Does anyone else feel guilty when you have a fridge full of partially used up ingredients and the only two options on hand are to figure out a way to use them up all at once or to toss them?

I’m not sure why guilty is the knee-jerk response. The half open can of tomatoes or leftover onion are not going to start yelling at me from the trash can upon seeing the inner lining of the garbage bag, and the green pepper with wrinkly skin is not going to suddenly sprout a mouth and eyes and accost me (but, gosh, how terrifying does that sound).

No one would really know if I were to clean out the fridge except for me. And yet, I cannot shake it, this need to find a place for that wrinkly pepper, to incorporate that onion and half open can of tomatoes into a new culinary home. I’ll even go so far as to salvage whatever I can from old produce by cutting around the icky parts, even if this gives me an eighth of a pepper.

I think this guilt is both a blessing and a curse, “leftovers” handed down to me by my mom and her mom, who for a long time, did not have the luxury of going to the grocery store to replenish ingredients as needed, partially due to financial stressors, generational expectations, and/or familial constraints. You made do with what you had on hand, and this mentality stuck with my mom well into her own adulthood.

The guilt: a curse, in that our kitchen becomes a graveyard of ingredients — for example, as we speak, there is about a tablespoon of leftover stir-fry sauce in a container that could otherwise be used for something else, a small Tupperware of parsley that is probably past its prime, and a plethora of tea in our cupboard that is far past its expiration date.

The guilt: a blessing, in that I am at my most creative when I’m put up against a culinary wall, stuck between what I need to use up and what I already have on hand. Some of my very best concoctions come out of this.

Take the other night, for example.

  • One head of cauliflower (found on the discount produce rack so it definitely needed to be used up ASAP)
  • One head of lettuce, purchased for a particular reason at some point and used sparingly thereafter
  • One yellow pepper (also found on the discount produce rack — can you see a pattern here? We love the discount produce rack, a source of many, many gems — would highly recommend you peruse on your next grocery trip.)
  • One container of gochujang, which has become a new favorite, and a secret weapon. Quick side tangent here: I would love to smother gochujang on toast, dollop it on eggs, smear it on roasted vegetables, eat it with a spoon, or stick it in soups and/or chili. Its spiciness is balanced with a delicate sweetness, and I have no idea why I do not consistently have a container of it in my fridge. It’s a secret weapon (just ask Bobby Flay — if you don’t watch Beat Bobby Flay, you likely will not get this reference).

Here’s how my brain turned the above into dinner. I thought cauliflower + gochujang and Googled the two together. My search resulted in this recipe:

We always have a plethora of Asian condiments so making the above recipe was a no-brainer. We also always have rice on hand, which made my brain jump from cauliflower wings to cauliflower wings + rice + lettuce (in other words, a lettuce wrap!).

I’ve never made a lettuce wrap before and it turns out that we didn’t have the right kind of lettuce to contain everything (resulting in a slightly messy eating experience) but it was nonetheless a delicious on-the-spot recipe. Warm rice topped with za’atar, cocooned in a bed of crispy lettuce, topped with thin slices of yellow pepper, small carrot “coins”, and sizzling cauliflower wings in a savory sauce (and extra gochujang, of course).

No pictures for this one, only imagination.

Notes for next time: considering adding green onion, crunchy peanuts, roasted broccoli, perhaps even some crunchy chickpeas, and try using romaine lettuce instead as a sturdier vessel.

I’m 29 years old and here is what I know about myself: word enthusiast, dog lover, new-found cat lover, over-committer, and oftentimes, loyal to a fault.

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