According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family of four wastes between $1,350 and $2,275 worth of food in a year. Much of that comes from leftovers that spoil, dairy products past the expiration date, and rotted produce. Even if that doesn’t happen at your house, most of us are also trashing tons of peels, pits, leftovers, and scraps because we don’t realize they’re edible or know what to do with them.
Whether it’s thrift, a sense of environmental responsibility, or the quest for new and interesting ingredients that provides motivation, learning how to use what’s normally discarded adds another dimension to the idea of cooking from scratch. Some ideas, like making “cracklins’” from pork fat and pickling watermelon rind, are as old as the hills, the product of frugal-minded cooks from past generations. Other possibilities—oven-drying citrus peels, turning broccoli stalks or fennel fronds into pesto, or using young radish leaves in place of arugula—reflect a more progressive and inventive culinary style. With the right information, an adventurous attitude, some planning and a dash of creativity, you can glean a whole new array of foodstuffs to work with that will take your cooking to the next level and make you a better planetary citizen.
“There’s still some use and plenty of flavor [as well as nutrients] in what we typically throw out,” says food writer Marilou Suszko. “The challenge of seeing how much you can repurpose for the dinner plate rewards you with taste, savings, and a sense of achievement.” Suszko, author of two cookbooks—Farms & Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen: A Cook’s Guide to Seasonal Eating and Preserving—and super-cook who makes pretty much everything in her own kitchen, including Worcestershire sauce, yogurt, and ketchup, has some great tips for how to glean good things from what we normally consider garbage.
According to her, the freezer is a “scrapper’s” best friend. That’s where she collects roasted chicken or beef bones for stocks; leftover buttermilk or heavy cream; and what remains when a recipe calls for either lemon zest or juice so the unused portion can be thawed for a future application. “I have a dedicated freezer bag where I stockpile parsley stems, tomato cores, carrot and parsnip peels, leafy celery tops and carrot fronds, papery garlic and onion skins plus trimmings, the ends of green onions, and mushroom stems,” says Suszko. “I use the contents to make a vegetable broth for soups, stews, and risotto.”
Corn cobs make a great stock too, she adds.
“Break cobs into two or three pieces, add water to almost cover, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the cobs and further reduce by 30–50%. Strain the highly flavored liquid before storing. It makes a great base for corn chowder.”
Suszko hoards bread on its way to turning stale, periodically dries it in the oven, and grinds it in a food processor for breadcrumbs. Imperfect or slightly over-ripe fruits are perfect for smoothies. Instead of pouring the juice left in a pickle jar down the drain, she suggests keeping it around. A splash jazzes up a Bloody Mary and it makes a great brine for raw vegetables. And she’s not shy about admitting that there’s a stash of bacon grease in her fridge. “It’s awesome stuff for sautéing onions and vegetables for stews or coating potatoes for roasting.”
Here are a few more suggestions, gleaned from chefs I’ve interviewed over the years:
- To conserve space, strain stocks and broths, then boil uncovered until reduced to a very concentrated, almost syrupy consistency. Cool and freeze in ice trays for a homemade version of bouillon cubes.
- Put cheese rinds and hard ends in the soup pot (but remove before serving).
- Never chuck the leaves attached to a head of cauliflower. They’re sweet, silky and can be cooked like cabbage. Try cutting them across the ribs and lightly sautéing with minced onion.
- Braise chard, kale, and collards stems.
- Salt tomato scraps, collect the liquid that drips out, and use to amp up flavor in soups and sauces.
And in a final step to getting every bit of value out of food, compost what you can.
Want more scrap recipes? Visit KitchenTableScraps.com and click on “Recipe” tab to find the section “Salvaged Scraps.”
A few delicious scrap cooking recipes by Marilou Suszko…