(*Black Box Challenge (def’n) – a competitive event frequently seen on TV food networks, whereby chefs attempt to create the best dish from a collection of ingredients not revealed to them – i.e., hidden in a black box – until the event begins)
This quest that I’ve set myself – to minimize my own food waste by looking at my fridge contents as a sort of Black Box Challenge – yeah, you can blame it on her.
Long before I began volunteering for LeftOvers Calgary and long before I discovered the deplorable figures about food waste, Calgary food writer Julie Van Rosendaal had me started on a quiet culinary journey. (Unbeknownst to her).
I’m a big fan of her weekly CBC Radio column. How can you not love her infectious enthusiasm for how easy it is to put good food on the table? Her on-air coaching helps me tweak my own kitchen technique. She has a phenomenally-intuitive approach to cooking that I wish I could emulate (big on throwing in “a little of this, or a little of that, whatever you’ve got around”) . But I remain a firm kitchen chemist, sadly shackled to recipes and careful measurement.
Until one day, she said something that clicked a cylinder into place: “When you’re planning your meals, start with what’s in your fridge”.
Too often, she explained, we decide first what we want to make for dinner, then go out and buy the ingredients for it. This means that what’s already in our fridge runs a high risk of staying there, while the new groceries create a fresh crop of odds and bits that will be our next leftovers problem. Why not reverse that process, she suggested: start with what you already have and use it as a foundation for your next meal.
A seed had been planted.
My transition sprouted slowly. One day, a yam at the bottom of my potato bin set me scanning the indexes of my favourite cookbooks for yam-anchored side dishes. On another, some tired lemons had me trawling the web for citrus-infused mains. Small successes brought me a disproportionate amount of satisfaction -not just for throwing less out and doing my bit to save the planet, but for the pure pleasure of creativity. And one evening I knew I was hooked for good.
Busy with deadlines and with no time or inclination to go the store, I opened my fridge to the dispiriting vision of limp celery sticks – leftover crudités from a weekend dinner party. A freezer dive produced two tiny chorizo sausages and half a bag of raw shrimp – vestiges of previous taco nights. Celery, shrimp and sausage got me to thinking about jambalaya – and soon I was digging into my favourite cookbook by Chef Michael Smith .
His recipe called for both green and red bell peppers; my crisper held the better part of a single red. Good enough. A sample rice packet picked up from last fall’s runners’ fair could fill the medium-grain rice requirement and some dried thyme could substitute for filé powder. I was temporarily stymied by the uncharacteristic absence of canned tomatoes in my pantry. But I made do with a few tomatoes shriveling on my kitchen counter – and threw in my last couple handfuls of spinach for good measure.
And the result? My man raved about the jambalaya I produced that night. I couldn’t disagree. I had created a delicious dinner from nothing but leftover bits – and the thrill of the challenge made me a firm convert to the delights of “Black Box” inspiration. (Thank you, Julie! You might not have coined the term, but the inspiration is all yours).
Note that I haven’t given up my recipe crutch. And I still plan most meals on desire and a long grocery list. But at least once a week I start my menu-planning with a peek in my fridge – and the amount of food I throw into my green bin has dwindled to a trickle. In my personal battle against food waste, fun has proven SO much more motivating than guilt.
I’ve included my jambalaya rendition for you here (Or as close as I can remember it. Feel free to improvise).
And as promised in my November post, I’ll spend the next few weeks sharing the leftovers challenges that crop up in my fridge and the strategies I’ve devised to deal with them. I hope through this series that you, too, will be inspired to tackle your own Black Box – and that, like me, you’ll discover it to be a new culinary muse.
In the meantime, check out Erin Lawrence’s article in this month’s issue of City Palate for more on the food waste conundrum (you’ll find it on page 22).
And watch for my post next week with another recipe or two!
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
4 ounces chorizo (or other spicy sausage), sliced into thin rounds
2 stalks (or so) of celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-1/2 tsp paprika
1-1/2 tsp ground cumin
1-1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup of medium-grain rice
1/3 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 or 3 tomatoes
3/4 cup water (or chicken broth, if you have it)
Heat a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil and sausage, and sauté until lightly browned (2-3 minutes).
Add celery, onion, pepper, garlic, paprika, cumin, thyme, and cayenne. Continue cooking until vegetables have softened (4-5 minutes).
Stir in the rice, coating the grains with oil and lightly toasting for a minute or two. Stir in shrimp, tomatoes, and water or broth, and bring to a full boil.
Reduce heat to simmer. Cover pot with a tight lid and cook for approximately 20 minutes. Turn off heat and rest 10 minutes without removing lid. Serve with pride.
(*If tomatoes are not very juicy and mixture becomes dry before the rice is fully-cooked, add more water or broth, replace lid, and continue to simmer until done).
Text and photos © 2018 Catherine Van Brunschot