Cleaning out the refrigerator is one of those activities that once started, can quickly veer off to produce another. You undeniably start by removing all of the items stored inside and unexpectedly end up cooking with those that are still salvageable. This impromptu style of cooking often results in delicious recipes packed with comforting flavors.
Unless you happen to harbor only leftover Chinese takeout cartons and a few beers in your fridge, you might find that delicious possibilities await you stacked at the bottom of your refrigerator bins. However, how well you will be able to use them will depend on how you stored ingredients in the first place.
For some reason, I have yet to find a home cook who does not agree that large vegetable bins in refrigerators are more like slow composting drawers rather than storing vessels. They are usually so deep, that by the time one finishes stacking up the produce all the way to the top, one has usually forgotten what was arranged at the very bottom.
Even if they are made of the most crystalline see-through material, it is hard to access those vegetables at the foot of the pile without having to remove all of those that lie on top. By the time most cooks reach long-forgotten veggies at the base of the drawers, they have already begun to—how shall we put it—wither and wilt with unabashed abandon.
An easy way to prevent all of this waste is to wash and organize—whether by cleaning, chopping or otherwise prepping—all of the vegetables prior to storing them in the refrigerator. Stackable containers or resealable bags are easier to store than those unsightly grocery bags with twist-ups. You would be amazed to discover the amount of space that can be saved by cutting off carrot tops, disassembling lettuce heads and chopping bell peppers before putting them away; preparing ingredients this way also makes cooking recipes much faster.
Of course, it goes without saying that certain vegetables should not be refrigerated at all, as is the case of tomatoes, onions and potatoes. A common faux pas, has home cooks storing onions and potatoes in the same refrigerated bin, without giving any consideration to the fact that not only do these not like cold temperatures, but that they also give off gases that in turn make each other rot more quickly (before you begin to store them in your pantry, remember to keep them separate from each other).
Store leeks, scallions and chives in the fridge, but don’t let avocados or garlic meet the inside of your refrigerator. Apples, by the way, should never be stored together with carrots or onions, for the same reason, although they will last longer if refrigerated than if left at room temperature.
This brings me to the subject of storing fruits, which should be left at room temperature only when they will be consumed in the few hours after they were brought home; there are a few exceptions, like berries, which should always be stored in the refrigerator. Refrigeration prevents fruits from ripening any further, thus furthering their shelf life a little bit, so make sure they are at their peak before you store fruits in the cold bin. Grapes, last much longer when kept chilled, but become sweeter when left at room temperature.
If you are in doubt as to how best to store the produce you purchase, ask vendors, or check out the labels placed near each item at most grocery stores; these not only tell you how to store them but also give you cooking suggestions . Clean and cut fresh pineapples, cantaloupes, watermelons and kiwis, before storing them in the refrigerator. Storing bananas in the fridge will make them turn black and soft, but before you decide to throw them out, consider using them as the main ingredient for baked banana breads or muffins.
Old, yet viable vegetables can be used in a variety of manners. To make a delicious refrigerator soup, chop up vegetables—such as leeks, greens, carrots, mushrooms, etc.—and add them to a pot of simmering stock; consider pureeing the soup for a delicious cream of vegetables. Or use them to make frittatas, quiches, stir-fries and sauces.
By the same token, tired fruits that are still edible but are past their prime may be transformed into delicious hot desserts, such as pies, crisps, and hot sauces. Process very ripe strawberries with whipping cream and sugar; then freeze this sorbet mixture and scoop it out when ready to serve. Chop up apples and add them to a coffee-cake batter, or use blueberries to make pancakes or waffles. Chop up pears, and peaches and sauté them in butter; then add some brown sugar, a dash of brandy and serve them over vanilla ice cream.
Make the best out of a necessary chore and clean out your refrigerator often. Discard meats, eggs and any dairy products that are old. When it comes to these, follow my adage: When in doubt, throw them out. Then after carefully discarding all inedible foods, see what you still have at hand and get cooking. A little imagination, some culinary ingenuity and a well stocked pantry will help you produce delicious meals out of salvageable ingredients from your well trusted chilling appliance.
Copyright © Sandra A. Gutierrez 2007. All rights reserved.