Megan Scott has been both a cheese maker and a goat herder. Currently, she’s working with her husband, John Becker, on updates to the American classic cookbook ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and has recently overseen production of their new website. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Kitchen thrift

Using everything

By
March 23, 2012

Culinate editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Tennessee-based writer and cook Megan Scott to the Dinner Guest Blog.

I grew up surrounded by frugal cooks.

My great-grandmother saves sheets of tin foil and plastic wrap as well as sour-cream containers, and I happen to know that on Sundays, when the whole family gathers for a noontime feast, she saves the leftover coffee.

I always assumed these habits came from living through the Great Depression, but no. As she put it: “We didn’t know there was a Great Depression. We were already poor.”

My grandmother, whose lifestyle was not far removed from that of her mother, raised two boys on a small tobacco farm in North Carolina. The ever-present challenge of having mouths to feed on a limited income gave her a plucky and practical attitude toward frugality. To say that she takes pride in being frugal would be to overemphasize. It is simply how she lives.

Frugality, however, is not a synonym for “lean.” Both my grandmother and my great-grandmother assert that they never went hungry. This is because wasting food was anathema. It never occurred to them to throw out anything that could be used, whether it was carrot tops or breadcrumbs, and this mentality served them well.

Growing up at the hems of my elders’ aprons, I learned not only that the best cornbread is made with bacon drippings but also that using everything can free you from the tyranny of the grocery bill.

Sometimes, a well-developed sense of guilt is better than good intentions, and the sense of guilt after throwing away what could have been part of a meal provokes change and intent in the cook. I would much rather spend a few extra moments preventing waste than suffer the sharp stone of guilt in my stomach.

I confess that, even though I task myself with frugality, I still fall short sometimes. Whether it’s letting potatoes go soft in the dark of the pantry or not getting around to those beet greens fast enough, I, too, wrestle with waste. But the challenge of using everything can be met halfway by the determination and creativity of the avid cook.

There are, of course, the age-old ways of avoiding waste: saving Parmesan rinds for soup, turning chicken bones into stock. But this discipline can yield culinary metamorphosis. As you learn to scrutinize what you might normally throw out, your cooking style will change. With a little artistry, the change will be for the better.

Stalks and stems

These are perhaps the most under-loved kitchen scraps. They almost always end up in the trash or compost bin for being stringy or tough, but, with the right approach, their flaws can easily become assets.

Cilantro stems, for example, can be puréed with lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil, then stirred into cooked rice. Parsley and mint stems puréed with olive oil make a simple sauce for roasted vegetables.

In our house, broccoli stalks seldom make it off the cutting board, as they’re such a great snack for the cook. But if you can wait, they’re wonderful cut into matchsticks and served with chile powder and lime juice. Or you can simply cut them up and stir-fry or steam them alongside the broccoli florets.

Cilantro stems can be puréed with lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil and used on cooked rice.

Chard stems soften up nicely when thrown into the sauté pan five minutes before the leaves. When it comes to kale stems, however, even I don’t think they benefit from extra time in the pan. Save those for stock-making or the compost bin, unless the kale in question is young and tender.

Leaves and roughage

The problem with leaves is that most of us suffer from chronic cold feet. Whether this has something to do with flashbacks to childhood and its seemingly innate distrust of greenery on the plate, or whether it amounts to too much commitment (“I bought the beets for the beets, not the greens!”), most of us suffer from a distinct lack of motivation when it comes to greens. My strategy for coping with this psychological block is simple: proactivity.

As soon as you walk through your front door with a bunch of beets with the greens still attached, chop the greens off. You can sauté beet greens quickly in some olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes, and toss with fettuccine.

Or you can turn them into a gratin: Blanch them for two minutes in rapidly boiling water, then drain them thoroughly. Lay them in a shallow gratin dish, and pour over just enough cream or half-and-half to barely enrobe the leaves. Bake at 375 degrees until the cream is reduced, bubbly, and beginning to brown in places. Sprinkle fresh coarse breadcrumbs seasoned with salt and pepper to taste over the gratin, and dot the surface with small cubes of butter to equal 2 tablespoons. Broil until golden brown and bubbly.

Radish tops aren’t quite so sexy, but they are just as worthy of rescue. In the best of worlds, radish tops should be served still attached to the voluptuous bulbs that are so often served bare. Radishes with their tops, served with cultured butter, crunchy sea salt, and crusty sourdough bread, make a fine lunch.

If you know you won’t be able to get to the radishes before the tops wither, use the same tactic as for the beets: cut the tops off immediately and make them part of your lunchtime salad, add them to a pan of greens for sautéing, or use them instead of spinach or mixed greens on a sandwich. Really, radish greens are at home anywhere that lettuces or cooking greens are.

Brines

I’m always conflicted about throwing out pickle brine; I can’t help but think that it’s good for something. And chances are, it is. Dill-pickle brine is especially good for marinating chicken that is to be fried. It may sound strange, but the combination of the tenderizing effect of the vinegar combined with those wonderful pickle flavors gives fried chicken a huge flavor boost. Simply marinate chicken parts in pickle brine for no longer than three hours, then proceed with your favorite fried-chicken recipe. The flavor is remarkable.

You can also reuse pickle brine for quick pickles, and you can pickle almost anything from daikon to grapes to carrots to Thai chiles. Reheat the brine to a simmer and pour over your veggie or fruit of choice in a sterilized jar. (These are quick pickles, so please store them in the refrigerator.)

Crust and crumb

Heels of bread are too often neglected, pushed to the darkest corner of the bread box to languish. But the end of a loaf can be the beginning of a meal. Stale bread not only makes superb croutons and crumbs, but it can be used as a thickener for soups and sauces.

Pappa al pomodoro is a simple Italian tomato soup made with tomatoes, broth, olive oil, and cubes of bread, all of which are puréed into a thick, savory stew. The whole heel of bread can also be toasted and placed in the bottom of a bowl of soup to act as a big crouton. Then, there’s always panzanella.

For leftover cake and cake crumbs, try reusing them in another dessert. Cubes of cake make delicious trifles, or they can be swirled into ice cream for added texture and flavor. Brush dried-out cake cubes with a liqueur of your choice and serve them with Greek-style yogurt and fresh fruit.

Embrace the challenge that using everything presents.

Cake crumbs are just as versatile. They make a lovely garnish for many desserts, and a good number of traditional Austrian and German desserts call specifically for cake crumbs. In this case, you may want to freeze the crumbs for a special-occasion apple strudel.

The freezer

Having said that, let me point out something that you may already realize: The freezer is your ally. In many instances, what you can’t eat now can be laid by for later. Excess herb pastes can be frozen in ice-cube trays and thrown directly into a pot of soup. If you know you won’t be able to finish a whole loaf of bread before it goes stale, there’s no shame in freezing half of it. Most vegetables can be blanched and frozen with great success.

In short, you don’t absolutely have to eat everything right now. This is one asset that our great-grandmothers did not have.

Most importantly, embrace the challenge that using everything presents. If you see the task as a burden, you will not be as successful as one who approaches it in a positive way. Frugality is simply another way to take charge of your kitchen and a new way to experience cooking and eating.

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1. by Lindsey on Mar 23, 2012 at 12:15 PM PDT

as someone who also grew up in rural north carolina (though a CA resident now), i advocate for learning quick, small batch canning - especially if you’ve committed to a garden or CSA subscription, but only have one or two persons to cook for. i’ve found with practice and a can-do (ha) attitude, it doesn’t actually take a lot of extra time or steps to can just a few jars of something at a time, and i am always happy i did it later, when i pop that lid off on a busy night. i’ve got limited freezer space, and this really works for me. (the ball guide is your friend!)

2. by anonymous on Mar 23, 2012 at 1:18 PM PDT

Great article! I love how you pointed out that you start cooking differently when you stop wasting. As I’ve learned to actually cook, I see food everywhere, especially in things I used to throw away. I find myself wondering, what can I do with these eggshells? These tea leaves still have life in them, what a shame to just toss them, what could I make? It has become a fun creative process for me.

3. by meerastvargo on Mar 28, 2012 at 5:06 PM PDT

Nice article.

I haven’t tried this recipe, but is has great reviews and uses pickle brine/juice.

http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sandwich-rye-bread-recipe

And a longer blog post with the same recipe:
http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2011/09/15/sandwich-rye-bread-and-the-secret-ingredient-is/

4. by Virginia Bruce on Mar 28, 2012 at 5:42 PM PDT

for a lot of leafy veggies, I almost treat them like 2 different things. I strip the leaves off the stems (hold them by the stem end, and run your fingers up to pull off the leaves -- works great on Kale, beets, chard & others) and then finely chop the stems. Saute them with a little oil, and then put the chopped tops on top of them to steam. Just let them cook slowly until the tops are cooked. No extra water needed.

My mom grew up on a farm, and then got married during the depression, so I too learned a lot about frugality from her. Thanks, mom!

5. by anna on Mar 29, 2012 at 3:37 AM PDT

Broccoli stalks are the best part. Peel and slice into rounds and steam or saute with added olive oil and dash of hot pepper flakes. Cilantro stems pureed into dressings or my favorite...into a green smoothie. I think everyone was wiser and less wasteful of the earth long ago. Rich and poor alike.

6. by Isabel Raci on Mar 29, 2012 at 9:52 AM PDT

I think loving frugality accompanied by imagination is key.

7. by Virginia Bruce on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:46 AM PDT

I think it’s way more creative to take all the stuff in your fridge that needs to get used up, plus whatever needs to be picked from the garden, and make it into something delicious, than to slavishly follow a recipe, where you have to go and buy stuff you may never use again.

When I’m ready to make dinner, I “interview” the stuff in my fridge to see what will work! Rarely does some leftover go bad before it finds its way into another dish (or just gets eaten for lunch...)

8. by Fasenfest on Mar 29, 2012 at 5:02 PM PDT

Welcome aboard. TN - a place on my travel list. Poke salad and ramps. Wild forest greens. Foraging before it was fancy to do so. Frugal as a way of life. Yep, thanks for your thoughts and efforts.

9. by Anna on Mar 30, 2012 at 4:29 AM PDT

@Isabel...one of my favorite quotes: “Frugality without creativity is deprivation.”, from Amy Dacyczyn. She wrote a newsletter back in the late 80’s and I’ve never forgotten her words.

10. by Megan Scott on Apr 2, 2012 at 11:58 AM PDT

@Fasenfest--come on along! We’ve got plenty of poke “sallet” to spare, and ramps are in season. I just picked a sackful of wild garlic the other day for wild garlic and chickweed pesto. This is definitely my favorite season in Appalachia.

11. by Megan Scott on Apr 2, 2012 at 12:02 PM PDT

@Virginia Bruce--Ditto. I find leftovers to be endlessly versatile, and they can really increase the complexity of flavors in whatever you use them in. If worst comes to worst and you’re so hungry you can’t think straight, serve leftovers over rice with some furikake and half an avocado. It feels downright luxurious.

12. by Virginia Bruce on Apr 2, 2012 at 12:26 PM PDT

Sometimes I think that some of the more complex recipes started out as a way to use up leftovers! First make this, and then make that, and then combine them this way...

13. by anonymous on Apr 2, 2012 at 7:23 PM PDT

I love that. It was a revelation to me, realizing that great meals and recipes mostly come from good cooks doing something great with what they have. I have this fantasy of writing a book about great chefs cooking out of their refrigerators...

14. by vintagejenta on Apr 15, 2012 at 12:41 PM PDT

I like kale stems! They are nice if you boil them to death with the greens and a little bacon, salt pork, or ham hock and onions. Ditto broccoli stems. I just cut them smaller than the florets and they cook up just fine.

I’m bad about greens (mostly radish tops, I’m not a fan of beets). BUT! Pickle juice is wonderful in potato and/or egg salad.

I also save all my bread ends for bread pudding. Stash them in the freezer and they keep forever. I also buy and store day-old bakery bread specifically for bread pudding. Panade made of toasted day-old bread soaked and baked with rich homemade chicken stock is also divine. Or stir stale bread into soup for a silky thickener.

What a great article! Gave me lots of good ideas.

15. by Diane Lassen, RN, HHC on Apr 27, 2012 at 5:01 AM PDT

I appreciate this article, and I, too, try to find a use for everything. My stems of parsley, kale and brocoli make their way to the juicer, where they combine with carrot and apple to make a delicuos and nutritious drink. The pulp ends up in the dogs’ meals, as I raw feed them and they appreciate the sweet veggie treats. Also, carrot pulp is a wonderful addition to muffins and pancake batter!

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