Last Minute Dinner, Pantry Party Style

We move. A lot. Between 2006 and 2009, we moved seven times, three of which involved coast-to-coast distances: New York to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to New York, New York to Houston. While there are many drawbacks to moving that often, one of the more fun aspects was the creation of the Pantry Party. Whenever my husband and I pick up and move we have a pantry party in which we challenge ourselves to feed our friends using only items we already have on-hand.

Anything we don't use, or that we are not taking with us, we give away at the end of the night. One of our most popular pantry party menus featured a crudité platter served with three dips (the dregs of all of our salad dressings), a lasagna topped with string mozzarella cheese sticks, a multi-bean salad using all of the canned beans in the house, and an assortment of popsicles and fresh fruit for dessert.

I found myself reminiscing about these pantry parties the other night while I stared into our refrigerator trying to MacGyver something out of almost nothing. We had a refrigerator full of remnants, and "throwing dinner together" is not one of my strong suits. I'm a recipe kind of gal. I pulled out everything that had to go, and hoped for the best.

Dinner -- Ingredient list: Ground beef, half-dead basil, half an onion, low-fat feta, baby spinach, part-skim ricotta cheese, and strawberries on their last leg.

My initial instinct was to make a salad, and then create a ziti bake until I discovered we were completely out of ziti. With only spaghetti to work with, I had to find another use for the ricotta. I puzzled it out over a glass of white wine from an already-opened bottle in the fridge (them's the rules!) and decided to use the strawberries and ricotta in a dessert.

That left the ground beef, spinach, onion, and feta. I grabbed our last egg out of the fridge, chopped a little garlic, and found the breadcrumbs. Mission: meatballs. When I make meatballs I grate the onion instead of chop it. I like the way grating the onion releases a lot of moisture, and it keeps the onion flavor well-distributed throughout the meat mixture. I decided to wilt the spinach on the stove and add the onion and garlic to soften the flavors before mixing the meatballs together, just enough to get the garlic a little translucent; I added the last tablespoon of white wine from my glass at the very end. Once the spinach cooked down I pulled it off to cool, and then combined the beef, spinach mixture, bread crumbs, egg, and some cracked pepper into a bowl. Voila! Meatballs.

I love sneaking veggies into meatballs. I sometimes use up zucchini by grating it into turkey meatballs or burgers. Chopped peppers (fresh or roasted) are also great. These meatballs could have used some chopped kalamata olives, but we ate all of those during the Super Bowl. Woops.

I busted open a jar of emergency pasta sauce--Barilla Tomato & Basil--and the last box of low-gluten pasta I bought for my father on his last visit. Beyond cooking down the rest of the garlic and onion and adding some cracked pepper, the jarred sauce wasn't doctored; my gram would still be pretty horrified. I tore up the half-dead basil and added a sprinkle of pecorino, and we were off to the races.

Dessert--Ingredient list: Part-skim ricotta cheese, half pint of fresh strawberries, local honey.

I'm not sure how many people eat ricotta cheese raw as a dessert, but I've been doing it for years. A one-quarter cup serving of part-skim ricotta only has 90 calories, and you can load it up with toppings to sweeten the mild, savory cheese. Fresh fruit, honey (or agave, or chocolate syrup), or even a sprinkle of instant cocoa and you're done. I used up the last of the strawberries--gave one to the dog as a treat, too--and drizzled the whole thing with local honey.

Next time I move, I'll make this for you if you'll come over and help--any takers?

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Christina Uticone