Updated: Mar 4, 2022
As you know, I like to cook seasonally; That is, cooking dishes that suit the weather, as well as seasonally available produce, and locally grown where possible. That's why the restaurant menu will change from day to day in the summer, as new produce comes and goes quickly, but in the winter we find ourselves using the same hardy brassicas, roots, and stored fruits and veg throughout the cold months and through what used to be called 'The Hunger Gap,' (no, not another instalment of a popular movie franchise!)
The exception that I will often make to using seasonal produce is when, just like any sensible shopper, I come across those yellow tickets on a shelf full of mixed veg and produce at the end of an aisle in the supermarket, and have a rifle through to find the useful goods that the shop overstocked, or was too short dated, or simply left unsold on the shelf. If you're on a budget, these bargain buckets are essential. if you're shopping and cooking sustainably then you can't overlook produce that's in danger of being thrown away, even if it is out of season or been imported. Adding miles to food that could be produced locally is wrong, but transporting that food around the world, only for it to end up in the bin is criminal!
So, here are some hints and tips, and a couple of recipes, that you might find useful:
1: Know your dates...
In the UK date labels of goods come in two kinds: 'Best Before' and 'Use By'. 'Best Before' means simply that: This product is fresher, tastier and better to eat, before this date. That's not to say you can't eat it after that, in fact, in many cases you might be hard pressed to notice the difference a week before the date or a week after. Best before is a useful guide, but it's based on generalised assumptions on how the produce is stored etc. It's certainly not the be-all and end-all, but the rate at which products deteriorate will vary. Bread, naturally will go stale quickly after its date, but mincemeat in an unopened jar will be good for the following Christmas if you didn't get around to using it this year! With fresh fruit and veg, the best before applies somewhat to its nutritional content. After harvesting, the vitamin and mineral content of the veg declines, that's why frozen veg is often better for you than fresh, this decline has largely been halted.
'Use By' means: 'Use By!' Shops and food businesses like us are forbidden from selling and using products past their 'use by' date, which is why you might see dramatic price reductions in the supermarket on the last day when they have a whole batch of something to get rid of. That said, it is still a date based on standard assumptions, with usually a margin of error built in. (Imagine if the company stated the last possible date for use by, but the product was stored incorrectly or perished more quickly? Giving a little slack avoids the potential for litigation.) I'm definitely not encouraging anyone to eat food past its 'use by' date, but at home you could apply sensible discernment, if you're both sensible and discerning. Fresh products that are high in protein and water are likely to develop harmful pathogens that won't be obvious to sight or smell, for instance chilled tofu. Bugs need much the same things as us to thrive, so products that are dryer, packed in air-tight containers can be treated with less circumspection if you're young fit and healthy. Tins, can practically keep for ever, but I would add here; Never buy dented or damaged tinned goods from the reduced selection, whether or not the shop thinks its a good idea. A slight air leak in a tin can lead to the growth of botulinum bacteria. Botulism is a serious and often deadly food bourne disease, which makes you wonder why anyone would willingly have the botulism toxin injected into their face... Ever had Botox?
Of course I would never suggest anyone eat animal products past their use by date... But then again, I would never suggest anyone eat animal products!
2: Use fast...
You've picked up a kilo and a half of short dated broccoli or a family sized bottle of salad dressing, and there's only one of you to eat it? You're going to want to use it all, or there's no point to buying it in the first place, reduced or not. The most obvious use of large quantities of fresh produce is to cook it up straight away. Cooking something that's just about to go out of date will give it an extra few days of life in the fridge. You can do yourself 5 portions of curry, and be eating it all week! But remember, if you put the left over in the fridge, chill it down as quickly as you can, and only get out the amount you need the next day to reheat, you can't keep reheating food and chilling it down again. To chill food you can run it under cold water (for instance cooked veg and pasta) or divide it into small quantities to put in a cool place before it goes in the fridge.
The veg you pick up might not be the best looking; The broccoli might be looking a little yellow, well that's just the flowers appearing, broccoli being essentially a bunch of edible flower buds. In any case, your ugly food perhaps won't deserve star billing alongside your (vegan) roast, but can certainly be hidden in a stew or soup. If you have large quantities of something, it's an ideal opportunity to cook them up and make a dip or sauce. To make a Baba Ghanoush or a Romesco sauce, you do need a decent quantity of veg, so when it's reduced to clear there's no better time!
RECIPE: Carrot Panna Cotta with Romesco sauce
Halve and deseed 6 red peppers, spread on a baking tray, grill, or roast at 180 degrees C until the skins are blistered and charred, cover the tray of peppers with foil and rest (allow to steam) for 20 minutes then pull off the skins when cool to the touch.
chop 250g carrots and boil until just cooked
Process half of the peppers in a blender with the carrots, a splash of tabasco, a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of balsamic vinegar, plus salt and pepper and just a drizzle of maple syrup. Preferably pass the mixture through a sieve into a pan, then add 1/2 a can of coconut milk. Dissolve a teaspoon of agar agar in a little water and add it to the pan. Heat through until boiling, then take off the heat and pour into suitable moulds or ramekins, chill.
Meanwhile, blend the rest of the peppers with tabasco, lemon juice, a teaspoon of smoked paprika, two cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of balsamic or red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Add some bread as you go to thicken the sauce how you like it, or water to thin it!
Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve in the ramekins or heat the outside gently in a bath of hot water and turn them out! Drizzle with Romesco, serve along with some Melba toasts or crostini
A chef who worked for me told about the time in another kitchen when someone accidentally stored two boxes of salad leaves in the freezer instead of the fridge. The resulting 'crispy' salad would have been impossible to defrost and serve, but he hit on the idea of turning it all into soup! Well, cooked lettuce is underrated anyway and much of the salad mix would have been spinach, so it was treated just like a spinach soup, and went down very well! Incidentally, I often buy reduced price lettuces for cooking; Little Gem or Romaine hearts are great; Halved, drizzled with oil and a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, then charred or caramelised on a barbecue or griddle pan.
Bottled salad dressings might not get used quickly if it's November and you're not having salads, but they can often make great cook-in sauces for veg or pasta. Vinaigrette type sauces are usually a decent mix of oil, vinegar, (a lot of) sugar and seasonings, which you can add to the pan near the start of your cooking. Emulsified (mayonnaise) type sauces can be added to cooked pasta and just tossed through before you serve it.
3: Keep for later...
You've just filled your boot with enough fresh veg to cook for a whole football team, but you've already arranged to go out for dinner to a nice restaurant (River Green for instance?) What are you going to do with it? Well if you're not going to eat it straight away, you need to preserve it at the very least in the state you bought it in.
Obviously the simplest approach is to freeze produce to use later in cooking. You may need to break some veg down, a whole cauliflower might not even fit in your freezer drawer! Preparing veg before you freeze it means less work further down the line when you get it out again. Sauces can often be frozen, but consider portioning them out so you only defrost the amount you need. Breads, pies, baked goods, etc. can almost certainly be frozen, occasionally though you might see 'Not suitable for Home Freezing' on a label. this often means that the product in question might be sold as fresh but was previously frozen, you can't refreeze something once defrosted.
Having saved them in the freezer, you can defrost some things things and use as fresh, or else cook from frozen, but always make sure the product is either thoroughly defrosted or thoroughly cooked (piping hot throughout) before eating.
Perhaps you've made up your bucket load of soup or stew and don't fancy eating the same thing all week? Portion it and make sure it's cooled to fridge temperature before freezing so you don't defrost anything else in the freezer.
Of course, freezing isn't the only way to preserve food for later consumption, and in fact is still a very new method. Among the first cook books that I owned was 'Will it Freeze?' a guide to home freezing for the uninitiated (circa 1980 I think.) Other traditional options can seem more challenging but can be quite rewarding both to cook, and to eat, including: Pickling, dehydrating and fermenting.
Pickling is great for all sorts of vegetables and even fruit. As a general rule, if the produce can be boiled or blanched, then it can be pickled and still look presentable. You could pickle lettuce, but it will look like a jar of seaweed. So it's best for chunky vegetables such as cauliflowers and the sort of roots you would put in salads (kohlrabi, beetroot, radishes, celeriac etc.). Don't pickle anything that needs a lot of cooking, like swedes and potatoes; They'll never be cooked enough to eat, and be sure not to mix strongly coloured veg and fruit with others that you want to stay white or green (just like in your washing machine!)
RECIPE: Fridge pickles
Thinly slice, deseed, chop or dice a selection of vegetables (cucumber, cauliflower, carrots, courgette, peppers, radishes, etc.)
Place in a metal or Pyrex bowl or tin with a tablespoon of whole spices for flavour (cloves, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, onion seeds, etc.) plus a few whole black peppercorns.
In a pan place 800ml cider vinegar and 800ml water, along with 4tbsp caster sugar and 2tbsp SEA salt (don't use table salt), bring to a rapid boil then take off the heat immediately (make sure your extraction is working or you have a window open!)
Pour the hot liquid over the prepped veg (making sure everything is submerged), cover with a pan lid or plate, and leave to cool, the vegetables will cook in the hot acidic liquid. Chill, transfer to a suitable sealed container. Will store in the fridge for several weeks.
You can dehydrate fruit and vegetables if you have an electric oven with a very low (60-80 degree) setting. Slice the produce thinly and spread it on a lined baking tray. Taking all the water out of something means the spoilage bacteria on it will explode and die (sort of) due to the osmotic gradient (take my word for it.) Doing this with mushrooms for instance gives you something you can keep for ages in an air-tight container, then simply rehydrate in some warm water for ten minutes or so, and add to stews etc. The water you soaked them in will add flavour too. With a slightly warmer oven you can go a step further, and make fruit or vegetable crisps. It's fun to experiment and see what works, and you could save yourself some money on snacks as well as feeling virtuous!
RECIPE: Kale Crisps
(works for Cavolo Nero, springs green etc. too)
Preheat oven to 160 degrees
Separate Kale leaves and remove the thick stalks
In a bowl, toss the leaves with a handful of sea salt and a drizzle of (preferably) cold pressed rapeseed oil.
Spread the leaves out on (a) lined baking tray(s), and pop in the oven for about 7 minutes.
Check the leaves, they should be dark, dry and crispy, not brown or green and soft. You may need to move them around the tray or the oven. If they need further cooking return to the oven for 4 minutes then check again.
Once cooled, store in an air-tight container, if they survive long enough to store!
Fermentation is a little more involved, and you will need some extra equipment in the form of large pickling or preserving jars, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy and addictive, like all that lockdown sourdough making. What's more, live cultures such as created in kimchi and sauerkraut are good for your gut flora, and may have wider health benefits. Fermentation is a great way to save those leaves that are just about to go over, gone a bit saggy, or you just wouldn't think to cook with, so: Chinese leaves (always too big for one stir-fry), less-than-crispy kales, cauliflower leaves and the leaves that might still be attached to roots like kohlrabi or beet. It doesn't matter if the result does look like seaweed, it always does, it's the taste that counts. There are lots of guides to kimchi making and fermentation on the interweb, so do check them out to find one that suits you.
I hope this has been useful, and you have some extra confidence in buying yellow-ticket items! Of course, some people rely on these discounts for their daily survival, so don't clear off the whole shelf if you don't have to!