the Simon Family.

She's got jars. Not only that, unopened, hermetically SEALED jars of fancy stuff that she's dying to try now that she's remembered she has them.

So Pantry Challenge #1 - Hoisin Sauce

My response:

Hoisin Chicken

Chicken thighs and wings
salt and pepper to taste
sesame seeds or chopped scallions
Hoisin Sauce

Preheat over to 375 degrees. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto uncooked chicken pieces. Put thighs in preheated oven first (they need a minimum 45 minutes to cook), followed by the wings eight minutes later. At the last fifteen minutes of cooking, brush hoisin sauce on the chicken parts and continue roasting. (If you want a crispier, more caramelized glaze, turn up the oven by another 25 degrees).

Remove from oven and sprinkle with sesame seeds or finely chopped scallions.

And please, if anyone of you has a Home Depot installation contractor who is replacing your pantry shelves and YOU find some forgotten and hidden gems lying in wait in YOUR pantry, do not hesitate to post a challenge here.