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Making the Most of Your Produce

(Writer’s note: Please read the following sentences in the voice of an infomercial announcer.) Rotten fruits and vegetables. Dinners ruined by produce gone wrong. Grocery budget ballooning. Has this ever happened to you? Produce rots and it can rot fast, leaving you without key ingredients for your dinners and wasting money. But with this new patent food-fresh system, you’ll never be left in a puddle of what used to be asparagus ever again!

(Writer’s note: You can stop reading the sentences in the voice of an infomercial announcer, but if it feels more natural to you, you do not have to stop.) One of the most surprising things I learned when I got my own place was how quickly food spoils. In my first two years of college, everyone was required to have a meal plan and access to a kitchen was limited. With access to quick, pre-made meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I had no opportunity to buy food and watch it spoil. And before college, I lived with my parents and sibling and you’d be surprised how quickly four people can get through produce. That shit doesn’t even have time to spoil! It goes from grocery store to fruit basket to stomach/colon in sixty seconds, give or take a few minutes depending on traffic. So figuring out how to store fresh produce and when to eat it by was a little bit of a challenge.

It gets more challenging as I work to expand my culinary knowledge – trying out new fruits and vegetables has always been a race against time. After all, once it ripens, who knows how long I’ve got before the ticking time bomb that is putrefaction goes off? Fortunately for me (and you if you’re facing some of the same issues), the Internet sure has a lot of resources and I’ve got some ideas, too. Here’s the plan:

  1. Make a weekly or biweekly food plan. When I plan my meals down to the recipes, I find that not only do I keep my grocery store visits more on track, I’m also more likely to use up all of the produce I buy. Sometimes, it’s so tempting to see a nice bunch of chard and think, “Oh I’ll definitely use that.” Well, for me without a plan, that “definitely” becomes a “definitely not.”
  2. Keep track. I have a whiteboard in my kitchen and while I sometimes use it to draw pictures or write long messages explaining my feelings on the crisis facing the European Union, I usually use it to keep track of what needs to be eaten and what needs to be replaced at the next grocery trip. Writing “SALAD GREENS: SITUATION CRITICAL” in large letters sure helps me remember to make a salad with/for my next meal.
  3. Online shelf life guides have shown me the proper way to store fruits and vegetables and have given me guidelines on how long I can wait to eat those properly stored fruits and vegetables. I’ve included links to two separate guides here – one that assumes that your produce is from the grocery store  and one that talks about produce from farmer’s markets. One note, though, the grocery store guide tells you what refrigeration can do for basically everything, but not all produce should be refrigerated. If you know you’ll be eating that fruit or veggie that night or if you’re dealing with delicately temperamental fruits or vegetables like tomatoes, stay away from the fridge and just make the cooking and eating a priority.

So there it is – some more resources on making the most of your produce purchases. Even though all of the suggestions here are just total common sense, I know that personally I did not start applying this common sense until I saw it neatly written out. I won’t lie – sometimes I still end up with liquefying cilantro (they sell the bunches here so big that you cannot reasonably use the whole damn thing in one meal! It is a trap!! A cilantro trap!!). Produce is such a vital part of anyone’s food lifestyle and it can be especially crucial for those who eschew animal products. Making sure you’re not wasting money with rotting produce and that you’re getting the maximum freshness and deliciousness can make a big difference.

Do you have any tips or suggestions?

11 replies on “Making the Most of Your Produce”

I recently went from living with my boyfriend to staying with a friend in another city while I go to school.  This apartment has an ancient fridge with the tiniest freezer I’ve ever seen.  I am really failing at veggies, right now.  I end up making a huge batch of soup or curry to use all the imminently rotten vegetables, and then I have to eat that for days because there is no room to freeze it.

Your tip about the whiteboard is amazing. One that would work well for us, too, I think. Will see about implementing it in the Juniper Household as soon as I can. Seeing food wasted is something I find so difficult because it’s essentially throwing money away.

As for tips to share? I’d go for making the most of the freezer. We freeze most of our veggies (having chopped them up) and it saves a lot from going to waste. Freezing chopped herbs, too, saves them from going to waste.

I just had to toss out two melons (I’m twelve and laughing at the joke potential, FYI) because we forgot to take them out of the plastic bag and moisture got in there and they were all moldy within days. *shakes fist* I also have the cilantro problem.

I am a big fan of dicing up and freezing bell peppers if they’re about to go and I won’t be using them soon. Plus that saves me time when I’m making something later.

After years of watching various (adult) roommates grow science projects in our fridges (ah, the joys of being a New Yorker), my one piece of advice is this — look in your fridge! Before you buy anything, look in you produce bin, write down what’s in there, check out what you have in the cupboard above the stove that everyone is afraid of, etc. If you have a smart phone, put it in the notes app so you have it next time you pass the bodega or decide to brave TJ’s. Or kick it old school and keep a list in your purse.

Because chances are, if you cook, there’s stuff to cook with lying around. And then when you do go shopping, don’t just have one goal for something if you know it’s too much for what you’re doing but can’t buy a smaller amount. Best example I can think of is a head of cabbage. There is really no recipe on earth, apart from maybe a kitchen full of kimchi, that will use allllll the cabbage. Which means if I make cole slaw to take to a picnic, the other half of that cabbage has to go somewhere. Does it get cooked down into risotto, does it get braised with apples, does it go in navy bean soup, does it get shredded and made into Indian cabbage salad, does it go into Chinese stir fry? Even though I am better off than I was when I moved to NYC at 21, I still cannot bear to waste food.

Another thing I do for a lot of produce is to make it into a snack, if you can’t use it all for a recipe. Half a head of celery left? Wash it, cut it up, put it in a tupperware with a paper towel and then you just need to add some peanut butter or hummus, and you have yourself a cheap snack or small lunch. Or if you have carrots, a piece of onion ,etc., throw it in a pot with some leftover parsley or herbs or dried stuff and you can make some stock to freeze for next time you want to make soup.

If you have greens, unless it’s iceberg lettuce, many of them can be sauteed and cooked into an omelet, which is a fast, cheap ass dinner.

 

If you do have veggies on the verge of going bad that you can’t get to, freeze them!  They’ll be great for making a homemade vegetable stock if it’s just bits and pieces, or throwing in a stew someday if you’ve got enough of one product.  I learned that one from my big brother.

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