Stretching ingredients can save you money and cut down on food waste—but it’s also become an essential part of daily life as we stay hunkered down during COVID-19. If you’re hesitant to make recipe swaps, not sure what to do with beet greens, or have questions about how to store ingredients (yes, you can freeze milk!) cookbook author and food advocate Margaret Li has all the tips. Li’s part of the trio who started Boston’s Mei Mei food truck, which eventually evolved into Mei Mei restaurant and the cookbook Double Awesome Chinese Food. These days, Li spends her time inspiring others to create a more sustainable kitchen. She shares lots of eco-friendly inspiration below!
The issue of food waste hit home for me in 2012 when I started a food truck and restaurant with my siblings. I’d always loved food but had never worked in the industry before, so buying and preparing ingredients on a large scale was quite a learning process. Food costs (what you spend on your ingredients) can be as much as one-third of your expenses. Combined with the restaurant industry’s small profit margins, you learn quickly that if you waste anything, you’re throwing away your money!
We figured out a lot of strategies to use up less-than-perfect produce and cook with all parts of every ingredient. We’d use yellowed arugula, holey kale and wilted herbs in pesto—it doesn’t matter if something doesn’t look good once it’s blitzed up into a sauce. We’d make crispy chips from shrimp shells, stock from every meat and fish bone, and garnishes from cilantro stems or roasted potato peels. We also created a number of very flexible dishes, from dumplings to curries, that could easily use up any surplus ingredients.
A lot of people are more interested in cooking parts of ingredients they used to throw out, like beet and turnip greens. When you want to minimize supermarket trips and make your grocery budget go further, those vegetables are a two-for-one deal!
Most greens can be used just like the ones you would spend money on, like kale, collards or chard (in fact, beet greens are related to chard). You can toss them into soup, stir them into pasta, or blitz them into a chimichurri or pesto-type sauce. Greens are also good sautéed with garlic, eaten on their own, or as a topping for pizza, sandwiches, omelets, and more.
People are also looking for smart produce storage solutions since grocery trips are happening less frequently. Here are a few basics that are good to know.
I like to think of most ingredients in broad categories like leafy greens, tender vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli, and ‘hard vegetables’ like roots, winter squash and potatoes. That way you can often swap for something similar within that category, even if you’re not used to cooking that particular ingredient.
If you’re a big spinach fan, you might regularly eat it raw in salads, sautéed with garlic, baked into pasta, and wilted into stews. But you can do the same with kale, beet greens, and cabbage, even if those might be less traditional uses.
If you love a hearty soup with carrots and potatoes, why not try rutabagas or beets? Yes, French fries are usually potatoes, but baked sweet potato fries are a favorite in my house—and in fact, turnip fries have been the surprise winner of recent recipe testing!
If you have an ingredient you want to use, think about what it resembles and let that open up a new category of recipes. Importantly, I never let the idea of ‘traditional recipes’ stand in my way. The flavors might be a bit different and you may need to adjust cooking times slightly, but it’s amazing how versatile vegetables are, and how new ingredient combinations can quickly become household favorites.
I recommend that everyone have a few ‘hero recipes’ in their repertoire—those are dishes that use up tons of different random ingredients and help rescue those that might be a bit wilted or worse for wear. For example, once you learn how to make a curry, you can clear out your entire crisper drawer with one dish. Once you learn the basics of vegetable soup, you can start adding or swapping anything you’ve got in the fridge and pantry.
My favorite food-waste hack is to save all your veggie scraps, like onion skins and ends, carrot peels, mushroom stems, pepper cores, fennel stalks, and asparagus ends, to make homemade stock. Any vegetable is really fair game, but some people omit brassicas like kale and cabbage as they can make the stock bitter—just experiment to learn what you like. Put everything in a stock bag in the freezer and add to it over time. Once the bag is full, dump it in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes. If you want to add more flavor, consider adding in soy sauce, wine, tomato paste, or Parmesan rinds. All of a sudden you have a constant supply of stock that adds tons of flavor to different meals and best of all, it’s free!
Minimizing your food waste isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor! Try to incorporate small changes into your routine, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself throwing out another rotten carrot. Take a close look at what you find yourself wasting most often and try buying something else or starting a new use-it-up routine.
Buy spinach instead of lettuce since it’s easier to use in cooked dishes. Freeze your bananas instead of throwing out overripe ones. Start making veggie soup or frittatas every weekend to use up anything wrinkly in the fridge. If you can, try to compost your food waste so it doesn’t go to landfill, whether that means signing up for a local service or doing it yourself. Whatever those changes are, they’re a step in the right direction to saving more food.
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