It isn’t easy to minimize food waste in the best of times, even though that’s something to which we should all aspire.
But these aren’t the best of times; in fact, I’m still waiting on my first penny of unemployment to arrive, after applying a month ago. So … there’s no better time than the present—and, in fact, you might find that it’s pretty fun to get maximum usage out of what’s in the fridge.
I heard somewhere that the vegetable crisper is where good intentions go to die—and that’s been pretty true in my experience, so let’s start there. You can save almost anything that’s getting limp in your crisper, with one exception: lettuce. Lettuce gone wilty is compost, and nothing else. (If you have found a use for it, shoot me a line!) But, yes, you can repurpose nearly any other vegetable.
• Save ends, skins and stems. Get a freezer bag (with a sliding closer if you have it), and start keeping the ends of onions, carrots, celery, shallots—any vegetable that has ends you’d normally cut off and throw away. Keep the skins, too, as well as the stems from herbs, discarded cabbage pieces, mushroom stems, ginger peels—seriously, whatever.
Once you have a good little bag going, throw it all into a stock pot with a little olive oil and salt, and let it sweat on low heat. You can also use a roasting pan if you prefer; just remember to deglaze the pan with a little water to get the fond incorporated back into the stock. Start with the firm veggies, and add the more delicate ones later, with water to cover. Bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down, and let it cook for an hour or two. Strain through a colander and then a wire strainer, and boom—you have vegetable stock!
If you’d like a little more flavor, and perhaps some added health benefits, get that spice cabinet involved! I like to warm the olive oil first, and then add some turmeric, cumin, chile flakes, peppercorns, a couple of allspice berries, a star anise pod, a half-stick of cinnamon and a few smashed garlic cloves—skins and all. (You can buy a half-year’s supply of all of those dry spices for less than $10 in the Latin section of most supermarkets, by the way.) Get that all nice and aromatic, and then add the rest. If you have the carcass of a roasted chicken sitting in the fridge, roast that in a pan at 400 degrees for a few minutes, and throw it in, too, for chicken stock!
Don’t just think soup! You can use this stock to cook rice; or you can reduce and add some wine and butter to make a pan sauce. Add that sauce to bring some life into those canned green beans, or elevate that packaged ramen!
• Pickles: I am preserving most of the vegetables in the house before they even get a chance to turn. I have a batch or two of crock pickles going at all times, as well as homemade sauerkraut and kimchi in the fridge, with all of their probiotic goodness. It’s really easy! (Well, maybe not the kimchi, but sauerkraut and half-sour pickles are a breeze.)
If you’re from the East Coast like me, you probably miss half-sour pickles. Sure, you can get them at one of the valley delis, but why not have some at home so you don’t need to leave the house? Although you can do this with so many vegetables, the cucumber obviously makes the most-popular pickle. If you can find Kirby cukes, all the better, but we usually have a bag of Persian cukes from a recent shopping trip. After eating a few fresh in a salad or something, we usually have more than enough left for a batch of pickles.
Grab a crock if you have one, or any non-reactive vessel with a lid, as well as a food scale. Trim the ends of the cucumbers—just the little stem and flower bits. Put the crock on the scale; set to zero (grams); and add all of the vegetables you want to pickle. Then pour water to cover, and get the total weight of the water and veggies. Figure out what 2 percent of that is, and add that amount of salt. (Dissolve the salt in a little hot water for uniformity, if you’d like.) You’ll want to keep all of the cucumbers submerged, so add a sealed sandwich bag of salty water to the top to push them down if you don’t have a small plate or weight to do the job.
Of course, these would be pretty boring pickles. I suggest adding a teaspoon of mustard seed and/or coriander, a sprig of dill, some smashed garlic cloves (they will turn green; that’s totally normal), a bay leaf, peppercorns, and maybe an allspice berry or two. The bay leaf and mustard seeds will help keep the pickles crispy (it’s the tannins); some people even use an oak leaf from the park or yard for more crunch. You can also add onions, and I like to add a few radishes if I have them; just trim the ends off as with the cucumbers.
Put the jar on the counter, out of the sun, for a day. You can keep fermenting them on the counter for a sour pickle (this works best with Kirby cukes) or put them into the fridge for a half-sour with great crunch! The best thing about these pickles is they are actually good for you—all natural and packed with probiotics. They’ll last for weeks in the fridge. OK, actually they probably won’t, because you’ll eat them long before that.
• Sauerkraut: Pick up a head of cabbage for a cheap and healthy side dish. Trim the outer leaves, and cut the cabbage into quarters. Trim the thick core pieces (save them and those outer leaves for your stock), and slice the cabbage into thin ribbons. Toss the cabbage with a tablespoon of kosher salt, and massage gently until the cabbage gives off some liquid. Leave it for about 20 minutes, and massage again. It should drip water when squeezed—and then it’s ready.
Pack into a jar or crock, and weigh down, as with the pickles. Leave it submerged in its juice on the counter for a few days, and then try it. Move it to the refrigerator when it’s at your level of funk. I like mine right around Bootsie Collins, so that’s about a week. You can add this sauerkraut to anything (soup, ramen, rice), or just heat it and serve as a side dish. You can throw it on a sausage, or even eat it out of the jar. Perfection.
These are just a few ways to make the most out of your quarantine vegetable experience. It’s all about adding punch and nutrition to those pantry staples on which we’ve been living. Fermented foods help with gut health and immunity, so enjoy them in good health—so we can one day get back to enjoying other fermented things together again!
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.