It takes skill to predict how much food to buy to last the week. And let’s face it, most of us buy food based on what we want to eat at the time, rather than as an endeavour to have an empty cupboard on the last day of term. So, for all those in favour of short-term gratification, who don’t wish to waste their pennies on food that ends up getting thrown out, here are some pearls (some of which can apply on a weekly or even day-to-day basis) on getting the most out of one’s edibles.
If you’re not a fan of fresh vegetables, then skip this paragraph. For those that hold true appreciation for the wonders of the fruit and vegetable world, yet are alarmed by the amount of waste that can come off a chopping board, I offer a solution to ease your conscience. Before you throw it away, ask yourself what exactly is wrong with it, and whether it truly needs chucking out. If you’re worried about fertilisers on the skins of vegetables and fruit, as I was for quite some time, it may reassure you that it is possible to get fertiliser off one’s food without actually peeling it. Take a large bowl or container and fill it with warmish water if you’re planning on cooking your veg, or cold if it’s for salad ingredients. Add a teaspoon of vinegar (preferably white, but anything that’s got acetic acid in it will do, so even lemon juice can be used) and then add your veg. As agricultural fertilisers are oil-based, so that they don’t wash off in the rain, the vinegar is much more effective at breaking down dirt and getting rid of fertiliser residue than plain water. Leave them for a few minutes, then scrub off any dirt and rinse them in cold water. Now that your vegetables are shiny clean, all that’s required is to chop off any overripe or bruised parts. With vegetables like onions, broccoli and carrots, you only need to remove literally a few millimetres of stalk, and with leeks and spring onions, you’ll find that by rinsing every couple of layers, you can nearly double the amount of edible material from each plant.
After washing all your vegetables, if you still feel like peeling them and you’re not averse to eating the peel – which is full of nutrients, fibre and as fertiliser free as the rest of the vegetable – then you can do a number of things the peel in order to reduce waste and to make your food go farther. You can make a filling soup by adding the peel to some fried onion or garlic in a large saucepan, then pouring on some vegetable or chicken stock to about two fingers above the peelings. Wait for them to become tender, then liquidize it, season and eat!
It’s often a case of remembering a couple of weeks before the end of term that whatever’s in the cupboard needs to go, so it can help to do a bit of rearranging and move whatever needs to be eaten – i.e. open or nearing its sell-by-date – to the front. Keeping a tray of condiments out means that you might be inspired to try something different when cooking or eating your meal. If your curry is too spicy – because you wanted to use up the chilli sauce – add some peanut butter or plain yoghurt instead of opening a can of coconut milk. If you haven’t got any stock cubes left, add half a litre of boiling water to a teaspoon of Marmite and it pretty much does the same thing. It’s likely that whatever food you are happy to eat in a concentrated form is going to appeal to you as an accompaniment to another dish, so it’s really just a case of thinking outside the box. Even the standard leftover meal of bubble and squeak can be spruced up using mustard, horseradish or mint sauce – and not only mashed potatoes work in holding the rest of the ingredients together. You could use sweet potato, or swede, or even mash up some carrots and parsnips, and if it looks as though there won’t be enough to hold everything together, why not change tack and make fishcakes instead? Just add a can of tuna to the mix, shape into palm-sized rounds, dip in a whisked egg then add some breadcrumbs (toast bread then blend it) and cook either at 180°C in the oven, or in a pan of hot oil. At this point, I am hoping that your fridge is looking a little barer.
In terms of long-life ingredients, it may take a little more planning to come up with a something that is both delicious and streamlines your cupboards. Whilst flour doesn’t really go off, once you’ve opened it the weevil may strike. These tiny black beetles (about the size of a peppercorn, or smaller) can burrow through packaging and multiply at quite an impressive rate, so flour is something you preferably want to use up within a few weeks of opening. Apologies for the close proximity to insect-chat, but here’s a recipe that can use up any type of flour, along with a number of other ingredients that may be lying around unused. I’ll explain as I go along…
- 2 cups flour – as mentioned, any type of flour will work, however be prepared to add a little more water with the wholemeal and wholegrain flours than with white.
- 1 tsp baking soda – if you have self-raising flour, baking soda is not essential, and likewise, if you have baking powder just throw some of that in instead… whilst this ingredient is going to make the bread rise and be a bit lighter, it’s really not essential. I would say have a go without it if you haven’t any, and if it’s really inedible then you’ll know for next time.
- Pinch salt
- 1 cup sugar – this is to keep things on the sweet side, but many of you might feel it’s quite a large amount of sugar to be adding. So, use up what’s left over/bash some sugar cubes and throw those in/add a few spoonfuls of honey/golden syrup/Nesquik or hot chocolate powder, and that’s all that’s required.
- ¼ cup oil – this can be any type of fat, so butter, marge or cooking oil. Olive oil can be used though you might be able to taste it a little bit in the end product. But really, who cares. You can in fact replace the oil with some yogurt if you have any – that you want to use up – for a lower in fat alternative.
- ¼ cup water – water can be replaced by the last bit of milk in the carton, or even if there’s a few drops of fruit juice left over
- 1 ½ cups everything else you want. This is the fun bit. Some suggestions include: overripe bananas, courgette and apple (this is honestly one of the best combinations I’ve had – it goes well with cinnamon), any other fruit (apart from maybe citrus), chickpeas (again this is the bare truth – with cocoa powder), grated carrot/pumpkin/sweet potato, nuts, seeds, raisins and any other dried fruit you may have, protein powder (if you’re looking for high energy cake), cinnamon, nutmeg, orange/lemon peel and juice, vanilla… get the picture, really you can put in anything.
I suggest opening up your cupboards before you start, taking out anything that looks as though it might be useful.
- Preheat oven to 180°C.
- Combine all the dry ingredients first, so that’s the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar and any of “everything else” that you would count as dry.
- Mix them up thoroughly, then add all the remaining, wet ingredients.
- Stir until the whole mixture is wet (getting rid of all bits of dry flour).
- At this point, the consistency of the mixture is going vary slightly, depending on the ingredients you’ve added. So, as a guideline, you want the mixture to be neither stiff (stiff meaning that there is just enough liquid to get all the flour wet, but that if you put it in a container it wouldn’t mould to the shape of the container) nor liquid (think pancake batter or thick soup). If you pick up a big spoonful of it and turn the spoon to let it fall back into the bowl, it should come off the spoon as one big lump and quickly merge into the rest of the mixture in the bowl. This leaves quite a bit of room for variation – if it’s too stiff add some liquid, if it’s too liquid add some flour. Don’t panic though, most consistencies will bake up into something tasty.
- Spoon the mixture into a greased baking tin (whatever shape as long as it’s big enough) and put it in the oven.
- Check it every now and then to see how it’s getting on… it will start to look as though its ready around the 35 minute mark, but sadly this is a deception. If you stick a knife in at this point, it will probably come out covered in the wet mixture, in which case it’s not ready (if it comes out clean, I’m not sure why this has happened, but great, go on to the next instruction!) From any point between 40 and an hour and 10 it could be done (indicated by a clean knife) – this might seem a bit vague but this is how leftover masterpieces are achieved I’m afraid.
Once it’s done, take out of the oven and let it cool. You can attempt to take it out of the tin straight away, but if it’s still hot it will be pushing against the sides of the tin and could be potentially ruined by the desire for the instant gratification that got us here. As it cools the bread will move away from the sides of the tin and will come out more easily.