We all do it – pick a recipe, then shop for all the ingredients without first looking to see what’s hanging around the house. The result? Bits and bobs of extra food without a designated purpose. And that can lead to food waste.
Eating down the refrigerator and freezer is a worthy goal for the sake of the environment and your wallet, and reduces shopping trips during a time when many of us are trying to go to the store less frequently.
The first step is to get a handle on what you have. If you’re really on top of things, go ahead and make a list on a whiteboard on the fridge or an online spreadsheet. Even if compiling an inventory is too much to do at the moment, take a few minutes to dig around before you start making recipe or shopping plans. Pay particular attention to ingredients that are reaching the end of their storage life. Palak Patel, chef at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, recommends using a first-in, first-out system so older items get used first.
Based on what you uncover, you can, of course, search for dishes that use those ingredients. Online recipe collections – such as our Recipe Finder at The Washington Post with more than 9,300 options! – are especially helpful because you can search for multiple ingredients (check out some of the recipes listed below for ideas to riff on). But sometimes even that strategy can feel limiting once you get hung up on a particular dish. When it comes to using what you have, I find flexibility is key. It may even be fun, if you’re in the right state of mind. Here are some strategies to consider.
This is one of the easiest ways to embrace the “throw it all in” mentality. Empty out the produce bin, or grab leftover roasted vegetables. Dig out the bags of frozen vegetables with just a little bit left. That carton with a cup or two of broth remaining? A little wine? A partially used can of diced tomatoes? Start building your broth, supplementing with water as needed and amping up the flavor with umami boosters such as tomato paste or dried mushrooms. Saute whatever aromatics (onions, garlic, leeks) you have, add chopped vegetables and your liquid. Simmer until done (precooked vegetables can go in toward the end just to warm through). Leftover cooked meat also can get thrown in late in the process or be used as a garnish. Pasta odds and ends or extra canned beans can contribute heft.
The best way to turn a hodgepodge vegetable soup into something grand is to puree it with your handy immersion blender. Top with other salvaged items – stale bread toasted into croutons, crisped-up chickpeas, an herb puree or even popcorn.
Even the saddest-looking remnants in the produce bin can be used to make a broth for sipping or future soup endeavors. Take inspiration from Food editor Joe Yonan’s Scrappy Vegetable Broth – bonus if you’ve been saving those scraps in the freezer.
Riff on: Any Vegetable Instant Pot Soup; Family Favorite Minestrone; Chunky Vegetable Soup.
A one-pot pasta is an ideal vehicle for incorporating random amounts of vegetables and meats. The strategy is a bit like soup. Start with an aromatic base, whether that’s alliums cooked in olive oil or rendered fat from something like bacon or pancetta. Add pasta, just enough water to cover and anything else that you want to warm or cook through. Heartier meats and firm vegetables are fine to hang out as the pasta cooks, whereas more delicate greens or seafood should be stirred in at the very end. You’ll find more details in my one-pot pasta primer.
Similarly, think about pasta salad. Like the one-pot pasta, it takes well to just about anything you want in there, though try to avoid the kitchen-sink mentality. See what needs to be used and focus on a few ingredients so they can shine when paired with a zesty vinaigrette. Even frozen vegetables will work after roasting. Check your fridge for all those partially used jars of olives, pepperoncini, capers and anchovies. They make an excellent finishing touch, along with the end of that block of cheese.
For something very simple, Patel recommends a pureed vegetable pasta sauce. It’s a bit similar to the soup suggestion above, but you’d want to leave the mixture thicker so it coats the pasta. Make it on the stove top or roast an array of vegetables until they’re very soft, then blend with a little bit of liquid to get the right consistency.
Pesto is another toss-it-all-in option for pasta, though it’s compatible with sandwiches, salads and grilled meats as well. “Pestos can be made with frozen peas, edamame, parsley, any herbs, nuts and seeds,” Patel says. Ditto greens – kale, spinach and carrot tops are all fair game.
Riff on: Lemony Bucatini With Cauliflower and Bacon; Lunch Box Pasta Salad.
Fried rice is at the top of the list when it comes to improvised, thrifty meals. Whether you’re using home-cooked rice or takeout leftovers, or even that bag of frozen cooked rice you bought on a whim, it’s all good. (Other grains work great, too – one of my favorite renditions lately involved leftover cooked barley.) Frozen or fresh vegetables work. Try to keep all the ingredients about the same size, putting longer-cooking vegetables in first. Consider cooking raw meat first and then removing it to avoid overcooking, returning it to the skillet at the end, which is when already cooked meat can be stirred in just to warm through. Nuts (who doesn’t have partially used bags sitting around?) add crunch and protein. Eggs, another fried rice staple, can round things out.
Even without rice, you can stir-fry your way into dinner. While the technique is most closely associated with Asian cuisine, take your pick of proteins and vegetables to saute over medium-high to high heat and nudge it in a variety of directions depending on what else you need to use. Briefly bloom your choice of spices (ground or whole) in the skillet before proceeding with cooking. Or flavor the dish at the end with your favorite spice blend, whether that’s za’atar, garam masala or Cajun-Creole. I’ve been known on many occasions to transform whatever extra vegetables are hanging around into a quick batch of skillet fajitas. Surplus yogurt could be turned into a great accompaniment to many quick-cooking dishes, especially those with a Middle Eastern or Indian bent. Think tzatziki or raita.
For something saucier but still stove top, don’t forget about curries, Patel says, which are great for using “loads of veggies.” Start similar to a stir-fry, loading up on aromatics (ginger, garlic, curry paste). Then add whatever veggies (fresh or frozen) and meat you’d like to cook, as well as a liquid for simmering. This is where you can finally pull out that container of coconut milk from a partially used can, which I always seem to have in the refrigerator, as well as broth. Simmer, covered, until everything is tender and cooked through.
Riff on: Better Than Takeout Fried Rice; Melange of Refrigerator Stir-Fry; Spicy Peanut Chicken Stir-Fry; Veggie-Loaded Red Curry.
For minimum effort, take comfort in the fact that so many types of foods can simply be thrown on a sheet pan and roasted. A tray of vegetables makes a no-fuss side, as with Colorful Roasted Vegetables, or use them to top a grain bowl or pasta. I tend to like my vegetables roasted at 400 degrees at a minimum, though for heartier options that benefit from crispy edges (broccoli, cauliflower), I will go up to 425 or 450 degrees. Keep in mind that different vegetables may cook at different rates, so if you are mixing multiple kinds, keep them on separate sheets or divided on the same sheet. You can also cut longer-cooking vegetables into smaller pieces, so they finish more in line with quicker-cooking ones.
It’s easy enough to turn a tray of roasted food into a sheet-pan supper. Poblano, Sweet Potato and Mushroom Fajitas are a favorite in my house, while meat eaters can check out Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas. Both will take well to many kinds of vegetables. For smaller amounts of ingredients, add some eggs for an all-in-one Sheet Pan Frittata.
Riff on: Roasted Vegetable Trio; Root Vegetable and Apple Hash Baked With Eggs; Sheet Pan Honey-Garlic Chicken and Broccoli.
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