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Kitchen cleanup

(article, Deborah Madison)

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I happen to love the seasonal rituals of the home — switching summer clothes for winter ones in the fall, then back again in the spring, or washing all those south-facing windows once the leaves have fallen from the trees, and we’re forced by the sunlight to see all the dust and grime that accumulated during summer months. 

Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out of my office and do something more strenuous than type, but cleaning and shifting stuff around, like cleaning off my office desk, somehow clears the mind along with the clutter.

January is not only a good time to list our good intentions for the coming year, it’s also a great time to clean the kitchen inside and out. There’s something good about starting the year with clean slates of all kinds, and for me, the most important one is in the kitchen, where I spend a great deal of my time and my creative energies.

In fact, the new year has become, for me, the most reliable occasion, though certainly not the only one, for giving my refrigerator and cupboards a good going-over. Everything gets cleaned, assessed, and accounted for, but these harbored contents are not just dull, inanimate things. They also serve as mirrors to my world of the past 12 months. 

[%image oils float=right width=400 caption="Deborah Madison's collection of cooking oils."] Sometimes the mirror is of the funhouse variety, distorting what I think of as my reality. Do I really still have that old jar of argon oil from a trip to Morocco so many years ago, or that sack of jerky given to me quite some time ago? Apparently I do! Or what about that flaxseed oil I had promised to take daily but didn’t? I sniff it; it seems OK still. 

I check all my oils to make sure they’re fresh and not rancid. But what these three things say is that because the argon oil is too precious to use, it simply dwells on its shelf in the refrigerator door. I’m just not a jerky eater, I’m really not, and apparently my intentions differ from my actions when it comes to following through with healthful regimens. Even in something as mundane as the contents of our refrigerators, there’s no escaping ourselves. It’s time to get on with things: use that argon oil, share the jerky, give that flaxseed oil a better try.

So everything comes out of the fridge. All the bins get scrubbed in hot soapy water, and the side-door shelves get re-lined with tinfoil because the jars and bottles of oils that I keep there tend to leak their contents — how, I can’t explain — and leave an unattractive deposit that calls for elbow grease. 

While going through this little cleaning ritual, I’m always amazed that I can count on finding a jar with three olives floating in brine, and another with two pieces of herring swimming in their vinegar sea. What is it about the last few pieces of things that allow them to linger so? Won’t someone please just polish off those olives? And who knows why there are three jars of opened mustard, but there they are.

Worse is that shelf of condiments, most of which I don’t recall shopping for, though I do remember buying that jar of Crystal hot sauce in New Orleans years before Katrina. It seems to be immutably shelf-stable. As I do each year, I give it a sniff and think, “I should use this!” But in the end, it never seems to win my interest over the warmer, less sour flavor of the salsas I’ve grown to prefer. This year I finally tossed it. 

Throwing food away isn’t easy to do, but doing so relieves the clutter not only in my refrigerator but in my palate and mind as well. If I’m honest about what I toss and what I keep, I have to conclude that I don’t want all the tastes of the world on my shelves quite as much as I used to. Rather, I prefer to have only those that I really use. 

This means that the Thai curry pastes and chutneys stay, along with the miso, chipotle salsas, and a bevy of oils — walnut, sesame, sunflower seed, olive, and almond. But the jerk sauces and weird concoctions go. And that argon oil, which is truly delicious and hard to find, gets shared with those who are not so clutchy about valuables. The small bottle I keep for myself will be used. As a kid, I could keep Halloween candy for at least six months, but it’s far time for me to be more expansive and less of a hoarder, even if that's my nature.

One vegetable bin is filled with gem-like dried fruits collected from various farmers’ markets. I pull out a bag of Arctic Rose nectarines and firm up my intention to use them, because if I don’t and they stay hidden away, I’ll forget that they’re there and before you know it, fresh nectarines will be here once again. The same goes for the bags of nuts squirreled away in the freezer, between the frozen persimmon, tomato, and sorrel purées. None of this is any good if you don’t get around to using it.

My cupboards also show me what a hoarder I am. There’s a quart of odd dried peas from Puglia that I carried home, what, now four years ago? They will never cook through at this point. What else? There are jars with one or two tablespoons of black rice, kamut, or spelt groats. I feed them to the birds. If the birds don’t eat them, the seeds will probably sprout into a verdant little lawn; at least, this has happened in the past when I’ve tossed out those bits and pieces that dwell in the bottoms of jars and bags.

[%image spices float=right width=400 caption="Use your herbs within the year."] When I get to my many herbs and spices, I am reminded that I often tell people not to hang onto them like irreplaceable treasures, but to use them within a year. For this reason I indulged myself recently at Penzeys in St. Paul and came home with a big fresh battery of herbs and spices, this time bought in small containers that I’ll be forced to replace before the year is out. 

But what about those jars of dried dull leaves that still remain? If I can’t tell what those leaves are when I crush them between my fingers, out they go! They’re unlikely to enhance any dish. 

The three jars of red chiles seem stale, and I know there’s more at the market some farmer is happy to sell. I finally admit that I don’t have an affinity for the bottle of tandoori spice that’s been there for the past several years. There are things I have no idea about, and a can of clams that I’m sure I never bought. A bag of Japanese cookies that didn’t taste very fresh to start with is still there, and those jars of jam that I made? When was that? I’d be scared to eat them now. It’s time to take a walk to the compost heap.

When I’m finally done with what feels like a fairly ruthless sorting, I clean the glass on my cupboards and wipe up those crumbs of herbs, tea leaves, and rice. Encrusted bottles of vanilla, soy sauce, and orange-flower water (how do they get that way?) are wiped clean so that everything looks shiny and new. At last, my kitchen almost sparkles. I feel as if it’s inviting me to start cooking, and it makes me feel as if a good beginning is in store for the year to come. 

I have a clean slate, a tabula rasa to write on. Those dirty surfaces and cluttered shelves were good records of the year’s past endeavors and follies, of meals cooked, cakes baked, of successes and mistakes made. That’s all very well and good — it was fun to relive it, if not a little sobering. But these new clean surfaces are full of promise and welcome. I can hardly wait to start messing them up.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

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