Kitchen clean scheme What's cooking? A plan to get your shelves in shape

September 30, 1998|By Jennifer Lowe | Jennifer Lowe,Orange County Register

Somewhere in the back of the pantry, on that top shelf you ignore, lurks a can of something dating from the war - the world war.

Down there in the lettuce drawer, buried under parsley that garnished the Easter ham, sit those cranberries from Thanksgiving.

And the spices on the counter, gray in their jars, glowed bright years ago when you got the spice rack as a wedding gift.

Isn't it time for a little kitchen cleaning? You'll become more organized. If you can see what's on hand, meal planning becomes easier. Foraging in the fridge becomes a thing of the past. Leftovers get used promptly.

Don't become a victim of restaurant foam containers piling up, of impulse buys from the market.

"It's like junk mail," says Pat McBride-Burris, a professional organizer. "In the kitchen, things only last so long. Yet we're always bringing more in, so if we don't periodically go through it, the space gets saturated. And that's when people get disorganized."

Step 1: Take charge - toss out old food. Get ruthless. Dump the molding takeout leftovers (so what if your husband brought them home from your anniversary dinner) and the 3-year-old frozen game hen (do you want to eat 3-year-old frozen game hen?).

By holding onto old food, you may risk good taste, your health or both.

Throwing out food "can really be hard for a lot of people. They don't think it can go bad," McBride-Burris says.

Food loses flavor and quality the longer it sits.

Take seriously expiration dates stamped on cans.

According to the Steel Packing Council, canned foods can be stored up to two years after purchase. But after a year, many canned goods begin deteriorating. For example, canned fruit juice loses about 25 percent of its vitamin C, while canned asparagus loses vitamins and fades to a pale yellow after about a year, according to "Keeping Food Fresh" by Janet Bailey (Perennial Library, $14).

Use canned asparagus, beets, citrus fruits, green beans, fruit juices, pickles, peppers, sauerkraut, mixed fruits and tomato products within six months, Bailey says.

If you can't find an expiration date on a product, label it yourself. McBride-Burris labels her spices with the month and year she bought them, because dried herbs and spices are especially susceptible to heat, light and air.

Cans that are dentbuckled should be tossed. Also toss jars that are leaking, or containers that have strange odors when opened. You could be risking botulism, which - though rare - has a fatality rate of about 65 percent, Bailey says.

With refrigerated products, pay attention to "sell by" dates. Those are not expiration dates, but a guide for retailers on when to remove the product from their shelves. Depending on the product, shelf life varies once you bring the product home. Unopened milk, for example, is fresh for another week beyond the carton date if properly refrigerated at 40 degrees, says Adri Boudewyn, chief executive officer of the California Milk Advisory Board.

Foods that have been improperly stowed in the freezer develop freezer burn - telltale ice crystals cover the food as the food dries out and flavor and texture suffer. Packaging needs to be airtight.

Use this timetable from "The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook" (Hearst Books, $30) as a storage guide:

* Raw poultry, fish and meat: two-three days in the refrigerator, three-six months in the freezer

* Raw ground meat or poultry: one-two days in the refrigerator, three months in the freezer

* Cooked whole roasts or whole poultry: two-three days in the refrigerator, nine months in the freezer

* Cooked poultry pieces: one-two days in the refrigerator; one month in the freezer

* Bread: three months in the freezer

* Ice cream: one-two months in the freezer

* Soups and stews: two-three days in the refrigerator, one-three months in the freezer

* Casseroles: two-three days in the refrigerator, two-four weeks in the freezer

* Cookies: six-eight months in the freezer

Step 2: Use it up and move it out.

McBride-Burris calls her leftovers "planned-overs."

She might prepare a double batch of a dinner one night and eat the rest the next day - as a lunch or dinner, with variations.

If you grill chicken one night, use the extra the next day cut into strips atop tossed greens. Rice for the stir-fry one night can become a pudding for dessert (or breakfast) the next day.

Think of those restaurant leftovers and how you can use them up. If nothing else, save money and time by packing them as a lunch.

Scan the vegetable bin for stray mushrooms, carrots, an asparagus stalk or two, and add them to soups, rice, salads. Rub aging spices between your fingers to maximize their flavor before using, or saute them in butter before adding to your recipes. But have limits.

"A stock is not a catchall for old or spoiled vegetables, although you can use trimmings, last week's carrots, mushrooms with open caps," writes Deborah Madison in "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" (Broadway Books, $40).

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