Wilted spinach? Bendy carrots? Don't despair—get cooking.

By Leah Koenig
April 22, 2020
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Cooking in the time of the COVID-19 looks different for different people. There are the dried-bean hoarders and the enthusiastic sourdough newbies; the quarantined cookie bakers and the perpetual pasta drainers who long for the return of nightly takeout. But one thing is constant—most of us are cooking more than ever. And many of us have entered a reluctant race against time to use all the produce we bought in bulk on our last bi-weekly shopping trip (or over-ordered online) before it goes south. It can be stressful.

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“I love to cook but I don’t usually do it that much,” said Hannah Goldfield who, until recently, ate at restaurants several nights a week for her job as food critic of The New Yorker. “I have found myself buying way too much food and in a general panic about wasting anything. There is a head of celery in my fridge that is haunting me.”

The salve to this vegetable panic is to shift towards a chef’s approach to fresh ingredients. The first line of defense? Source produce strategically. Next, store and cook it in ways that extend its lifespan. And when something inevitably slips through the cracks, rescue it from the depths of the crisper and revive it at the stove. So I turned to chefs and other food professionals for their smart approaches to produce prep. Their collective wisdom will steer any home cook through these rocky times, and will hold up long after the waters calm.

Take Inventory

Before braving the market or logging on to order, take stock of what you already have. “Take everything out of the fridge and reorganize it,” said chef Sawa Okochi, who owns Shalom Japan in Brooklyn with her husband Aaron Israel. That way you don’t accidentally buy extra cukes when you still have a couple hiding under a bag of carrots. Organizing groceries as you unload also helps. “I take a grocery store-stocking approach and put the fresher produce in the back of the refrigerator,” said writer and recipe developer Katherine Martinelli. “If I buy apples or lemons but still have a few left in the crisper, I move the older ones forward so we reach for those first.”

Buy Unripe Produce

Not all fruits ripen well on the counter or in the fridge. But buying the ones that do—avocados, peaches, bananas, cantaloupe, and kiwi, among others - while they are still a bit green gives you more time to store and use them. Once they ripen, employ them in a fruit salad like this bright citrus salad dressed up with ginger-lime syrup.

Prep and Store

Give your produce a fighting chance by storing everything wisely. “Mushrooms should go in a breathable paper bag, not plastic,” Israel said. “They last much longer that way.” Wash and spin dry lettuce leaves and store them in bags or Tupperware lined with paper towels to absorb moisture. And for celery, follow Goldfield’s lead: “I kept the stalks in a vase of water, which kept them crunchy,” she said.

Cook According to Lifespan

Some vegetables and fruits are sturdier than others—a pint of strawberries, for example, will turn in a matter of days whereas oranges can stay fresh for weeks in the fridge. The trick is to cook your haul according to lifespan. “The first thing we do when we get home from the farmers’ market is make a game plan about how to consume what we bought,” said Israel. “We start with things that aren’t going to last. So we might look at the mizuna greens and say, ‘Let’s eat those tonight and save the heartier Tuscan kale for later.” (When the time comes, try this Tuscan kale soup enriched with squash and pantry-friendly staples like pasta and beans.)

Cook to Keep Produce “Fresh”

Ironically, one of the most effective methods for extending a fresh fruit or vegetable’s lifespan is to cook it! Roasting or grilling batches of on-the-brink root vegetables (try this simple recipe with rosemary and thyme—nix the herbs if you don’t have any) buys you several more days, and stocks your fridge with building blocks for easy meals.

For more delicate produce including fresh herbs and tender greens, blitz up a vibrant pesto. “I keep a jar of mixed-herb pistou in the fridge covered with a thin layer of olive oil, and stir it into soups or anywhere that needs a final layer of green flavor,” said food writer and recipe developer Sarah Karnasiewicz. Like many herb-based sauces, pesto is versatile and gracefully accommodates substitutions. Don’t have basil? Use cilantro, parsley, arugula, mint, or the ends of several different herb bunches. (Begin with this classic recipe and experiment.) Read more: If You've Got Greens, You've Got Green Sauce

Fight Food Waste with Stock and Smoothies

Chefs and other food waste-minding experts suggest saving vegetable scraps and peels in the freezer to make stock (And indeed you should - here’s a recipe for roasted vegetable scrap stock to get you started.) But that same wisdom extends to fruit. “If the kids don’t eat all of their orange or banana, I throw it in a bag in the freezer to eventually make a smoothie,” Martinelli said.

Work With What You’ve Got

Learning to substitute one vegetable for another allows you to cook from your fridge for longer. This roast chicken recipe nestles the bird on top of a mix of sweet and gold potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. But if you happen to have, say, delicata squash and Brussels sprouts instead, they will taste just as delicious slicked with the schmaltz that renders out of the chicken as it roasts.  “I used fennel fronds instead of dill in my matzo ball soup this Passover,” Goldfield said. Meanwhile, this pot of vegetarian lentil chili is typically bulked up with spinach and butternut squash, but that forgotten zucchini and chard in your fridge would make worthy substitutions.

Embrace Catchall Dishes

Some dishes, like this silky cauliflower soup, mercifully call for an entire unit of produce (in this case a whole head of cauliflower). But most recipes leave you with odds and ends - a couple of wilting scallions, half a sliced tomato, a few carrots - languishing in the crisper. Rescue these orphan veggies with catchall dishes that make use of whatever you have. “I am a big fan of garbage soups,” Karnasiewicz said. “Every other day or so I will start a pot of something on the stove and just keep throwing things in.”

Other catchall, veggie-forward dishes include fried rice (this gingery fried brown rice would play well with sauteed bell peppers, bok choy, or leafy greens), stir-fry, lasagna (in this recipe, strips of eggplant replace the noodles), and flatbreads. “The other day I made pizza dough topped with two inches of a heel of salami, the butt of a fennel bulb, and half a red onion,” Karnasiewicz said. “It turned out great.” Eggs are also a catchall hero. Tuck a few of last night’s roasted potatoes, those yellowing florets of broccoli, and the dregs of a batch of roasted red peppers into a frittata or scramble. Top everything with cheese and bake your way to a delightful dinner.

Use Your Freezer Better

Freezers are great at preserving food, but they reach capacity quickly. To save space, Israel and Okochi suggest reducing stocks (like a flavorful mushroom stock they make from mushroom scraps) down into concentrates that can be reconstituted as needed. “We cook 5 quarts of stock down to 1 quart, freeze the concentrate in ice cube trays, and use them like bouillon [cubes],” Okochi said.

Know When to Throw

With a paring knife at the ready, just about any piece of produce is salvageable after trimming away the sad parts. But at a certain point, vegetables and fruits cross over to team compost. Herbs, greens, and watery vegetables (like zucchini) that have gone slimy or smelly, squash that is so soft it begins to collapse upon itself, and tomatoes that have developed moldy black spots and are leaking liquid are beyond saving. Hopefully, these tips will help you make use of your veg before it reaches that dubious fate.