Sometimes, armed with an ambitious meal plan for the week, I’ll fill the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables. Then life gets in the way: We get stuck in traffic and take-out is the only way to get dinner on the table in time, or friends call with an unexpected invitation to dinner. And that produce in my fridge wilts and browns until I eventually have to throw it away.
My mother’s voice intones in my head — But there are starving children in Ethiopia! — and I feel pretty guilty, knowing not only that somewhere, families are going hungry, but also that I’ve just wasted the resources used to grow, harvest, transport and store this food.
When you’ve got produce that’s starting to get overripe, greens that are wilting, or dairy products that are within days of their expiration date, take action — there are plenty of delicious ways to make use of them. Here are 7 foods that can go from about-to-spoil to delicious, and with a much longer shelf life, too:
1. Bananas: When your bananas get soft, brown and spotty, and your kids turn up their nose at them, they’re perfect for banana bread. Or, peel and slice them, and put them in the freezer for smoothies later.
2. Berries and Stone Fruits: Berries, peaches and other fruits can get a little mushy after a just few days. Make sure they’re not moldy, and then turn them into a fruit sauce: Cook them in a saucepan with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice until they break down and release their liquid. You can give the cooked mixture a whir with an immersion blender or in a countertop blender, and use the sauce to drizzle over plain yogurt, ice cream or angel food cake. Fruit that’s not in perfect shape is also great for making jams or compote; just cut away any bruised or overly mushy parts. And, of course, they’re also delicious in a smoothie.
3. Citrus Fruit: When your lemons, limes and oranges start to get a little soft and dried-out, cut away the rind with a zester. You can dry the rind in an oven set to low heat and add it to baked goods, or use it fresh to infuse olive oil, or candy it by simmering it in sugar syrup.
4. Vegetables: Carrots, celery, onions and root vegetables can get soft and limp. To save them just before they get too shriveled, chop them up, sauté them in olive oil, and simmer them in vegetable or chicken broth. You can serve it chunky — especially over rice or quinoa, or with pasta — or blend the mixture and stir in a little heavy cream to make a smooth soup.
5. Herbs and Leafy Greens: Sometimes you can refresh a bunch of wilted herbs or leafy greens by submerging them in ice water for a few minutes. But if they’re still not crisp enough for a salad or a garnish, don’t despair. Herbs like basil, cilantro or parsley, as well as flavorful dark greens like arugula and kale, and even carrot tops, can be turned into pesto: Discard any slimy leaves, chop up the remaining herbs or greens, and put them in the food processor along with a couple of cloves of garlic, a little lemon juice or white vinegar, toasted nuts (pine nuts, almonds, pistachios or walnuts are my favorite), and some grated Parmesan cheese. While the motor is running, drizzle in enough extra virgin olive oil to make a loose paste. Toss it with hot cooked pasta or spread it onto toasted slices of baguette.
6. Eggs and Dairy Products: If you don’t think you’ll be able to finish a carton of milk, heavy cream or buttermilk before the expiration date, it’s time to make ice cream. Most ice cream recipes call for equal parts heavy cream and milk, as well as a large quantity of egg yolks. Buttermilk can be used in place of the milk for a tangier result. Have you made a recipe that calls for only egg yolks or only egg whites? You don’t need to waste the other half of the egg. If you’ve got a bunch of egg whites, it’s a great time to make meringues. On the flip side, you can use up egg yolks by making crème brulee.
7. Bread: Dried-out baguettes or slightly stale loaves of sandwich bread might not be great for toast or sandwiches, but it’s about to take on a whole new life. Trim the crusts off, cut up the remaining bread, and pulse it in the food processor for fresh breadcrumbs. Or use the stale bread in bread pudding, French toast or a strata. The advantage to using dry, stale bread in a recipe that calls for an eggy custard is that it can absorb more of the liquid, yielding a moister finished product.
How do you transform or save food just before it goes bad? Share your recipes in the comments below!
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When I'm not making lists, I'm taking care of my two daughters, volunteering in my community, and writing articles about food and cooking — I'm the author of three cookbooks: Ramen to the Rescue, Tortillas to the Rescue, and Quinoa Cuisine (co-written with Kelley Sparwasser), and my fourth, Homemade Condiments, will be available in Fall 2013.