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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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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