As anyone who has tapped in to their local food sources knows, sometimes you end up with a fridge full of fantastic produce, ready to spoil if you don’t get a move on. Or you have one vegetable that looked so right at the farmers market, but now is left in that place in the fridge that is the equivalent of the Land of Forgotten Toys for adults.
Food waste is a huge part of our American diet — check out our infographic in the 2020 Local Food Guide (page 10) for some shocking numbers. Even personally, I feel a sense of defeat when I end up having to toss some bad onions, or sad carrot greens.
So how do we combat produce defeat? There’s a reason many cookbooks start with a ‘pantry’ section (check out Abra Beren’s Ruffage or Samin Nosrat’s Fat Salt Acid Heat for some excellent pantry pars.) These power players can help bring any meal together, so that every last item in your CSA can find a home. Check out these kitchen superheroes to your parsnips or oregano’s rescue:
Dried (or Frozen Fresh!) Pasta
Okay, so this isn’t necessarily mind-blowing, but it is my absolute favorite way to whip up a quick and satisfying meal: make a vegetable-forward bowl of pasta. Italian cuisine is known for being very seasonal, so it is a historic culinary example of looking for ways to use what you have throughout the year. Throw your asparagus, okra, or squash into an easy tomato, brown butter or cream pasta sauce, boil some dried pasta, and you’re on the go!
Plus, shopping for pasta is so much fun — radiatore, bucatini, and orecchiette, oh my! Pro tip: fresh pasta can be frozen, so don’t be afraid to head to your local pastificio for more artesanal options.
Frozen Pizza Dough
Pizza can act in much the same way as your pasta: it’s a blank slate for you to add your fresh selections to, and becomes a satisfying meal with minimal effort. No cheese? No big deal! Turn your pizza into a flatbread, and top with raw vegetables.
If you have a favorite local pizza joint, see if they sell their dough! You can always buy a few balls of dough, and stash them in the freezer, so that you always have a quick meal on hand that will still impress the neighbors.
Rice (and Day-Old Rice)
Rice is one of those pantry wunderkinds that can do so many things: add filling to a meatball or golumpki, add more heft to a too-light soup, become a dish like paella or tahdig, or simply be a base for stir-fry. My suggestion is to purposefully make too much rice, so that your day-old leftovers can become a double hitter — clean up the rest of your fridge’s produce section with fried rice the next night!
Stock is one of the essentials for cooking, and one of the first things you learn to make in culinary school. Keep in mind that stock and broth are two different things — a basic boiled-down (ha) difference is that stock is simply bones and mirepoix (carrot, onion and celery) and should be unseasoned, so that you can work with it in a myriad of ways. Stock is a great thing to pick up in quantity when it’s on sale, or better, make your own in large quantities and hold in canning jars until needed.
What I like about having stock on hand is that it’s a great go-to for not only essential needs like soups, stews, or risotto, it can also be important to have on hand for sauces, or even simply deglazing your pan (the process of releasing the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.)
Another great way to make use of your produce bounty is to pickle it! So many things can become a delicious snack or garnish simply by adding it to a brine — not just cucumbers, but cherries or even eggplant can find a home in a pickle jar. Check out our recipe for chamomile pickled carrots, or find a recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation!
I think of digging through my spice cabinet like shopping at home for each meal. Make a habit of collecting interesting spices, or drying fresh herbs from your garden, to make sure you have a varied “store” to shop at. You can also get the family involved: let your kids pick out a couple of choices to add their own twist on your roast chicken and vegetables or pot of chili.
Many people don’t realize that spices do have a date of expiry: keep them in a cool, dark and dry area, and try to buy whole spices rather than ground, which can keep up to two years if taken care of.
The Freezer Section
Freezing what you won’t use immediately, and then pulling from that source, is a great way to add a fresh oomph throughout the year to anything you might be looking for a few more vegetables for. Best practices for freezing can vary from vegetable to vegetable: if you’d like to become an expert, check out the online home preservation course at MSU Extension.
Green Sauce Recipes
A great way to make use of any herbs, aromatics or vegetable tops (looking at you, carrot greens) is to make an herbaceous sauce you can use immediately for a protein or potato salad, or freeze for a quick almost-ready-to-roll sauce. I like chimichurri for a bright kick, green harissa for a spicier hit, and pesto for a more unctuous mouthfeel. Keep in mind that you can substitute as needed: keep the concept, but switch your cilantro for tarragon, your basil for spinach or beet greens, or whatever you may need to use up in the moment.
The Good Ol’ Internet
If in doubt, Google. At the end of the day, if you’re stumped and tired, simply ask the internet to solve your produce math problem (carrots plus radishes plus blueberries = ?) Likely someone has written a recipe perfect for you, or has done something similar that you can add to. No need for frantic Chopped-style problem solving when wifi is around! You can also find great recipes here on the Local Food Companion by using our keyword search in the corner.
Don’t forget that you can purchase a lot of these pantry superheroes locally! Items like vinegars and wild rice can be found on Michigan shelves or farmers markets, and a great way to find them is by using our Find Food and Farms directory.
What are some of your pantry rescue meals?
Claire Butler is the Communications Coordinator for Taste the Local Difference. Contact her at [email protected]
Find more great stories here.