The Minimalist Pantry

A few days ago, a friend texted me a picture of the café he was in, saying it made him think of me; the cafe uses all recyclable or composite compostable goods. What a pleasant reason to be thought of. While this Challenge has been super rough in some respects, I am really enjoying how it’s causing me to simplify.

Later that same night, while warming my simple dinner and listening to the Minimalists podcast episode on Health, I cleared out the pantry of things I don’t need. And I realize I eat in what you could call a minimalist way.

This has not always been the case. I write about food and once was a professional cook, so exploring the teeming plethora of ingredients available in New York City has been a favorited past time for easily a decade. I walk into a market for one thing and walk out with ten. Moving into my apartment seven years ago now, I breathed a huge sigh when realizing Erika doesn’t cook — I hung new shelves and set on them jars of honey and nuts, installed a butcher block for my bins and bags of flours, filled the cabinets with equipment, and layered the crock pot, ice cream maker, and various metal rings and cast iron baking trays in the hall closet.

But then this Year…

In my No Shopping Challengenon-essential food came out of my life. I could only buy food when that item ran out, or when I knew I’d cook it for sustenance. I couldn’t buy a new herb out of curiosity, or load the fridge with jams and chutneys that would sit there for months — used once and forgotten.

In my No Sugar Challenge, I cut out those honeys and jams. I simplified my home diet even further. I’m still exploring that, for better or for worse. And with my health unstable, I’m focused on getting the right calories in more than exploring new food worlds in my own home.

Now, in my Zero Waste Challenge, I’m observing my kitchen system once again, this time in regard to shelf life and packaging. I’m disgusted by what I see. So many times, I’ve bought into the system of buying something I know I won’t use to the fullest. Things end up just far enough back in the pantry that they get forgotten. Or they’re purchased for a specific seasonal item and then linger, year after year, until even the undying sugar in them starts to fade. And then at least part of their packaging ends up in the trash, where it will linger in the ground and emit toxins into the air for decades and centuries to come.

For no. good. reason.

What did I toss in my cleanout?

A jar of fish sauce — I admit that while I love to work with it and wrote about it years ago, something in it makes my body hurt. It’s best saved for dining out. I’ve known that, and been in denial. Those jars of jams and chutneys that do the same. I move the kimchi further to eye level. (The bottles get recycled, but the caps can’t be.)

From the pantry: A bag of amaranth — a grain I’ve tried to like but, unless I smother it in maple syrup and eat it as a breakfast porridge, one I don’t care. I bought it when I couldn’t find millet, and it’s lingered. Old boxes and tins of teas gifted to me in good faith I knew I’d never drink — my tastes run high-brow or specifically low-brow, but rarely in between. Some spices get pitched. Random boxes of this and that. (Boxes get recycled, plastic bags can’t.)

There’s something to be said for acceptance in that I buy the same things, over and over: almond butter, raw almonds and cashews, olive oil, vegetables, ground beef, pork tenderloin, the makings for roast chicken or chicken soup, dried thyme and oregano, fresh chives and rosemary, onions and shallots, white sweet potatoes and whatever vegetables are scuffy and in season. There’s something to be said of acceptance in that I cook simply, too: I know how to plan, market for, prep, execute, and plate five-course dinners. But I toss those sweet potatoes in olive oil, good salt, white pepper, and thyme, and that’s it. I roast chickens with lemon, and that’s it. I make a pureed vegetable soup and eat it with some ground beef sauteed with salt, and that’s it.

Want to become a Minimalist cook? Don’t buy anything until you’ve run out of it. Observe what you run out of, and accept that you love that food item and it makes you happy. It’s just as easy as that Marie Kondo concept of stuff. Yes, hopefully the items you’ll run out of are not just bottles of cheap Ranch Dressing and bags of greasy potato chips. But as those things run out, replace them with healthier options. Use the money saved from the excess food waste to buy into better quality. Forget the bells and whistles. Let your food bring you joy.

My current problem — time still ticking on my Zero Waste Challenge — is that the food that brings me joy has a short shelf life, and I’m not able to get out and buy whole produce in bulk and meat from the butcher easily right now, since I’m weak and relatively stuck at home. So I’m cleaning out the tins of salmon and sardines along with the sweet potatoes (not together, ew). And I’m observing, every day.

This works.

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