Clean Kitchen, Clean Start

Spring cleaning is a commonly observed phenomenon that occurs when winter begins to relinquish its icy grip, thawing and slowly awakening all creatures across the still barren tundra. That is, barren aside from the overstuffed caves we’ve been hibernating in. Piled high with the remnants of parties passed, forgotten novelties, and simply neglected staples, we need this collective reminder to take a step back and take stock. However, that alarm bell starts ringing not at the vernal equinox, but the threat of a looming New Year. Inspired by the time-honored custom of “o-souji” (literally, “big cleaning”) in Japan, I find myself knee-deep in Goodwill donations and floor polish while most other people are picking out their perfect cocktail dresses and pre-gaming over the most opulent sparkling beverages.

Disclaimer: I’m not the most tidy person in real life. Mismatched forks and knives spill out of the kitchen drawer, plates of all colors tower in endless stacks on the shelves, and there’s a bottomless pile of new products to review waiting in limbo just off to the side. Years of living alone, being a borderline slob HAS prepared me to know exactly where to draw the line, though, when the weight of this physical clutter shifts to mental baggage. The greatest offender here is found in the pantry, where odds and ends accumulate with no final destination in mind. Shuffling things around only does so much good, so let’s break it down into a few simple steps towards controlling the chaos.

1. Check labels and dates. I frequently violate this rule, squirreling away packaged goods despite the clearly printed numbers that indicate expiration. In most cases, these numbers are relatively arbitrary and can be taken with a grain of salt, but know your limits. A week or two passed the due date? Totally fine. A month or two? Maybe not; always go by a visual and olfactory inspection before diving in, discarding if anything seems remotely off. If you stumble across anything a year or older, those are grounds for instant dismissal. Don’t try to donate this stuff either. The 99 cents lost on those ancient black beans are not worth getting sick over. For more specific guidelines on various foodstuffs, try StillTasty.

Bear in mind that this is only applicable to food. Immediately toss any expired medications you may come across, and be very careful when checking cosmetics as well. Things like nail polish or mascara won’t kill you when they’re past their prime, but they dry out, separate, and don’t work as intended anymore. When in doubt, throw it out.

2. Re-home leftovers. Dozens of depleted, open bags litter the battlefield when I’m done working, making it awfully tempting to tie them up with rubber bands and stuff them back out of sight when the war is won. Inevitably, this leads to broken seals, messy spills, endless duplicates when I accidentally purchase the same things over and over again without checking the surplus. Contain and consolidate loose flours, sugars, dry grains, sprinkles, seaweeds, herbs, and spices into clean glass jars. It helps to be able to see the contents at a glance, while keeping all like ingredients together. Label clearly, including the date it was opened, for easy reference. I find this more helpful than the date on the package since it’s a more obvious reference to how long it’s been exposed to air, becoming more stale by the day.

3. Digitize your stockpile. Take photos of packages before transferring the contents to more long term storage for easy reference and better accountability. In case you forget exactly what’s in that pancake mix, or need to know how much fiber was in that wild rice blend, you can just pull up the picture without all the baggage. It’s also helpful to keep on your phone while you’re shopping to prevent the usual double purchase. You’ll know at a glance that you still have some chickpea flour kicking around somewhere if that picture is on file. I like to keep everything together in one folder on your Dropbox, but you can also make an album on Google Photos, EverNote, and so forth; pick your favorite app and make it work for you.

4. Cut your losses. While working through that excess, know when to let go. If there’s a half a cup or less of flour, for me, that’s a sign to just give up the ghost and toss the rest. It’s really not enough to make anything out of, right? You’d have to buy more, end up with an even greater volume of leftovers, and you’ve just made the problem worse in the end. Start fresh with a new batch altogether if you really do end up needing it.

5. Freeze your assets. Make the most of your edible investments by stashing anything with volatile fats in the freezer to prolong their lifespans. That means whole grains, flours, nuts, and seeds especially should go into the icebox, not the closet. Nothing is forever though and even ice cream needs to get the boot at some point, so check every six months for any off flavors or the tell-tale signs of freezer burn. Minimize all exposed surface to help prevent this, wrapping things tightly with plastic, placing disposable wrap on the surface of all items if they don’t quite fill to the top of their containers. Resist the urge to use plain foil because it can’t form a proper seal, and you can’t see the contents within. Don’t forget: Label, label, label.

6. Share the wealth. I’m one of those people who just has to try everything, no matter how bizarre or obscure. In fact, the more unusual it sounds, the more attractive it becomes. Thus, I end up with hundreds of things that I no longer have any use for (or desire to use) after the first or second taste. Did I really need to buy five pounds of teff flour to make one (failed) batch of injera? Where did all these extra green peppercorns come from? Why on earth do I have seven different containers of protein powder? For items that are perfectly good but have no purpose in the kitchen, offer them up at your next potluck and treat your guests to a little giveaway. There’s a good chance that they’ll have similar curiosities, along with a matching propensity to edible oddities if they’re friends with you. Especially if they’re food bloggers, such a random stroke of luck could kick start the inspiration for a new post (speaking from personal experience, at least!)

7. Take baby steps. You can’t make decades of disorder disappear overnight. Every time you find yourself standing in front of the microwave or the oven, waiting for dinner to be ready, start rifling through the cabinets. Make small goals like cleaning out one drawer each day. Break down the project piece by piece to let the bigger picture develop over time.

New Year’s resolutions typically inspire little more than my disdain, but this time around, I’m fully embracing that annual call to arms. 2019 is officially the year that I pledge to clean up my act… In the kitchen, at least. How about you?

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New Year’s Ball Drop

Wait, where do you think you’re going? The party isn’t over yet! Just when you thought it was safe to crawl back home in a holiday-induced stupor, ready to hibernate for the remainder of winter, New Year’s looms large on the horizon with another round of festive demands. Still recovering from Christmas, and maybe even Hanukkah at that, it can be a challenge to summon enough enthusiasm for the final day of the year. It typically ends in an anticlimactic countdown at midnight and much more booze than food; never a good omen for the start of any resolution.

No matter how worn and weary from this season of relentless merriment, we can still do better. Why just watch the ball drop on TV when you can fortify yourself with balls of a more savory sort?

It’s been many years, if not decades since I last encountered these classic appetizers, yet they come back to me in flashbulb memories of parties past. Was it my mom in the kitchen, rolling up mounds of greens and cheese by the dozen, or someone else entirely? Though the details elude me, I do remember being swayed by their robust garlic flavor, even in my early days of hating vegetables.

Look, I know it’s getting late and we could all use a break, but this last request is an easy one! Let your food processor do the heavy lifting, throw the whole lot in the oven, and finish on a strong note. 2018 has been full of crazy twists and turns, but I can promise you that the conclusion will ultimately be gratifying when these bite-sized balls drop, even if you make it an early night.

Yield: Makes 24 - 30 Balls

Garlicky Spinach Balls

Garlicky Spinach Balls
Robust garlic flavor shines throughout each bite of these crowd-pleasing appetizers.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes

Ingredients

  • 6 Slices (About 7.5 Ounces Total) Sandwich Bread, Slightly Stale or Lightly Toasted
  • 1/4 Cup Toasted Pine Nuts
  • 1/3 Cup Nutritional Yeast
  • 1 Head Roasted Garlic
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 2 Cups (About 10 Ounces) Frozen Spinach, Thawed and Drained
  • 1 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley
  • 1/4 Cup Pumpkin Puree or Leftover Mashed Potatoes
  • 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking sheet.
  2. Roughly tear the bread into smaller pieces and place them in your food processor, along with the pine nuts. Pulse until broken down into a coarse meal. Add in all of the remaining ingredients and pulse to combine, chopping the greens especially well but leaving the mixture with a bit of texture. You don’t want a perfectly smooth puree like baby food here.
  3. Scoop out a heaping tablespoon for each portion and use lightly moistened hands to roll them into round balls. Place on your prepared sheet and bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until dark green in color and firm to the touch. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving; enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

30

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 63 Total Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 125mg Carbohydrates: 7g Fiber: 2g Sugar: 1g Protein: 3g

Perfect Party Pearings

Take a deep breath: You’ve survived another grueling round of holiday merriment. Feasts have been devoured and mountains of torn wrapping paper lay in ruin. It may very well look like a bomb went off in the living room, complete with tinsel shrapnel and carpet stains that will haunt you for the rest of your days, but the deed has been done, the festivities successfully completed.

But before you lock the doors tight, entering into full hibernation mode, don’t forget that one last hurrah remains. In less than one week’s time, the calendar mandates yet another grand celebration, demanding every last iota of enthusiasm remaining following the Christmas craze. With dishes still stacked precariously in the sink, it’s a lot to consider. For the New Year, however, it’s time to give yourself a gift if you’re bold enough to take the reins as host or hostess once again, and just take it easy.

Skip the elaborate dinner menu in favor of simple, snackable small plates. Your guests are undoubtedly worn out from holiday excesses as well, happily munching at a slower pace while enjoying each others’ company. Crostini (or bruschetta, if you prefer) are the ideal vehicle for any sort of sweet or savory toppings, so for my festive suggestion, I would like to raise a literal and figurative toast to both ends of the taste spectrum.

A golden platform of crusty bread supports a creamy, rich schmear of cream cheese, contrasted by the tender, sweet, and slightly tart bite of pomegranate-infused pears. Sturdy enough to withstand advanced prep and a full evening at ambient temperature, these understated yet spectacular little morsels are your ideal party guests. They’re guaranteed to never overstay their welcome, either.

Pomegranate and Pear Crostini

Pomegranate Poached Pears:

3 Cups 100% Pomegranate Juice
1 Cup 100% Apple Juice
1/3 Cup Maple Syrup
1 Whole Vanilla bean, Split and Scraped
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
4 Firm Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc Pears, Peeled, Halved, and Cored

For Assembly:

1 Baguette, Sliced Thinly and Toasted
1 Cup Vegan Cream Cheese, Store-Bought or Homemade
1 Pomegranate, Arils Removed

Combine the pomegranate juice, apple juice, maple syrup, vanilla bean seeds, and black pepper in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Serve the spent vanilla bean pods for making vanilla sugar, or another recipe.

Bring the liquid bring to a gentle simmer and add the pears. Cover and cook for 20 – 30 minutes, until the pears are just fork-tender. Remove the fruit from the saucepan and chill thoroughly before slicing. Don’t toss the excess poaching liquid- It’s fantastic mixed with a bit of chilled champagne for your New Year’s toast.

To assemble, spread the slices of toasted baguette generously with cream cheese and top each one with a slice of poached pear. Finish with a sprinkle of pomegranate arils and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 16 – 24 Servings

Printable Recipe

Beeting the Odds

To everyone who survived 2016 in more or less one piece: You deserve a drink. Each passing year seems especially intense right as we prepare for the next, the most news-worthy events still fresh, stinging wounds that have yet to heal. It’s the immediacy, the fact that we’re still so close to it all, that each lurid detail snaps to mind with painful clarity. That said, this one struck me as a particularly difficult slog, through all the losses, ugly politics, and general malaise that the entire world is still struggling to overcome.

Impossibly, inexplicably, some facets of these tragedies give me hope. The worst can also bring out the best in people, and I’ve seen some incredible acts of kindness, courage, and inspiration as a result. There’s still so much to celebrate, and I sure as hell am not going to let anyone stop me from moving forward with optimism, no matter the situation. The key here is community, supporting one another in the darkest of days, which is why my festive drink of the season is one made for a crowd.

Beets sound like a terrible idea for a cocktail, granted, but their natural sweetness and mellow earthy flavors ground the mixture in a comforting, satisfying way. Brighter citrus flavors lift up the taste buds, singing with unexpected harmony, elevated by the effervescence of champagne. The essential inspiration for the combination came from Stirrings, in the form of a challenge to use their mixers in new and innovative ways. This is my entry into the contest, and I’m looking forward to raising a glass with all of the other celebratory entries sure to come. You can keep up with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Stirrings can be found at Bevmo, Total Wines & More, Draegers, Mollie Stones, Hi Time Liquors, Pacific Ranch Market, Daniels Market, and Bristol Farms stores.

In the face of these challenges and unresolved, unsettling cliffhangers, I turn to 2017 and say: Bring it on. Do your worst. If we could manage this past year, we can tackle anything. So join me in raising a glass to celebrate the successes and failures alike, to move forward to a brighter New Year. After all, I have faith that with such perspective underneath our belts, it can only get better from here.

Yield: 10 - 14 Servings

Beet to the Punch

Beet to the Punch
Sweet and subtly earthy with a bright citrus flavor, this sparkling drink will ring in the new year with flair.
Prep Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup Stirrings Lemon Drop Cocktail Mix
  • 3/4 Cup Golden Beet Juice*
  • 2/3 Cup Orange Liqueur
  • 3 Cups Hard Apple Cider
  • 3 Cups Champagne or Sparkling White Wine
  • Spiralized Golden Beets, to Garnish (Optional)

Instructions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large punch bowl with a ladle for guests to help themselves. Serve over ice. Garnish individual glasses with spiralized beets, if desired.

Notes

*To make the beet juice without a juicer, start with at least 2 cups of raw, peeled golden beets. Chop them roughly and place them in a high-speed blender with just enough water to allow the blades to spin freely. Puree completely, until entirely smooth. Pass the resulting blend through a very fine-mesh sieve or nutmilk bag and extract as much liquid as possible. Discard or reserve the pulp for another use.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

14

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 150 Total Fat: 0g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 26mg Carbohydrates: 17g Fiber: 0g Sugar: 14g Protein: 0g