“I can often turn perishable ingredients into pantry items that will keep until my return,” Ronna Welsh, author of new cookbook “The Nimble Cook.”

By Hannah Walhout
Updated: June 05, 2019
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Paul Brissman; Courtesy of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Getting one's kitchen situation under control before a big trip can be a balancing act. When the fridge empties out a few days before a precious week of PTO, those of us who don't excel at meal planning often find ourselves in a pickle. Either we stretch our pantry basics to the limits of reason — canned mushrooms and vanilla soy milk dumped into an old packet of mac and cheese, anyone? — or we head to the grocery store, trying to squeeze in some nutritious, home-cooked meals before our “vacation diet” and eyeballing how much we can actually eat before we leave.

No matter what we do, though, hiccups emerge: We arrive home to a funky aroma, or a fuzzy orange, or a mysterious substance in the back of the fridge. Unless, of course, we preemptively throw out the rest of our perfectly good produce, anticipating disaster. Getting ready for vacation should be easier — but alas, even we editors end up feeling a little unprepared every time.

To finally clean up our act (in the kitchen, at least) Travel + Leisure chatted with Ronna Welsh, owner of Purple Kale Kitchenworks, a culinary studio and teaching kitchen in Brooklyn, and author of the new book “The Nimble Cook.” In her cookbook, Welsh lays out the Purple Kale Kitchenworks philosophy — an ingredient-first approach, teaching home cooks to prepare building blocks for future meals and broaden their idea of what is “usable” — and offers recipes for prolonging the life of oft-wasted foods.

Here are her tips for how to prep your fridge and kitchen before a trip by staying organized, minimizing food waste, and getting the most out of your groceries.

From left: Stuffed and Seared Chicken Thighs, Confit Zuchini Squash and Skillet Flatbread, Polenta with Balsamic Poached Figs and Bacon
Diana Vassar/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Identify the foods that often go to waste.

The first step to preventing that pre-vacation pantry dump: knowing yourself and your cooking habits. There are certain ingredients that are often neglected until it's too late, either because we buy them for a recipe that only calls for a small amount — this writer is personally guilty when it comes to miso, which I can never use before it dries out, and big roots like ginger, turmeric, and burdock — or because they come in too large a size.

Ronna notices most people have trouble with “herbs, for certain, but also partial containers of yogurt or cottage cheese, partially used vegetables, salad greens, and leftovers.” Recognizing these patterns can help us be more mindful of how we shop and cook, and proactive in how we use ingredients to stretch out their lifespan.

Devise a system to keep tabs on what's in your fridge.

Even though she works in a test kitchen, Welsh told T+L, “my refrigerator at home does not look like the one at work, where I have the luxury of space. At home, my small refrigerator is stuffed with the wreckage of a family of four.”

Still, she tries to apply the same approach to “kitchen hygiene” no matter where she's cooking. “In both places,” she said, “I do two things which help keep my kitchen tidy and reduce food waste: the Label and the Line Up.”

To make sure she always knows what she's looking at, Welsh keeps a sleeve of peel-off file folder labels in the kitchen. “I slap these on everything. A label says, Hey, over here! When you open your refrigerator to ask, ‘What is there to eat?’ it answers, maybe me. Without labels, things migrate to the blind zone at the back of the fridge.”

Food shouldn't stay in this blind zone for long. “Every time I bring new groceries into my house, I pull the old ones out first,” Welsh said. “I do this not only to rotate forward the ingredients I need to use, but also to help me reckon with items I’ve neglected. I line up these items up on my counter, then task myself to do one small thing to each of them.”

Find ways to repurpose excess ingredients or those past their prime.

“The Nimble Cook” is packed with recipes for “starting point” ingredients: preparations that for preserving things before they go bad, but also that can bring new life to soft veggies and herbs, dried up fruits, and soon-to-expire perishables. Before you leave for your trip, you can repurpose ingredients you don't think you can use up — said Welsh, “I can often turn perishable ingredients into pantry items that will keep until my return.”

Welsh has a few favorites from the book, including her techniques for infused herb butters and syrups (page 71). “I'll take half a bunch of herbs and toss them in to infuse. These will keep for weeks longer than the herb itself, and the butter will even freeze for months.” Cooking and freezing produce is also a good option: “Once, while packing, I stewed the contents of my whole root vegetable bowl with canned tomatoes and white wine. The cooked potatoes, onions, and garlic stayed in my freezer, to reheat at a later time for tossing over rice.”

Garlic going soft or starting to sprout? Poach it (page 20). Can't eat the whole fish? Smoke it (page 242). By learning to craft stocks, infusions, ferments, and preserves, said Welsh, “I don’t feel pressure to make something with all the ingredients on the spot. Plus, they are ready for me to use when I return to the kitchen to cook.”

Smoked Salmon
Diana Vassar/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Be thoughtful about how you store things for later — or take them with you.

The easiest way to make sure something doesn't go bad during a vacation? Pack it. “First, I’ll turn what I can into a snack for my trip,” said Welsh. “I’m that person, on the plane, munching on bell pepper and cucumber strips.”

If you can't bring something on the plane, and you don't have time to preserve it another way, freezing is the best option. “How you freeze things matters,” said Welsh, and can often make your life easier down the road. Some things, like meat or leftovers, can go straight in the freezer — but others can be retooled in a pinch to get in shape for freezing.

“Eggs don't spoil quickly,” she contined, and they don't freeze well in their full form, “but if you need to use them up, you can crack and whip them together into a container and freeze for a future omelette, quiche, or frittata.” Once, finding herself with an opened pint of heavy cream, she made a chocolate ganache and froze it. “Three months later," she said, "I was happy to have it when I wanted to make a special dessert. One quick act to save an ingredient pays off in something wonderful, and convenient, even months down the line.”

Make sure your kitchen is in ship shape before you head off.

A few other things Welsh always does before leaving for a trip: “I empty the trash and wipe down the inside of the can. I unplug counter-top appliances and pull them away from the wall. I make sure the vents in the refrigerator and freezer are not blocked. And if I have time, I give the refrigerator a quick bleach wipe down — seizing the moment when it’s almost empty.”

For more tips on reducing food waste and prolonging the contents of your fridge, pick up “The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients,” out now from Rux Martin.

To buy: barnesandnoble.com, $21

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