Spinning Straw into Gold: How do you reduce or repurpose food waste?

Many years ago, on another blog’s weekly CSA roundup, there was a little dust-up in the comment section about making vegetable stock. On one side were the commenters who made their own stock and felt it was one of the most easy and thrifty things in the world. (I was one, obviously, but not the only one.) On the other side were commenters who felt that making stock was just one step too far, that they already had enough work just to get dinner on the table. “But it’s not work,” said one baffled commenter (who wasn’t me, but might as well have been). “You just throw scraps in a bag until you’re ready, and then it can simmer on the stove while you do something else.” That IS work, said another frustrated commenter, and it is work and planning that I do not want to do.

I have thought a lot about that conversation over the last three or four years since it happened (eternity, in internet commenter years). All the food movements–slow food, sustainability, DIY, etc. etc.–have only gained widespread traction since then, so more and more people are introducing a cooking habit into their kitchens if they did not have one already. But that sensitive topic of stock gets at something essential about contemporary cooking: it is a lot of work. A second shift. I didn’t understand it at the time, but as my paid labor has changed and consequently my work schedule and food needs have changed, now I get it. Cooking from raw ingredients in the modern age is a very complicated process that engages a lot of cognitive functions over a period of time. You have to plan in advance to obtain provisions and use them while they are good. You have to plan meals, make choices. That’s one reason I prefer a “mystery box” CSA to one where you choose your vegetables: there are already so many choices you have to make to get food on your plate that you can get decision fatigue. So I now understand that managing the food you’re not eating–the peels, the rinds, the remains–may feel like one step too many.

But if you have the time and inclination, it can be extremely satisfying to turn your food waste into more food, and delicious food too. There is more to food waste management than composting.

Readers, I miss you. I’m not blogging my CSA this year–just Pinning relevant recipes and tips from time to time–but those CSA posts used to stir up conversations on the blog or on Facebook from time to time, and I miss hearing what other people are doing with their vegetables. So I’d like to invite you to tell me what you’re doing with your food scraps. Do you juice and have some clever way to dispose of the fruit fibers left behind? Got someplace to put coffee grounds? Have discovered for the first time that you can eat some part of a plant that you’ve previously been throwing away? I want to hear about it, and maybe try it.

Here are some of the ways I use up raw odds and ends:

  • I know I never shut up about stock, but making my own stock has had a huge impact on the way I manage the kitchen. I even don’t make a lot of soup–although it’s handy for that, too, and you can doctor it up so it’s pretty much soup-ready if you like. (This vegetarian pho recipe worked pretty well, and all I need to do with the frozen quarts is defrost, add noodles, and chop up some raw fixings.) I sometimes cook rice or couscous in a pint of stock instead of water so that it’s richer and more flavorful. Homemade poultry stock makes amazing risotto, and homemade fish stock makes an incredible base for chowder. Sometimes I just use a cup of stock here or there to thin out a coconut curry, braise meat, or simmer greens. If you cook with raw ingredients more than once a week, making stock is really something you should consider.
  • I read last year about saving cheese rinds to make a cheese stock. I haven’t done this yet, but a friend vouched for it.
  • The same friend recommended saving apple cores to make an apple stock for braises. I made one with apple cores and pineapple peels (as I had a lot of those); I used my pineapple/apple stock to braise chunks of meat (recommended!) and to create an agrodolce sauce to use on eggplant, which was good but not something I’d want to try every day.
  • Last year we discovered that the copious fronds of fennel leaves are delicious, not astringent or licorice-tasting as fennel can sometimes be, and they make a great pesto.
  • I don’t care for celery, so if I have a bunch of celery stalks or celery root I will usually dice some up with carrots and onions and put them in freezer bags to use as a soup starter later. Celery, carrot, and onion makes an awesome base for a soup, but if you don’t have time to let them cook and dissolve into flavorful soup, you’ll probably want to blend them fine with an immersion blender. Frozen-then-boiled celery does not have an awesome texture.
  • I used one of these soup-starter freezer bags for the base of a soup which I wanted to keep thin–I was using tiny alphabet noodles which would get swallowed up by a thick soup–so after I blended, I strained. I ended up with an awesome, tart, flavorful thin broth in the pot and a pile of vegetable puree in the strainer, which I felt bad about throwing away. I followed a commenter suggestion to blend it into this wheat cracker recipe, and which made tasty little baked crackers which reminded me of Vegetable Thins. Not something I would necessarily have set out to make, but a perfectly serviceable and cheap snack.
  • When I was looking for something to do with my vegetable puree, I came across some good recommendations for what to do with your juicer remains, if juicing is your thing. I don’t have a juicer but I expect to have some rhubarb pulp next week–I’ve ignored rhubarb for long enough, and have committed myself to discovering its secrets–so I may attempt leather or crumble or some such thing.


Homemade vegetable thins

What do you do with your butts and peels and grounds and fibers?

5 responses to “Spinning Straw into Gold: How do you reduce or repurpose food waste?

  1. I can be very good at saving some things, like meat bones, cheese rinds, and shrimp shells, but I’m admittedly pretty terrible when it comes to saving vegetable scraps. I did save some leek and fennel tops recently, and they actually went into a shrimp stock I made and it all worked perfectly, but that is an abberation more than a norm. If we had a second freezer I would probably be really good at hoarding everything, but in the meantime I’ll typically prioritize freezing meats and meat bones over vegetable matter as space always seems to be at a premium.

    • Shrimp stock! I do not love shrimp, but I love that idea. I feel like there’s always a little meat left in 80% of the shells.

      I feel you on the freezer space–my last apartment refrigerator was small, with a shoebox-sized freezer. My current apartment has a slightly larger freezer with a shelf in it, which is a novelty, and I’ve still stuffed it to the gills with bags of scraps and quarts of stock, with a few frozen provisions crammed in the door. Freezerspace is like free time–no matter how much you have, it’ll somehow always be full!

      • EXACTLY. That’s the one reason I don’t make stock as much as I’d like to. Freezer and refrigerator space are at a premium. Makes me want to invest in a whole separate deep freezer. I did composting with my old peelings for a while, but it takes so long to see results that I ended up scrapping that idea (sorry.) The only time I make stock now is if I’m looking to make a soup with intense flavors (or if I roast a whole chicken.)

        • You know, we had a deep freezer when I was a kid–I think initially for when my dad caught a deer and had it butchered–but even that was full all the time, particularly once a Sam’s Club opened in Memphis. Full Freezer is a difficult condition to shake.
          Special Occasion Stock is nice though. I clear out some room in my mom’s freezer at Christmas and keep all the Christmas-dinner scraps from onions and carrots to make her a turkey stock once a year–we were just talking about it the other day.

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: The Commerce of Everyday Life | Scenes of Eating·

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