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These Pantry Meals Taste Like Anything But Leftovers

Use up your kitchen odds and ends with these super-flexible recipes.


A tale of two hands: On the one hand, it's hard to be a good and spontaneous cook if you don't have a reasonably well-stocked pantry and refrigerator. On the other hand, shelves packed with half-filled jars, leftovers, and miscellaneous (often mysterious) oddments make it impossible to see what you've got to work with. And if you haven't cleared the decks lately, chances are your kitchen is just as overdue for a spring-cleaning as any other room in the house.
In my kitchen, the worst offenders are the cheese drawer and the fridge doors, where I store condiments. At any given time I could have three open jars of mustard, a few kinds of olives as well as a jar with just a tablespoon of capers in the bottom, a nearly empty bottle of ketchup leftover from last year's Fourth of July picnic, and assorted other condiments I used once and forgot about. The cheese bin might harbor heels and nubs of a half-dozen kinds of cheese, from aged grating cheeses to melting cheeses – even shredded jack from taco night. The pantry shelves are hardly any better, with crumpled half-sleeves of crackers, boxes holding a few lonely ounces of pasta, and canned goods nearing the end of their useful lives. Sound familiar?
As much as I like a clean fridge and organized pantry, though, I also hate the idea of wasting perfectly good food. So I had the brilliant idea of instituting a biweekly ritual I call "operation clean sweep," and have come up with a handful of adaptable recipes made just for using up these unloved bits and pieces.
Every other Saturday morning (right before Jade's riding lesson) I reach into the recesses of my fridge to see what's there; anything more than three-quarters used up, or looking like it's about to go limp and flabby is fair game. Tired veggies and meaty leftovers like chicken carcasses go into a stockpot to simmer; after a quick skim when it reaches a boil, I basically ignore it while I go about my business, knowing after a few hours I'll have a nice broth to use for soups, risottos, or just sipping throughout the week. Veggies with a little more life in them get chopped (or a quick steam and ice water bath) then combined with any fresh leafy herbs and greens for a massive salad I can eat all weekend (I dress individual portions as I go to keep it from becoming soggy).
If I'm getting to the bottom of a mustard jar I'll use it to make a week's worth of vinaigrette, adding directly to the jar some chopped shallots, lemon juice or vinegar, plus olive oil – both economical and a time saver for weeknights! Sometimes I mix in a bit of something creamy if I want to polish off a container of yogurt, sour cream, or mayo, making a sturdier dressing that works well on pasta, potato, or chicken salads. It's perfect for leftover rotisserie chicken or roasted potatoes.
Once the truly perishable things are weeded out, I take a good hard look at what's left and make a determination about whether to use it or lose it. If I decide to use it, chances are the ingredient in question will find its way into a simple risotto or pasta dish like this tuna-and-caper combo. It will work with virtually any shaped or strand pasta, uses up that half-can of pricey San Marzano tomatoes, and you can totally swap out black olives or any other salty condiment you've got on hand for the capers. The dipping sauce for the saltine-crusted shrimp – which could just as easily be panko-crusted chicken tenders or cereal-crusted calamari, depending on what you're trying to use up – is a slightly spicy and altogether delicious way to kill the dregs of a ketchup bottle. You'll want to make it by the barrel for sandwiches, meatloaf, and anything else you can think of.
The real showstopper, though, is the delicate and decadent cheese soufflé. It gets an amazing depth of flavor from the blend of cheeses, and as long as your total quantity remains the same, you can use whichever varieties you have as long as they can be grated. It's also a lot less tricky to make than its press would have you believe. And, best of all, it will never occur to anyone to accuse you of feeding them leftovers when you bring this golden-brown beauty to the table – they'll be too busy applauding.

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