“Profits are measured in pennies,” one of my culinary school instructors often repeated to remind us of the importance of maximizing our use of ingredients. Smart chefs–those who want to stay in business–do this all the time and now, thanks to a stagnant economy, it’s a practice budget-conscious cooks are bringing home.
Here are a few suggestions to help you make the most of what you already have for inexpensive, healthy meals.
Make stock. This is a prime example of stretching your investment, especially if you’re spending a bit more on organic, heritage food. You can make stock from almost anything–vegetables, bones, shrimp or lobster shells. Vegetable stock is the easiest; you can use the trimmings for anything from aromatics (onions, leeks, and the like) to tough mushroom stems (try those in our Mushroom Stock). Avoid cruciferous veggies or dark leafy greens, which impart bitter taste. To make different stocks, use our Most Versatile Chicken Stock recipe as a guideline and substitute the main ingredient. The biggest difference is how long you simmer the stock: 30-45 minutes for vegetable or fish stock, three to four hours for chicken, and six to eight hours for beef. Of course, you can use other varieties of poultry (turkey or duck, for example) or meat bones (lamb, perhaps), but these have distinctive flavors that make their stock a bit less versatile.
Think whole. Although the trimmings from fruits and vegetables are a fine addition to the compost heap or (in the case of veggies) stock, using the entire thing will add new flavors and textures to your cooking. Beets and beet greens are a good example. The sweet beets are delicious boiled, roasted or steamed, while the greens are a delightful quick-cooking alternative to spinach. Try Mama Kourtesi’s Beet and Green Salad and you’ll be sold on this concept. You can use fennel in a similar way, using the bulb, along with the pretty fronds as a garnish (save the stalk for stock).
Even animal products can be utilized this way. Poultry is one of the few items home cooks can buy whole, and it’s likely to come with giblets (heart, liver, gizzard, and neck), especially if you purchase heritage birds. Use these (except for the liver) to flavor stock, soup or gravy; the liver can go toward pate, like our Chicken Liver Pate. You can freeze the raw giblets for up to four months. Of course, you’ll want to save the carcass to make stock.
Smart leftovers. Thrifty cooks pride themselves on recycling leftovers in entirely new dishes. Day-old bread hanging around? Make it into breadcrumbs or, even better, bread pudding. Turn extra cooked rice into fried rice or rice fritters (try rice in place of quinoa in our Curry Quinoa Cakes).
Keep the fat. Home cooks tend to discard the fat rendered while cooking some dishes—like Revelationary Duck Confit. But that fat is full of flavor and worth saving (on the open market, duck fat will run you about a dollar an ounce). Use a tablespoon of duck fat in lieu of olive oil for a special spin on sautéed potatoes, or a touch of pork fat to crisp up leftover carnitas.
Those are just a few ways I’ve been making better use of ingredients lately. Now it’s your turn. What are your strategies? Share here.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health.