Imagine you have just done your weekly grocery run and you have five bags brimming with delicious, high-quality food on your kitchen counter. Now take one of those bags and throw it directly into the garbage. Of course, that's a senseless thing to do - but it's essentially what Americans are doing every day: tossing out somewhere between 19 and 25 percent of the food they purchase.
It's a hot topic that was brought to light in a presentation last week at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' annual conference, where I had a chance to talk with speakers Andrew Shakman, an advocate against food waste and co-founder of the food technology company LeanPath, and registered dietitian Kim Kirchherr. They pointed out that an estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted, and about half of that loss happens in the home. There are many ways to prevent this food waste, including being smarter about food storage, not overbuying perishables and not cooking enough for the whole neighborhood when you are feeding a family of four, for example.
The conversation got me thinking about all the produce home cooks typically discard as a matter of habit - the parts of the fruits and vegetables that are often thought of as scraps or trimmings but are actually culinary stars in their own right. Here are some of my favorites and how to use them. In doing so, you can take a step toward enjoying more, and trashing less, of the food you buy.
Until fairly recently, the first thing I did when prepping celery was hack off the top inch or so of the bunch and discard the leafy ends. That was until I discovered how incredibly flavorful and tender the leaves are. Now I wouldn't consider using celery in a salad or soup without including them. The leaves have even more celery flavor than the stalks, and they are rich in fiber and calcium. Just toss them into a salad like you would any other leaves, or use them more like you would an herb in soups and stews, stirred in and cooked, or as a garnish.
Most recipes that involve cooking apples, whether desserts, pancakes or pork dishes, call for peeling the fruit first. But keeping the skins on not only spares you a prep step, it gives a welcomed rustic texture to the dish and provides a lot more nutrition. Two-thirds of the apple's fiber is in the peel, as is most of the fruit's health-protective antioxidant quercetin. The same goes for potatoes, by the way: 20 percent of a potato's nutrients are in its skin.
If you typically just use the broccoli florets and throw away the stalks, you are missing out. The stalks may have a tough exterior, but inside they are tender and delectable. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the outermost layer, then slice and steam, saute or stir-fry them right along with the florets. You can also shred them for use raw in slaws and salads, or chop them and add to a vegetable soup.
Next time you use fresh lemon, lime or orange juice in a recipe, zest the fruit first, either with a fine grater or, to get wide strips of zest, a vegetable peeler. The zest imparts an extra layer of citrus flavor to all kinds of dishes, plus it is rich in vitamin C. Add finely grated zest to salad dressings, marinades and sauces for chicken or fish. Put a couple of strips of zest in a pot of stew, soup or a pudding to simmer when you want a gentle hint of citrus without acidity that juice gives. When zesting citrus, be sure to wash the fruit well first and only grate the outer-most layer, because the white pithy part tastes bitter. Make good use of any extra peel by running it through the garbage disposal as a natural deodorizer.
Next time you buy a bunch of beets, look for one with plenty of greens on it, because not only are they edible, they are incredible. Like the rest of the leafy-green family, beet greens are packed with nutrients - vitamin A, potassium, minerals and more - and are delicious sauteed in olive oil with some minced garlic, a splash of citrus juice (plus zest!) or vinegar, and salt and pepper. Cooked beet greens are especially delicious tossed with roasted sliced beet root because the sweetness of the root balances the pleasant bitterness of the leaves. It's a pairing that is truly meant to be! If they are very tender young leaves, beet greens are also delicious eaten raw in salads.
It is a tradition this time of year to roast the pumpkin seeds you get from your jack-o'-lantern pumpkin, so why not roast other squash seeds as well? They are absolutely delicious and, like all seeds, packed with nutrients including magnesium, potassium, iron and fiber.
To roast them, rinse the seeds, remove any pulp stuck to them and pat them dry. Toss with a little oil and sprinkle with salt, then bake in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 275-degree oven for about 15 minutes, until they are lightly browned and fragrant and begin to pop. Squash seeds can be eaten (shell and all) as a snack on their own, added to salads, or used as a garnish for a stew or chili. In fact, they are a natural fit to sprinkle onto any dish in which you are using the squash flesh.