Scrap cooking: how to turn your leftovers into a delectable delight (2024)

If holiday meal prep leaves you with plates full of potato peels and cutting boards full of carrot tops, you’re not alone. The US sees a 25% increase in waste during the holiday season – 21% of which comes from our kitchen tables. Just on Thanksgiving, Americans toss a whopping 305m pounds of food. And all these cheese rinds, apple cores, vegetable skins and crusty week-old leftovers that make their way to landfills are harming the planet by emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to one estimate by the UN Environment Program, if food waste was its own country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Much of this so-called food waste is perfectly edible.

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“Humans never – until very recently – discarded edible food,” said Tamar Adler, former professional cook and author of the Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z and the cooking advice newsletter The Kitchen Shrink. “Using parts of everything is fundamental to human eating.”

Here, Adler and other chefs share their tips for diverting food scraps from the trash to your plate.

Potato peels

If you’re making mashed potatoes or latkes, chances are you’re going to end up with a heap of potato peels. First things first: slice those skins very thin, then blanch them in boiling water and cool them over ice. From here, you have a couple of different options. Adler suggested roasting the skins in the oven, with salt and olive oil, right away. With toppings of Gruyère and scallions, you can serve these fancy potato chips as a pre-meal snack to guests.

Steven Goff, a sustainability-minded chef at Tastee Diner in Asheville, North Carolina, said he likes to make a similar, albeit more decadent, snack by frying skins and dousing them with barbecue sauce and crème fraiche.

If you want to incorporate your potato skins into a main dish, Goff suggests frying them, grinding them in a food processor, and sprinkling them on top of a casserole. You can even add extra turkey or chicken skin from your main roast, which, Goff said, lends the mixture a strong umami flavor.

Carrot tops

Do your carrot tops always end up in the compost or garbage? There’s another way. You can substitute herbs for carrot tops, whether that’s in a sauce for meat or a pesto for pasta. Jamie Bissonnette, a James Beard Award-winning chef based in Boston who appeared on the food waste challenge cooking show Scraps, said that if your recipe calls for parsley or cilantro leaves or stems, you can swap out half the cilantro or parsley for carrot greens. He also suggested finishing any holiday carrot dish with thin-sliced tops and stems for additional flavor.

If you’re serving a roast for your holiday dinner, Goff recommends transforming carrot tops into chimichurri, which can act as a delicious side sauce. Mince the carrot tops by hand or toss them in a food processor, then combine them with olive oil, garlic, and grated onion. “I like to do that the day before or a little earlier in the day to let it really marinate like a soup,” Goff said.

Stale bread

Most of the bread-based products you buy in-store, like croutons or breadcrumbs, are easy to make at home. The simplest preparation, said Adler, is to transform stale heels or hardened loaves into breadcrumbs. Adler recommends grinding them in a food processor and tossing the big hard pieces. “You’ll end up with a few cups, certainly enough for mac and cheese or chicken cutlets,” she said. Goff added that you can also combine those breadcrumbs with lemon zest and pan drippings from turkey or roast and use them to spruce up a casserole. If you already have enough breadcrumbs, you can also use stale bread for croutons or make your own stuffing.

For a bruschetta-like appetizer, Bissonnette suggested slicing the old bread, toasting it, then rubbing a clove of raw garlic over the browned surface, topping it with a juicy, savory-sweet fruit like tomato or persimmon, and drizzling it with olive oil. “That becomes a quick, delicious snack,” he said.

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If you’re tired of leftovers, you can make a whole new meal using stale bread: ribollita, an Italian soup that incorporates stale bread, beans, kale and other winter-time pantry staples, said Adler.

And don’t overlook the power of a bread pudding. It can be made as a dessert – Adler says you can make it from unwanted fruitcakes and other sweetbreads – or it can be savory. Goff says brown and rye bread can make a delicious savory bread pudding, topped with caramelized onions or even bacon.

Apple cores

Bissonnette recommends having a saucepan standing by while chopping up vegetables. When Bissonnette cooks at home, he throws all his vegetable scraps into that pot, and when he’s done, fills it with ice water, adds salt and simmers it until he has stock, which he keeps in the freezer for soups and stews. Apple cores make a fruity addition. Bissonnette chops them up, removes the seeds, and throws them in to add flavor.

Apple cores can also be made into a spread or flavoring liquid. Adler recommends making an apple cider vinegar, which involves pickling the apple cores with sugar for a few weeks, which will give you fruity vinegar. Goff and Adler also both recommended steeping the apple cores either with sugar or with simple syrup and spices, which you can then use to flavor plain seltzer or make co*cktails.

Goff also suggests cooking apple cores with brown sugar and spices, pureeing them to make apple butter.

More scrap cooking

For many home cooks, figuring out what’s food and what’s food waste is often the most challenging part of scrap cooking. But experts say to trust your instincts about what’s good to eat, even if expiration dates tell you otherwise.

“There’s nothing wrong [with an ingredient] as long as it tastes good to you,” Goff said.

Adler added that our bodies adapted to assess ingredients a long time ago: generally if you smell it and don’t recoil in disgust, it’s not going to hurt you.

While preserving scraps may seem like an additional chore, Adler says it can actually save you time – and money – later on.

“Because I save things and constantly transform them into other meals, I spend less time, not more time, cooking,” Adler said, noting that she’s been making meals off her Thanksgiving food for weeks after the holiday. “I think it’s much easier to start with something than to start with nothing at all. Starting with something is always easier.”

The most important preparatory step, Adler says, is to take a few minutes to chop or blanch and then store your scraps in clean, well-labeled containers so they look like ingredients. “Get them into a shape where they’re enticing and quick to use and you’ve communicated to your future self how to use them. Lighten the cognitive load,” she said.

But cooking with food scraps isn’t for everyone at all times. And Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Manhattan’s Blue Hill, says that’s OK. “Don’t be burdened with food waste over the holidays,” he said. “Be burdened with everything else.”

If the idea of preserving food scraps during an already-busy time feels insurmountable, Barber offered other ways to stay conscious of our food systems at this time of year. If you live in a rural area, he suggested finding a local farm and pledging to bring your scraps there to feed pigs for all of 2024. You could also ask your supermarket manager about buying imperfect foods, which are misshapen produce that often gets thrown away. Or, abstain from eating energy-intensive foods like meat and white flour for the weeks leading up to your holiday of choice, then indulge in a roast.

“That’s what celebrations are about. That’s when we should really indulge,” Barber said. “The rest of the year, we should think about how we should eat with the least footprint on the world.”

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Food Waste during the Holiday Season

During the holiday season, the United States sees a significant increase in waste, with 21% of the waste coming from kitchen tables. On Thanksgiving alone, Americans throw away approximately 305 million pounds of food. This food waste contributes to environmental harm by emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In fact, if food waste were its own country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world .

Edible Food Waste

Much of the so-called food waste is actually perfectly edible. Historically, humans have rarely discarded edible food. Using all parts of ingredients is fundamental to human eating. By diverting food scraps from the trash to our plates, we can reduce waste and make the most of our food resources.

Tips for Using Food Scraps

Here are some tips from chefs on how to use common food scraps:

  1. Potato Peels: If you have potato peels left over from making mashed potatoes or latkes, you can roast them in the oven with salt and olive oil to make fancy potato chips. Alternatively, you can fry the potato peels and use them as a topping for casseroles.

  2. Carrot Tops: Instead of throwing away carrot tops, you can use them as a substitute for herbs like parsley or cilantro. They can be added to sauces, pestos, or even used to make chimichurri, a flavorful side sauce for roasts.

  3. Stale Bread: Stale bread can be transformed into various delicious dishes. You can make breadcrumbs by grinding stale bread in a food processor. These breadcrumbs can be used in recipes like mac and cheese or chicken cutlets. Stale bread can also be used to make croutons, stuffing, or savory bread pudding. For a quick appetizer, you can make bruschetta by toasting the bread, rubbing it with garlic, and adding toppings like tomato or persimmon.

  4. Apple Cores: Apple cores can be used to add flavor to dishes. You can chop them up and add them to a pot of vegetable scraps to make stock. Apple cores can also be used to make apple cider vinegar or a flavoring liquid for drinks. Another option is to cook apple cores with brown sugar and spices to make apple butter.

Benefits of Using Food Scraps

Cooking with food scraps not only reduces waste but can also save time and money. By transforming food scraps into other meals, you can spend less time cooking. It's important to store the scraps in clean, well-labeled containers to make them enticing and quick to use. This approach can lighten the cognitive load and make it easier to create meals from existing ingredients.

Other Ways to Reduce Food Waste

If cooking with food scraps feels overwhelming, there are other ways to stay conscious of our food systems during the holiday season. You can pledge to bring your scraps to a local farm to feed pigs throughout the year. Additionally, you can inquire with your supermarket about buying imperfect produce that might otherwise be discarded. Another option is to abstain from consuming energy-intensive foods leading up to the holiday and indulge in a special roast instead.

Remember, reducing food waste is not only beneficial for the environment but also for our wallets and overall sustainability efforts.

I hope this information helps you make the most of your food resources and reduce waste during the holiday season! Let me know if there's anything else I can assist you with.

Scrap cooking: how to turn your leftovers into a delectable delight (2024)
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