Making the most of stems and scraps

Note: Not long ago, my blogger colleague da-AL graciously invited me to do a guest post for her Happiness Between Tails. If you’ve never read her blog, check it out—she’s a vibrant, talented, and generous writer. The following is a collaboration with my daughter Emily. We hope you find it helpful!

This Mama Bear just loves the fact that both of her kids [sorry, I know you’re all grown up now, but you’re still my kids] are wonderfully inventive cooks. My daughter, in fact, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and has a nutrition certification from a Cornell program. My son, an accomplished artist and musician who works in the tech industry, learned how to use the macaroni stick when he was just eight years old, under my mother’s watchful eye. One of the ways we’ve been coping with confinement has been to talk about food together—not that it hasn’t always been a topic of conversation in our family. The other day, my daughter posted the following on Facebook:

I’m seeing posts from people who are overwhelmed with managing their household food situation during this outbreak. There may be a period of time when we can’t get takeout, or when certain foods are unavailable. Here are a few tips to minimize food waste during this time: save broccoli & cauliflower stems for soup, consider making stock from roast chicken carcasses or bones from beef roasts, extend the life of fresh herbs by keeping the stems in water (I read in the New York Times that scallions will re-grow their green tops if stored this way), save bacon fat to flavor soups & bean dishes. Save the scraps you would normally discard from chopping vegetables & freeze for stock. And don’t let fresh food spoil…. Our grandparents knew how to do these things but many of us don’t. Big hug.

Years ago, I kept a bag of scraps for stock but then fell out of the habit. When I read Emily’s post, I knew I had to get back on track, as many of us probably should. So I asked her if we could go a bit deeper into the subject of stretching and “making do” with what we have on hand.

Me: Em, I have to confess that I flunked the first test. After resolving to start my scrap bag, I made a double batch of stew and realized that all the peels had gone down the disposal. I managed to save two broccoli stems. My bad.

Emily: Like any new habit, it can be hard to get started. (Thankfully, she wasn’t too hard on me.)

Me: What motivated you to write the post?

Emily: I was thinking that if this confinement goes on for too long, we may have to learn to stretch and make better use of what we have. Also, a lot of us have overstocked now and need strategies to manage large quantities of perishable food.

Me: Your post mentions saving things we might normally discard. Can you give us some ideas for using the scraps we save?

Emily: Soup, for example. If you have broccoli or cauliflower stems, dice them, add onion if you have it, and sweat that in fat—oil, butter, rendered chicken fat, or bacon fat—over medium heat. When they’re soft, dust them with flour and add either chicken or vegetable stock. Stir to thicken, season, and puree. You’ve now made a classical French soup from kitchen scraps. 

Me: You taught me to do this with whole broccoli and chicken stock. It’s delicious—the pleasure of a creamy soup without the cream. 

Emily: We should back up a second. Some readers may not know how to make their own stock. You can make a vegetable stock with any vegetables or vegetable scraps you have on hand, or make a chicken or beef stock with bones leftover from a roast or bought specifically for that purpose.  The longer you simmer the stock, the more collagen you’ll extract. Collagen may have health benefits (this is the bone broth we’ve been hearing so much about) and adds body to the stock. Just add your vegetable scraps (onions, celery, carrots) to the pot with the bones, cover with water, simmer for about two hours, strain, and season to your preference. Roast chicken carcasses make great stock, as do bones from beef roasts. You should add that meat “jelly” in the bottom of the roasting pan, too. Don’t throw that out; that’s pure collagen.

Me: I love to roast chicken, and if I don’t have the time or inclination to make the stock immediately, I just freeze the carcass. The advantage is that all the flavor in the roast chicken, from the herbs or the vegetables you’ve roasted it with, transfers to the stock. All I do is add water and let the slow cooker do the rest, then strain when it’s done, cool, and use or freeze.

Ice cube trays are handy for freezing pesto and stock.

Emily: You can use an entire turkey carcass, too, and fish bones for fish stock. But if you don’t get to make the stock right away, please freeze the bones; that’s basic food safety.

Me: What about pork bones?

Emily: If you have a pork bone, just throw it in with a pot of beans, or a pot of spaghetti sauce, rather than make stock with it.

Me: Our friend Lucy saved all of her bones—beef, pork, chicken—in the freezer, then used them in her spaghetti sauce. You mentioned using bacon fat to flavor things. 

Emily: Save the rendered bacon fat after cooling and straining it, and use it in place of olive oil or butter. It adds so much flavor! I made red beans and rice with rendered bacon fat yesterday, and it was delicious. If you’re making soup or a stew, you can sauté anything that’s going into it in the bacon fat first. This is another classical French technique and is a key element of Boeuf Bourguinon. Many of the recipes in French cooking—not only stock, but also terrines and patés—were made using things basically derived from scraps. And please, either refrigerate rendered fat and use it within two weeks, or freeze it.

Me: Back to the stock. Now that we have so much of it, what else can we do with it?

Emily: If we get to a point where we can’t get meat because of interruptions in the supply chain, we’ll appreciate having the stock and rendered fats on hand for flavor. You can cook rice in it, add it to beans, or use it to flavor sauce or gravy. I like to freeze some stock in ice cube trays in case I want a touch to deglaze a pan or thin out a sauce.

Me: Some of us have loaded up on fresh vegetables, perhaps more than we can use. How can we prevent waste?

Emily: If you have vegetables ready to expire, blanch and freeze them. Some, like carrots or green peppers, can be sliced and frozen raw. Some don’t freeze well, like escarole and celery. For best results with those, prepare a dish with them and then freeze it. You can also make pestos and sofritos. If you have a bunch of a particular herb, purée it in the blender or food processor, along with whatever flavorings or ingredients you like, and freeze in ice cube trays. You may want to add a bit of oil to facilitate this. For Thai or Mexican dishes, for example, you can purée some cilantro with lime juice and green onion. You can make a delicious pesto with parsley, lemon juice, and garlic, which, by the way, has been shown to be a potent antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal. Enjoy the pestos over pasta or add to other dishes for flavor.

Making a vegetable soup is a great way to use up miscellaneous vegetables. You can put almost anything in soup – shredded leftover meat, rice, pasta, whole grains like farro or bulgur, beans. The key is not to overcook the vegetables, so I like to sweat them until they are about half cooked, then add the liquid and simmer just until they are cooked. And you can use water if you don’t have stock on hand—just season it well. In this scenario, you would really appreciate having saved some rendered fat to use.

When you’re going through the refrigerator, use a first in/first out mentality. Do the same when you’re using things from the freezer. And before you buy food, think about using a few things from the freezer because you’ll free up freezer space for fresher additions.

Me: I’ve promised myself I’m going to use this time to do that, to use up what I have on hand, like those two cans of organic pumpkin.

Emily: Those of us who are lucky enough may have a lot of food in the house right now. It’s going to take some planning and thought to prevent waste. That might mean taking a look every other day at your fresh fruits and veggies and making a decision to bake some apples or juice some lemons and limes and freeze the juice, or make a soup and freeze half of it.

Me: Remember, too, that if you’re blessed to be healthy and practice good personal and kitchen hygiene, you can always leave a care package on a neighbor’s doorstep.

Emily: Absolutely, and if you are experiencing food scarcity for financial reasons or an inability to get to the store, there are programs now to address that. Check with your municipality to see what is available in your area.

14 thoughts on “Making the most of stems and scraps

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