wasted food

Clean-Out-the-Fridge Night

I've talked before about wasted food here, here and here. According to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, we toss enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl. That's a lot of wasted nutrition, effort, and money, not even considering the negative environmental impact and the whole there-are-kids-starving-in-X-country guilt factor.

This was on my mind as our family prepares to go out of town and leave the fridge unsupervised, all its remaining contents moldering quietly, only to be rediscovered and tossed on our return. Not this time, I vowed!

First I called upon that old standby, Rock Soup. If you remember the story, it's basically a hodge-podge soup made of whatever is on hand. In our case, I had leftover pot roast gravy with vegetables (all but about an ounce of the beef was eaten), leftover spaghetti noodles, and fresh onions, carrots, and celery. Since I'm not a cook-it-from-scratch kinda gal, I called upon Rachael Ray for inspiration. Here's her recipe, with my tweaks:

Rachael Ray's Rock Soup


  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), plus additional for drizzling
  • 3/4 pound chorizo, casings removed and diced (I had 1/10 lb beef pot roast)
  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed (I only had the cooked potatoes in my pot roast)
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 4 carrots, peeled and chopped (reduced because I had some in the pot roast)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 rounded teaspoon (about 1/3 palmful) sweet paprika
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
  • 1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained (I used kidney beans)
  • 1 15-ounce can diced or stewed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce (I cut this back to 1 tsp.)
  • 6 cups chicken broth or stock (I used a combo of pot roast gravy and broth)
  • 2 cups stale bread , cut into bite-size cubes (skipped this and added my spaghetti noodles)
  • A handful of flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, chopped, optional
Yields: 4 servings


Place a medium-size soup pot over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons EVOO, about 2 turns of the pan. Add the chorizo (or whatever meat you're using) and cook 2-3 minutes, until crispy. (Skipped this step because my meat was cooked.)
Add the vegetables, paprika, garlic, bay leaf, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 6-7 minutes, until the onions and celery begin to soften.

Add the chickpeas, tomatoes, hot sauce and chicken broth or stock to the pot then raise the heat to bring it up to a bubble. Once bubbling, reduce the heat slightly and simmer the soup until the potatoes are tender, 10-12 minutes (cooking time will depend on the size of the potato pieces). Remove the bay leaf before serving.

To serve, place a handful of bread cubes into each of your serving bowls and drizzle them with some EVOO. Ladle the Rock Soup over the croutons and garnish with some fresh herbs. (I added the cooked spaghetti a couple minutes before serving to heat through.)

Then last night I checked out the "crisper" drawer and found spinach, bell peppers, and green beans that would not survive our absence. If you like stir-fries, try this one, inspired by a recipe for Chinese-Style Spicy String Beans from Bon Appetit.

Clean-Out-the-Crisper Stir-Fry

Whatever vegetables you want to use up. (Keep in mind that longer-cooking vegetables like broccoli and green beans should be pre-steamed for a few minutes so that they cook in the same amount of time as leafy greens.) Slice or chop the hard vegetables to stir-fry size. I left the spinach alone because it wilts down.
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (you can do this in a dry frying pan or buy them toasted or leave out)
2 Tbsp hoisin sauce
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 to 1-1/2 tsp chili-garlic sauce (we do the small amount for the kids)
3 Tbsp water
2 tsp cornstarch
2 green onions, chopped
Heat 1 Tbsp oil in medium skillet till good and hot. Saute vegetables until tender-crisp. Add sauce ingredients. Mix water and cornstarch and add to pan. Heat till sauce thickens. Sprinkle with scallions and sesame seeds.
There you have my recipes for using up your farmers market goodies. Of all things, those fabulous vegetables should not go to waste. (Somehow I had no difficulty wolfing down my share of the luscious Jonboy caramel apple...)
For more great tips, check out Jonathan Bloom's "15 Ways to Stop Wasting Money on Food," as reported in U.S. News and World Report. Some tips are familiar (eat leftovers, don't shop hungry); others might challenge us (cook more, grow your own herbs). In any case, they're great reminders and worth a read.
As always, when you shop the Bellevue Farmers Market, ask the farmers how long things will keep, whether they can be frozen, what their favorite uses are, what they like to do with leftover X. Ask your fellow shoppers, as well. Sharing food know-how not only reduces waste, it builds community. The very best way to use up food? Invite friends over for a meal!

My father-in-law's guilty pleasure is a game show called Baggage. In this twist on The Dating Game, contestants choose from among potential dates who gradually reveal their...baggage, with each round disclosing worse and worse revelations of the junk in their trunk. Just when you think, "Better pick Gal #2--Gal #1 is t-r-o-u-b-l-e," Gal #2 goes on to admit she's in relationships with two prisoners. Yep, the show is a cultural train wreck, and you can't take your eyes off of it.

Writer, cook, instructor, and Cordon Bleu Paris graduate Kathleen Flinn hooks readers Baggage-style in her latest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, going through the grocery carts, pantries, refrigerators, and food-related baggage of a dozen different women in the Seattle area. After performing these audits, she has each woman prepare a typical meal for her. She discovers--as every would-be dieter knows--that our relationship with food and cooking is complex and emotional. We eat what we eat, we cook or don't cook, based not only on surface factors like convenience and taste, but also on our associations with those activities. Did anyone teach us how to cook? Did anyone say anything disparaging about our cooking abilities? Do we cook or not cook to embrace or avoid certain assigned roles? What do certain foods signal to us? One woman confesses to a Gold 'n' Soft margarine addiction; she grew up with it, and to the very end of the book, butter tastes odd to her. Another digs a pack of four-year-old chicken parts from the freezer--not having any idea what to do with it, she's let it sit year after year. Still others open crisper drawers on liquefying lettuces or discover warehouse-store-sized "deals" that turned out to be not so thrifty when they couldn't be finished before they spoiled.

Flinn's investigations reveal both the alarming and the familiar, sprinkled throughout with interesting food facts. When one mom complains about her son being a picky eater, only liking the usual, highly-processed kid foods, Flinn cites another book, noting, "Many of the foods on the common kid-food list--chicken nuggets, powder-based mac and cheese, fish sticks--have been engineered to stimulate pleasure centers in the brain. Studies found that, as a a result, rats can become addicted to junk food in the same way that they do to cocaine or heroin." Put down the mini corn dog and back away, Johnny!

After the kitchen audits, which I found the most fascinating part of the book, succeeding chapters detail a series of cooking lessons Flinn offers the women, covering everything from knife skills to trusting your taste buds to making your own bread and stock. While this is familiar ground for anyone who does cook, the book is replete with great ideas, recipes and inspirations. I'm eager to try the no-knead artisan bread and to finish off the last of the salad dressing bottles so I can concoct my own. I'm also eager to challenge myself with reducing wasted food. As Flinn points out, most families could painlessly cut their food bills by just buying what they'll actually use. Now why didn't I think of that?

Each woman comes off better for her experiences, whether in big changes of eating habits or small starts like replacing a fast-food visit with a packed sandwich or foregoing the additive-laden pancake mix. I highly recommend this book, especially if you find Michael Pollan's works too daunting and just want to improve your eating and cooking habits, one tick at a time. To paraphrase Terri, a former alcoholic featured in Kitchen Counter, just as with kicking alcohol or other bad habits, if you try to change everything at once, it never works.

Make a small start this week. Hit our Bellevue Farmers Market for something fresh. Sharpen your knife, heat up your pan, add a little something leftover from the fridge, and go!

(Note: I read Kitchen Counter Cooking School in a complimentary Kindle galley from the publisher in return for a review. This was brave of them because, in writing about Flinn's earlier book The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry, I had permitted myself some snarky remarks.)

What a Waste

At church today, one of the facilities fellows pulled me aside. "I noticed last night [after a large group dinner event] that the leftover fruit salad got thrown in the trash. It was a lot of fruit. I think next time it could all be marked 'Help Yourself' and put out for the staff the next day." A brilliant idea, of course, but one requiring a bit of foresight and organization. Two qualities, alas, which are sometimes in short supply.

Take the dumping of food that happens just at home. Vegetables that liquefy mysteriously over the course of weeks in the "crisper." Leftovers that get tossed after one reheat (if even). That jar of odd ingredient purchased to make a particular recipe and then never used again.

The Economist reports that Americans end up throwing out about a quarter of the food purchased in shops or restaurants. "Top of the list come salads, about half of which are chucked away. A third of all bread, a quarter of fruit and a fifth of vegetables." This dumping adds up to 96 billion pounds per year, according to Robyn O'Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth. Yowza. If we had some kind of magic insta-transporter to redistribute wasted food alone, that would take care of the hunger problem for nine billion people worldwide!

In the absence of such a useful invention, however, let me offer suggestions for a food version of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle:

  1. Have a weekly Clean Out the Fridge Night. Or, as one friend calls it, "The Week in Review." A smorgasbord of tiny offerings. If you don't have enough to make a family meal, have a Lunch in Review. Out of guilt and laziness today, my lunch was 1/4 cup mac & cheese topped with 1/2 cup leftover lima beans, with a side of 1/4 cup roasted butternut squash. Some friends and I used to do potluck leftover lunches. Exactly what they sounded like, and no one had to cook (again).
  2. Make a food chain. The Economist article says the #1 throwaway food is salad. Because, unless it's a chopped salad, it just doesn't taste great the next day. If you have friends or neighbors who you know eat later than you, make a food chain! Bring them some salad. Maybe you can swap for a food item at their house. You might be sick of your leftovers after one or two goes, so why not exchange them? I know I always feel food tastes better if someone else made it for me.
  3. Use that freezer. I roasted the last of the butternut squash a couple days ago, mashed it all up and separated it into freezer bags. Now I've got three future meals/sides: squash for soup, squash for ravioli, and squash for squash. I freeze soup, beans, the other half of the cornbread. A friend suggested I skip buying boxed tomatoes next year and just wash, chop and freeze the upcoming harvest. No need to can.
  4. Whip up a frittata or rock soup. These are great ways to use stray odds and ends. Use cooked bits in frittatas and raw or cooked in soup. The links are just ideas. Feel absolutely free to improvise. Leftovers also make their way into fried rice, in our house. Just chop it up. A couple weeks ago, the concoction of the day was Hot-Dog Fried Rice. Anything goes.

If you have other waste not, want not ideas, please feel free to share. And if you have doggy bags from any of our fabulous local restaurants that you don't want to deal with, you know where I live...