A new study shows we throw out a quarter of our food. Here are tips and super-easy dishes to help you eat it all
Be creative about stale bread
There really isn’t ever a reason to throw bread out because it’s gone stale. First of all, you can soak it in syrup, top it with tastiness, and bake it until it’s like bread pudding you can hold. For those less fabulously inclined, another idea is to dry it out for crisps, croutons, and crumbs. For crisps — perfect for topping or snacking — slice it thin, drizzle lightly with oil, and bake in a 350-400 degree oven until it’s toasty and crackly. For croutons, cut into cubes, toss with a little oil and salt and pepper, and bake at 325, also until toasty and crisp all the way through. For bread crumbs, just leave the bread out until it’s almost totally dried out, cut into 1-inch cubes, and whirl briefly in a food processor. (Be careful not to over-process it, though, or it’ll be bread dust.) Once toasted or dried, your crisps, croutons and crumbs can keep in airtight containers theoretically forever.
Did you know you can freeze milk? Seriously, I didn’t until last year. I always just thought milk’s fate was to either get in my belly or go bad. But it’s fine frozen, though I recommend you give it at least an inch or two from the top of the container so that it doesn’t burst when it expands. You can even split up that gallon into quarts and just defrost one at a time. Freezing can affect the quality a little bit — thawed, it can sometimes get a little separated or ever-so-slightly grainy. If the former, just make sure you stir it back up, and if the latter, it will still be fine for cooking. Or just make a huge batch of ice cream!
Eggs, the great reanimator
Have leftovers you don’t quite know what to do with, and have eggs you’re trying to use? It’s frittata time! Sure, there are recipes, but here is the gist of all of them. Put leftovers — or, of course, fresh ingredients — nearly of any sort as long as they’re solid in a bowl. Break a couple of eggs into another bowl, whisk together with a fork, add a pinch of salt, and stir into the leftovers. You want enough egg to have a little liquid around the edges; if it’s not there, add more eggs. Get a nonstick pan, one big enough to fit all the ingredients without mounding too much. Heat it over medium high heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom, and when it’s shimmering, add the frittata mixture, letting it sizzle a bit on the bottom to set the egg. Either finish cooking in a 350 oven or turn the heat down to medium and let it cook until it’s firm enough to hold together. At that point, put an inverted plate on top of the pan, carefully flip it over, and slide the flipped frittata back into the pan to finish cooking. It’s done when all the egg is cooked, and boom! Lunch!
Saving trim and scraps for stock
Have you ever made a recipe that called for leeks, “white parts only”? Guess what — the green parts are right tasty, especially for a stock. And, while we’re at it, so are the stalks of broccoli, corn cobs, the bottoms of asparagus you snap off, and really most any kind of trim you routinely take off your produce, as long as it’s not muddy or banana peels or whatever. (Some people even keep onion skins, but I’ll admit I don’t think they do much. And potato scraps will cloud your stock.) The same goes for your leftover meat bones, raw or cooked, or those tips from chicken wings, scraps from roasts, and all the rest of it, so long as they’re not just huge chunks of fat. If you’re not producing a lot of trim at once, just keep a plastic bag in the freezer and keep tossing stuff in. Unless you’re a three-star chef, don’t sweat the proportions of ingredients or recipes for perfect stock. When you have a couple of pounds of trim, or when you need some flavor in a hurry, just toss it all together with some water to cover, bring it to a boil and turn down to a slow simmer for a couple of hours, or even just 30-40 minutes if it’s all vegetables. Boom! Stock!
Pasta, rice, cooked grains
I used to not bother saving pasta because I’m an al dente snob, and leftover pasta doesn’t tend to keep its texture well. That is, until I learned that you can get some of its chewiness back — and with some brown, toasty flavor — by saut
Leftover sauces, soups, meat juices
In the wonderful world of just-throwing-it-together cooking, you can free yourself from worrying about perfect flavor combinations that make the angels cry. Instead, many cooks just think about “flavor” like it’s a measurable quantity. “Is there enough flavor? I just want more flavor!” they’ll say, and this brings me to my next point. I save all sauces, drippings, juices, and pretty much anything liquid that can be used to help flavor something down the line. If you have some leftover chicken soup, and you were planning on pasta tomorrow, for instance, you can try reducing the soup down to a sauce. Or throw it into a tomato sauce to boost the flavor. As long as you’re not doing something crazy like sticking hot chocolate in white wine sauce, you’ll probably be fine. Just follow the Golden Rule of cooking: add and taste, add and taste.
Don’t be a wuss
This’ll probably get me a very angry call from Salon’s lawyers, but finally, don’t be squeamish. Don’t just toss food because the date says it’s time to go. Many of these dates are “Best used by,” not “This becomes poison at midnight on…” Companies want you to toss and buy more of their product. Develop and trust an instinct: Does it look OK? Smell OK? Taste OK? (Caveat: Have you been storing it properly in the fridge? If not, you didn’t hear this from me.) This goes doubly for something you’re going to cook anyway; remember that cooking and killing germs is the original way of making food safe to eat. Anyway, a cooking hero of mine, Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, writes this in her latest book, “Forgotten Skills of Cooking”: “Trust your senses. Look at food. Smell it. Taste it — if in doubt, just have a small taste. A piece of meat that smells a little high might just need a wash. When I was young, if we came across some mold in a pot of jam we were told to just stir it in — ‘It’s penicillin, it’ll do you good!’ I don’t know if that was true or not, but we survived to tell the tale.” That’s a little brave even for me, but courage is something we should all aspire to!