Salvage cooking, the value of inventory, be flexible!

Today I took inventory of all the perishables – freezer, refrigerator, fruit/vegetables and cooked all day. And re-arranged the freezer. I was surprised at all I had. If I had been asked to make a list before seeing the insides of the freezer, I wouldn’t have listed anywhere near all I have. What my habit has been was to buy meats/frozen items when the price would be below my lowest price, and freeze any extra that I wouldn’t be able to cook within a few days. I noticed the freezer was really getting full, so it was time to take stock.

Once I know what I have, the recipes start to form in my head before I begin. I know what’s in my pantry stockpile, and I have learned how to be flexible with the basics. I make my own sauces and I don’t rely on canned sauces. It’s easier than you think, just start with small numbers of ingredients and get gradually more complicated from there.

Roux – fat and flour, cooked until it doesn’t taste like raw flour any more, whisked smooth. This is the base for all sorts of sauces, soups, stews.

Bechemel – add a dairy product to the Roux and you have a creamy sauce/soup base.

Veloute – add stock/broth instead of dairy to the Roux and you have a rich, meaty flavored sauce/soup base. Or even add some dairy to it after you have the broth base for extra richness.

To make a sweet base, use corn syrup or molasses. To make a barbeque/outdoorsy smelling and tasting sauce, add Liquid Smoke. For stronger flavor, use seasoned salt like Adobo or garlic salt, Low Country seasoning or Old Bay. Cajun seasoning, Tandoori, Asian Five Spice, any are good for slight variations.

You can start with your basic Roux using ANY kind of fat … bacon fat, hamburger drippings, olive oil, melted butter, oil drained off roasted red peppers, any kind of fat. All-purpose flour is best but you can substitute corn starch – I have just noticed that corn starch has the same texture but is finer and lighter, and cooks clear – not as attractive if you like the white look of flour.

Experiment making the Roux and try different variations to create different flavored sauces. It’s easier and cheaper than it seems, especially since you can get fat from all sorts of different sources and you can get a 5 lb bag of flour for pennies when it’s on sale and there’s a coupon.

Proportions are typically 1:1 fat to flour ratio. Usually three tablespoons makes a 2 quart sauce base. When you add the dairy (milk, buttermilk, cream, half and half, or cream cheese) add just about two or three tablespoons at a time, keep whisking, and integrate it into the roux gradually, getting it up to temperature. You will see what happens as the texture changes and it thickens while you whisk.

If you goof and make it too watery, cook it to reduce the moisture content. Don’t try adding flour after you have already added liquid, it doesn’t taste as good and also when you are adding flour to hot liquid, it tends to glop up and make dumplings instead of whisk in smoothly. You could also start another roux in a smaller pan, whisk and cook it, then add the roux to your sauce to further thicken the sauce if you don’t want to reduce the liquid. Just whisk the newly added roux very well or else it will just be fatty flour blobs. You’ll see. Just do everything gently and gradually and it is all fixable.

Tomato based sauce – with the abundance of sales on canned tomatoes, and the chance during the growing season to get gobs of juicy fresh tomatoes locally, I don’t see any need to buy spaghetti sauce unless I’m getting it for a penny. I’d rather make my own. One of the best things I ever bought was a Braun Immersion Blender – it’s a stick blender that you insert directly into the mixing bowl or the cooking pot, even while its hot and cooking, and puree right in the pot. I got it at a thrift store and paid $4 for it, and I use it to make sauces.

First I start with my basic Mirepoix – if you check the definition online, you’ll see a true mirepoix is onion, celery and carrot. That’s great for a homestyle soup/stock base, but I have a different version based on the type of cooking I’m doing.

Basic (for me!): onion, fresh jalapeno, garlic
Italian: onion, garlic, green bell peppers
Asian: grated fresh ginger, roasted sesame seeds and oil, garlic
Crock pot (baked beans, pork roast, others): bacon, onion, fresh jalapeno
Barbeque: onion, red bell pepper, garlic

I cook the mirepoix (Basic) in two tablespoons of fat, any kind of fat will do. Cook until transparent. Add one or two cans of canned tomatoes, stick in the immersion blender and puree. Cook until simmering, taste and if needed, add salt (usually you will not need it because the fat you start with and the canned tomatoes will likely have salt already). Add your basic Italian herbs – I have fresh basil and oregano growing on my windowsill, dried also works fine, and you can add extra parsley for a little more flavor and for looks. Cook a few minutes to integrate the flavors. It is better to let it cool, sit overnight, and use the next day, but really it’s fine to fix and use and it only takes about 20 minutes total.

In case you haven’t figured it out, you’ll save a lot of time and money, and add some really great flavor to your food, if you save fat that renders from cooking meat. Any kind of meat will do. Save glass jars with lids (plastic isn’t reliable in these situations) like jelly jars, wash them, and use them to store rendered fat in your fridge for up to a few weeks before use. Fat, if kept at a lower temperature, is very stable and lasts a long time. In our house, it never has to wait long, because I do so much cooking from scratch and use rendered fat for all sorts of sauces and recipes. So next time you try a recipe that says “Brown the hamburger meat and drain off the fat”, drain it into a glass jar, let cool, cover and put in your fridge, and use it the next time you sautee vegetables or make a sauce. Or just use it to experiment, you were going to throw it out, so it’s not costing you anything to practice making roux and soup/sauce bases.

As it stands right now, I have over 50 different meat servings in my freezer – smoked sausage, cooked sausage patties, hamburger patties, meatballs, ground turkey, chicken breasts, fish and shrimp, even some marinated steak. All of it cost less than $1/pound (my buy price), and much of it was free or better than free (the chicken, sausage patties, and smoked sausage in particular). At this point, I can stop shopping for meat and cheese (I had 11 different blocks of cheese in the freezer also, as well as ricotta, cream cheese, and bleu cheese), and just shop for fresh perishables like salad stuff for at least the next two months.

It’s a huge relief to know this. I’m only going to get stockpile stuff that I get for pennies or free, and the basic pantry items that I can use for care packages and things my son might need while he’s away at school.

His diet is largely pescatarian, which is definitely the most challenging because finding good deals on fish and shellfish still usually means spending more than I would dare spend on chicken or pork. But, it’s a very healthy diet and certainly better than nonstop pizza and burgers like lots of kids his age, so I’m supporting his choice and will do what I can to make it easier for him.

I was a vegetarian at his age – mostly due to an obsession with health and fitness that I was going through at the time – so I studied a good bit about nutrition, proteins, food quality, and so on. I also found it was way cheaper to be a vegetarian, although it was socially difficult – see the above note on pizza and burgers which everyone ELSE was eating – you did feel like you were being a little weird when you ate something different than EVERYONE around you.

But, starting from this point is great, the pressure is off, and I can just look for the best deals and seek out the things we absolutely need. You don’t know what you need until you at least know what you already have.

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