Sunday, February 15, 2009

Top Cheffing It at Home

I'm moving in three months, so I'm in full-on cleaning-out-the-kitchen mode. I've always hated moving food. It's heavy, much of it is perishable, and I never feel like dealing with my old food when it's time to unpack in my new place. But when moving day comes along, it's move it or throw it out, and I'm ashamed to say how much I've thrown out during past moves. This situation is more dire, since my choices are going to be putting it in storage for seven months or taking it on a ten-hour drive on what's sure to be a roasting day. (Which reminds me that I need to get my car a/c fixed before May.)

So how do I use up random odds and ends of food? What am I going to do with, say, a can of fried onions, which I've only ever used for green bean casserole? Well, I could go out and buy cream of mushroom soup and frozen green beans, I guess. Or I could use them as topping for a baked macaroni and cheese, since I have two cans of evaporated milk and a box of elbow macaroni to use up. Or I could crush them, mix them with bread crumbs and herbs (also in the pantry), and use them as a coating for the chicken breasts I have in the freezer. There are a lot of options.

Today I was more concerned with things in the fridge than with things in the pantry. I have half a package of tortillas, which I bought to make quesadillas with because I needed to use up a package of reduced-fat 4-cheese Mexican blend (not recommended, by the way). I don't really like flour tortillas in most contexts, so I decided on another quesadilla, but I'd have to be creative. I had some "seaside cheddar" cheese from Whole Foods, which is sharp, nutty and a little bitter. I also had half an onion, the other half of which had made its way into a quick marinara sauce and a tofu stir-fry. I decided to slice a bit of onion very thinly and caramelize it in butter, which took almost half an hour, but hey, it's Sunday, and I'm in no rush. Then I warmed a tortilla in my cast iron skillet on medium-low, sprinkled it with grated cheddar, and added the caramelized onions.

I needed some sort of dipping sauce. I might have gone with a savory sour-cream-based topping if I'd had anything like that, but I didn't. I did, however, have half a jar of Seville orange marmalade. Its bittersweet, floral flavor seemed like it would go well with the cheese and onion, but it needed acid. With my canned goods I found a jar of tiny hot peppers in vinegar. I stirred some of the spicy vinegar in with a big spoonful of marmalade and warmed the combination in the microwave for a few seconds.

The crunchy tortilla, rich cheese and savory onions paired incredibly well with the bitter, sweet, acidic and spicy flavors of the dipping sauce. I would serve this dish to other people, if I had any other people around. But living alone and cooking only for myself gives me the freedom to try things without any pressure and to develop my skill at creating new combinations. And needing to use up the contents of my kitchen gives me a framework for my ideas, as well as motivating me to stay home and cook rather than grabbing a quick burger or bagel.

Definitely more fun than throwing all this food in boxes or trash bags.