Easy dishes and tips to ride out the wave of leftovers and unused bits coming to a fridge near you
(Boring kick-off alert): Label your food
I know, I know. You come to a cooking column wanting fast, easy tips to make dinner take-your-pants-off good, and here you are, looking at one telling you to make friends with pen and paper. It is studiously unsexy. And for that I apologize. But I promise you will love yourself a little more when you never again come home with an $8 chunk of parmesan to find you already have a brick of it cold chillin’ in the back of the dairy shelf.
Fridges are the great food-saving technology, of course, but they have a tendency to be a little self-defeating. Sightlines get cluttered; you have to stoop to look into most shelves; you don’t want to waste energy digging around with the door wide open, and so we lose things in there until they’re different colors.
Keep a list on the door of what you have, a rough note on how much there is, when it moved into the fridge (if you’re really anal, where it is), and scan the list before going shopping or opening a can or whatever. It’s smart. And smart is sexy.
Preserve the herbs
Many times I have stood before fragrant greenery and thought, “I know that rosemary will make dinner taste good. But will it make it taste an extra 6 bucks good?” And then cue the sadness that ensues when I spring for it, use one sprig and let the rest rot in a plastic bag in the fridge.
One happy solution: dry or freeze your herbs. I almost never buy herbs dried — who knows how long they’ve been sitting? Long enough to taste like dust — but drying your own actually locks in much of their aroma. The tough, hearty ones are best and easiest. Thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage, etc., you can dry simply by putting them, whole on the stem, in an uncovered glass in your fridge for a while, until they seem prickly and brittle. (Purists want you to use the sun or an oven with the pilot light overnight, but unless your fridge is stinky or humid, I think this is fine.) When they’re dried, just store them in Ziploc bags.
Tender herbs like basil, mint and tarragon typically freeze well. Lay the leaves flat on a towel-lined tray and put them in the freezer so they don’t clump together in a block. After a couple of hours or so, put them into a thick plastic bag, and squeeze as much air out as you can. Their texture will be a little limp when you defrost them to use, but the flavor will be there.
The Fleetwood Diner in Ann Arbor, Mich., is one of those sainted places where the food is just as delightful for the early-morning-industrious as the late-night skunk-drunk. (No comment on when it smells better.) It was there that I met the Hippie Hash, a hardly-novel but always-a-pleasure jumble of hash browns and … all kinds of other stuff. I recall peppers and bits of onion, broccoli, tomato, corned beef if you wanted it, feta cheese. There was probably more, but it was always too, er, early for me to remember it.
Anyway, it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes order out of the chaos of your bits and pieces of leftover vegetables (See: bubble and squeak). Get a large, heavy saut
The redemptive vegetable pur
Clouds of egg white
How many incredible edible eggs have you turned into incredible edible egg whites sitting in the trash? When using yolks for mayonnaise, hollandaise or any other kind of -aise, I always make it a point to save the whites, not because egg-white omelets are delicious, but because you never know when you’ll have to bust out an angel food cake all of a sudden.
Even if that’s not a likely threat in your world, egg whites can go from trashy to classy with minimal effort. I’m thinking of meringue cookies: crisp and airy outside, soft and chewy inside, with a flavor that’s sweet and mild.
There are plenty of recipes, but for the basics, just use a 1⁄4 cup of sugar, 1⁄4 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1⁄16 of a teaspoon of white vinegar (basically like 4-5 drops) for every egg white. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, and whip the eggs slowly until frothy. Add the vinegar and whip a little faster. When it looks white, gradually add the sugar while whipping until the mass is thick like shaving cream and the peaks hold firm. (Over-whipping will make it look dry and curdled, so better to slightly under-whip.) Drop Ping-Pong ball-size dollops on a parchment-lined tray and bake for about 90 minutes, until the crusts are firm and dry. Turn off the heat, and let them hang out in the closed oven until it cools down to room temperature. The only trick when baking is to get them out of the oven before they dry out completely, which robs them of their delightful chewiness, so give them a try after about two hours in the cooling oven. Store in an airtight container, for weeks if you’d like.
Give greens a little love
The flavors of greens are most alive when they’re so fresh you can still smell the sweat of the person who picked them, but that’s not to say they don’t like to stick around for a while if you make them comfortable. A few veg prep tricks can make the contents of your crisper drawer healthier and happier (and tastier) for days longer than if you just toss them in there straight from your market bag.
For beets, carrots and other roots that might have leaves attached: cut the roots from the greens, which draw away moisture and cause shriveling. But don’t resent the greens — they’re nutritious and great for saut