Wasting Less, Living Better

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Leftover pork belly with fried hominy grits.
Leftover pork belly, with leftover grits.

In these strange days, I find myself doing something I haven’t done in years: Meal planning. Yes, I know. For many, many of you reading this, meal planning is a way of life. But I don’t have kids, and I work from home, so dashing to the market on a moment’s notice has been my modus operandi for a decade.

No longer. We are only supposed to venture out once a week, at the most. This requires more thought. And that thought, taken to its appropriate conclusion, has led me to a more graceful, smarter way of cooking. It has led me towards the beauty of running a thrifty kitchen.

Let me show you what I’ve learned.

The core of it all boils down to Sunday, which I have made a Day of Cooking. Yes, I cook every day, often twice because Holly and I are at home and I can no longer really go out to lunch. This is key because lunches are where leftovers go to live their second life.

I suppose when I think about it, however, it really all starts on Saturday. Saturday is the day I plan, and the day I shop. We are still developing recipes for this site as usual, so we plan on working through one or two new dishes each week. If all goes well, I don’t have to remake them six times. All does not always go well. But hey, that is the price of running a test kitchen. I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.

How do I plan? I look at the weather — gloomy means stew, sunny means salad — the season, what vegetables are likely to be good right now, what herbs and vegetables I have ready in my garden (cilantro and a large-leafed variety of orache right now). Do I have any smoked meat or fish lying around? Which grains and beans should I cook this time? What should I haul out of the freezer? What did I make last week?

All that goes into the plan. It is surprisingly fun.

As a forager, hunter and angler, I have ample stores. Dried and pickled and salted and frozen things. In normal times, I am constantly replenishing them, adding new things from my various “Hanksperiments,” eating the fresh fish or game that I am normally spending lots of time procuring. Not now.

But now I get to survey my little realm and really let it shine.

The dishes Holly plans to photograph take top billing. In a non-food blogging household, these would be the highlight meals of the week. Sunday is always one of those meals. Every household, whether it is just you or a pile of humans, needs such a highlight. Or two. A standout dinner makes a a bad day bearable, a good day better.

Every cuisine has such meals. A roast haunch of meat in Britain, or really in many places, tamales in Mexico, a big spread of many delightful things in China or Spain or India.

These are all designed with the following week in mind. Leftover roast beef (or venison) sandwiches. Fried rice. Curry-of-whatever. Refried beans. And my favorite, the so-called “garbage plate.”

This is simply a mish-mosh of tasty things reheated in a frying pan, often started by sauteing an onion and bound with an egg or three. When I was growing up, we called it “Farm Fry.” Many know it as hash.

To make your own garbage plate, you need a leftover starch of some sort, like old rice, stale tortillas or bread, cooked potatoes. Stray bits of meat, often not enough for a real meal, are a good touch. Something very zippy, too, like the scraps of salsa or the last bit of pickle brine in a jar that has one remaining pickle. The pickle goes in, too. The aforementioned onion, maybe with a minced garlic clove to keep it company.

oregano growing in the garden
Photo by Hank Shaw

Fresh herbs are an ideal addition, whatever you have around — and if you have not started growing your own herbs, even in a windowsill or fire escape, you might want to start — but dried herbs will do. When I was a child and ate obscene amounts of canned chicken noodle soup, I would choose an “herb of the day” from the spice rack to change things up. It is the same principle.

Get everything all happy in the pan, then lightly beat a few eggs in a bowl… or not. You can simply crack them over the sizzling mass of goodness and have areas of wonder bound by white, and other areas of wonder bound by yolk. A healthy grind of black pepper and you are ready.

To be sure, the garbage plate is typically an end-of-week deal, when I want to use up all the bits and bobbles from the week before I shop again.

Earlier in the week I tend to go the route of “starch with leftover yummy thing.” So, normally I make enough of the night’s dinner for the two of us, but I was an Italian grandmother in a previous life so what I think is good for two is often more like good for three. And three is an odd number.

That leaves that one serving, lonesome. Well, that one serving, split two ways with a fresh batch of rice or fried leftover grits (polenta), pasta or reheated tortillas makes a fine lunch. Always I am adding a few sprigs of a fresh herb here, or a few pickled things, or I’ll squeeze that stray quarter of a lime that sits on the windowsill over the bowl. Little things.

Some other small ways to be thrifty and eat better:

  • Reuse fat. Cook bacon or duck, then leave the fat in the pan for the next meal. Or the one after that.
  • Save pickle juice. Use it to punch up otherwise boring meals. Or, better yet, brine chicken, rabbit, pheasant or quail in it before buttermilk frying.
  • Tops and stems and peels of vegetables can all go into stock or soup. One of the finest, cleanest, most wonderful broths I’ve ever made was simply the peels of a dozen carrots (I needed that many for another dish) barely simmered in salty water for an hour. Onions skins add flavor and color to a broth, too. No parsley stem ever hits my compost.
  • Cilantro stems are every bit as good as leaves, if not better. If you are doing something where your cilantro will be blended, use the stems. They have more flavor.
  • Got bones? Make broth, or use them as the base for beans or greens. A ham bone, simmered an hour before beans or greens go in, makes both better.
  • Stale bread? Grind them into breadcrumbs. Or cut them in squarish pieces, toast and make panzanella. Or just tear the bread up and make ribollita, Italian bread soup.
  • Leftover rice? Fried rice. Duh. Oh, and there’s no law that says you can’t make “fried rice” with cold, leftover barley or wheat berries or wild rice or anything similar.
  • If you have some aging soup or stew in the back of the fridge, use it as a starter for another batch, even if its not the same soup or stew. So long as they are vaguely complimentary, it’ll work.
  • The dregs of a bottle of wine will keep for months if you recork the bottle. Use it in cooking. So what if it’s stale? Flat beer adds flavor to stews, too.
  • Store cooked beans in their cooking liquid. They’ll keep for most of the week, and at the end of that, make refried beans.
  • Flake leftover fish into a salad, or make fish cakes. Or even something fancier, like fish dip.

I could go on. But these are just a few useful ways to make life better, with less waste, in your own kitchen.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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32 Comments

  1. Waste not, want not- right? I appreciate your ability to collect and list so many of the tasty tricks of the kitchen trade.

    I love the surprising, one-off dishes created by using everything! As a home cook, I am spoiled by the availability of everything, all the time. Being squeezed to do something different in the interest of using what you have can be eye-opening and such a fun challenge. It reminds me of Door-Knock Dinners. I loved that show and seeing what can be done with what’s in the fridge and pantry – it’s due for a re-make!

    I look forward to your posts and every one of your recipes that I’ve tried has been a success. Thank you for the work you do in your kitchen – making the mistakes for us!

  2. Great post! My wife and have been doing pretty much the same thing. We’ve been eating better and healthier, too. I used to go out for lunch almost every workday–I’d try to make good decisions, but there are too many temptations out there! We love cooking Mexican, Italian and Portuguese–for the Portuguese, we’ve been digging into the gift box of tinned fish my wife’s family gave us from Lisbon. The best thing we’ve discovered is spaghetti with canned mackerel in spicy tomato sauce, and smashed potatoes with chickpeas and sardines.

  3. Interesting! Previously I had only heard “garbage plate” refer to a dish out of Rochester, NY

    It’s not for everyone: it’s a pile of macaroni salad and home fries, covered in a ground beef meat sauce, topped with 2 hamburger patties, and smothered with ketchup and mustard to your preference.

    I think I like your version better 😉

  4. There’s something so gratifying about making something really yummy out of that last little bit of something in the fridge. I hate to waste food. I’ve been known to design an entire meal out of half an avocado that needs to be used, or a 1/2 cup of corn. And I’m a huge fan of freezing stuff most people just toss. Here’s my freezer list. It’s been getting a good workout this past month. https://milesawayfarmww.com/2013/02/12/whats-in-your-freezer/

  5. crazy times, crazy ideas-thinking about building a smoke house any suggestions. we have an small old wood stove to use for the fire box.

    1. Build a wooden box with a large front door, shelves and a few adjustable vents . Attach the wood stove with 10 feet of thin wall metal ducting, you want to cool the smoke entering the smoking chamber.

    2. Rebecca you are not alone in thinking smoke houses! KYAfield on YouTube has the best tutorial I have seen, very step by step. It’s about the size of an outhouse, he’s a great guy too. I’ve been using Hanks salmon recipe a lot with our old side car smoker to get a solid back pocket “system” down. Hope this helps!

  6. I like to do what I call re-pickle. If you have a really good jar of pickles, once the’re gone, add sliced zucchini, cucumber, or un-pickled beats to the jar. A few days in the juice and you have a whole new batch of delicious “refrigerator pickles”. I have used the same juice 2 and 3 times until most of the flavor is used up.

  7. This event has actually lead to me actually working through my freezer as opposed to the empty promises I seem I always make to myself annually. Been some fun surprises in the dark corners of the freezer.

  8. Garbage plate can also be ‘garbage egg foo yung’. A few beaten eggs and something crunchy – bean sprouts are standard, but chopped water chestnuts, a spare bell pepper, or -yes- even pickles. Thanks, Hank!

  9. Cream of refrigerator soup. Leftover vegetables – broccoli stems, asparagus stems, etc. – stir fried in a wok with onion and garlic. Add some sort of meat stock with herbs – usually bay leaf and marjoram – simmer until the vegetable bits are soft. Put into a blender with a cup or more of sour cream.

  10. This is exactly what I was taught as a child – to think of imaginative ways to use leftovers in cooking. Rarely did we throw any food away, it was used similarly as you write in your post.
    We also made our own curds (cottage cheese) from leftover milk, or used overripe, bruised fruit to bake a simple cake. Bits of leftover meat, vegetables and rice can also be made into a delicious risotto. And the list goes on. I do agree that thinking ahead, planning your meals and experimenting with leftovers can be real fun.

  11. Your “garbage plate” sounds a lot like what the Brits call “bubble and squeak”. I’ve always liked the sound of that.

  12. Don’t forget that all the green tops of things can make pesto, or green sauce for meat, beans, roasted veggies…
    I also use a veggie peeler on my citrus skin to dry them out and use in cooking.
    Happy eating everyone!

  13. Go cross cultural.

    I make ‘Thanksgiving Egg Rolls’ most years with a small bit of almost everything from that big meal in a wrapper (I usually use the cranberry sauce or gravy for a dipping sauce). Similarly you could make leftovers into a pasty or empanada…

  14. If you have a small mountain of bagged frozen fish, jerk some out and smoke them. I used bluegills. We had a good year on the ponds west of Chicago.
    Made a salad with the smoked fish. Black beans onion tomatoe cilantro lime juice jalapeno and a little oil. Salt and pepper.

  15. I do look forward to reading your posts. They lift my lagging spirits and the tips and recipes are great to have on hand. Thanks
    JMM

  16. Great post, especially for those like me still learning to cook and “don’t know what you don’t know.”

    In terms of your house being the test kitchen, in the recipes that get published on here, I think it would be good to understand your thought process & mistakes and building that posted recipe in the accompanying blog post. A peak behind the curtain if you will. Failing is how I learn best and see how others fail takes a close second.

  17. I keep a bag or container in my fridge for any vegetable peelings, roots, tops and onion skins, etc. Boil them and strain and you have a magical start for refrigerator soup. It is my go to for the day before grocery shopping or any day I see fit. Leftovers can go into stock for refrigerator soup. Some of my best soup is made this way. There is so much flavor don’t let it go to waste!

  18. Hank I was just like you for years, never planning a meal more than a few days in advance (and that was only to dry brine thicker proteins.) If anything you and a few others were my trusted cook-one-day-at-a-time “enablers”, since I was confident that you, Elise at Simply Recipes, maybe a few others I knew *never* posted a recipe they hadn’t self-tested would have a recipe for even the craziest ingredients I could find at the market or in my back yard. So seasonal, fresh and especially my wife’s mood that day drove snap decisions.

    Yeah that’s over. One trip a week now that I combine into an off-day at the open-air Farmer’s Market in SF in a quick in-and-out run for the veg I don’t have in my own garden, proteins inside at the butcher where no one ever goes, and then over to the docks for my once-a-week fresh fish fix. That means planning like you say. Also interesting that it means planning for longitudinal storage (I arrange proteins based on how long I can keep them from total funk before cooking and multi-meal reusability – which my wife and daughter appreciate since they’d rather not have the entire freezer full of stock and chicken heads.

    So now instead of a fancy meat treat for Friday, it’s an entire spring lamb shoulder with part of the neck attached – that’s at least 2-3 meals including a barley-mutton “soup”, some hot sammies for lunch, and maybe leftover highly glutinous stock for another meal’s base. Always a whole chicken or two – again stock which as you say all the veg end bits get kept for, and in Judi Rogers’ honor those get dry brined for 3-4 days at least while less funky meats get eaten – and usually a primal cut of beef I can break down and grind myself for Sat burgers days later. Don’t have to freeze that.

    The planning is way more fun and family-inclusive than I expected. My daughter will never throw away a carcass again her whole life, I’ll bet. Keeping a stock pot running essentially all week makes the house smell great (less soap washing too). And I like to break down whole animals and large roasts on my deck with a big butcher knife, sometimes while dancing a little manically – that keeps the neighbors guessing. Until they see everyone in the house come back out within the next day or two to walk the dog…