Back-of-the-cabinet Treasures



By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



In these days of getting to know the inside of our homes as we never have before, I’ve been tackling those pesky cleaning and organizing tasks. This week, it was the kitchen cabinets. I’d noticed the beribboned brown bag many times over the last 7 years. The label says “Ginger Scones.” One just adds milk. Why hadn’t I made up the mix? Who knows. It is clearly a lovely gift from a friend from 2013 (the date on the label). It had lived happily on the shelf with the muffin papers, the baking soda, the powdered sugar, and the cornmeal. With the Covid-19 need to have groceries delivered, I’ve been reorganizing shelves and looking for new meal inspiration.

I try not to keep cookies and ice cream on hand to avoid temptation. But scones are hardly sugar-packed and I thought, why not use what I have before I make another delivery list, to which I try to add only things we truly need. So I opened the package and found a dry mix plus a bag of chopped crystallized ginger. I checked for lurking meal bugs and took the plunge. My husband was delighted. The seven-year “rest” did no harm. The resulting scones were delicious and those that weren’t eaten immediately live in our freezer, an occasional treat to pop in the microwave.


Ginger Scones


Inspired by the results, I set about to find any more goodies “in-waiting” hiding in the back of my kitchen cabinets. This meant emptying the shelves, and I immediately discovered another challenge: duplicates! It turns out I have three containers each of ground cinnamon and paprika, two boxes of baking soda, two each of fennel seeds, ground mace, cayenne pepper and cream of tartar. Am I the only person who buys a new spice for a recipe without checking to see what I have on hand?


Cabinet Unleashed


But on to the treasure hunt. I realize a number of “recovered” items reflect my various forays into exploring different national cuisines. Preserved grape leaves are used for making stuffed grape leaves, a delicacy of Greece and the Middle East. I’ve made these in the past for cocktail parties, but it takes a lot of time to prepare the filling and roll up each bite in a briny leaf; this jar goes back on the shelf. Although, as I think about it, I do have extra time these days. Maybe a meal of stuffed grape leaves? I see it’s sitting next to a jar of prepared mincemeat…I remembered that I had bought extra last year for a Christmas fruitcake when I discovered many stores didn’t carry mincemeat any more. I’m glad I found it!



Speaking of Christmas, the box of potato starch was a purchase of mine as a joke gift to my husband about six years ago. I need to research what to do with potato starch, not surprisingly still unopened. Perhaps it’s obvious, but I bought it only because of the name on the box!



While some items are dated ON the label, others are dated BY the label! I found two gift items, clearly inspired by a 2011 PBS broadcast phenomenon. I’m ready for a formal English afternoon gathering, with Downton Abbey Christmas tea and Downton Abbey lemon curd ready to fill a flaky tart.




One challenge in using my newfound bounty is the need for other ingredients. I have two boxes of mix for what sounds like a delicious chocolate mousse. I promised my husband I would make it for dinner the other night, then reading the instructions, discovered I needed whipping cream. Another item for the shopping delivery list…or do I save the calories and put it back in the cupboard. I have the same problem with a packet of sourdough starter. It may be too old to work, but I’ll try…when I get some flour! It’s on a delivery list and so if the store isn’t out of it, I’ll be able to try creating a starter, something I’ve thought about doing for, probably, 15 years.




Next, I came upon a true mystery: Macapuno. The label included coconut sport (a variation on football???) and sugar, so I assume it’s sweet. I decided I needed to consult Wikipedia:

Macapuno or coconut sport is a naturally occurring coconut cultivar which has
an abnormal development of the endosperm. The result of this abnormal
development is a soft translucent jelly-like flesh that fills almost the entire
central cavity of coconut seeds, with little to no coconut water.

Interesting! The article goes on to say it’s a Philippine delicacy also popular in Indonesian desserts. Hmm. Definitely worth exploring. I have no idea where it came from but has been around for literally decades.



While we’re in Asia, how about a detour to India? On a trip shooting a documentary for PBS on the state of Kerala, I delighted in a breakfast of “idlis,” small, round, rice lentil cakes served with a vegetable sauce. I was sure I would want to cook these at home, so brought home packages of an idli mix and a sauce mix, plus a three-tiered idli steamer. The trip was in 2002. The mix packages are yet to be opened. I just washed 18 years of dust off the steamer. Maybe next week?




Closer to home, this bottle of Washington Wild Huckleberry Topping brings to mind our cousins in the Seattle area. Was this a gift? Perhaps a souvenir someone in the family might have purchased at the Pike Street Market? It sounds good, so I’d better make some pancakes this week to try it out.



Friends who travel also bring home souvenirs and many find their way into one’s Christmas stocking. Southwark Cathedral, on the south bank of the Thames in London, the city’s Anglican cathedral, graces the label of some  very English three fruit marmalade (orange, lemon grapefruit) an acquaintance brought home from the UK. The smiling cat sits in the much-restored soaring Gothic structure originally built in 1220 as an Augustinian priory. I’ll store this with the Downton Abbey ingredients for that British tea I need to plan.



Thirteenth-century armor-wearing Crusader knights may have stopped at the abbey before departing for the religious wars in the Turko-Persian Empire.  Our friends packed more lightly on their trip to modern-day Turkey so they could bring back these charming spice bottles holding paprika, cumin, ginger and Batons de Cannelle (cinnamon sticks). I’ve liked seeing the bottles on my spice shelf, but realize I’d better use the contents before they lose their flavor!



The Middle Eastern vibe continued with a group of ingredients in search of a recipe. Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi, the award-winning English-Israeli chef who’s written seven cookbooks (Jerusalem, Plenty, Simple to name a few) and won scores of awards, I invested in a stack of herbs and spices he favors. Now I need to favor them and actually find some recipes to use them! I did use the Grenadine molasses (made from pomegranates) once in a recipe, many years ago. I need to find that recipe; although I just read that I can drizzle this over all sorts of things like meats, roasted vegetables and salads.




And finally, I found a much more familiar ingredient, tempura batter mix. I do like Japanese food and actually have dried seaweed in the cupboard. Sometimes, however, there are dishes that cry out to be eaten in restaurants rather than tackled at home. I realize I’ve always felt that way about tempura. Deep-frying anything to a delicate and tender perfection has always felt somehow outside my capabilities. I don’t know when I bought this, but the price today is over twice as much. It sounds easy enough to do…



As I put away my re-discovered treasures, I ponder the lessons of my morning of kitchen adventures.  I obviously need to keep better track of what I have on hand and how long it’s been on the shelf. More importantly, however, I am resolved to get out of my cooking rut and find ways to use these long-forgotten but not unloved jewels in my pantry.  If you are doing the same thing, send me your own discoveries. There may be a sequel here!