Yesterday, to mark World Environment Day, the USDA joined forces with the EPA to issue a Food Waste Challenge, a real signal that government agencies agree that food waste is a major problem. Even the most avid cooks (including yours truly) are guilty of letting fresh produce languish in the crisper drawer and allowing random excess dry goods overrun the pantry.
One way to get out of this glut rut is to embark on a week-long ‘eating down the fridge’challenge, which simply means skipping food shopping and eating up what’s on hand. Doing this kind of clean sweep on a quarterly basis not only saves money, but also inspires creativity. It’s amazing how resourceful we become when our supplies are limited. But if dramatic challenges aren’t your thing, there are many other ways to conserve in the kitchen as you go about your daily business. Check out the tips below, every one of which will not only help you cut back on your food waste, but they’ll help save you money, too.
Curbing Food Waste in the Meat Department
Make stock from shrimp shells. (If you’re pressed for time, you can freeze to make later.)How easy? Place shells in a saucepan with just enough water to barely cover them. Add in a handful of black peppercorns, a quartered onion, parsley stems and a clove of garlic. Bring up to a boil, then simmer for about 45 minutes, removing any scum that rises to the top with a slotted spoon. Allow to cool before refrigerating or freezing.
Buy a whole chicken instead of parts (it’s cheaper this way, too). Intimidated by roasting chicken, or pressed for time? Try this method: With a pair of kitchen shears or a sharp wide-bladed knife, cut out the back. Rinse under cold running water and place in the freezer and when you’ve accumulated three necks, make chicken stock. Press down on the breast until the chicken is somewhat flattened. You now have a spatchcocked or butterflied chicken, which will cook in about one-third of the time. (A five-pound chicken with the back removed will cook in about one hour at 400 degrees.) While your chicken roasts, plan a few days of meals repurposing the bird so that nothing goes to waste. Enchiladas on day two? You get the idea.
Curbing Food Waste from Vegetables and Herbs
Don’t toss that lingering potato in the drawer: Peel away any dings or boo-boos and cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half into thin half-moons. Boil in salted water for four minutes, drain and place on a tray or a rack to dry for a few minutes. Cook the potato in a cast-iron skillet with enough oil to coat the pan and half of a finely chopped medium onion. A little bit of fresh or dried thyme or oregano is really great here. Meanwhile, beat three eggs and season with salt and pepper. Pour over the potato and onion mixture. Add chopped fresh herbs or grated cheese. Turn the heat down to low, cover and cook until the egg mixture is set, about 15 minutes. For a brown top, place under the broiler for a minute or so. Ta-da, you’ve got a frittata.
Save corn, even the cob. When corn is in season, slice off the kernels, blanch (parboil) for 60 seconds, then run under cold water. Allow to dry on a baking tray, then freeze. Put the cobs in a separate bag and use for soups during the winter when you’re hankering for a taste of summer.
Speaking of soup, say yes to broccoli stems! Throw them into a pot with a quartered medium onion, a clove of garlic, a potato or two, and just enough water to barely cover. Puree with an immersion blender, stand blender or food processor. My favorite flavor-uppers: Lemon zest, black pepper, smoked paprika, ground ginger, curry powder.
Make sauce. If leafy herbs like parsley, basil, mint or cilantro are looking raggedy, puree a cup or two of whatever you’ve got with the juice of a lime, a 1-inch piece of jalapeno or favorite chile pepper, a garlic clove and salt to taste, for the most magnificent of green sauces. I promise that you’ll be licking the bowl.
Grow your own herbs. No garden plot necessary! You can have a highly efficient herb garden in containers, on a fire escape, in a window sill, on a balcony. It is one of life’s great pleasures, and if you cut what you need as you go, there’s no risk of wasting that bunch of cilantro you bought and forgot.
Cutting Waste from Bread, Grains and Nuts
Make breadcrumbs. Cut stale bread into small pieces, then pulverize in a food processor. Or lightly mist the bread to soften, then cut the bread into one-inch cubes, toss with olive oil, salt and herbs, then place on a baking tray in a single layer and bake in a 300 degree oven until desired dryness, for the best-ever croutons.
Cook extra grains. Sounds counterintuitive when discussing food waste, but whenever I cook brown rice or other grains, I always make more than I need so that there’s plenty for stir-fried rice during the week. Look through the crisper drawer and use up remaining bits of onions, garlic, shallot, ginger, carrots, chiles, bell peppers, snap beans, asparagus stalks, frozen peas. Dice vegetables, then cook in hot oil, add the cold rice and turn until well coated. Add a few glugs of soy sauce, a few splashes of water, and finish with some chopped fresh herbs if you’ve got them. A fried egg is a stellar topper here.
Keep nuts from going rancid (and they will) and inedible by storing them in the freezer instead of the cupboard.
Other Ways to Curb Food Waste
Hang onto rinds of aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino and store in the freezer to add an extra layer to soups.
Buy only the spices you need in the bulk section of your supermarket. You’ll save money, get a fresher product and use them more efficiently.
Big Picture Food Waste Strategy: Cook and Preserve!
Cook at home more; eat out less. By committing to cooking at least one night a week, you’re already making a difference. Think of all the carry-out containers that you’ve prevented from being used, and how one home-cooked supper can easily become the next day’s lunch.
Consider freezing supper remainders. If you’re bored by the thought of next-day leftovers, date your container and reheat in a week or two.
Preserve the summer bounty. Have you learned to make jam from your favorite berries or stone fruit yet? Canning is one of the best ways to eat locally all year round and truly eat down the cupboard. Don’t worry if life gets in the way of canning; freeze that fruit and do it when there’s time. Plus: there’s always refrigerator jam, which is particularly handy for PB & J enthusiasts.