Being a better cook is more than mastering recipes. It’s also getting the most from your food, wasting little and repurposing leftovers in creative, even ingenious ways. These ideas will help you use up odds and ends and improve kitchen storage.
A crowded vegetable crisper is soon a rotten one. Allow air to circulate. Most vegetables are best left in plastic bags that are open and punched with holes. (But leave onions and potatoes in a dark cabinet or pantry away from the other vegetables and each other.)
Wrap lettuce and cucumbers in paper towels and refrigerate in plastic bags. For best results, wrap cukes individually.
Rinse herbs lightly, roll in paper towels and refrigerate in a plastic bag with the top left open. Or trim the ends off a bunch, put it in a glass of water like a bouquet, cover with a plastic bag and store on a refrigerator shelf.
Sauté lettuce that has begun to wilt in olive oil and season with garlic or shallot.
Blanch and then purée carrot tops for chimichurri or pesto. For chimichurri, blend with red wine vinegar, olive oil, herbs and garlic or shallots. For pesto, blend with olive oil, pine nuts and a hard cheese like Parmesan. Use it to top fish, season soup or sauce pasta. (Taste the tops first; if they’re very bitter, blanch more than once.) Radish tops and roasted asparagus bottoms are good for pesto, too.
Eat carrot tops in a seaweed-like salad: blanch once or twice, then toss in sesame oil and soy sauce.
Chop and sauté radish tops or turnip tops. Add a poached or fried egg for breakfast.
Make chocolate mousse with overripe avocados: purée with melted chocolate chips, milk, cocoa powder, a little sweetener and vanilla. Or mash with a little lime juice and freeze for a guacamole base. For pasta sauce, blend with spinach or basil, olive oil and herbs.
Boil carrots and blend with a neutral oil, a little garlic and a hard-boiled egg for a fluffy alternative to mayonnaise.
Refrigerate or freeze the stems from cilantro or parsley, along with celery leaves, onion peels, mushroom stems and the like. When you have enough, simmer into a stock for risotto or soup.
Toss those last few berries, half an apple, peeled brown bananas (cut into chunks for easy puréeing) or other fruit in a bag in the freezer. Soon you’ll have enough for a smoothie, which is also a good way to use up the last bit of sour cream, yogurt or ice cream.
Save orange rinds. Dry them and use as aromatic fire kindling.
Keep lemons in the fridge. Wrap zested lemons in plastic, and keep extra lemon halves cut-side down in a bowl for salad dressings. They can also be preserved or cooked down to a quick marmalade, or used for cleaning: rub the cut side on aluminum pots to shine them, or on cutting boards to clean them. Or put them down the garbage disposal to make the house smell good.
Purée herbs and olive oil and freeze in plastic bags or ice cube trays. Use as the base for pesto or other herb sauces.
Resprout scallions by using the green parts, then taking the white bulbs and putting them in a jar of water. Replenish the water regularly.
Hang sturdy herbs upside down to dry. Use as you would any store-bought dried herb.
Meat and seafood
In the refrigerator or freezer, save poultry, beef and ham bones and scraps; shrimp, lobster and crab shells; and fish heads and bones (from white-fleshed fish) until you have enough for a big pot of whatever kind of stock you want to make. Or make a small batch of stock immediately. The carcass and pan drippings from a roast chicken can go right into a pot with whatever bits of vegetables you have. Add a carrot, half an onion and a bay leaf or other herbs. Cover with water, bring to a boil and then simmer for a couple of hours. Don’t forget to check for seasoning and skim for fat or impurities. Use for soup the next day or to cook a pot of rice.
Reduce stock and freeze for a fast broth. When you’ve made stock, strain it and then simmer it again, reducing by perhaps 10 times. Freeze it in ice cube trays or small containers. Reconstitute with water.
Save even small amounts of bacon grease and rendered pork fat from roasts. Use to roast potatoes and root vegetables, or with greens. Bacon grease can be especially good in baked goods.
Freeze the chicken liver if you get one with a whole chicken. Accumulate enough and sauté with butter, a little shallot and a shot of wine to blend into paté.
Save pickle brine for brining chicken.
Give meat – and not just fruit – a second life in a pie. A few balls of savory dough wrapped in plastic or foil and then put in a plastic bag will last up to three months in the freezer. Or use leftover meat for soup, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos or salads.
Use sour milk to make pancakes or other baked goods that call for buttermilk.
Save Parmesan and pecorino rinds in the freezer to make stock, or slip them directly into a pot of soup to enhance the flavor.
Mash blue cheese with olive oil and refrigerate for use in salad dressing or on potatoes.
Combine small mixed scraps of cheese to make fromage fort, fondue or mixed-cheese macaroni and cheese. Or grate or crumble on salad or sliced fruit.
Bread and nuts
Whirl stale bread into breadcrumbs and freeze. Toast as a topping for pasta or gratins, as a coating for pan-fried cutlets or as a thickener for blended soups or gazpacho. Mix into ground meat for meatballs or meatloaf.
Use stale bread for French toast, bread pudding or strata. Or turn it into croutons, use it in panzanella or ribollita, or as bed for roast chicken. A loaf of aging bread is a good excuse to make a fondue or a pot of French onion soup.
Freeze bread by wrapping it well. To revive, bring it back to room temperature, unwrap, spritz with water a few times and pop it into a 350-degree oven for 8 to 12 minutes. (This works for stale loaves that aren’t frozen, too. Spritz with a little water first.) You could slice the bread first, which affects the quality but makes it easier to take a piece directly from the freezer to the toaster.
Slice up a leftover baguette, let the pieces dry out, then bag them to repurpose as croutons or crackers.
Cut leftover bread slices or crusts into sticks, butter and bake to serve with eggs or soup.
Crush leftover party nuts and sprinkle them on top of a salad or cooked Brussels sprouts.
Durham expert offers his tips
Durham writer Jonathan Bloom wrote an award-winning book, “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It),” which came out in 2010. If you would like to hear Bloom speak on this topic, he will be at the city of Raleigh’s Talking Trash book club at 6:30 p.m. March 18 at the Halifax Community Center, 1023 Halifax St. Details: nando.com/10g
Bloom shared some basic tips to maximize your food’s lifespan.
▪ Declutter your refrigerator and freezer. Out of sight is out of mind and your food will soon be out of time.
▪ Store your food in clear containers or bags. If you’re like me and have some plastic containers with colored lids, this means doing something radical – turning the container upside down.
▪ Put newer foods in the back, pushing older ones to the front. You may even want to designate a shelf as the “Use it up” area.
▪ In general, treat your freezer as a waste prevention aid. Most foods freeze well, but their quality starts to fade after a few months.
▪ Freezing “mature” bananas for smoothies is great, but I also enjoy using them for banana breads, muffins or even D.I.Y. banana yogurt. Just be sure to peel them before freezing!
▪ With moldy cheese, cut away mold and – voila – healthy cheese! The Mayo Clinic advises cutting 1 inch below the mold, but I think their lawyers wrote that one. (Note: Mold is more dangerous with soft cheeses – ricotta, cottage cheese, etc.)
▪ Just as you can bring stale bread back to life, you can also perk up those sad carrots, lettuce or most other vegetables by submerging them in water and storing in the fridge.
▪ Develop a favorite “use-it-up” meal and be on the lookout for its constituent dribs and drabs. Soups, spaghetti, burritos, stir fry, etc.
▪ Last and definitely easiest – stick a paper towel in that bag of washed greens. It’ll absorb the moisture and slow your spinach’s transformation into that dark green mess.
New York Times readers offered these ideas for curbing kitchen waste:
Corn on the cob: When I buy corn on the cob, I cut the kernels off and serve that day (or freeze for instant corn niblets) and save the cobs for later. I make corn broth out of the cobs the next time I make a vegetable soup. I cut four to six cobs in half and boil them for about 45 minutes in 9 cups of lightly salted water. Strain after boiling; this results in about 6 cups of corn broth. If you skip the salt, you can chill it and it makes a nice, light drink.
Casserole idea: Quinoa or brown rice, Braggs (a healthy alternative for soy sauce) and most any leftover can be mixed together for a hot, tasty meal.
Citrus solution: Peel citrus with potato peeler, freeze it and use as needed for zest.
Pot pies: We take what’s leftover, add little extras like cheese, then wrap in pizza dough for individual potpies.
Dabs of flavor: When I have a couple of tablespoonsfull of a dish leftover. I’ll pulse it and add it to a sauce or soup for some extra depth and flavor.
Edit your pantry: Stop building a pantry for every cuisine on earth. Focus on what is in season or accessible locally. Build out a pantry based on the tastes you love most. Simplify always.