Cleaning the Cupboards

Cleaning the Cupboards for the New Year


The evening started innocently. I was having the family over for my grandson’s birthday dinner when a small grey mouse was spotted skittering across the floor from the pantry and under the fridge. There had been a huge rainstorm and I imagined that a lone mouse had come in out of the rain. The next morning I went out and bought some mouse traps.

I was advised that peanut butter was an aphrodisiac for mice so I baited the traps with the stuff. Nothing happened. At night I could hear the mouse rustling around in the pantry and under my stove and even saw it dash down under a burner.


I have lived in this house for 25 years but have never had a mouse. While I am proud of my ideal temperature wine cellar built into a corner of the garage, my source of greatest pride as a chef is my kitchen pantry.  I love to open the folding doors and look at all of the contents just for culinary inspiration. If we had another big earthquake I could feed the family for weeks! I have two immense sections with five very deep shelves, loaded with jars of beans, grains, pasta, canned tomatoes, dried fruits, spices that are often refreshed, crackers for cheese, flour, sugars, cereal, home made jams, chutneys, mostardas and other condiments. On the lowest shelves I keep bottles of olive oils, vinegars, club soda, tonic, ginger ale, and assorted liquors used in cooking.   


When I finally gathered the courage to explore the depths of the lower shelves, I could see torn napkins, gnawed salt boxes, labels shredded off club soda bottles and just enough organic debris to let me know that there had to be more than one critter. Sufficiently freaked out, I called a pest control company and the man arrived the next morning and set 20 traps. After two days six of the critters were caught. Naturally, I had to take everything out of the pantry to clean up the mess. While removing the bottles, jars, and packages from the lower shelves I could see my culinary life flash before my eyes. Most revealing were the old liquor bottles. There was kaoliang from my Chinese cooking days, sake and mirin for making teriyaki sauce. Also framboise, Rainwater Madeira, ouzo, Cachaca, brandy, sherry, Marsala, and white vermouth.  The bottles in the front were recent and still in use; others were ancient and had not been touched in years. In fact, I had forgotten about them as they were way back in the deep shelves. I no longer cooked many of those recipes that called for these libations.


Like most chefs, my style of cooking has evolved over the years. I started thinking about the days when I would have to venture into Chinatown to get kaoliang for marinades. There were two brands available. Years ago when I went to the Japanese market there were maybe three or four brands of sake to choose from. Now there are shelves full of sake of varying styles. It’s just like going to the wine shop or supermarket today and seeing 40 Pinot Noirs where there used to be 10. You can be overwhelmed by options.


Too many choices can be a burden on the shopper and also on the restaurant diner. Voluminous wine lists intimidate most people, even those who know something about wine. It is mentally exhausting to plow though those lists when all you want to do is settle in for a relaxing evening, a nice dinner and good bottle of wine. Instead you are presented with the Oxford Dictionary.  


Perhaps, like most of us after the holidays, the wine list could be put on a diet. In a time of lowered expectations but still with a need for pleasure, instead of presenting a list with an ostentatious display of trophy wines and esoteric obscurities, the sommelier might cull the list and select wines to fit the food and the mood of the restaurant today.   

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