Some recipes are stories. Others are challenges — an opportunity to practice knife skills or perfect new shapes of pasta. A select few are pure comfort. A great many are bullshit. But no recipe is an island.
We often talk about recipes as though they stand alone, a singularity unconnected to anything else in our kitchen, when in reality, there’s always a thing or two or 10 leftover that has to be used up later. And very few recipe authors include an epilogue saying, “Oh you don’t know what to do with half a jar of fish sauce? Here, let me make a suggestion.” We are left to write the epilogue ourselves, one that doesn’t necessarily tie the ingredients in our kitchen neatly together, but actually creates more open ends and opportunities for frustration.
So how do you figure out what to make next? How do you take a recipe written as a singularity and integrate its leftovers into the complexity of a home kitchen?
Yes, I know it sounds silly to forgive yourself for the jars of condiments, beautiful farmers market vegetables purchased under idealistic pretenses, and slightly-out-of-your-budget cheeses that have laid to waste in your fridge over the years. But you feel guilty about it, don’t you? That guilt is a habit, one that will follow you into the future but not help you grow as a cook. Failure and food waste are part of the learning process. Forgive yourself for both — past, present, and future.
Acknowledge the big picture and then put it out of your mind.
The big picture, the ultimate goal, is to be able to take what’s left from one meal and use it for your next meal, indefinitely. Hey! That’s a really big one. So big, in fact, you may feel too overwhelmed to get started. Instead of resolving to become an ingenious and infallible waste-free cook overnight, begin with an achievable goal. I mean one that is attainable in a way you can’t not do it. Think, “use up the jar of hoisin sauce in my fridge,” or “cook one meal made of kitchen scraps per month for five months.” After lots and lots of practice, you will braise chicken with potatoes one night, sear off leftover potatoes in a hash the next morning and cook down the bones of the bird in a stock over the weekend. Maybe the stock will flavor an Israeli couscous pilaf and the ¼ cup you don’t finish can go on a rubbed kale salad with olives and feta, the stems of the kale squirreled away in the freezer for your next round of stock, the liquid from the feta reserved to brine your next bird. And on and on.
Before you write a shopping list or a meal plan, take a quick inventory of your kitchen. Not of everything in your whole kitchen. Write down ingredients you have in abundance, expensive things like proteins and anything that is highly perishable — 10 items or fewer. These are bridges, the connectors between last week’s meals and those in the coming week. Ask yourself, how do I like to cook and eat those things? And go from there. Pro tip: organize your shopping list by section of the store.
Adopt a one in, one out policy.
I’m talking to you, condiment hoarders. Too much of anything in your kitchen will either create the kind of clutter that leads you to forget you have certain ingredients, or it will give you a gnarly case of information overload, rendering you unable to decide what you want to cook for dinner. Pick a number for how many condiments you are “allowed” to have at any one time and stick to it! Use up a whole jar of one condiment before purchasing something new. My number is 10. That’s how many jars fit in the shelves on the doors of my fridge, where I can easily see and access them. Forcing yourself to use up a whole jar of something prior to its expiration or descent into the void at the back of your fridge will help you to get to know the ingredient and your own cooking style — you’ll learn what you love to work with and what you don’t. When in doubt, use your condiments to flavor a pot of braised chicken or a salad dressing.
Experiment with ingredient synonyms.
Ingredient synonyms are items that can stand in for one another because of similar fat content, texture, flavor, or acidity. Once you know which synonyms work for you, so, so many good things will happen. You won’t need both on hand at the same time, making it easier to use up odds and ends. You’ll have a shorter grocery list, a less cluttered kitchen, and fewer last-minute trips to the store during those loooovely hours leading up to dinnertime (visits to the seventh circle of hell). Common examples in my kitchen include sour cream and plain full-fat Greek yogurt, fish sauce and anchovies, hot sauce and fresh chiles, onions and shallots, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, peanut butter and tahini. Ingredient synonym experiments are likely where you will face some failure, so brace yourself but also…get weird! Sometimes it pays off.
Hannah Messinger is an eater, writer and people feeder based in Nashville, TN. She is also the host of the podcast Pantry Raid, a short and mostly coherent show about how to make more food and less waste, one ingredient at a time.