March 27, 2019

Dear friends,
I’m not trying to pick a fight with the food police of Bologna, Italy. It’s just that both Marcella Hazan and my husband disagree with them.

In 1982, a food society in Bologna published a recipe its members, after much study, declared was the last word on ragu alla Bolognese — meat sauce for pasta, which is thought to have originated in the city (hence, “spaghetti Bolognese” ).

I have made Bolognese sauce but not the official one until last week. It contained just two tablespoons of tomato paste and no tomatoes. When the sauce was an hour into its two-hour simmer, I caved and added a cup of crushed tomatoes. I knew Tony wouldn’t like a spaghetti sauce with no tomatoes.

Before I added the tomatoes, the sauce tasted good but not as good as Hazan’s, which I use for lasagna with homemade noodles (it’s like eating heaven). Even Hazan, a cookbook author and the premier northern Italian food expert, adds tomatoes to Bolognese sauce. The finished sauce tastes more of meat and cream, but the tomato notes are there.

Bolognese sauce, both the official and unofficial versions, is almost all meat, no liquid. The wine, seasonings, milk and cream are absorbed into the ground meat, giving it an unctuousness and depth of flavor regular spaghetti meat sauces lack.

A meaty, almost sauceless sauce is just what I needed for baked spaghetti squash alla Bolognese. The stringy squash is halved and filled with meat sauce, then topped with Parmesan cheese and baked. As you eat, your fork rakes up the strands of squash and drags them through the sauce. It is a memorable way to eat both squash and sauce.

I have wanted to make this dish since Julie Maier-Miller of Claire’s Garden in Norton posted a photo of her creation on Facebook. The idea is hers. The recipe I’m sharing is my version. If you want Julie’s version, you should sign up for one of her cooking classes. Information follows.

I am sharing two recipes for the sauce: my modified sauce from the food fathers of Bologna, and Marcella Hazan’s sauce. Take your pick. I baked the sauce in single serving-size spaghetti squash I found at Aldi’s. The more typical, larger spaghetti squash would probably serve three or four.

The recipe makes enough to fill two or three squash. I filled two halves and Tony used the rest on angel hair pasta. The sauce freezes beautifully if you prefer to save the leftovers for more baked spaghetti squash.

This is the best way to eat spaghetti squash I’ve come across. Filling the cavity with sauce and baking it is a brilliant idea. Thanks, Julie.

BAKED SPAGHETTI SQUASH ALLA BOLOGNESE

3 small or 2 medium spaghetti squash (or just 1 small if you’re serving 2 people, 2 small for 4 people, etc.)
Olive oil or melted butter
1 recipe Bolognese sauce (see below)
1/2 to 1 cup or so shredded Parmesan cheese

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and their membranes. Working with two halves at a time, place cut-sides down on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power for 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the squash. When done, the squash will be tender enough to pierce with a fork but the shell will still be firm. Set aside.

Make Bolognese sauce. Almost all of the liquid should evaporate, leaving just the creamy meat.

Place the squash halves, cut sides up, in shallow oven-proof bowls and place on a baking sheet. Or place the squash directly on a baking sheet. Brush the rims of the squash with oil or melted butter. Mound the sauce in the cavity of each squash half. Sprinkle each with 2 or 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the squash is completely tender. Serve in individual bowls or on dinner plates. Makes about 6 servings.

AUTHENTIC RAGU ALLA BOLOGNESE,
SLIGHTLY MODIFIED

Olive oil
5 oz. finely chopped pancetta (Italian non-smoked bacon)
2 1/2 ribs celery finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1/2 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 lb. lean ground beef (I used venison; the Bolognese use ground skirt steak)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. tomato paste
2 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp. heavy cream
Pinch of fresh-ground nutmeg

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed medium pot, preferably terra cotta or ceramic-clad cast iron. The pot should be deep so the sauce doesn’t reduce too rapidly. Add pancetta and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the pancetta’s fat has rendered, about 10 minutes.

Add another 1 tablespoon olive oil and the celery, carrot and onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the ground meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken up and lightly browned and beginning to sizzle. Add the wine and cook until evaporated, about 4 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together the tomato paste and 3 tablespoons water. Add to the pot and stir well to combine. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, and add the milk little by little until all the milk is added, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper. Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer 1 hour longer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick. Stir in the cream and nutmeg.

Mound in the squash per above instructions or toss with freshly made tagliatelle — never dry pasta.

MARCELLA HAZAN’S
BOLOGNESE MEAT SAUCE

2 tbsp. chopped yellow onion
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. chopped celery
2 tbsp. chopped carrot
3/4 lb. lean ground beef, preferably chuck or meat from the neck
Salt
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juice

Use an earthenware pot if possible; if not, a heavy, enameled cast-iron casserole, the deepest one you have (to keep the ragu from reducing too quickly). Put in the chopped onion, with all the oil and butter, and sauté briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes.

Add the ground beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork. Add 1 teaspoon salt, stir and cook only until the meat has lost its raw red color. Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium-high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and the nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated. Stir frequently.

When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir well. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble. Cook uncovered for a minimum of 3 1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt.

Ragu can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen. Reheat until it simmers for about 15 minutes before using.

TIDBITS
Jullie-Maier Miller, whose Facebook post was the inspiration for my stuffed spaghetti squash recipe, will soon begin offering cooking classes in response to requests from her friends. Miller’s style of cooking is low-carb with a Paleo bent, but she is not a purist. She uses dairy products and whatever her nutrition research tells her will make a body feel good.

“It’s a healthier diet you can adapt to you,” Miller says. The small classes (BYO wine) will be held in her Barberton Air B&B.

Miller, a former banquet chef, is a florist at Claire’s Garden in Norton. She says that all day, while working at her shop, she thinks about what she is going to cook that night. She plans to teach recipes and techniques for all skill levels.

For more information or to sign up for a class, phone Miller at the florist shop at 330-835-6922 or email clairesgardenflorist@gmail.com.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Detox green smoothie; pan-grilled salmon with capers and lime beurre blanc over wilted spinach with toasted garlic and slivered almonds; over-hard eggs on toast with ketchup; sirloin steak salad with pan-seared brussels sprouts, sautéed mushrooms, red bell pepper, toasted slivered almonds and shaved Parmesan; Bolognese meat sauce baked in spaghetti squash; chocolate pudding; sugar-free strawberry Jell-O.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Hamburger, potato chips and cabbage soup at Alexandri’s in Wadsworth; pepperoni pizza from Rizzi’s in Copley; wonton soup, egg roll and stir fried chicken in black bean sauce at Ming Garden in Norton (another intolerable “Chinese” meal; is it that hard to make a decent stir fry sauce?); tacos al pastore and a taco with Korean barbecued pork belly (fabulous!) at Funky Truckeria in Norton; refried beans, a green chili beef burrito (meh) and freshly made tortilla chips (great) and salsa at Casa del Rio in Wadsworth.

THE MAILBAG
From Martha K.:
Regarding your smoothies, Robek’s has extensive healthy green smoothie options, many with calorie counts the same or less than your Detox Island Green smoothie, and one that has nearly identical ingredients. Check the Low Calorie, Superfood and Wellness selections. I like the cool cucumber fresh juice. I ask them to put it over ice, or blend it with ice to make a smoothie. Anyway, Robek’s has changed its menu quite a bit since it first opened.

Dear Martha:
Well, yes and no. The menu does have more healthful options than the (essentially) milkshakes it started with. But I’m disappointed that most of the smoothies still are made with sherbet or frozen yogurt, and even the low-cal, wellness and superfood selections are high in sugar. The green smoothie you mentioned sounds good until you get to the apple juice. The one I tried was so sweet I couldn’t finish it.

The spoiler for me is that the calories are much higher than Tropical Smoothie’s Detox, which has just 180 in a 24-ounce portion. Robek’s Queen of All Greens, made with banana, pineapple, spinach, kale and apple juice, has 180 calories for a small, which is 12 ounces. Double that for a 24-ounce smoothie and you have a meal-sized 360 calories. Sigh.

From Ron C.:
I am sure there are lots of ways to fix grits, but this is what we do. Add some crumbled bacon or bacon bits and a slice of cheese. The heat of the grits melts the cheese. Then a pat of butter on top, salt and pepper — fit for a king (or at least a prince).

Dear Ron:
Oh, yeah. Sign me up.

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March 20, 2019

Dear friends,
You probably saw this coming. If you read Gut Check while I was in Florida, you know I became increasingly obsessed with a gingery green smoothie sold at the juice bar chain, Tropical Smoothie Cafe. You probably figured I couldn’t let it go when I returned to Ohio.

Today I have two happy announcements: I found a Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Cleveland (locations.tropicalsmoothiecafe.com) and one in the works for Canton. And we can now make Detox Island Green Smoothies at home.

At the restaurants, the 24-ounce green smoothie has just 180 calories and is a blend of mango, banana, pineapple, kale and spinach with a hit of fresh ginger. Tony saw a worker scoop a portion of frozen green stuff into a blender when making my smoothie one day. That led me to believe the spinach and kale were not tossed fresh into the blender. They were pureed together in advance and frozen.

At home I pureed fresh spinach and kale leaves with a bit of water in a food processor and froze it in an ice cube tray, making sure each cube held 2 tablespoons. Then I cut the mango and pineapple into one-inch cubes and froze one-cup portions in Baggies. I also froze an entire sliced banana. See? The ingredients themselves would serve as the ice in the smoothie.

The smoothies I had in Florida were creamy but not milky, with a smooth, milkshake-like consistency. I knew that meant the frozen ingredients were very finely pureed. I probably needed a Vitamix to do the job properly, but I would have to make do with my ordinary blender.

I consulted USDA calorie tables to help figure out the proportions of the recipe. If the calories in the original were just 180, I knew I couldn’t use a cup of mango and a cup of pineapple, which alone would push it over the calorie limit. I settled on one-half cup mango, one-half cup pineapple and one medium-size frozen banana. I buzzed the fruit in my food processor with three quarter-size slices of ginger and one-half cup water until fairly smooth. Then I transferred the lumpy-smooth mixture to the blender, added two frozen cubes of the greens and another one-half cup water, and blended until smooth.

I arrived at this processor-blender technique after much trial and error, finally realizing my cheap Hamilton Beach blender couldn’t handle the entire operation itself. If you own a heavy-duty blender, you can skip the processor and just dump everything in the blender.

The second smoothie I made went together much more easily, although I still had a medium-size mess on my hands — a processor bowl, blender, ice cube tray and rubber spatula to wash. To me, it was worth it.

I recommend preparing and freezing ingredients for multiple smoothies so you won’t have to start from square one when a craving hits. In my case, that will be daily.

TROPICAL DETOX SMOOTHIE

1/2 cup (lightly packed) mango chunks (1-inch square), frozen
1/2 cup (lightly packed) pineapple chunks (1-inch square), frozen
1 peeled banana, sliced and frozen
2 quarter-sized pieces fresh ginger, minced
1 cup water
2 frozen cubes spinach and kale (see note)

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the frozen mango, pineapple, banana and ginger. Pulse while pouring one-half cup of the water through the feed tube. Continue to process until the fruit begins to break down is about half chunky, half smooth.

Transfer fruit mixture to a blender. Add spinach-kale cubes and remaining one-half cup water. Pulse and then blend until very smooth. Makes 1 smoothie.

Note: To make spinach-kale cubes, combine 1 cup firmly packed fresh spinach leaves and 1 cup firmly packed fresh kale leaves (minus tough stems and ribs) in a food processor with 2 tablespoons water. Process until leaves are chopped very fine, adding more water if needed to produce a dense pesto-like mixture. Measure 2-tablespoon portions into an ice cube tray and freeze. This will make about 4 cubes. Repeat with more kale and spinach for a larger batch.

TIDBITS
In my rant on food expiration dates a couple of weeks ago, I left out two categories of food that stump many people. First, have you ever wondered how to tell when pickled and brined foods should be tossed? I have, and several years ago I tried to find out. After many calls, I finally located a food scientist who had the answer. Pickled and brined foods last a long time but not forever, he said. Cloudiness in the pickling or brining liquid is an indication that it’s time to dump the stuff in the garbage and buy a new jar.

In my food editor days, I probably got more questions about use-by dates on canned goods than any other food item. From a 2006 Ask Jane column, here’s my answer to one reader’s query:

“Whether your canned goods are over the hill or not depends in part on how they were treated. Canned foods that have been frozen or exposed to temperatures over 100 degrees deteriorate more rapidly than those stored at room temperature.

“Also, high-acid foods can react with the metal can and affect the taste, texture and nutritional value of the foods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“Generally, if the cans have been stored properly, low-acid foods — such as canned meat and poultry, stews, potatoes, corn, carrots, spinach, beans, beets, peas, pumpkin, pasta and vegetable soups except tomato — will keep for two to five years. High-acid foods — such as tomato and citrus juice, apple products, mixed fruit, peaches, pears, plums, pickles and sauerkraut — should be discarded after 12 to 18 months.

“And, of course, don’t eat food from cans that are bulging, leaking, with rusted seams, or with milky liquid that should be clear.”

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Steamed stone crab claws; chicken salad with grapes, almonds and dried apricots; corned beef and cabbage.

What I ate in/from restaurants, etc.
Cuban sandwich, iced Cuban coffee at Mervis’ in Fort Pierce, Fla.; lentil soup and salad at the Orange Box Cafe in Frostproof, Fla.; pot roast, fried apples and a corn muffin at Cracker Barrel in Valdosta, Ga. (it was walking distance from our motel, a consideration when pulling a camper); a rubbery cheese omelet, ham lunch meat, yogurt and coffee at the Quality Inn in Valdosta; an egg and cheese bagel and three plain doughnut holes at a Dunkin’ Donuts in southern Kentucky; yogurt, a hard-cooked egg and coffee at a Red Roof Inn in London, Ky.; half of a meatball sub from Subway; miso soup, sunomono and a Fujiyama Roll (tempura shrimp, eel, cream cheese and salmon) and a glass of pinot Grigio at Sushi Katsu in Akron; fried fish, coleslaw and green beans at the Friday fish fry at St. Thomas Eastern Orthodox Church in Fairlawn; a spicy Thai salad with chicken and an apple at Panera Bread.

THE MAILBAG

From Mitch:
Polenta is grits and aren’t you the same person who said to me several years ago, “Y’all can keep y’all’s grits?” ….I treat grits as pasta. Anything you would put on pasta, I would put on grits, especially roast beef and gravy (instead of potatoes).

Dear Mitch:
I ate a lot of polenta AND grits in Florida, as you read in my newsletter. I have always loved polenta, which is an entirely different animal than grits… yellow, creamier, with a backbone of chicken broth. Inexplicably, I began liking polenta’s anemic cousin, grits, about a year ago. I sprinkle them with Splenda.

Dear readers:
Mitch’s letter got me thinking about all the foods I once disdained but now enjoy. Do tastes change that much as we age? I am curious — are there foods you disliked most of your life but enjoy now? I have a raft of them, from grits to okra to licorice. What are yours?

March 13, 2019

Dear friends,
As the road to Ohio unspools, carrying me from summer to early spring (I will reach Copley Thursday or Friday), I am thinking of all the good food I’ve had in Florida. I ate stone crab claws, grilled tilefish, oysters on the half shell, shrimp and grits, conch ceviche, cioppino, Cuban sandwiches, empanadas, pork barbecue, Caribbean coconut roll and a citrusy coconut chickpea soup.

On the flip side, I also had way too many McDonald’s hamburgers (while using the wi-fi there), some bad pizza, Tony’s spaghetti with red sauce, and several nights of cottage cheese for dinner.

Oddly, marrying a chef seems to have lowered my food game. We don’t dine at many contemporary-cuisine restaurants. That’s because Tony is Japanese, and Japan still adores the American foods of the 1950s. Sushi and ramen aren’t served at home. The real Japan dotes on Miracle Whip, Sanka and Ritz crackers.

Anyway, I look forward to cooking on my 5-burner stove and using my blender and food processor. I look forward to having more than one square foot of kitchen counter space. I especially look forward to making my favorite cool-weather dishes as winter segues into spring.

I don’t have a photo of this week’s recipe because I’m sharing a warming dish I plan to make, not one I just created. It is a chicken fricassee with sour cream — basically, chicken paprikas without the paprika. I made it during my first marriage, when my interest in cooking caught fire. I was about 23 or 24. I was so surprised when I was introduced to chicken paprikas a few years later. “Hey, wait,” I remember thinking. “I invented this.”

The bare bones of the following recipe is from Craig Claiborne of the New York Times.

CHICKEN FRICASSEE WITH SOUR CREAM
1 broiler-fryer chicken, about 3 1/2 lbs., cut into serving pieces (or 8 bone-in thighs)
Salt, Fresh-ground pepper
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup coarsely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
½ cup sour cream

Sprinkle the chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with flour. Heat the butter and oil in a skillet. Add the chicken pieces skin side down. Cook over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Turn and brown the other side.

Scatter the onion over all, stir and cook 30 seconds. Add the garlic and stir. Cook until the onion begins to soften.

Add the wine, water, bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the sour cream and heat but do not bring to a boil. Makes 4 servings.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Dried fava beans. I found them (labeled “broad beans”) in the Spanish section of a Walmart. Do they make me feel more cheerful? Maybe a little.

What I ate in/from restaurants and food shops:
A dark-rum cake from Edible Spirits in Stuart (THAT made me cheerful); a Detox Green Island smoothie from Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Stuart; pulled pork sandwich from Sonny’s Bar-B-Que; another Detox smoothie from Tropical Smoothie Cafe (I’m obsessed); a gyoza, one fried shrimp, Mongolian beef, a chunk of fresh pineapple and two deep-fried sugar dough balls at Sakura Japanese Buffet in Stuart; a McDonald’s hamburger; scrambled eggs, grits, toast, ham and coffee at Pogie’s in Okeechobee; a chef’s salad from The Diner in Fort Pierce; a fabulous, crunchy, lush shrimp po’ boy at Good Spirits in Okeechobee; a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin and coffee.

THE MAILBAG
From Ellen M.:
Thanks, Jane, for the great article on “use by” dates. Everyone thought I was crazy, cheap, etc. because I went by taste and smell. I’ve kept salad dressing long after the date — again, I taste it and decide. I always keep milk in the back of the fridge and it goes way beyond the use date. Flour I keep in the fridge and so far I’ve never had a problem. My yeast is 2 years old. I keep it in the freezer and it bubbles up perfectly.

I need to try the Italian wedding soup at Vaccaro’s (from last week’s newsletter). So far, Yocono’s is still my favorite wedding soup.

Dear Ellen:
I haven’t had Yocono’s wedding soup but I’ll try it if anyone has recipe.

From Carol B.
We keep our spices in the door of the top freezer in our fridge. The extras are in plastic containers on the shelves. My husband alphabetized them and taped labels on the shelves and containers. I pretty much know where they are, so that I can grab them quickly when I open the door, minimizing the warm air entering the freezer. They last a lot longer that way. I also tape labels, indicating the purchase date, to the jars after I bring them home from the store. I once kept bay eaves that way for several years and they were fine. I know we’re a bit obsessive, but it saves a lot of money in the long run.

Dear Carol:
Any way you can prolong the life of herbs and spices is a good thing because they are so expensive. I buy what I can in ethnic food stores, where prices are much lower than in supermarkets. The quality isn’t as good, of course, which is why I treasure the Penzey’s 4-pack of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg a generous friend gave me as a hostess gift. I plan to invite her to dinner a lot more often.

March 6,2019

Dear friends,
Go tropical. That has long been my culinary answer to suffering through the tail end of winter.

One year I made a big platter of black beans and rice topped with Cuban roast pork and mango salsa. Another year I cranked up Beach Boys music and served white sangrias and coconut shrimp.

Last weekend I craved the sweet-savory flavor of coconut shrimp but didn’t want the mess of frying just before packing up the camper to head North into winter, so I invented coconut shrimp tacos. I think. I’m tired of Googling my recipe ideas to find someone in Timbuktu has already thought of it, so I’m just going with the notion that this is original. Certainly, the recipe is.

My tacos taste like coconut shrimp but without the batter and mess of deep frying. To mimic the flavor I sprinkled lightly toasted coconut over mojo-flavored shrimp in freshly warmed taco shells. I topped the tacos with a simple mango salsa for an extra tropical punch. They really do taste like coconut shrimp.

The tacos are substantial. Tony could eat just four. I layered my share of the filling on romaine leaves instead of taco shells but still could eat just three. They made me feel sunny and happy. Now comes the trek North.

COCONUT SHRIMP TACOS

1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup mango in 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup jicama in 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup minced sweet onion
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp. salt or to taste
Pinch of ancho chili powder or cayenne
10 medium (5-inch) flour tortillas (or substitute romaine lettuce leaves)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. large raw shrimp, shells and tails removed
1/4 cup mojo criollo marinade
Minced green onion tops for garnish

Heat a large nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Scatter coconut in the dry skillet and toast, stirring, until patches just begin to lightly brown. The coconut should be half toasted but still moist, not crunchy. Remove from heat and scrape into a small bowl. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine mango, jicama, sweet onion, the 1 teaspoon olive oil, lime juice and salt and mix well. Set aside.

Wipe out the skillet and return to medium-high heat. Toast the tortillas one at a time in the dry skillet, turning when brown spots begin to appear on one side. Toast the other side and fold in half with tongs. Don’t toast too long or the tortilla will become too crisp to fold. Transfer to a platter.

Heat the one tablespoon oil in the same skillet over high heat. Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels and place in skillet. Cook briefly, stirring (30 seconds to 1 minute). When shrimp are almost cooked through, add mojo marinade and stir for 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

To assemble, place 3 or 4 shrimp in each taco shell or romaine lettuce leaf. Sprinkle each with about 2 teaspoons toasted coconut. Top with the salsa and garnish with the minced green onion, if desired. Makes 10 substantial tacos.

TIDBITS
If you get caught up in the Konmari cleaning method that’s sweeping the country, please don’t tear through your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator, tossing out everything beyond its expiration date. Your 1980s suits with the big shoulder pads have an expiration date. Your saffron does not.

I, too, have caught the Konmari bug (named after Marie Kondo, author of “The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) and plan to pillage my closets, pantry and spice cabinet the minute I return home from Florida. But I will not discard food just because of an arbitrary expiration date, and neither should you.

The “best if used by” dates on food packages do not indicate you will die or become ill if you consume the food after that time. In most cases the expiration date has nothing to do with food safety. It is merely a suggestion that the quality may begin to decline after that date.

Vitamins may begin to fade or the texture may be a bit wonky or the color may not be as true. But you will not die if you eat it.

Your nose, eyes and common sense are the best indicators of when it is time to discard a food. That’s because how carefully you store a food plays a big role in how long it will “last.” For example, foods that are frozen in their store packaging will get freezer burn and develop an off taste far sooner than foods that are double- or triple-wrapped at home before freezing.

Many frozen foods have an official shelf life of 6 to 12 months. But not if you wrap it twice in plastic wrap and then in foil before you stash it in the freezer. If you buy a frozen turkey on sale after Thanksgiving and wrap it well, it should still be in good shape two years later. I know because I’ve eaten perfectly delicious 2-year-old turkeys. And please note that as long as the power doesn’t go out, the food in a freezer will
never, ever spoil. It may not taste great five years later, but it will be safe to eat.

Another example: Milk may turn sour in a matter of days or remain fresh for a couple of weeks or more depending on how it is handled. If you stop on the way home from the store on a warm day, the heat will shorten the shelf life of the milk in the back seat. If you leave the milk on the kitchen table for 30 minutes while enjoying your morning coffee, the lifespan of the milk is shortened. Even if the milk is rushed home and returned to the refrigerator after each use, but is stored at the front of a shelf near the door, the frequent exposure to room-temperature air will shorten its life (although not as much).

I once bought more milk than I could use in a week and kept the extra half-gallon at the back of the refrigerator, out of the way. When I opened it two weeks later, it smelled and tasted as fresh as just-bought milk.

The lesson is to rely on your nose and tastebuds. Does it smell fresh? Does it taste fresh? Then use it.

This is especially true when it comes to herbs and spices. I can’t wait to tackle my overflowing spice cabinet when I return home, but I won’t so much as glance at “use by” dates or look up longevity info on the Internet. I will toss out the rosemary that is so old it has faded to gray, and the ground cardamom that no longer smells pungent. But I will keep the old bottle of “chili powder” (that mix of ground chilies, cumin and whatnot popular in Northern states) because you never know when a recipe will call for it, and I’ll be damned if I’ll buy another jar of a spice I disdain for a mere teaspoon in a misguided recipe I’m testing.

I will discard dried herbs when they no longer smell like the herb. If they have faded in pungency just a bit, I will keep them and merely add more than is called for. I will never throw out whole spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cumin seeds. They retain their pungency far longer than ground spices. For years, in fact.

Some foods defy the sniff and taste test, and live by different rules. Old baking powder and old flour do not perform as well as fresh, so you might want to toss them at their expiration dates. Then again, you may not want to buy a new bag of self-rising flour for the occasional Southern biscuit recipe, and like me, you’re prepared to take your chances. Just remember it’s your choice, not the food manufacturer’s.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Surrollos; coconut shrimp tacos with mango-jicama salsa.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Cheeseburger from McDonald’s; tacos al pastor, chorizo and asada with onions, cilantro and lime, and rice and beans from the Taqueria La Unica food truck in Okeechobee; a yogurt parfait from McDonald’s; Thai beef salad at Noodle World in Stuart, Fla.; a Detox Green Island smoothie from Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Palm City; a Cobb salad with shrimp at Parrott Island Grill in Okeechobee; a chicken empanada and half of a Cubanado empanada (filled with Cuban sandwich ingredients) and a cafe con leche at Mervis’ Cafe in Fort Pierce; a Detox smoothie at Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Cocoa Beach; a seasoned hamburger patty, cottage cheese and lots of fruit at Pogie’s in Okeechobee; half of a meatball sub from Subway.

THE MAILBAG
From Janet M.:
Oh, Dobie’s Corner! My husband and I frequented the place (mentioned last week) so very often. In fact, when George (Dobrin) closed the place he returned the restaurant sign to the wood carver, a friend of ours, who made it for him. Our friend gave it to us because he knew how much we liked that restaurant. The sign found a good home. It’s now on the entry way to our dining room.

Maybe I’ll hit my husband up to make mititay (those delicious fingers of meat) this weekend, if I make polenta to accompany them. Thanks, Jane, for the memories.

Dear Janet:
I loved the tiny Bath restaurant, too, especially the soups. I still make several of them, including potato and greens and Roquefort and cabbage. Dobie’s was the first place I encountered polenta and it was love at first bite. At Dobie’s it was called by its Romanian name, “mamaliga,” as I’m sure you remember.

From Marilyn:
I made your Italian wedding soup for a wine pairing dinner party last week and it was a huge hit. Maybe you could share the recipe with your readers it is the best.

Dear Marilyn:
The recipe is the best one I’ve seen for wedding soup, too. Raphael Vaccaro of Vaccaro’s Trattoria in Bath shared his treasured family recipe for a story I wrote in 2001.

MEATBALLS
1 lb. ground veal or chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
3 eggs
1/2 tsp pepper
Pinch of salt
2 cups Pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Seasoned bread crumbs

Gently mix together veal or chuck and pork. Add eggs, pepper, salt, cheese and parsley and mix lightly but well. Gently work in enough seasoned bread crumbs to make a firm mixture. Roll into meat balls the size of grapes.

Place on baking sheets with sides and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Meatballs may be cooled, then frozen. Use directly from the freezer.

ITALIAN WEDDING SOUP
3 qts. chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 cups finely chopped endive or escarole
2 cups finely chopped fresh spinach
2 cups tiny meatballs
4 eggs
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup of Acini di Pepe pasta, cooked al dente
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Measure all ingredients and place them in bowls on the counter, in the order they will be used.

Bring broth to a simmer in a large soup pot. Add carrots, celery, onions, endive and spinach. Add the meatballs. Simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, until carrots are tender.

In a medium bowl, combine cheese and egg and mix well. Scrape mixture in a lump into the center of the simmering soup. Let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes without stirring. Lift the mass occasionally with a slotted spoon to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The soup is done when the egg-cheese mixture looks firm. Gently break apart with a spoon.

Remove soup from heat. Stir in the pasta. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper. Serve hot.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.