Putting food scraps to use in the kitchen

I can make a great meal from nothing – and by “nothing” I’m referring to precious food scraps and peelings from fruits and vegetables that usually get stirred into the compost pile or tossed in the trash. I’ve trained myself to look at a bunch of leafy carrot tops and recognize that there’s a second life for them in a batch of pesto.

As a nation, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the food we waste. Innovative food rescue groups have organized to swoop in to save and redirect foods from restaurants, grocery stores and produce markets to people and places in need.

Where it gets personal is at home. Some estimates say as much as $1,500 worth of food in your kitchen never makes it to the plate. We can change our “wasteful ways” by shopping more frequently, buying only what we will use over a few days and composting. But before pitching any food in the compost pile, let’s take a fresh look at food scraps, which are small players in the big picture but with loads of delicious possibilities.

Almost every meal prepared at home produces waste. Carrot peels and celery leaves and stalks, onion skins, mushroom stems, a wrinkled tomato, even the stringy membranes from squash, and other throwaways can become the ingredients for a highly-flavored vegetable stock. Add the bones saved from a roasted chicken and the stock gets richer. Trimmed fresh beet greens, thinly sliced, or stems from kale and chard stalks can be sautéed with a pat of butter and some chopped garlic and raisins and topped with pine nuts for a quick, nutritious side dish. Chop those forgotten herbs in your refrigerator and stir them into softened butter for a savory compound butter that can be frozen. Heels and crusts of stale breads can be stockpiled, oven dried and ground into crumbs.

Savvy home cooks know plenty of ways to repurpose food slightly past its prime for eating out of hand, like berries and stone fruits that can be mixed into a smoothie right away or pureed into a simple honey or sugar-sweetened sauce for ice cream.

They will find ways to eek every last bit of flavor and nutrition out of the foods they buy to help stretch their food budgets and add flavor and interest to daily meals, like shredding thick broccoli stems as a base for a healthy slaw. Small efforts like using a leftover cup of coffee to add depth to beef stews counts as well as more visionary approaches like using every bit of a basket of apples. After making applesauce, take the apple peels, cover them with water, add a cinnamon stick, bring to boil then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain and drink hot or chilled sweetened with honey or maple syrup for a “tea” that has luscious body. As for the cores, they’re loaded with precious pectin that can be used to create the thickening agent for jams and jellies.

That may not be the length you’re willing or able to go, but it speaks volumes to the power and possibilities that food scraps hold. And once you’ve extracted every purpose from food scraps, the compost pile still awaits and everybody wins.

Tips: Leaving nothing behind
The list is almost endless when it comes to what morsels will add that splash of flavor or surprise side dish to any meal.
Remember to only use scraps that you know the temperature history of and have followed the consumer guidelines for keeping things out of the “temperature danger zone.” Also follow all shelf-life guidelines.

Below are a few unique ways to incorporate what’s left over into other creations:
• Freeze leftover buttermilk and heavy cream and add to cream soups later.
• Fresh radish tops, thinly sliced, can replace arugula in salads.
• Save the juices from roasted tomatoes and add to vinaigrettes for a fabulous flavor boost.
• Wine that’s past its prime is still good for cooking.
• A pile of shrimp shells? Add some carrots, onions and celery, cover with water and create a seafood stock that’s out of this world.
• If you peel asparagus (some do, some don’t), dust the trimmings in flour and deep fry until crispy…a unique condiment for a sandwich or burger.

What about nutrient loss
It’s a noble challenge to hold food scraps to a higher purpose. Yet nutrient loss in fresh produce varies significantly as it waits to be eaten. Are there nutritional benefits to using food still full of culinary promise yet past its peak of freshness?

“It depends on the type of fruit or vegetable, how it was harvested, the type of storage it has encountered and the amount of time since harvest,” said Laura Iberkleid, a nutritionist and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

Refrigeration slows nutrient degradation and cooking can also cause nutrient loss, which varies depending on the method. “All of that being said,” she continued, “as long as the produce is not spoiled, it will still provide you with beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber.”