At the beginning of the lockdown, the friend we have staying in the cabin sharing our little bubble asked me if I wanted her to get rid of the expired food she had found in the pantry.
"Like what?" I asked, slightly affronted.
"Well things that are ... maybe, like 4 years old ... there's sweet chilli sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, fish sauce. There are even crystals in the bottom of the fish sauce."
I could tell she was horrified.
"Ahh no, that stuff's fine, it never goes off," was my reply. "There's so much sugar in the chilli sauce. Vinegar just gets better the older it is and all the salt in fish sauce preserves it indefinitely. If you don't use it very often it forms crystals on the bottom of the bottle."
I'm not talking about eating anything that could make you sick or recommending eating food that's full of weevils or has gone rancid but most pantry items last for a lot longer than their "best before" dates. Use-by dates indicate when a product may no longer be safe to eat. You shouldn't eat, cook or freeze it after the date displayed, even if it looks or smells okay.
Best before dates, on the other hand, are an indication of quality rather than safety. You can still eat food after its best before date but its flavour and texture may not be as good as before the date (this doesn't apply to fish sauce or vinegar, both of which you will pay a premium for if they are "aged"). Products very high in salt, sugar or vinegar will generally keep for years.
Food that has freezer burn (the result of air coming into contact with food), doesn't look appealing, will be dry and often has an odd flavour. If you find freezer burn on the corner of a piece of meat or chicken, simply cut it off before cooking. If the whole item is freezer burnt, you are best to biff it.
If the past few weeks have taught me one thing, it's how inventive you can get with what's in the pantry, in the back of fridge and the freezer. Those wild ducks that have been loitering in the freezer for the past year are rendered to succulent tenderness in the slow cooker with a can of coconut cream, half a cup of chutney, a slug of fish sauce, chopped chilli and a dried-up-looking kaffir lime leaf (also from the back of the freezer). Marmalade mixed with a couple of spoonfuls of balsamic vinegar creates a tangy, citrusy, sweet and sour sauce that's great for pork, duck or chicken.
Warm up old jam with a little water or fruit juice and use in place of sugar to sweeten apples or pears before stewing or in a crumble or pie. If you find ripe blackberries or any other pip or stonefruit (nectarines, peaches, apples, pears, etc) in the backyard or out on your neighbourhood walk, put them in a clean jar (chop if needed) and cover with white or wine vinegar. In a few months you'll have a lovely, fruity vinegar to use in dressings and sauces.
As we head deep into autumn, now's the time to replenish the pantry. Having some tasty fixings at hand is a great way to brighten up simple, everyday meals.
Date and Tamarind Chutney
Ready in 35 minutes
Makes 1½ cups
This is a really useful sauce. I love it with a dollop of natural yoghurt on top of fritters or falafel, with cheese and crackers, cold meats, kumara wedges, steak, samosas or as a side for curries. To turn it into a salad dressing (great for roasted vegetables) or a marinade for chicken or pork, mix 2 Tbsp chutney with 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice.
½ cup tamarind paste or concentrate
½ cup soft brown sugar
½ cup chopped pitted dates
2 cups water
2 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds, chopped
½ tsp salt
Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a simmer. Cook gently until thick and pasty (about 30 minutes), stirring now and then near the end of cooking to ensure it doesn't catch on the bottom of the pot. It will keep for months in a sealed jar in the fridge.
No-Cook Raspberry Jam
Ready in 2 mins
Makes 1 cup
Frozen berries are so useful to have on hand. Make them into regular jam by boiling up with an equal weight of sugar, or cook them up with just a little sugar and some vanilla for an easy dessert sauce, or make this easy and healthy "no-cook" jam. It's fabulous over yoghurt or served with icecream or chocolate cake.
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
1 Tbsp chia seeds
1 Tbsp honey, or more to taste
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and whizz for 60 seconds. Refrigerate overnight before using. Keeps for one week in the fridge or can be frozen.
Turkish Red Pepper Pesto
Ready in about an hour
Makes 1¼ cups
A spoonful of this handy sauce will enliven sauces, marinades or bakes. Toss it through fettuccini, serve with kebabs, or slather over fish fillets or chicken before baking.
4 red peppers, cored, deseeded and coarsely chopped
1-2 long red chillies, deseeded and coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
¾ tsp salt
Place all ingredients in a food processor and whizz to form a smooth paste. Tip into a large, heavy-based frypan, bring to a simmer and cook until the mixture starts to thicken (about 30 minutes). Reduce heat to low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until it is very thick and pasty and almost starting to stick to the pan (it's vital to cook it out fully or it won't keep).
Transfer to a sterilised jar and store in the fridge. It keeps for weeks, but if planning to store for a long time, cover with 2 Tbsp oil to prevent oxidation. It can also be frozen in ice cube trays.