From mushy fruit and weird produce parts to leftover coffee and stale bread, these handy ways to use overlooked comestibles can help alleviate your personal contribution to landfill mayhem.
Those of us in the developed world live in a land of relative plenty ... and we should be spanked for not being more grateful for and careful with the abundance of food that we have. Forty percent of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten; 35 million tons of food were thrown away in 2012, the last year for which there are figures, according to the EPA. We’ve got drought, we use precious resources to produce food, feeding landfills (of which food waste is the single largest component) contributes to greenhouse gasses, people are hungry … and we’re throwing out millions of tons of things that can be eaten.
While there are many places where food is being lost and wasted between the field and the fridge, the home is an important place for each of us to start being more accountable. Shopping smartly is important, but beyond menu-planning and supermarket strategizing – and aside from basic preserving methods – here are some ways to handle that which you’ve already got.
1. Use every last dropWhen you have a jar with food still left that’s either inadequate for a full serving or cannot easily be decanted, use it as a base for something else by adding new ingredients and shaking to loosen the dregs. The salvage here may seem minimal – a teaspoon here, a tablespoon there – but it adds up. It’s also a great exercise in creative food usage and can be the start of some new recipes that you may not have thought of otherwise. Examples:
- To the last of a jar of peanut butter add soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil for peanut sauce that can be used on everything from cold noodles to shredded cabbage for a twist on cole slaw.
- To the last of a jar of mustard add balsamic vinegar, olive oil and maple syrup for a Dijon-maple vinaigrette.
- To the last of a jar of tomato sauce add cream, shake, pour into a pan and heat for pink pasta sauce.
- To the last of a jar of Nutella add coffee, milk and ice cubes for an iced Nutella coffee.
Just start with the jar, think of what recipes might use the ingredient that remains, and get creative.
2. Rethink your vegetablesMost of us have been taught certain ways in which to view our produce and it’s hard to see the whole vegetable in a different light. When approaching a vegetable on the cutting board, take a moment to consider the possibilities. Many of us have learned that once-neglected broccoli stems can be delicious when peeled; the same goes for asparagus stalks. Likewise, beet greens and carrot tops can be cooked or used for pesto; radish and turnip greens can be cooked or used in salads; kale ribs can be sliced and sautéed; cauliflower leaves are delicious roasted with the rest of the bunch. There are so many ways to use the whole shebang; since all the bits and pieces have unique flavors, taste them and let their personalities be your guide.
And the same goes for fruit: candied citrus peels and pickled watermelon rinds come to mind. Fore more, see: 20 uses for leftover fruit and vegetable rinds and peels.
3. Create a stock stockpileFor the bits of produce, as referred to above, that you can’t figure out an application for, create a “stockpile.” I keep a covered bowl in my fridge and add all the scraps of vegetables I can’t find a use for during the week, and I create a batch of vegetable stock every Sunday (here's how). It’s always a different mix and may include everything from onion skins to herb stems to root greens to garlic ends. I mostly use the stock for soup bases, cooking dried beans and risotto; and whatever can’t be used that week (which is rare) then goes in the freezer. Bonus: Cheese rinds, like those from Parmesan, add a wonderful richness to soup stocks, too.
4. Think outside of the iceboxMost of us know how handy the freezer is, but for some reason employing it for unusual ice cubes is often overlooked. Here are some ideas: Use leftover coffee for coffee ice cubes for iced coffee; use leftover juice for juice ice cubes to add to sparkling water; freeze leftover vegetable stock in ice cube trays to add as a finish for pasta; use leftover wine for wine ice cubes to deglaze sauté pans with; use leftover coconut milk to make coconut ice cubes to add to smoothies; use leftover lemon juice mixed with honey for ice cubes destines for iced tea. The possibilities go on and on.
5. Make your freezer a smoothie barThe secret to smoothie success is using frozen fruit instead of plain ice, which melts and dilutes the flavors. And to be honest, sometimes the best frozen fruit to use is that which was frozen near the end of its life, when its sugars are at their highest and texture no long matters. So if you were overambitious while fruit shopping, fear not as you see it becoming mushy before your eyes. Peel it, chop it, and freeze it – and you will have many of the makings of a smoothie right on hand. When it comes time, add fresh fruit (if you have it, but it’s optional), frozen fruit, and enough liquid to allow your blender to do its thing, and voila.
6. Behold your breadBread is a beautiful thing, but once it has passed its prime, it becomes a less beautiful thing. Stale bread – and that harboring an ecosystem of mold – do not a nice sandwich make. I put sliced bread in the freezer the minute I get it home; for unsliced bread, I slice it first (or in the case of baguettes, portion it into what will reasonably be used for a meal) and do the same. The freezer takes none of its texture away, and in fact, keeps it as fresh-tasting and toothsome as when I got it.
But if you don’t freeze your bread, there are many ways you can employ it once it has become stale. Consider: bread crumbs, croutons, French toast, bread pudding, panzanella (the delicious tomato and bread salad), toss hunks in olive oil and sink them in soup, use in vegetable burgers, top casseroles with it, make stuffing, and when all else fails, make toast!