It’s almost Earth Day, y’all! Time to focus on helping this giant orb we live on to be as hospitable for our great-great-grandchildren as it has been for us. And in that struggle, reducing food waste can have more impact than fixing leaky faucets and turning your lights off.
According to ReFED, a nonprofit organization that advocates using data- and business-focused strategies to prevent and reduce food waste, Americans send 52 million tons of food to landfills each year, and another 10 million tons are discarded or left unharvested on farms. Producing, processing, transporting and disposing of that food equates to a $218 billion loss for the economy.
The water and environmental resources wasted to grow food that we don’t eat weighs on our conscience, too. As more Americans learn more that we collectively waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply, no wonder there’s a guilty feeling when we throw away a forgotten container of leftovers or a tray of spoiled meat.
But whether you are microwaving last night’s dinner or simply being more conscious when you shop, the steps we take to reduce the amount of food we throw away are worth the effort. Using leftovers saves you time and money, and food that has spent a little too much time in the fridge can be restored from a “marginally useful” category to “delicious” with a little energy or creativity. Here are some ways to start wasting less of it:
Step One: Buy less
Planning ahead turns out to be the first step in changing our wasteful ways, so let’s start with a novel idea: Buy only what you think you’ll use. That’s certainly a lesson I need to learn. I’m a serial shopper (not a cereal shopper!) – heading to Central Market South for veggies and Central Market North for fruits. So between the two, I forget how much I’ve already bought.
I’m a happy camper until I get home, where my darling hubby says, “When are we going to eat all of this?” He points out – in the nicest possible way – that we’re going out of town or to a friend’s house or that we’re only two people and may have to invite the neighborhood to work through my stash.
Step Two: Toss less
How many times have you thrown out food because it’s past the sell-by date? Glancing around my pantry not long ago, I spotted a jar of Vidalia onion dip with an expiration date from the year after Joe Gutenberg rolled out his first printing press. And while my jar of dip was definitely a candidate for the trash, the USDA says a lot of food waste takes place because people don’t understand the meaning of those dates on the labels.
Let’s start with a fact that amazed me: Use-by, sell-by and best-by dates are not safety dates, except in the case of infant formula.
● The “sell-by” date is the one after which grocers need to take it off their shelves. That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. In fact, a product still maintains one-third of its shelf-life after that date.
● The “use-by” date is the last date recommended for obtaining peak quality in the product.
● The “best if used by” date simply refers to how long the product’s flavor or quality will be best.
So even past all these dates, while the quality may not be its best, the products should still be wholesome as long as there’s no evidence of spoilage, like off color or odor or texture. If the food is spoiled, don’t eat it.
Step Three: Revive and refresh
Even with the best treatment or intentions, we all find ourselves with wilted, shriveled produce, but that doesn’t mean they have to go in the compost yet.
To keep vegetables and fruits fresh long, you need to store them right. Vegetables fare best in a moist environment, while fruits, not so much. Make both groups last longer by not putting them in the same refrigerator drawers. And if your veggie drawers fill up, store the excess in plastic bags or containers. (Store mushrooms in paper bags.)
When I lose my mind at the farmers market, as I do often in the summer, I may find myself with more lettuce than we can eat in a few days, but I’ve discovered a great way to save storage space and keep the lettuce longer than you’d imagine – as long as two weeks.
Once home, I separate the heads and soak the leaves in a sink full of cold water to get the dirt off. Then I spin them dry and lay them out on paper towels. I stack the layers and maneuver as many as I can into gallon-size zip-top bags. Finally, I squeeze as much air out of the bags as possible and store them in the refrigerator. Once you’ve squeezed the air out, those bags are like the vacuum-sealed bags you can buy to store blankets or sweaters – they consume a fraction of the space for a head of lettuce, and they don’t even have to be in a vegetable drawer. Just remember to squeeze the air out again each time you open the bags.
If you have a bunch of greens that look sad, they are probably just dehydrated. Most greens can be rejuvenated by cutting a half-inch off the stems and soaking the leaves in cold tap water for 10 minutes or so. But many preparations, including soup and stir-fries, don’t require veggie CPR. Wilted or not, they’ll cook up the same.
A bath in cold water also revives droopy green onions, asparagus, bell peppers, carrots, green beans, broccoli and celery. Trim the root or stem ends (for bell peppers, cut them in half) and soak until crisp.
We all know you can turn a stale (but not moldy) loaf of bread into croutons for salads or into crumbs for topping tuna casseroles or chicken cutlets, but you can also make the crusty bread fresh again.
Here’s how: Heat your oven to 300 degrees. Take that stale boule or loaf – or even a part of a loaf, just not the squishy sandwich bread from the store – and stick it under a running faucet. Try to keep the cut side dry, but get the crust good and wet and then put the bread in the oven, directly on the rack. Check the progress after 6 to 7 minutes, depending on the size of the loaf. (If you’ve been overzealous with the water, give it another 5 minutes.) Most loaves will take only 7 minutes to get back to their freshness peak – soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. It’s a miracle.
Step Four: Get creative with scraps
Who doesn’t like something for nothing? My friend Joy once told me her mother was so energetic at recycling leftovers that Joy and her brothers were never sure what the original meal was. Here are three great ideas for turning straw into gold.
You served a lovely cheese board to a gathering of friends. Now the party’s over and you’re left with 2 ounces of this, 3 ounces of that and most of it looking like the kids got to it. This dish — called Fromage Fort (French for “strong cheese,” and a time-honored way French households use leftover cheese) — turns those bits into a creamy spread for crackers or crostini that’ll impress anyone as an hors d’oeuvre. Melt it on thick slices of French bread for lunch, or mix it into scrambled eggs for a perky start to the day. Tuck a dollop of the stuff into 4-5 ounces of ground meat for a grilled Fromage Fort burger. Use your imagination!
1 pound (16 ounces) of assorted cheeses, hard or inedible rinds removed before weighing. Try to effect a mix of creamy and hard, fresh and aged, sharp and mellow for the best flavor. Use minimal amounts of blue cheese, and limit the salty cheeses.
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 to 5 fresh grinds of black pepper
Optional: 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh herbs, chopped (thyme, chives, dill, parsley – use one or more)
Crumble soft cheeses and cut firm ones into 1/2-inch dice; coarsely grate the hard cheeses. Load all ingredients – the cheeses plus the garlic, the wine, the pepper and herbs, if using – into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are fairly well mixed, then process the mixture until smooth, about 1 minute.
Let the flavors blend for at least a couple of hours in the fridge before serving at almost room temperature; flavor will improve with time. Can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks or in the freezer for a month, and a small jar of it makes a great hostess gift or a thank-you of any kind. Makes 2 1/2 cups.
— Lee Stokes Hilton
Carrot Top Pesto
If you buy a bunch of carrots with the tops still attached, don’t throw those greens away! You can serve the most delicate, feathery of the tops on a salad with carrots and burrata cheese, but this pesto is amazing drizzled on roasted carrots, pasta and just about anything else. The carrot greens have a mellow taste, so the flavor of the Parmesan comes through more than with other pestos.
4 cups (lightly packed) of tender carrot tops (thick stems saved for your vegetable stock)
15 to 20 fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
1 medium garlic clove, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the carrot tops, basil, walnuts, Parmesan, garlic and salt. Pulse several times – enough for the mixture to reach a rough, mealy texture. Then with the machine running nonstop, slowly pour in the oil. Continue to process, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides, until the mixture is well combined. Make the puree smooth or rough – whichever suits your taste. Makes about 2 cups. The pesto will keep a couple of weeks in the fridge, and freezes well for a year.
— Lee Stokes Hilton
No-Cook Lemon Syrup
Think you’ve gotten all you can out of those lemons? You’ve squeezed them and even zested some – what’s left? The pulp, which has enough acid to dissolve up to half its weight in sugar, according to pastry chef Stella Parks of SeriousEats.com. The result is a beautiful, flavorful lemon syrup you’ll fall in love with for its clean, fresh taste. Use it to make lemonade or various cocktails, pour it over vanilla ice cream, or add it to plain yogurt. Then run the leftover lemons through your garbage disposal to sharpen the blades and eliminate any smell.
15 ounces of used lemon rinds (with or without zest), from regular or Meyer lemons, or a combination
1 cup granulated sugar
Cut the lemons into large chunks and toss with the sugar in a glass or other nonreactive bowl. Stir well and cover the bowl tightly with cellophane wrap. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for at least 3 hours – overnight, if you like – stirring a couple of times an hour.
Once the sugar is completely dissolved, strain the syrup into a bowl — glass or other nonreactive material — using a fine-mesh stainless steel strainer. With the strainer still in place, use a stainless steel ricer to squeeze any remaining syrup from the rinds. Makes a scant 1 cup of syrup.
The syrup will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 months in a glass container. Or turn it into ice cubes for storing in your freezer.
— Stella Parks, SeriousEats.com
Step Five: Make re-mains
It’s dinner time and your family is complaining about “leftovers, again?!” You can fool them with these ideas.
Texas-Style Cattleman’s Pie
You can do a Texas take on classic shepherd’s pie if you have any leftover chili or stew. Bring the chili or stew to room temperature, spread it in the bottom of a casserole dish and pour a recipe of your best cornbread on top. Into the oven for as long as it takes the cornbread to bake (usually about 30 minutes), and you’ll have a dish that needs only a salad or veggie to make a perfect dinner.
Frittata is a classic dish, and maybe the most flexible I know. Which makes it much like Austinites. Almost anything you find in your fridge will work for a frittata; in fact, my friend Ellen says she’ll make one with anything that’s not moldy. Say you usually include goat cheese (one of my favorite ingredients), but you’re all out. Try light sour cream or yogurt. Or maybe some pesto. And you can trade around fresh spinach, arugula, watercress or Swiss chard. Or frozen spinach. (Just cook it first and squeeze out the water.) Really, any combination of whatever is available can work. I recently made a great frittata using the leftover grilled veggies from a fajita meal – a Fajita Frittata! (Sounds like a meal from “Lion King.”)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, fresh or roasted, smashed
8 to 9 ounces small new potatoes, thinly sliced
15 cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 to 4 ounces watercress, large stems removed (or fresh spinach or fresh arugula, or frozen spinach cooked till almost done and squeezed dry)
Kernels cut from one ear of corn
6 eggs, beaten
2 heaping tablespoons light sour cream (or goat cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated hard cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano or even cheddar will do)
Heat the broiler. In a deep, ovenproof skillet, over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Saute the onion about 4 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook an additional 1 minute. As you stir, pass the onion/oil up the sides of the pan to get a thin coating of the oil on it. This will help keep the finished frittata from sticking.
Raise the heat slightly and add the fingerling potatoes. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes. If you think the potatoes are sticking to the pan, add another teaspoon of olive oil. Reduce the heat back to medium, stir in the cherry tomatoes and the watercress and cook, covered, another 3 to 4 minutes.
Remove the cover and add the corn. Spread the veggies evenly around the pan.
Combine the eggs with the sour cream or goat cheese and pour gradually over the vegetables to cover evenly. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Put the cover back on the skillet and cook another 4 minutes, until the eggs are well-set (no jiggly parts when you shake the skillet).
Remove the cover, sprinkle on the cheese and set the skillet under the broiler for 2 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately. Serves 2 to 4.
– Lee Stokes Hilton
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Stokes Hilton is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal. You can find her thoughts and recipes at her blog, Spoon & Ink (spoonandink.blogspot.com).