Tag Archives: waste

The Leftover Project: Lentil Soup in the New Kitchen

The kitchen 1

The kitchen is finished! Welcome, new temple of culinary rites. Welcome, new heart of our home. Farewell to camping in the living room.

The kitchen 2

For the past six weeks, we’ve been subsisting on what could be grilled in the back yard or quickly prepared in the “camp kitchen” a mini-microwave, an electric skillet and a slow cooker. The trouble with cooking in the living room as that pervasive odors, like garlic, cling to the furniture. There’s a reason we don’t put sofas in the kitchen.

Thank goodness for take-out. I’ve eaten more sushi in the past month than in the previous year. But take-out food is expensive, and I’ve really missed cooking. The first dish I made in the new kitchen was pasta, something I just couldn’t prepare on the grill. And last night the weather turned from warm May splendor back to our usual gray drizzle. Time for lentil soup!

Lentil soup is a worthy addition to my leftover project, a collection of basic recipes to help me (and perhaps you?) use up leftovers before they go to waste. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, “about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. In a world full of hunger, volatile food prices, and social unrest, these statistics are more than just shocking:  they are environmentally, morally and economically outrageous.”

Knowing this, I feel like a complete cretin when, because I haven’t paid attention to what’s in my fridge, I end up discarding food that’s become too old to eat. It feels like throwing money directly into the garbage can, not to mention the natural resources involved, and the work of all the people who produced, transported and packaged that food. Thus, the Leftover Project.

Lentil soup is a delicious way to use up leftover bits of this and that. I often throw in greens that are starting to wilt, sad tomatoes, and bits of cooked meat. Today’s version was pretty much the basic recipe, and gave a home to some slightly soggy celery and a lone potato that would otherwise have melted into gooey oblivion.

Here’s the basic recipe to serve six. We’re only two, but I freeze the rest for I-don’t-wanna-cook days.

  • First, I chop up 2-4 peeled carrots, 2-4 stalks celery, including the leaves, and a big ol’ onion, chopped, or all the bits of various onions, green onions, shallots, and/or leeks I have lying around, to equal the volume of one large onion. I sauté all this in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. (Doesn’t that sound like a term of affection? Come on over here, my heavy-bottomed soup pot.) Put the lid on and sweat the veggies for about five minutes over medium heat.

The veggies

  • Now, I throw in 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (more would be fine). If you’re adding greens, like spinach, kale, etc., now would be the time to shred or chop them up and throw them in. If your greens are already cooked, throw them in later, toward the end. Anyway, I also add a few bay leaves and stir this for a few minutes, then pour in about eight cups of water and the lentils—any type. This time I used the green ones which hold their shape in the finished soup. The brown ones soften up and dissolve more, making a more velvety soup. Nothing’s stopping you from using your stick blender (AKA immersion blender) to partially puree the finished soup, if you prefer a creamier consistency. You could use red lentils too, but they seem to call for Middle Eastern or Indian seasonings, whereas the green ones feel more French, Spanish or Italian. Last night we were heading toward Italy, so I added several grinds of black pepper and a good shake of Penzi’s Tuscan Sunset herb blend (so good!) and let the lentils simmer for about forty minutes.
  • While the lentils cooked, I squish the guts out of six raw chicken Italian sausage from Trader Joe’s. I brown that up and set aside half the pan for future dishes—I love this crumbled sausage in my stuffed peppers, zucchini or eggplant—also great vehicles for leftovers.
  • When the lentils are starting to soften, I add about a tablespoon of beef bouillon concentrate, the stuff in a jar. You could use the chicken concentrate or the veggie. I dump in a can (14 oz.) of diced tomatoes, two medium potatoes, peeled and diced, and the sausage, which could just as easily have been replaced with diced ham, roast beef or chicken, or even vegetarian sausage.
  • And here it is! It turns out I’d grabbed the spicy sausage, which gave the soup just a bit of a kick. Delicious!

Lentil soup

After dinner, we went to Tacoma’s B Sharp Coffee House to hear the T-Town Blues Review. Vocalist Paul Green roared on harmonica, and the excellent band raised the roof. What a great evening.

T-Town Blues Review 2

What’s your favorite way to use up leftovers?

The Leftover Project: Curried Chicken and Rice Soup

Autumn tree in Jefferson Park  When autumn leaves begin to fall and noses begin to run, it’s time for chicken soup! In the spirit of frugal fun and saving money for the things that matter most, I continue my efforts to eliminate food waste by using up leftovers in creative ways. Today is a glorious autumn day in Tacoma, alternately bright and rainy, with a stiff wind that sends the clouds scuttling across the sky as if being chased by the frost-breathing wolves of winter. Autumn days like these call for soup. Here’s what I had:

  • Homemade chicken stock made from the carcass of a roast chicken that I’d saved in the freezer, (See below if you don’t already know how to do this, but you probably do.)
  • some chicken meat left over from the aforementioned roast bird, including the meat I’d picked off the bones after making the stock,
  • half a bag of “baby” carrots that were past their prime,
  • a few stalks of celery, also fading,
  • half an onion,
  • half a zucchini,
  • half a tomato,
  • about ½ cup of whipping cream left over from a previous recipe, (poireaux à la crème – leeks in cream sauce)
  • some Uncle Ben’s rice – the seasoned kind in the orange box, white rice and wild rice mix, and
  • curry powder.
  1. I diced up onion, carrots and celery, and sweated them in just a bit of olive oil in a medium saucepan with the lid on, stirring from time to time, until they began to soften – about five minutes.
  2. I added about 1 tsp. of curry powder and stirred that for a moment, then threw in the diced tomato and zucchini.
  3. Next, I added about four cups of the homemade chicken stock and stirred it well to scrape up the curried goodness from the bottom of the pan. In went the shredded chicken, about a cup and a half, about the same amount of cooked rice, a few cooked garlic cloves that had been in the cavity of the roast chicken, and the cream. After simmering for ten minutes, it was done. Delicious! Not heavy, despite the cream, with just a hint of spice from the curry, and very flavorful thanks to the homemade stock – perfect for an autumn day.

And another batch of leftovers is transformed! Tah-daahh!

curried chicken soup

For those who’ve never made stock from the carcass of a roasted chicken, you really must try it. Homemade chicken stock is so much more flavorful than that prepared stuff in a carton, and you can control the level of salt too. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I chopped up the holy trinity of onion, carrot and celery, one to two cups of each. You want to keep the amounts balanced, but you don’t have to be precise. When making stock, it doesn’t matter if the veggies are old and faded, or even a bit desiccated, as long as they’re not moldy or slimy.
  2. Here’s the sinful part – I’d basted this chicken with butter, so the frozen carcass was surrounded by a layer of combined chicken fat and butter. Pure gold! I hacked away at that frozen greasy goodness with a knife until I had enough to sauté my veggies in. Wow! The smell was amazing from the first minutes. Later I added some frozen parsley stems (saved for soup), a few bay leaves, about 2 tsp. of dried marjoram, and about 1 tsp. of poultry seasoning – I have two jars that I need to use up. I also sliced in a few cloves of garlic, and ground in plenty of black pepper.
  3. Next comes the frozen chicken carcass, of course, and enough liquid to cover. In the fridge I had half a carton of store-bought chicken broth – pretty flavorless stuff – so I supplemented that with some concentrated chicken “stock” in a little plastic tub, and plenty of water. I didn’t add any salt because the chicken concentrate is salty. I just added enough to cover the chicken bones – about eight cups of liquid in all. (You could use just water, but using the chicken stock concentrate and/or broth gives the finished product a richer flavor without having to reduce it for hours.) I brought all this to a boil and then turned down the heat to low, just high enough to keep it simmering.
  4. When it’s finished, after simmering for a few hours, the veggies are just cooked down to a sludge, having released all their goodness into the stock. So I drained the stock through a colander into a fresh pot. After 30 minutes or so, I picked the chicken meat off the bones and set it aside. Why is the meat always still hot enough to burn my fingers, no matter how long I wait? I threw the rest of the stuff away – it had done its job and died for a noble cause.
  5. Of course, the finished stock was greasy from all that butter, plus fat rendered from the chicken skin, so I put it into the fridge overnight. The congealed layer of fat looked like swamp sludge – don’t want that stuff running through my arteries. But cooking the stock with the chicken fat really adds to the flavor, even if you remove most of the grease before using the stock, which I did, of course. Just skim it off with a spoon and throw it away.

Happy soup-making this autumn! Do you have a favorite twist on chicken soup? If so, please share!

The Leftover Project

Since my youth, I’ve been a rabid collector of recipes. Even after the big purge we conducted before retiring and moving back to the U.S. from Germany, I still have a tall stack of cooking magazines, three shelves of cookbooks, and two full-to-bursting binders, one labeled “Recipes I’ve Tried,” the other, “Recipes I Want to Try.” These contain new and old magazine clippings, my own notes, many recipes downloaded from the internet, and a few precious treasures – recipes written out by hand, from friends who’ve generously shared their specialties. Recipes are like stories, I think, meant to be shared and passed on.

My literature professors told me, way back when, that it’s not only the writer who creates a story; no, the reader also contributes to the experience and meaning of the story. So it is with recipes; the original, published recipe is a starting point, but the cook who tries it adds her own spice, his own tricks, and creates an interpretation which may be just as sublime, if not more so, than the original. And what a great use of the internet, when people share recipes, adapt them, and pass them on. As a nation, we need more competent home cooks educating the next generation about real food. Our industrialized “food” factories spend millions pushing their lab-concocted, chemical-laced, toxic “food-like substances.” (Thank you, Michael Pollan. Have you read his books? You should.)

But I digress. The purpose of this blog is to explore the challenges and adventures of (early) retirement. Well, one of the challenges is definitely money. It just ain’t rolling in the way it used to, and I need to be more careful, more mindful of what and how I spend. An avid home cook, I enjoy trying out new recipes and new ingredients. But I tend to get a bit greedy and unrealistic, making more dishes that we can consume, and throwing away good food. In fact, the Sunday clean-out of the fridge was part of my regular routine during my working years. I’d wince as I dug my way to the back of each shelf and found containers of once-delicious food, now past its prime and perhaps fuzzy with mold. What a waste! And considering how many of our own citizens, not to mention people in other lands, don’t have enough to eat, how can I justify cooking huge quantities of food just to amuse myself, and then throwing it away?

So, as part of my campaign to become a more conscious spender, to avoid clutter and superfluous stuff, I’m also committed to reducing my food waste – really, to eliminate it altogether. But – until I master the art of cooking exactly two portions of every dish – what do I do with the leftovers? When I was working five days a week, I could simply pack up leftovers for lunch – problem solved. Now that we’re retired, I have the gift of time. In fact, I never feel more retired that when preparing a hot lunch to eat at home. What a luxury!

So, henceforth I shall endeavor (Doesn’t that sound grand?) to repurpose leftovers whenever possible, making creative dishes out of what’s already in my fridge and on my shelves, rather than face again the chagrin of the Sunday fridge purge. And I’ll share my best results here with you, and ask you to do the same. If you’ve shared a recipe on your own blog or another forum, please link! Thanks much.

Here’s my first recipe: Spaghetti Frittata!Recipe #1 in the Leftover Project

I first tasted one of these prepared by Patrick C., a creative and knowledgeable cook who lived in Aviano, Italy, and had learned some local tricks. When I make pasta, I often end up with too much – I’m greedy that way. So today I had leftover spaghetti with homemade basil pesto – having purchased a beautiful, big bundle of basil at the Proctor Farmers’ Market. Also lurking in the fridge were four big mushrooms starting to go slimy, half a green bell pepper, half an orange one, part of a sweet onion (a benefit of living in Washington – Walla Walla sweets!). I diced those up roughly, along with a tomato, which I first seeded and squeezed a bit. Into the pan (a cast-iron skillet) the veggies went, along with a bit of olive oil. I sautéed that on medium high heat until the veggies had released their liquid and dried out a bit – about five minutes. You want your frittata filling to be fairly dry – too much veggie juice would result in watery eggs, blech! I seasoned that with salt & pepper. Next, I layered on top of the veggies enough leftover spaghetti with pesto to cover the veg by about an inch. Then I whipped up eight eggs and a glug of milk – about ½ cup. A bit of salt & pepper went into that as well. Follow your own taste on whether to add salt and how much, but I find unsalted eggs to be not so delicious.

Finally, I sprinkled a generous handful of grated Parmesan cheese over the top – a good ½ cup. Now I let it cook a bit, less than five minutes, on medium heat until the eggs were beginning to set up on the bottom. I lifted the mess with my spatula from time to time to let the wet eggs run underneath – like you’re supposed to do for a French omelet, to hasten the cooking of the eggs. (And because it makes me feel important)

Finally, I popped it into the oven at 375 degrees F. for about 20 minutes. What you’re looking for here is the point where the top of the frittata is set and puffy, so give it a pat. You’ll feel it jiggle if it’s still liquid in the middle. Also, if you slice into it and liquid seeps out, back into the oven it goes! You don’t want to overcook the thing, just cook those eggs through.

Et voilà! Or however you say that in Italian. Frittata is a great way to use up leftover pasta and veg, or just veg, or veg and protein, such as ham, shrimp, salmon, chicken… And a frittata tastes good cold or at room temperature and makes a great take-along lunch. So – another leftover saved and transformed into a new and tasty dish!

small frittata slice

The Joy (and Frustration) of Weeding

pile of clothing discardsNo, not in the garden, though yanking botanical interlopers out of the flower beds does have its therapeutic value. The type of weeding I’ve been doing lately involves clothing, magazines, books and other flotsam from corners of my home. Since moving into my current home and combining household stuff with my wonderful mate, I have given away a dozen large trash bags stuffed with clothing and shoes. A few of these were filled with my daughter’s cast-offs from earlier years, held onto for sentimental reasons. But most if it was mine, and that bothers me, dear reader – it bothers me a lot.

            When my two siblings and I were children, there wasn’t much money to spend on clothing. We were living on my dad’s public-school-teacher salary, which doesn’t go far in a family of five. So every summer ended with back-to-school shopping from the sale rack at Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. My mother did an outstanding job of making those few dollars stretch to clothe three kids in the basics, plus a few well-chosen items in the latest styles – just a few, but enough to keep us from feeling like total dorks, fashion-wise. Under Mom’s tutelage, I developed a good eye for bargains. Only $4.99 for this top? And it’s so cute! Please, Mom? Pleasepleaseplease?

            The trouble is that the gravitational pull of the sales racks has not diminished over the years, even though I now make enough money to pay full price for a modest but good-quality wardrobe. I still feel the thrill of pulling a cute top out of a pile of schlock, and several times per year I make spontaneous purchases of cute but not really needed items of clothing. This blouse may not match anything I already own, but it’s cute and flattering; it only cost me 9.99 Euros, and don’t I deserve a treat?

            Of course, some of the seasonal wardrobe weeding has to do with changing sizes. Over the past ten years my weight has fluctuated up and down a good twenty pounds. Lately, my weight is easing downward (Huzzah!), and that’s a wonderful reason to weed through my Schränke (wardrobe cabinets – German homes don’t have closets) and bins. Some of the too-tight items I put away with a sigh last August fit again! But many of the rejects are seldom-worn impulse purchases that simply don’t go with my basic pants and skirts, with my most frequent color choices, or with my lifestyle. That red Chanel-style jacket that was on super-sale? I’ve never worn it. That long, camel-tan cardigan? It just looks odd and lumpy over all my blouses and slacks. That schmexy, clingy dress in the bright pink print? It looks great, but how often would I wear something that clingy? Certainly not to work, and I just don’t go to that many fancy brunches or summer weddings. At 50, a grand age to be, I don’t have the elegant, well-put-together wardrobe I deserve. Instead, I have cabinets and storage bins bulging with ill-matched single garments from which I can only pull together a few decent outfits. What a waste of money and time!

            And so, after over-spending on “bargains” from my teens through my forties, I’m turning my back on the sale rack. It’s hard, dear reader – so very hard, especially now, in the summer, when the pedestrian shopping zones of European cities are filled with rack upon rack of darling, inexpensive summer fashions. Cute, colorful tops call to me, the cheap little teases, “Take me home! I’m fun! I’m frivolous! You know you want me!”

            But slowly, oh so slowly, I find that I am actually developing sales resistance. Is this one of the gifts of age that we’re promised: the wisdom to see all that schlock for what it is? A new blouse will not give me a new attitude, a new confidence, or a new je ne sais quoi – especially if it hangs unworn in my wardrobe because it doesn’t go with anything else I own.

            This summer I’m paring my wardrobe down to the bone, and then adding in a few basic, combinable items purchased from a good clothing shop at full price. My theory is that if, say, a blouse costs me forty or fifty Euros, it’ll have to be really flattering and combinable with several other items before my cheap self will plunk down that sum. It’ll be hard, since my bargain-rack mentality recoils at such a high price for one item – but it helps to add up the cost of a dozen trash bags full of discarded ten-Euro tops – ouch! I’ll even go shopping with a list, and stick to it! White blouse means white blouse, not sparkly silver tank top, not powder-blue cropped cardigan, not flowered sundress. Basta! (Wish me luck.)

            How about you? Have you found a way to cultivate sales resistance and good discipline when it comes to buying clothing? Do you shop with a plan? If so, please share your wisdom here.