By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's are long gone, but you wouldn't know it by looking in my pantry.
A bottle of molasses, purchased for gingerbread cookies, is affixed to the shelf by a drip that settled underneath. In another cabinet, dried cranberries and figs lean on a frumpy bag of ground pecans. There is a solitary square of semisweet baker's chocolate in a box.
Other inventory: one vanilla bean, a few tablespoons of honey, some poppy seeds, sticky red and green candied cherries, and assorted nuts, including pistachios in the shell and almonds -- whole, sliced and blanched slivers.
If this year is like every other, these bits and pieces will sit untouched until the fall, when they will be dumped like the boyfriend who forgot a birthday. Who wants to make Christmas cookies with year-old dried cranberries? Not me.
But this year, I vow, will be different. I want to do my part, albeit small, in this time of a lousy economy and fears of war, and not waste food. Surely I am not the only one with a bag of coconut languishing in the scary corner of the pantry.
It's a snap to find recipes that use these ingredients. On www.allrecipes.com, a search for shredded coconut brings up 130 recipes, including a yummy-sounding one for buttermilk coconut bars. One hitch, however: The recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, which would leave the rest of the container idling in the fridge. Back to square one.
The trick is to find ways to use inventory without additional purchases. Be brave, I tell myself, toss a handful of dried cranberries into pancake batter. Put a spoonful of honey in a cup of green tea. Kitchen science is all about experimentation, so it does no good to be overly nervous about the outcome.
That said, the green and red candied cherries that looked so lovely in the candied fruit slice cookies last December stump me. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing, it seems.
"Just throw them away," says Margaret Ann Burtchaell of Margaret Ann's Catering and Gourmet Cookies in St. Petersburg.
Then her culinary mojo cranks up and she suggests chopping and sprinkling sweet bits over ice cream. Vanilla, cherry, chocolate, any flavor that sounds good, she says.
"You could even sprinkle on some of your leftover nuts on the ice cream with the candied cherries," Burtchaell says. "Now that I think of it, candied cherries, pecans and coconut could be a whole new cookie."
The new cookie might require more purchases, so I put my fingers in my ears and chant "La-la-la." C'mon, give me something that doesn't require a trip to the grocery store.
Burtchaell and Nan Jensen, a registered dietitian with the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension, are full of ideas to empty my pantry of neglected ingredients. Their suggestions should help you do a little spring cleaning and cooking, too.
Vanilla bean. Burtchaell suggests making vanilla sugar by pulverizing the bean in a food processor and adding it to about three cups of sugar. Turning it into dust makes the flavor more intense, she says. Or place the whole bean in a canister of sugar and let the flavor seep in that way. Jensen says that two vanilla beans can flavor a pound of sugar. Vanilla sugar brings more distinction to baked goods and is certainly tasty twirled in coffee or tea.
"Make your own vanilla flavoring by splitting the bean lengthwise and adding it to 3/4 cup of vodka," Jensen says. Refrigerating homemade vanilla will help retain flavor longer, she says.
Poppy seeds. Throw them into whatever you're baking, Burtchaell says. Muffins, cakes, cupcakes and breads can be dressed up with poppy seeds. Drizzle a glaze of 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 3 cups confectioner's sugar and poppy seeds over a store-bought pound or Bundt cake.
Poppy seed dressing can be made by adding a tablespoon or two of seeds to a store-bought bottle of honey Dijon vinaigrette.
Molasses. Jensen likes molasses plain over pancakes or French toast. Makes sure it's unsulphured -- the label will tell you that -- or it will be too strong, she warns. A tablespoon or two adds depth to canned baked beans or bottled marinades and barbecue sauces. Making chili? Add a little molasses for heft and sweetness.
Molasses is a common ingredient in many stir-fry sauces. Add a bit directly to a skillet of veggies and chicken or seafood in conjunction with minced garlic, soy sauce, lemon zest and a splash of sherry. My bottle will be empty soon with these great suggestions.
Semisweet chocolate square. The 1-ounce square isn't enough to make brownies or even chocolate frosting, but it's too tasty to toss out. Melt it in the microwave with a little oil and drizzle it over brownies, cookies or even ice cream, Burtchaell says. Or make chocolate curls with a vegetable peeler and toss them on a frosted cake or over the whipped cream of an ice cream sundae. The chocolate needs to be at room temperature or it will crumble, she says. Remember to pair it with something sweet.
Grate the square, or melt it, and add to a cake or muffin mix, Jensen says. One ounce of chocolate would punch up banana bread. The additional chocolate won't throw off the essential wet to dry ratio of baked goods, Jensen says.
Chocolate and meat? They go hand in hand in Mexican mole, so a little chocolate in a pot of chili might just become the secret ingredient in an award-winning dish.
Dried cranberries, dates and figs. Dried fruits keep well if stored in an airtight bag or container, but they should be used within six months of opening. Cranberries and dates go well with orange, and Burtchaell says she would toss them in a citrus vinaigrette. The liquid will make them plump and more succulent.
"Or just toss them in a salad," she says. "The figs would be nice with other fruit."
A handful of dried fruit in muffins, waffles or pancakes is tasty, and dates can always take the place of raisins in oatmeal cookies. Speaking of oatmeal, cranberries add a sweet-tart touch to this hot breakfast dish.
Make your own trail mix with the dried fruits and leftover nuts by simply adding them to store-bought granola, Jensen says. At children's workshops at the extension, Jensen teaches kids to make a single no-bake cookie from 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 11/2 tablespoon dry milk powder, 1/2 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon low-sugar cereal and 1/2 tablespoon chopped dried fruit. The ingredients are rolled in a ball and refrigerated if the cookie isn't eaten right way. A batch of these cookies could use up all my dried fruit and honey. (On second look, there's a box of dry milk packets behind an unopened bottle of fish sauce.)
Shredded coconut. "I always keep coconut in the freezer," Burtchaell says. "One use is to toast it carefully and make ice cream balls and roll them in the toasted coconut. You could even drizzle some of that leftover chocolate over them."
Toasted coconut could be added to breading for shrimp or fish, she says.
Jensen likes to add toasted coconut along with some raisins to cooked rice.
Assorted nuts. Ground pecans can be mixed with bread crumbs for fish or chicken. About 1/4 cup of ground pecans lends flavor to cookie dough or cake batter.
"Another good idea would be to roll slices of goat cheese in the ground nuts, mixed with an herb such as thyme," she says. "This would be a nice appetizer."
Dietitians and nutrition experts such as Jensen are encouraging us to eat more nuts because of their healthy fats. They are high in calories, though, so a handful here and there is just the right amount. Toss those leftover almonds on vegetables or salads, Jensen says.
"Put the nuts in a food processor with just a tiny amount of vegetable oil and make a nut butter, just like peanut butter," Jensen says. "You might not even need any oil depending on the nuts."
You may have other foods sitting lonely on your shelves. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Wheat germ can be sprinkled over just about everything for extra fiber. A dribble of sesame oil will make pea pods, or other steamed vegetables, do the watusi. Mix that can of salmon with mayonnaise and a few shakes of ground ginger for a lovely sandwich fixing or salad over lettuce leaves.
I am planning to start the next holiday season with a clean slate and an empty pantry.
If only I could figure out what to do about that bottle of fish sauce.
Fruit Salad With Vanilla Bean Syrup
Split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape seeds into small saucepan. Add bean halves, sugar, orange juice and orange peel. Over medium heat, stir until sugar is dissolved. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes until becomes light syrup. Pour syrup into large serving container. If using vanilla extract instead of bean, stir into syrup at this point. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Pour syrup over fresh fruit.
Makes 6 servings.
In a large bowl, combine molasses, vinegar and brown sugar. Rinse, pit and quarter nectarines. Add to marinade and mix gently. Let stand 15 to 30 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, lift nectarines from marinade (reserve marinade) and lay on grill. Turn as needed until quarters begin to brown on both sides, about 2 minutes total. Serve with grilled pork or lamb chops. Drizzle extra marinade evenly over nectarines and meats. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Buttermilk Coconut Bars
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 13-inch pan.
In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, brown sugar, flour, and butter; blend with a pastry blender until the mixture is coarse crumbs. Remove 2 cups of the mixture to another bowl and reserve the rest.
Stir the coconut and walnuts into the 2 cups of sugar mixture. Pat firmly into greased pan. Stir the baking soda, salt and cinnamon into reserved mixture. Mix in the egg, buttermilk and vanilla until well blended. Spread over the crust in the pan.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes in the preheated oven, or until firm. Cool. Make a glaze using confectioners' sugar and enough of the milk to give the glaze a drizzling consistency. Drizzle over bars before cutting into squares.
Makes 24 servings.
Honey Poppy Seed Dressing
In a jar, combine oil, honey, vinegar, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika and Worcestershire sauce. Place lid tightly on jar and shake until dressing is blended.
Baked Honey Mustard Chicken
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper to taste, and place in a lightly greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine the honey, mustard, basil, paprika, and parsley. Mix well. Pour 1/2 of this mixture over the chicken, and brush to cover. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Turn chicken pieces over and brush with the remaining 1/2 of the honey mustard mixture. Bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink and juices run clear. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
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