Eats: What’s for dinner? Depends on what’s in the cupboard!

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Strata, a savory and cheesy bread pudding, can be made in advance using stale bread and a couple cups of chopped meat and vegetables left over from other meals.

I live over 10 miles from the nearest grocery store so I have a tendency to stock up when I’m in town. I never know when I’m going to have the urge to invite friends in for dinner or someone from my large extended family might happen by and need a snack. More than once I’ve heard the comment from one of my grown kids when they open the fridge, “Gee, Mom. You have a lot of food.”

It’s how I roll. I keep my kitchen well-supplied. I’m a grandmother, after all, and because I like to be prepared to feed people, I sometimes over-buy. Then I’m left with expired milk and wrinkled, fuzzy produce that prompts me to make an unwelcome walk to the compost bin with a container filled with slimy casualties. The usual culprits are limp celery stalks, unappetizing-looking avocado halves, little containers of steamed green beans and broccoli and the last leaves of spring greens ominously stuck together in the bottom of their plastic box . . .

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Wasting food and money is something I do not want to be doing. I’m sure you don’t, either. So the last time I cleaned out the refrigerator I decided to challenge myself to see how long I could go without hitting the grocery store aisles. I settled in to making meals from what I had on hand.

To begin, I conducted an inventory. First, I sent bundles of frozen holiday goodies out the door and into the immediate neighborhood. Next, all the chicken carcasses were set to simmer for a robust stock.

As I went further into the depths of the cupboards and freezer, I discovered all manner of forgotten treasures: pouches of homemade pesto, a seven-pound pork roast, multiple jars of peanut butter, my favorite Trader Joe’s gyozo dumplings, packages of lentils and pasta, various baggies of summer berries, a tiny bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Although I’m a firm believer that expiration dates are merely a suggestion, I’m not a martyr. I did toss a few items that were a year beyond the date printed on the jar lid. The condiments coated with a thin layer of mold also went into the trash. I made a resolution to use up everything else one way or another.

Day by day, meal by meal, my stash grew smaller. As the weeks passed, I became more mindful of how much I really needed, what foods I can’t be without (fresh eggs, apples, celery, dark chocolate) and what I could prepare with what I had on hand.

A solid three weeks later, with the exception of a box of spring mix, eggs, cream for my coffee and a bar of dark chocolate, I was still at it. During this experiment I not only ate really well, but I saved money, time and gasoline, about $250. Furthermore, I felt like I was doing something good for myself and using my imagination. I envisioned hosting my own cooking show as I mined my way through my pantry, fridge and freezer in an effort to disguise, elevate and mix and match ingredients. I tried some new flavor combinations and, in my enthusiasm to prove my point, I may have gained a few pounds. Oh well.

While I was in the throes of my experiment, I especially enjoyed making frittata. A frittata is a crustless quiche while a strata is more like a bread pudding. Both require eggs. And cheese. The former can be thrown together on a whim while the latter, incorporating stale bread, can be made a day in advance. You can combine any leftovers about to expire or the fanciest of ingredients. The eggs are the glue that melds it all together.

For the frittata, I use about 3 to 4 cups combined of diced veggies and chopped cooked meat, or all veggies (chopped or shredded) to a half-dozen eggs, stir in pinches of herbs, sprinkle cheese on top and cook it all in a 10-inch cast iron skillet. I always use already-cooked ingredients, reheating them quickly in the skillet.

Out of eggs? Make what I call “Notta,” as in “sorry, notta egg in the house.” It happens. Simply toss your sauteed ingredients with rice, pasta or some other grain; pile on top of a baked white or sweet potato; nestle your veggie mix into baked acorn squash halves; or spoon it onto slices of crunchy bread. You can also just ladle these ingredients into a bowl; add noodles if you wish, and pour steaming savory broth over it all for a quickie soup. Don’t forget to stir in those condiments taking up real estate in your refrigerator door and cupboards — mustard, dipping sauce, jam, horseradish, infused vinegar.

I’d love to see what your favorite go-to’s are when you’re making do with what you have, so dive into those cupboards and let me know what you put together. I promise to try all your ideas, and if I get enough I’ll write an Eats column around your recipes! Here are mine!

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

An example of “notta” is this dish, made with leftover rice and the contents of your veggie drawer. The ingredients used for this dish include frozen peas and carrots, broccoli slaw, onions and cabbage.

Savory Frittata

Along with a salad, both the frittata and the strata will serve 4-6 people. When cut into smaller pieces, both also make great party appetizers.

Ingredients:

4 strips cooked bacon (or 1/4-1/2 cup any cooked meat or deli meat)

1-2 cups cooked potatoes (or sweet potato, cooked rice or leftover pasta could also be used)

1 small zucchini (or green beans, asparagus, peas & carrots, broccoli, winter squash . . . )

3/4 cups tomatoes (if you’re using canned tomatoes, drain them)

1/4 cup onion (or scallions, chives, leeks . . .)

1/4-1/2 cup greens (or pan-wilted kale, chard, spinach)

1 tablespoon each fresh herbs or 1 teaspoon each dried herbs of your choice (oregano and thyme are my favorites)

Salt & pepper to taste

6 large eggs whisked with 1/4 cup cream or milk

At least 1 cup shredded cheese

Directions:

In an oven-proof skillet, fry the bacon and remove. Pour off all but 2 teaspoons of the fat then saute the potatoes and other veggies. If you’re not using bacon, just toss your chosen meat and veggie combo into some olive oil or butter to saute until all the ingredients are tender-crisp, soft or caramelized. You choose! Season with herbs, salt and pepper. Pour egg and cream mixture over meat and veggies. Sprinkle cheese over all. Remove from burner and bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 25 minutes or until top is firm. Cut into wedges.

Basic strata

Butter a casserole dish of any size and tear up a loaf of stale bread to fill it. Now take that torn bread back out of the dish and measure it. You’ll want to use HALF the volume of cheese, milk and eggs as bread.

For example, if you have 2 cups of bread, use one cup of milk and one cup of eggs (about 4) and whisk together. Add any seasonings and herbs to this mixture. Put the bread back in the casserole dish, sprinkle with most of 1 cup of the cheese, reserving some for the top. Then add 1 cup of any or all of the ingredients listed above in the frittata recipe, or use whatever you have on hand.

For this recipe, the cooked ingredients should be completely cooled before adding. Pour milk-egg mixture over all and press down with a large spoon so bread is completely saturated. Top with remaining cheese.

Cover tightly with foil and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight. Bake, covered, for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover the strata and continue baking until the cheese is melted and the strata is set in the center and doesn’t jiggle, 15 to 30 minutes more depending on the size of the strata.

Look no further than the veggie bin for tonight’s supper. It’s a great place to start (and sometimes end) for both your taste buds and your health.

The word “frittata” is Italian and roughly translates to “fried.” Similar to an omelet, it usually includes eggs, cheese, veggies and meat.

Leftovers from the fridge can be combined with a flavorful broth for an “instant” hearty soup.

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