The following is an article draft I wrote but never found a buyer for. Since we are all avoiding the stores as much as possible and some of us are temporarily out of work—myself included—I figured I’d share with you all these tips I have amassed for getting the most out of your groceries. Even if you are well-stocked, reducing your food waste is always a worthwhile pursuit. And if you have any tips or tricks like these, please, share them with us in the comments—I love saving!
First, let me reassure you I am not advocating dumpster diving. No, this is about keeping perfectly edible food from winding up in the trash, rather than rescuing it postmortem. These tips are extremely useful without being, well, extreme.
One of the best ways to stretch a dollar is to use every bit of what you buy, because throwing away food may as well be throwing away money. So, with a little creativity (and an open mind), here’s how to get more dinner out of your dollar.
BACON GREASE – Often overlooked but very versatile, bacon grease can be used in place of oil to sauté your veggies for added flavor, or brushed on the tops of your dog’s biscuits for an extra treat. (Your pooch can thank me later.) It can also be used like any other fat to make gravy. To make collecting the grease easier, cook bacon in the oven on cookie trays lined with foil, and, while it’s cooling, tilt the tray up in one corner with an added potholder: this way the grease will drain into one corner. Before it solidifies, pour it into a jar or ramekin. It will keep for up to a week, longer in the fridge.
FRUIT SYRUP – Don’t just drain off the excess juice from your canned peaches, pears, or cherries. Save the syrup by filtering out the large particles with a fine mesh strainer or coffee filter. Then you can add the leftover syrup to your sodas, iced teas, or cocktails for added punch. I enjoy my chilled pekoe with a splash of peach.
TEA/COFFEE – Speaking of tea, most bags can be used more than once if you don’t over-steep them. Remove as soon as peak flavor is reached and set aside. When you’ve finished your first cup, try squeezing a second cup out by adding boiling water again. Brew too much coffee? Store it in the fridge for iced coffee later, or to make coffee- or mocha-flavored cake. Just substitute the coffee in for the water in your favorite recipe; gives the cake a hint of coffee without being overpowering.
CHICKEN – Always save those delicious bones! Whether it’s the whole chicken you baked, or the wing tips you clipped off for poker night, you can stash them in the freezer (keeping cooked and uncooked pieces separate) until you’re ready to make soup. Simmer in a big pot, and you have free soup stock. Also be sure to collect the drippings from roasting and add them to rice when it’s boiling, to give those plain grains a little pizzazz.
VEGGIE SCRAPS – I’ve always preferred fresh broccoli and cauliflower but couldn’t stand paying for all those stems just to cut them off and toss them in the trash. Now I bag the clippings and tuck them away in the freezer until I have enough to make a batch of broccoli cheddar soup or a veggie casserole. (Some of the best flavor is in the stems.) Do the same with carrot tops, celery trimmings, and discarded bits of onion and garlic (even the skins!), storing them in a jar or bag in the freezer until you’re ready to make vegetable or chicken stock. Boil in a big pot of water and strain out the solid matter.
WATER – The water used to boil vegetables is usually just money down the drain. Why not make it serve double-duty? After you’ve boiled carrots, use that water to cook up a batch of sweet rice. Starchy potato water makes a wonderful soup or gravy base, and many use it instead of water when baking bread. Just place a large bowl or measuring cup in the sink to catch the water when you drain the potatoes. For gravy, heat your oil/fat (or even that bacon grease you saved), add a little flour to thicken (not as much as you normally use or your gravy will be very thick), and heat until it reaches desired color (less time for white gravy, more time for brown). Then add potato water in place of stock or a mixture of potato water and milk. Salt and pepper to taste. (Pro tip: When making gravy, if possible, cool your potato water before adding to avoid lumps.)
POTATO SKINS – You might also consider saving your skin–your potato skin, that is. If you like your mashed potatoes on the pale side, you can still turn those peelings into a delicious snack. Pat peels dry and toss them in a little oil and bake at 400℉ until crispy (about 15-20 minutes, longer for thicker pieces), then immediately add seasonings. Now your trash has become a treat! I like to use seasoning salt, ranch seasoning, or the savory/spicy mix below, but you can experiment with different toppings and dips. They also make great hash browns, so save them in the fridge if you’re too tired after peeling; they’ll keep up to a week. (NOTE: Never eat green peelings, as they are bitter and potentially toxic in large doses.)
POTATO PEEL SEASONING RECIPE
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons parsley flakes
- 1 ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- a pinch of cayenne pepper
- optional: 1 teaspoon sugar (brown or white)
Also, if you’re the gardening type and have the space, you can always cut up potatoes with too many eyes and grow new potatoes. Just slice off segments with multiple eyes growing, let dry overnight, then plant in a bucket of dirt, eyes up. (If it’s a sweet potato, bury it in a hanging pot with annual flowers and it will make a vivid green vine that will droop over the side like ivy. You can’t eat it, but it sure is pretty.)
PICKLE JUICE – In the summer, when I have more produce than I know what to do with, I like to save cucumbers by making fridge pickles, but they never have quite the same flavor as the store-bought ones. To cheat, I keep the leftover juice from the brand name pickles and pour some in with my fresh batch of fridge pickles; this saves me from wasting too much vinegar and seasoning.
JELLIES, SAUCES, & PEPPERS – It’s impossible to scrape every bit of jelly out of the jar, but you can get those last bits of flavor out by adding a little water, putting the lid back on, and shaking it up. Mix in with oil and seasonings for a fruity salad dressing. Do the same for tomato sauces and hot sauces to get the last remnants out. And you can use the juice from canned/jar peppers and olives, adding it to perk up a pasta salad or sauce.
BREAD – Since I bake my bread without preservatives, the sliced end tends to get crusty, and I often have to trim it off before I cut my next piece. I keep these mini-slices, let them dry out (covered with a tea towel), then pulse them in my food processor a couple of times to make bread crumbs for future salmon cakes and meatloaf. As long as the bread was thoroughly dry and stored properly, these crumbs will keep for months. Alternatively, you can break/cut dry bread into pieces, toss in a little oil and seasoning, bake briefly, and top your salads with them: Yesterday’s bread is today’s crouton. Italians make panzanella, a kind of salad that makes for one refreshing summer side dish. Or you can always shove stale bread bits in a bag in the freezer until you have enough to make bread pudding or stuffing/dressing. And don’t forget: bread is bread, so these are great ways to use up leftover hot dog/hamburger buns.
- Cut bread into cubes and dry out if not dry already.
- Add diced tomatoes, oil, and vinegar (enough to flavor and soften but not soak).
- Sprinkle in basil, salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.
CHIPS/CRACKERS – It’s rare that chips last long enough to go bad in my household, but when they do they can be crumbled up to make a crunchy casserole topping. Putting stale crackers in the bottom of the dish can soak up any extra sauce, to keep your casserole from being soupy.
CITRUS PEELS – If you have a taste for sweet/tart, give candied citrus peels a shot. These make delightful Christmas snacks and gifts. If you’re more traditional, there is always marmalade. Lemon peels, stuffed inside a roasting chicken, add a bright taste to an otherwise dull meat.
CANDIED ORANGE PEELS RECIPE
- Score orange from end to end, dividing into quarters. Remove peel. Lay peel flat, carefully cut away the pith (white part), and toss pith. Cut remaining peel into strips.
- Boil in water for 15 minutes and drain. (Repeat once or twice to help remove bitterness.)
- Bring to boil water and sugar in 2:1 ratio (2 cups water, 1 cup sugar) to make a simple syrup. Toss in peels. Reduce to a simmer and leave for 45 minutes to an hour; the more transparent the peels are, the better. (Check on it periodically, as you don’t want the water to boil, otherwise the syrup may cook to hard ball stage.)
- Strain out peels. (Save the syrup! It’s delicious in tea and mixed drinks.) Dry thoroughly before adding to a bowl of sugar and tossing.
(Note: If your tongue isn’t into tart, there is a variety of household uses for citrus. Simmer orange in a pot with cinnamon and cranberries to give your house a festive scent, or dry them for potpourri. To make an astringent household cleaner, soak orange peels in apple cider vinegar for a couple weeks, then drain off the liquid and put in a spray bottle. To freshen up a stinky garbage disposal, send some peels down it. And many swear by the pest-repelling properties of citrus: place peels around your garden to ward off unwanted creatures, from aphids to cats.)
PUMPKIN SEEDS – At Halloween, I always roast my pumpkin seeds; they are full of nutrients and make a delicious snack or salad addition. Rinse off the pumpkin guts in a colander, then lay seeds out on a tray to dry overnight. Toss seeds in oil of choice or melted butter and season with salt (and cayenne if you want a little kick). Roast at 300℉ for about 45 minutes, until golden. If baked well, the shell will not detract from the flavor, but some people prefer to remove it; the choice is yours.
GREEN ONIONS – Even if you have a black thumb, you can regrow green onions. Just cut off what you need–leaving a little green showing—then immerse the bulbs in a cup of water and place on your kitchen window sill. The green shoots will reappear as if by magic over the next couple of days. Change out the water when it starts to get cloudy (every few days), and you can clip as needed indefinitely.
I hope you can see by these suggestions how easy it is to make the most of what you grow and buy, ensuring that you remain independent. And, of course, most food waste can go into compost if nothing else (just about any food besides animal products, oils, onions, and citrus), so consider starting a pile if you don’t already have one. Just don’t forget to add “brown” waste, like paper and fallen leaves! (For composting basics, check out this link: http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/balancing.pdf.)
Got any tips, tricks, or recipes for me? I’m always looking for ideas, so share in the comments!