Downsizing my stash

by Chef Boy Ari

The cannoli shells were purchased in Boston’s North End – the Italian part of town. I grew up around Boston, including, for a time, this labyrinthine neighborhood of narrow streets, rooftop passageways, import-stocked corner stores and fragrant kitchens commanded by Mama Mias in every direction.

This is a world of olive oil, anchovies, wine and espresso, but to the miniature version of myself, the best of all treats were the stuffed cannoli to be found in bakeries on every block. A sweet egg-and flour-based dough is folded into a tube, fried to a golden crisp, and filled with a rich, sweet and fluffy ricotta-based creaminess. Before it is stuffed, the canolli shell is sometimes dipped in a chocolate coating.

A few years ago, on a visit home, I returned to one of these bakeries, where I noticed boxes of cannoli shells all packaged up for sale. I bought a box, thinking that when I got home I’d learn the filling recipe and stuff them up right. That was a few years ago. Last week, that box of cannoli shells was still somewhere on my shelf, silently taking up space. But now, all of the sudden, it’s got to go.

If I didn’t have current cause to downsize my food stash, the ricotta shells could have remained forgotten for years to come. But my family is making room for a new kitchen-using member, and we need to find her some shelf space.

A review of my stash was in order, in conjunction with a purging of nonessential items.

Meanwhile, a parallel culling is under way in my garage (I call it my pantry). There are freezers full of meats, fruits and veggies that I’ve harvested or otherwise acquired. Shelves hold what’s left of the pickles,
preserves and sauces from last summer’s harvest, as well as bags of dehydrated vegetables and a box of last year’s garlic. Soon, the frozen goods will get freezer-burned, the pickles will go limp, and the garlic will sprout. So for this somewhat different reason – out with the old to make way for the new – I’m downsizing my pantry stash, too.

My downsizing strategy is twofold. 1) No trips to the grocery store; 2) keep eating.

This rule would stay in effect until mission accomplished, as measured by the reduction of my stash. Cutting off external food supply like this is like putting the body on a prolonged fast, forcing me to digest my stash like a starving body digests itself, organ by organ.

There I was, facing glass jars of couscous, dried beans and rice flour, cans of asparagus and corn smut, bags of dried shrimp, spelt pasta and a mysterious brown powder that I later identified as psyllium husk. And then there was the fridge.

I kept track of my project in a journal, the yet-to-be published Diary of a Pantry Cleaner. Here are some excerpts: “dried shrimp went straight to the chickens, who also enjoyed the hamburger buns that ended up on my shelf after Katie’s potluck” … “couscous simmers in rediscovered veggie soup mix while ground elk browns in pan. When browned, I’ll add chopped sprouting garlic, the rest of that shitake salad dressing, and fresh garden greens. I do wish that I had some onions. Wait! Derek (housemate) has some!” … “got this Southwest-inspired thing going on. First I braised elk shoulder four hours in stock. Then I added cumin, coriander, whole red chile peppers, whole cloves of sprouting garlic and rediscovered veggie soup mix, and oven-cooked it a few more hours. Really wish I had onion, and Derek’s out. Anyway, there I am digging the smell of this elk chile, and, thinking Southwestern-style I’m really missing the corn in this equation. It needs corn, but I don’t have any. Wait! There’s that can of corn smut from the Mexican store in Seattle.” (Corn smut is an edible fungus that grows on corn and is traditionally eaten in Mexico. The Nahuatl name for corn smut, huitlacoche, means “raven shit.”)

… “I opened the can of corn smut and tasted it, and it wasn’t bad – it tasted like corn and mushrooms. But I was wary of this new and funky-looking ingredient – a few yellow kernels swimming in black goo – and disinclined to dump it into my chile. Instead I made elk chile burritos (Derek had tortillas). I had a jar of Roy’s salsa that I traded for, and fresh cilantro from the garden. I dosed my burrito as needed with corn smut, and it totally worked!”

… “didn’t know what to do about those cannoli shells, with no ricotta on hand. Scanning the fridge I saw a new tub of Mountain High vanilla yogurt on Derek’s shelf. I mixed the yogurt with applesauce, plum sauce and strawberry-rhubarb jam, and stuffed the cannoli shells. If the shells hadn’t been 3 years old and stale, it would have been amazing.”

And so it went, the downsizing of my stash. Soon only the psyllium husks will remain. After all this food-combining, I’ll probably need them. •

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