The Project: What I've been up to

Dulce de leche, made in the pressure cooker.
My attempt to get my pantry, budget, and waistline under control is underway, and I've been a busy bee. My goals are pretty simple: Use up the stuff I have stored in the pantry and the freezer before shelling out unnecessarily at the grocery store, keep track (but not necessarily limit) my food spending, and start planning meals with an eye to reducing my sugar intake (white carbs), upping my vegetable intake, and being sensible about fats.

Day One started with clearing out the fridge, something that I do way too infrequently. It now looks alarmingly empty but I am trying not to let my tendency towards horror vacuii get the best of me. The upshot: I need to find uses for the 5000 condiments I keep stashed in there.

Multi-grain bread, Cooks Illustrated-style.
Day Two basically involved clearing out the pantry and taking stock. I discovered, in the process, that I have a TON of polenta/cornmeal, two different regional types of couscous, about 5 lbs of papads that my friend Aparna kindly lugs back from India every time she goes, Calasparra rice and judion beans that I brought back from my trip to Madrid last spring, good sushi rice, an extraordinary amount of seaweed, semolina (sooji), and the regular vast array of dals, rices, and flours that I always keep around. I also have some jars of the tomatoes, apple sauce, and salsa that I canned this summer. In the freezer I found some blueberries I'd frozen in the summer, chicken broth, multiple whole chickens, some fish, some beef, a ridiculous amount of edamame (in pods), and a variety of other bits and bobs. I think I also have a couple of chickens in my friend Katie's freezer because they wouldn't fit in mine.

Preserved lemons, ready for a two-month cure.
The moral of this story: wow, I have a lot of food in the house.

These are the things I ended up doing this week in order to minimize waste and get things organized:

  • I always have tons of lemons and limes in the house because I adore citrus, but I end up throwing half of them out because they dry up before I can use them. So I took all the small limes I had in the crisper and juiced them. The juice is in the fridge, ready for adding to my dals and curries and Thai dishes. I took the lemons and made Moroccan preserved lemons -- one pint for me, one to give as a gift.
  • I had one can of sweetened condensed milk in my pantry. Why? No idea -- I can't remember ever using sweetened condensed milk or needing to or even knowing what one might use it for. But thanks to my friend Elaine, I knew what to do with it now: I put it in a pressure cooker, covered by about 2 inches of water. I let it go for 20 minutes, and then turned the heat off and let the pressure come down naturally. The result? Dulce de leche! The kid likes it on toast and to dip apples in.
  • With the half packet of whole grain cereal mix I found, I made two loaves of multigrain bread. I use a Cook's Illustrated recipe, which you can find reproduced on this blog. Admittedly, making two loaves (eat one/freeze one) sort of works against the "clean out the freezer" part of The Project, but let's not get too rules-bound about this, eh?

Beef Rendang
Serves 5

Beef rendang.
One of the dishes I made this week -- for which, terrifyingly, I had every single ingredient in my freezer and/or pantry -- was Malaysian beef rendang, a thick  beef curry that is often made and kept for several days so that the flavors can deepen. You could make this with boneless short ribs, or any other relatively fatty cut that takes well to slow cooking; I happened to have some cross-cut beef shanks on hand, so I used those. I keep lemongrass stalks, galangal (a type of ginger used in Southeast Asian cooking), and Thai lime leaves in my freezer, so this came together relatively quickly.

For the spice paste:
5 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 inch galangal, sliced
3 lemongrass stalks, white part only, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 inch ginger, roughly chopped
4 large, dried red chilies (such as Guajillo or New Mexico), seeded and broken into pieces and soaked in 1/2 c hot water for 15 minutes

1 1/2 pound boneless beef short ribs, cut into cubes, or 2 meaty beef shanks
3 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
5 cloves
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods
2 stalks of lemongrass, white parts only cut into 2" pieces and pounded with a meat mallet
1 cup thick coconut milk (put the can in the fridge for about an hour and scoop off the top, solid mass -- that's your thick coconut milk)
1 cup water
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp dissolved in 4 TB water
6 kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
6 TB grated coconut
1 TB packed brown sugar or palm sugar
Salt to taste

1. Put all the ingredients for the spice paste (including the water that the chilies soaked in) into a food processor or blender and puree till you have a fine paste.

2. In a heavy pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and cardamom. When aromatic (after 30 seconds or so), add the spice paste to the pot, taking care that it doesn't splash. Fry the spice paste, stirring frequently, for about 10-12 minutes, until most of the water has bubbled off and the paste darkens a bit.

3. Add the beef and pounded lemongrass to the pot and stir a few times (or, if using shanks, turn over once or twice with tongs) so that the beef is well combined with the spice paste and has seared a little, about 5 minutes. Add coconut milk, the tamarind water (strain it first so you don't have any seeds or fibres), and 1 c water to the pot, along with 1 TB kosher salt. Allow the mixture to come up to a simmer; cover and cook at a simmer for about 1 hr.

4. In a small frying pan, toast the grated coconut over medium heat till it's golden brown -- this will take 5-10 minutes, depending on how moist your coconut is. After the beef has cooked for an hour, add the toasted coconut, brown sugar, and lime leaves to the pot. Allow mixture to simmer, with the lid cracked a bit, for another 1.5 hrs, or until beef is very tender. (If you use beef shanks, you may end up cooking it an extra 30 minutes until the meat is fall-off-the-bone cooked. When done, remove the shank bones and break up the meat into bite-sized pieces -- you can probably do it with a spoon, or transfer to a cutting board and roughly chop, then mix back in with the gravy.)

5. Serve with steamed jasmine rice. Even better: keep overnight and serve the next day.