Caroline Barrett

The Empty-Nester Refrigerator

Here’s my Times Union column for April 2023. It goes along with Crispy Mushrooms and Melty Cheese, Pasta in Pancetta, Tomatoes and Herbs and Lemon Coconut Scones. You can see it on the TU site here, or read below. 

Caroline Barrett
Caroline Barrett, grating butter for scones

Seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old, our refrigerator looked pretty sad. Elliot was home a few weeks ago, for one short and oh-so-sweet week during his college spring break, and there he stood, leaning on the refrigerator door, looking in. I stood behind him and realized how desperate the situation was. 

We empty nesters, we don’t stock the fridge the way we used to. Sure, there’s the required things: half-and-half, apples, almond butter, pickles, feta cheese and salad greens. We always have cans of tuna fish, cold seltzer and hot sauce. But Elliot, after finishing his midterms and slogging home, sleeping shamefully late and waking with dreams of bacon and eggs, bagels, strawberries, orange juice and muffins, just stared at the pickles and mayonnaise. 

I felt bad, then, seeing his messy hair and the hopeful face that gave way to disappointment. I made up for the lack of decent breakfast food by calling the corner market and ordering up a breakfast sandwich. I was forgiven, but thoughts of that empty refrigerator and how it’s filled at different times of our lives has stayed with me. 

There’s quite a difference in what we stocked for a houseful of kids (and even just a houseful of the youngest kid), and the food we eat as people with no children in the house. Even though we don’t regularly stock most of what Elliot was looking for that Saturday morning, we do make meals, and pretty good ones, too. They’re just different. 

Dinner in the nest that doesn’t feed children is often late, off-the-cuff, and unhurried. Sometimes, Paul and I take our plates to comfy chairs, pull on a blanket and eat while we talk about the day. No dinner table required. I didn’t think I’d like the empty-nest thing and, in many ways, I’m still adjusting. But those late, quiet and cozy dinners are a perk, if you will, of having no children in the house. 

Paul and I have gotten good at making up dinners. We are experts at looking in the refrigerator, pushing around the olives, hot sauce and mayonnaise, and making a decent meal.The nice thing about feeding two people? There’s no pressure for a balanced meal. Without young people, without mouths that demand carbohydrates, and without feeling guilty if there aren’t the proper amount of vegetables, we are free! We are free to have cheese for dinner. Or a sandwich. 

One meal Paul and I ate recently, which was born of necessity and which turned out to be a keeper centered around mushrooms. They were bought on a whim, left in a little brown bag, and nearly forgotten in the back of the fridge. We also had a wheel of cheese, the kind you might pick up for guests or to go to a party. (And here’s a happy life tip: you shouldn’t wait for a party to eat a wheel of creamy cheese. You can do that on say, a Tuesday night.) Anyway, with very few options, I sautéed the mushrooms with herbs until they released their liquid and darkened and became crispy. I warmed the cheese and then tumbled the cooked mushrooms over top. We scooped the cheese with spoons, working hard to be sure there was exactly enough cheese to divide it equally among each bite of mushroom. It was a dinner born of what-we-haves, and turned into a food-lover’s dream: rich, creamy cheese, crisp, chewy mushrooms, herbs, just a touch of salt. Use spoons to get it all from plate to mouth, as we did, and pile it up on crusty bread. Just do it when it’s late and quiet and you’re very hungry. It tastes best this way. 

I’m adding here a recipe that is good for serving to young people (read: it has carbohydrates and meat) and all the other generations, too. This is a mostly-pantry-staple meal, made with simple ingredients and with big rewards. I’m practicing for food like this because Elliot will be home from college soon. The cool thing about this dish is that it’s all cooked together: pasta, tomatoes, pancetta and all. Doing so creates a deeply flavorful dish, where the pasta is infused with the tomato, rather than just sitting in it. The pancetta adds a salty, meaty dimension and it’s all finished with a touch of butter – just a bit – for a silky and slightly creamy finish. You’ll notice this recipe calls for dried herbs. I use plenty of dried herbs all winter and into spring, while I wait for my garden to blossom and give the flavorful bits. Until then, there’s lots of flavor to be found in jars of herbs. Dried basil has a soft, sweet taste, just right with tomatoes and salty meat. 

Paul and I both love to have a little bit of baked something around the house, a plate on the counter of something buttery and sweet. It’s usually something that’s good with coffee or tea, and OK to nibble on late at night, too. I like to bake scones, because they come together easily and are indulgent enough – but not over the top (no bellies filled with buttercream.) We all are coconut lovers here, and what I love best about it is its ability to go with anything; It’s equally at home with sugar and chocolate as it is with chiles and herbs. It’s kind of like the friend you admire, who can talk to and get along with anyone, from any walk of life. In these scones, unsweetened coconut is lightly toasted and mixed together with lemon, sugar and butter to make a tender, sweet and moist treat, perfect for mornings, later afternoons or even as a light dessert. You’ll notice the recipe calls for grating cold butter into the flour mixture, a technique taught to me and which I use for anything I want to be flaky and tender, like pie crust, biscuits and scones.

Elliot is coming home soon. By the time this page is in print, there will be exactly 25 days until he comes home for the summer. Then, he’ll be home for about 60 days. That’s 60 mornings where he will be searching the fridge for bagels and juice, and 60 nights when I’ll be making square meals with grains, protein, vegetables and dessert. 

Yes, I am counting the days. Once he’s home, I’ll savor those days and nights and try hard to keep the fridge stocked with young-people food: all the bread, meat, juice and sugar he can eat.

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