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Seasonal Pantry: Ways to avoid wasting food


We all waste food.

Sometimes, enchanted by, say, mounds of just-harvested tomatoes, we buy too much.

Sometimes our plans change and we find ourselves in restaurants rather than our own kitchens, after shopping for a week of cooking.

Sometimes a friend shows up with a box of garden produce or a bag of basil gets pushed to the back of the produce drawer or, as in my current situation, we are felled by a seasonal virus that absconds with our appetite.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, about a third of all food produced worldwide goes uneaten, either because it is lost or wasted. Yet most is wasted before it reaches consumers; one of the recommended solutions is to sell farm crops directly or at least closer to the consumer, through farm stands and farmers market.

I don't think they've looked at my compost bin lately.

My focus is on consumer waste, specifically my own. I'm hoping solutions I've come up with will help you, too. There are easy ways to salvage foods that are begging for attention.

If those beautiful tomatoes are starting to look a bit soft, cut out their stem cores, chop them coarsely, add a little salt and refrigerate them, covered. This will extend their life by about three days.

Fresh peppers and chiles can be roasted over a hot flame or burner, cooled, packed into freezer bags and frozen. You don't even need to peel them first.

Mushrooms can be sliced, sauteed in butter, cooled, packed into freezer bags and frozen, and onions can be treated similarly, though if you dice them you'll have more options later.

In a pinch, you can chop basil in a food processor along with a little salt and olive oil. Pack it into small containers, cover it with a thin film of olive oil and freeze it. You can turn it into pesto later.

When it comes to bread, if it's hearth bread that is past its prime, cut it into cubes and freeze it to use in stuffing and bread salad. Even bread that seems totally hard can be used this way. If it is impossible to cut it, spritz it with a little water and set it in a warm oven for about 15 minutes. It should soften enough to be cut with a good bread knife.

Tortillas, pita and other flat breads can be double wrapped and frozen.

If you happen to have a bounty of lemons and no time to deal with them before they spoil, pack them into freezer bags and freeze them whole. To use them, grate them, rind and all, while they are still frozen and use in slaws, grain salads and braises that call for lemon, where they'll contribute not just their lemony goodness but beneficial nutrients that are usually discarded with the rind.

Butter can be wrapped and frozen. Corn can be frozen whole, on the cob. Apples can be poached in water or wine, frozen and turned into apple sauce at another time.

There are many ways to preserve the harvest, of course, and it's never been more popular to do so, not in my lifetime, anyway. But I'm not talking about fancy fermentation, pickling or canning. I'm talking about what to do during the annoying little emergencies life tosses onto our path of good intentions, of our commitment to eating well at home with foods from our gardens and nearby farms. Sometimes it's all we can do to make a cup of tea or throw together a grilled cheese sandwich or whatever other comfort food got us through childhood illnesses.

My appetite has returned. I still cough through the night and wonder what happened to my energy, but things are starting to taste good again. I've been pleased by the little steps I've taken to defend my farmers market bounty from nature's natural processes and I'm now enjoying the fruits of my labor.

Except the basil. It turned black before I remembered it was there.

You can put almost any seasonal vegetable into a bread salad and make it delicious. This version is based on what I had purchased over the previous week. To use other vegetables, just be sure to prepare each one so that it tastes good on its own. Eggplant should be cubed and sauteed; cucumbers are best in thin wedges; peppers and chiles are best seared and peeled. Specific quantities are not necessary; just use whatever you have and adjust the amounts of olive oil, acid, salt and pepper to make it all taste delicious.

<strong>Harvest Panzanella</strong>

<i>Makes 4 to 6 servings</i>

4 to 6 cups, approximately, stale hearth bread, cut into small cubes

4 cups, approximately, chopped ripe tomatoes, drained

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons vinegar of choice

— Juice of 1 lemon

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

1 small red onion, cut into small dice, or a few scallions, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

4 ounces haricots verts, blanched in simmering water for 1 minute

— Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped

— Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped

1 avocado, cubed

1 sausage, fried and cut into half rounds, optional

— Lettuce leaves

Put the bread into a large bowl, add the tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice, season generously with salt and several turns of black pepper and toss well. Set aside for 30 minutes.

Add the onion or scallions, the garlic, the haricots vert, the parsley and cilantro, the avocado and the sausage, if using. Toss well, cover and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes.

Toss again, taste and correct for salt, pepper and acid.

Divide the lettuce leaves among individual plates, mound the salad on top and serve immediately.

Variations

If you don't have haricots verts, use cooked green beans, cooked yellow wax beans or raw zucchini cut into small julienne.

Use 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese in place of the avocado.

Replace the sausage with 2 or 3 hard-cooked eggs cut into wedges or with leftover chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces.

If you do not have stale hearth bread, use 3 or 4 pita breads, cut into wedges, toasted.

Serve on a bed of shredded Romaine lettuce.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. Email Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>