When I invited a few friends over for dinner recently, I included one urgent request: “Please come empty-handed,” I wrote.
I just couldn’t stand the idea of getting a few bottles of wine or a couple of baguettes or the stereotypical fancy pot of jam, gifts that would keep on giving long after my guests left. It’s not because I don’t like being on the receiving end of such generosity, particularly in exchange for my hospitality. And it’s not that I don't trust my friends to bring high-quality food. It’s that I’m trying to move my food inventory in the other direction, which is why I amended my invitation by instructing my guests to bring just one thing: a bag. Or anything that would let them carry out significantly more than they’d carried in.
I’m moving to Maine on Dec. 30, taking a year-long leave from my Post job to work on book projects while I rent out my co-op unit. And as the new year approaches, I’ve been haunted by the fact that my overflowing pantry, refrigerator and freezer need to be pared way down before I can pack my knives and go.
As a single cook, I’m a longtime advocate of stocking the fridge with condiments and the freezer with make-ahead items such as soup bases and pizza dough. But I want to avoid having to find space in the one-way rental car — among all the clothes and books, the wok and the coffee roaster — for a cooler, too.
So my dinner party did double duty: I made a three-meat braise to get rid of frozen short ribs, pork shoulder and lamb shoulder (not to mention half a bottle of leftover wine and two cup-size packages of chicken stock). I simmered the remnants of a bag of stone-ground grits in butter, stock and water to serve under the braise. And I defrosted and quickly sauteed some shrimp in spicy butter for the non-red-meater at the table.
But how many everything-must-go parties can one man hold? That’s why, when dinner was over, I sent each guest home with a little goody bag filled with pastas, rices — and my own homemade pots of jam.
And that’s why on most other nights, when I’m still needing to cook for myself, I’ve been looking for ways to eat down the fridge without making enough for a crowd or creating leftovers, which would be missing the point.
I’ve got a couple of tubs of miso left, for instance, and I’m determined to kill them. I’ve whisked some into eggs to make an omelet, which I chop up and include in a raw kale or spinach salad. And I’ve shaken it into a simple vinaigrette with sesame oil (now gone) and rice vinegar (now almost gone). But my favorite use so far has been in a single-serving barley-and-turnip risotto that stays vegan when I stir in miso and veggie broth instead of cheese and chicken broth.
My other savior has been Thai-style red curry dishes, which have helped me get to the bottom of that jar of curry paste in addition to emptying multiple cans of coconut milk. After a recent dinner at Thai X-ing in LeDroit Park, I’ve taken to simmering pumpkin or other winter squash in a curry-coconut mixture. The best result was when I used creamy kabocha squash — small enough for a single serving, naturally.
A few more meals, and another condiment jar, another freezer bag, another can will be empty. But there will still be plenty more where those came from, which is why I’m tempted to have an open house and invite the general public. Watch for it. If it happens, you know what I’ll ask you to bring. And to take.
Yonan is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One.” While on book leave in 2012, he will continue to write the Cooking for One column monthly and will also contribute occasional feature stories. Follow him on Twitter @joeyonan.