It's time to reconsider your refrigerator. It's not just a magnet holder. It's not just a big, cold box. It is the portal through which you open up magnificent possibilities.
The refrigerator is one of the few areas of my life I have sorted out. It’s not empty; it’s not crowded. Very few of its contents are wilted, moldy, expired, or just plain trashy. Look under my car’s hood, or at my bank account statement, or in my neglected compost heap for horror stories. My fridge? I rock our fridge.
Gross cooling systems and I go way back, thanks to my extensive resumé of restaurant and catering jobs. The walk-in, the reach-in: I have walked in and reached in to encounter shit you don’t want to know about, in quantities you can’t fathom. Cases of slime-coated leeks, 22-gallon Cambros of sour black beans, crates of limes wreathed in powdery white mildew. Pork chops hosting a raging listeria hoedown. These were crummy establishments; I was young and poorly trained. So was the rest of the staff, unless they were old and underpaid and world-weary. The walk-in didn’t get cleaned unless the health inspector was due to arrive. Thanks to improper storage, we threw away tons of food. Literally. Tons.
Have you ever heard of FIFO? First in, first out. It’s one of the foundations of good inventory control. There was no FIFO at these sorry places of my culinary salad days. We’d get our SYSCO shipment of frozen and refrigerated pre-made crap and hastily shove boxes and packages wherever there was space (usually right in front of boxes and packages that were already open). In my home, FIFO is the gospel. I abhor waste.
In the morning, you get dressed. You open your closet and grab this and that, maybe change your mind and hang a certain shirt back up because it turns out you are just nor feeling it. A refrigerator is a food closet. Prepping for a meal, I have an idea of the direction I’m going in: cabbage, leftover brown rice, May Ploy sauce. But sometimes another bottle or Tupperware container catches my eye, and it cements the whole thing. Feta? Ham? It’s the unpredictable whims we choose to act upon that make the outfit or the meal.
On the top shelf I keep my stash of bacon and chicken fat, as well as butter. My yogurt is up there, too. I buy Dannon Plain, full-fat, and drain it to make it Greek-style. That jar of cloudy white liquid is the whey from the yogurt. I love whey. It’s tart and cheesy and a great cooking liquid for grains and beans, and it keeps for weeks.
We’re heavy into condiments: hot sauces, jams, chutneys. They keep for ages, too. The risk of very sugary, very acidic foods like these going bad is low, but long-term storage can lead to diminished favor, so I try to dip into these frequently. We currently have six jars of mustard open, including whole-grain, classic yellow, spicy hot pepper, Austrian-style, mild herb, and brown. Different mustards for different moods. 95% of sandwiches are not sandwiches if they lack mustard.
On the bottom shelf of the door you see sausage casing. It’s dried and preserved in salt, and will last for months, if not years, and for years they will remain in that very spot. I bought them for a sausage-making class, but I don’t like the diameter: too wide for breakfast links, too narrow for bratwurst.
I label the lids of most jars so I can tell at a glance what’s in there. That way I won’t forget. Every day I see my jar of candied orange and grapefruit peels and am stumped for what to make with them. Last time I used them, I blitzed a few slivers into this tomato soup I made. It’s a zillion times better than it sounds.
The newness of our fridge helps mollify its messiness. There are a few desiccated carrot ends and celery stalks under the crisper, and I think my last batch of bacon leaked its liquefied cure into the tracks of the drawers. Gross, right? Sticky-sweet raw pork juice. See, I’m no saint, despite my fiery FIFO rhetoric. Maybe I should call the health inspector and schedule a walk-though.
Since taking these photos, I’ve made chili with the black beans that were in the pressure cooker. I braised kielbasa in the package of kraut I had languishing in the bottom of the produce drawer. I used the last dregs of the chicken fat to sauté the onion for that braise, because I realized the chicken fat wasn’t getting any younger. It was delicious, roasty poultry fat mingling with the mild funk of cured pork fat.
A refrigerator isn’t just an appliance. It's not the place where you hide food until it goes bad and you have to throw it away. It’s a portal to awesome eating. Don’t be afraid to leap in, FIFO or no FIFO.
Note: my fridge is nowhere as interesting to Prince’s. Talk about a portal, though I’m not sure where that portal leads. Not to awesome eating, but maybe to a land of mighty purple funk.
This post originally appeared on Food Riot, where I contribute regularly.