Food & Drink

Stop wasting so much food

jleonard@newsobserver.com

We’ve all done the Big Refrigerator Cleanout. Wilted parsley, bits of dry-looking cheese, slightly soft lemons – every bit gets chucked out.

Have you ever been shocked at how quickly it fills a trash bag?

Wasting food costs families money. According to Consumer Reports magazine, for every $1 Americans spend on food, about 10 cents worth is thrown away, which can add up over the course of a year.

And the idea of throwing away so much when food insecurity is widespread among poor populations can feel wrong.

In January, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized that food waste isn’t just a financial and moral problem, it’s also an environmental one.

Most of the trash that ends up in landfills is food waste. When food decomposes in landfills, it becomes a source of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming.

The EPA has started a program to encourage individuals and businesses to minimize food in landfills by reducing waste, donating food where appropriate and composting. Read more here: epa.gov/sustainable-management-food.

With a few mindset changes and a little planning, you can reduce the amount of food waste at home, according to Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook” (Chronicle Books, 2015).

The foods most often wasted are produce and dairy items – not surprising, since they, along with meats, are the most perishable.

In the book, Gunders advises learning the difference between something that isn’t safe to eat and something that isn’t at peak quality but can still be used. Meat, poultry, shellfish, raw eggs and fish require the highest levels of caution because they hold the greatest possibility of foodborne illness. If any of those foods smell bad, discard them.

With all foods, she writes, trust your nose and eyes, avoiding foods that look or smell “off,” as that can be a sign that they may be unsafe to eat.

Here are some ways you can begin your own war on food waste.

Get a new mindset

Think differently about cooking – and leftovers – and learn to shop from your refrigerator and freezer. That leftover half-cup of spaghetti sauce or chili could top an English muffin pizza or go into tacos. Cooked chicken or turkey can become salad, pot pie, enchiladas or tetrazzini. Use mashed potatoes for a shepherd’s pie. Have some dried-out root vegetables? Shred them for fried vegetable pancakes. And just about any vegetable is good in a frittata, omelet or quiche. Turn vegetables and leftover cooked rice into fried rice.

Even small amounts of leftovers can be frozen. Always label items with what it is and the date it was frozen. Keep a list of your freezer’s contents on the door as easy mealtime inspiration.

Shop smarter

Try to plan meals in advance and shop only for what you need. This can be easier said than done when you have a busy life, but do the best you can. Shop with a list to avoid impulse buys.

Purchase the freshest produce possible. The less time between the field and you, the longer it will keep. If you’re able to buy at a farmers market or directly from a farm, such as with a CSA, it will likely stay fresher longer.

If you purchase produce from a supermarket that uses misters, dry or shake off as much water as possible before storing the items in the refrigerator. Water will rot produce, especially leafy greens and lettuce, very quickly.

Consider carefully whether bulk buying is right for you. That great deal on potatoes isn’t so great if half of them rot before you have time to use them.

What do “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” dates on shelf foods like soups and canned vegetables really mean? According to Consumer Reports, in most cases they refer to food quality rather than food safety. Unless the foods appear moldy or smell bad, they are probably safe to eat – they just may have off flavors.

“Sell by” is the date by which manufacturers suggest that stores remove the product to ensure quality. Depending on the item, the quality should be good for five to seven days past that date if, in the case of dairy products, it’s properly refrigerated.

Consumer Reports says “use by” and “best by” dates tell you when to eat or freeze an item for the best quality (again, not referring to food safety). After that date, crackers, for example, may be soft instead of crisp, but you might be able to turn them into a breading for fish.

If you find that you end up tossing out sandwich bread, purchase smaller loaves or wrap half of a large loaf in an airtight bag and freeze.

Produce

Store fruits and vegetables properly. Do not wash produce until just before you’re ready to eat or cook it. Fruits – even bananas – can be refrigerated to extend their fresh life.

Broaden your horizons. Instead of throwing away the greens from radishes, Japanese turnips, beets or carrots, use them in stir-fries or salads. Carrot tops in particular lend an interesting flavor to soups and sauces like chimichurri.

Broaden your horizons. Instead of throwing away the greens from radishes, Japanese turnips, beets or carrots, use them in stir-fries or salads. Carrot tops in particular lend an interesting flavor to soups and sauces like chimichurri.

If you have small amounts of vegetables that are nearing the end of their fresh life, collect them in bags and freeze them for soups or stews. Use greens for quiches, omelets or soups. Onions and peppers can be easily chopped and frozen. Cherry tomatoes can be frozen whole.

Revive and repurpose. Wilted celery, carrots, kale and chard can be revived by soaking them in cold water. Use tomatoes that are soft but not rotten in sauces, or roast them in the oven with onions and herbs for a side dish or tomato soup. Lettuce can be made into soup: Saute some onions in butter, then add potatoes and the lettuce, plus water or chicken stock; simmer, then puree.

The stems from kale, collards and chard can be too tough and fibrous to include when cooking the greens. But you can grill or pickle the stems.

Make vegetable stock from a collection of vegetables – mushrooms, parsley, celery, carrots, parsnips, garlic, broccoli stems, onions, etc. Chop the veg, then saute in oil in a stockpot, cover with water and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Strain and add salt if desired. Roasting the vegetables first, if you have time, may deepen their flavor.

Dairy and meat

Butter and margarine can be frozen. If you need only one stick out of a package of four, place the remaining sticks in an airtight plastic bag to prevent the butter from picking up off flavors.

If your dairy needs vary from week to week, consider purchasing small shelf-stable packages of milk that you can open as needed rather than purchasing a large carton of fresh milk and throwing much of it away. Milk can be frozen but the quality will decline, making it best suited for cooking.

Small dried spots often can be cut away from blocks of hard cheese, leaving the rest of the cheese usable.

Save the bones from a roasted chicken or turkey for chicken stock: Place the bones, a carrot, an onion and some celery in a stockpot, cover with water and simmer for 4-5 hours, adding water if needed. Add salt if desired. For both stocks, strain the liquid, then use it or freeze it. Bones from a cooked beef roast or steak can flavor soups. In both cases, the bones can be frozen.

Shrimp or lobster shells and fish bones can also be used to make stock.

Try composting

Rhonda Sherman, solid waste extension specialist at N.C. State University, says anyone can compost and everyone should.

“I teach people that, no matter what, we need to keep food waste out of landfills and out of sinks,” she says. “Landfills are the third greatest generators of methane.”

Don’t dump all your food waste down the disposal. “It’s a bad idea to flush food waste down the drain because it can affect the water treatment system,” she says.

Sherman offers a tip to make composting easier. Instead of collecting smelly food scraps in a bucket under the sink before carrying them to the compost bin, freeze them. She keeps a plastic shoebox in her freezer (it doesn’t need a lid), and her family adds food scraps until it’s full enough to carry out to the compost bin. The box won’t harm the other contents of the freezer, and freezing will cause food scraps to break down more quickly in the compost bin.

For more information on composting: bae.ncsu.edu/topic/composting/foodwaste/

Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.

Sriracha Fridge Pickles

From Bon Appetit magazine.

Swiss chard stems, chopped

1 cup distilled white vinegar

2 cups sugar

1/2 onion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons Sriracha

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Make a mixture of vinegar and sugar, then stir in onions, Sriracha, and celery seeds. Pour it all over the chopped stems, using 3 cups liquid for every 1 1/2 cups chopped stems. Throw it in the refrigerator for a few days, and you've got the ultimate refrigerator pickles.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups

Carrot Top Soup

From “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets,” by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 2007).

1 bunch (6 small to medium) carrots with tops

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons white rice

2 large leeks, white parts only, finely chopped

2 thyme or lemon thyme sprigs

2 tablespoons chopped dill, parsley, celery leaves, or lovage

6 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock or water

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pull or pluck the lacy leaves of the carrot greens off their stems. You should have between 2 and 3 cups, loosely packed. Wash, then chop finely. Grate the carrots or, if you want a more refined-looking soup, finely chop them.

Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the carrot tops and carrots, rice, leeks, thyme and dill (or other herb). Cook for several minutes, turning everything a few times, then season with 11/2 teaspoons salt and add the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer until the rice is cooked, about 20 to 30 minutes (check starting at 20).

Taste for salt, season with pepper and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Broccoli Stalk Salad

Before cutting the broccoli stalks into thin ribbons, use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove the tough skin. From “Waste Free Kitchen Handbook,” by Dana Gunders (Chronicle Books, 2015).

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar or cider vinegar

2 teaspoons honey

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 large broccoli stalks (not the florets), shaved with a vegetable peeler or very thinly sliced (see Note)

1 carrot, shaved into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler

1/4 to 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/2 to 1 avocado, cut into 1/8-inch slices

Small fresh basil, cilantro or parsley eaves for garnish (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, honey and salt. Season with pepper. Measure out 2 tablespoons of dressing and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the broccoli, carrot, onion and remaining dressing. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature to allow the broccoli to soften. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a little more vinegar, salt and pepper, if desired.

Mound the salad on plates, top with the avocado and drizzle with the reserved 2 tablespoons dressing. Garnish with fresh herb leaves, if desired, before serving.

Yield: 4-6 servings

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