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Physics and frugality.

thRecently I had fun trying to recognize the desiccated ingredients of the boiling bag I was emptying into the slow cooker. After a few minutes of frugality CSI (cooking scene investigation), I identified the following:

Onion skins, Asian greens (they’ve gone to seed so I’m removing the last small leaves), teeny-tiny green apples (to avoid stressing our newly planted trees, DF took off most of the fruits), carrot tops and greens, potato peels, and small green tomatoes (jumpers from our greenhouse plants).

Also cucumber peels (from fruits too high in cucurbitacin to eat as-is), red romaine leaves (too bitter after bolting for salads, but fine for broth), green-bean ends, squash blossoms (from our blue Hubbard plant), dandelion greens and a little chickweed (because revenge).

After adding a freezer container of vegetable cooking water – from corn, peas, lentils, potatoes and green beans – I had quite the potage de garbage going. Cooked and drained, it smelled a lot like Campbell’s vegetable soup and tasted even better.

All this recycling reminded me of the notion that energy can’t be created or destroyed, but rather transformed from one form to another. In our home, food gets created – we grow the stuff as well as cook it from supermarket ingredients – but it never really goes away.

 

Bones and vegetable and fruit scraps go into the boiling bag. As noted above, vegetable cooking water gets frozen; we also toss in things like the dregs of a ramen lunch, the liquid from home-canned turnips and the pan juices from roasted meat. Once I had an “empty” jar of applesauce with a bit of puree inside; I added a small amount of water, shook the jar well and poured the slurry into the vegetable cooking water container.

Potato water and sometimes even pasta water go to DF’s breadmaking efforts. Whey drained from my homemade yogurt (to make it Greek-style-thick) also gets added to bread, as well as to my morning oatmeal or an evening stew or stroganoff.

The seasoned liquid from black beans (which we cook and freeze flat in Ziploc bags) or pinto beans (which we add to chili) makes superlative soup when added to those veggie stocks.

The salt from the bottom of the pretzel bag? Into the next pot of stew. Soaking water from dry beans? Plants like to drink it. Did the last of the milk go sour? Freeze it for future pancakes. Those pan juices referenced above? Before they become one with the veggie stock they get cooled and their fats lifted away, to be frozen for sautéing onions.

And all that stuff from the boiling bag (except for bones) goes into the compost pile. Ultimately it winds up in garden beds and greenhouse tubs, making yet another year’s worth of food. #greatcycleoflife

 

Frugality bites?

Some people would say that the food hacks noted above are weird or even distasteful. Some have said it.

But let me run a few numbers by you. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Nearly $1,500 worth of food goes uneaten each year in a typical four-person family
  • Nearly one-third (31 percent) of the overall food supply in this country is lost or wasted
  • That lost/wasted food is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. towns and cities

I feel less nutty all the time. Not only does being careful with food shore up our budget, it means that the resources that went into that food – its growth, harvest, processing (e.g., bagging, freezing) and transport – won’t go to waste in at least one U.S. household.

Obviously not everyone has the time or inclination to be as hyper-focused on food prep as we are. Yet writing about it because it gives people ideas they can implement in the ways that feel most manageable. Readers have commented that they would try things like boiling bags or garbage soup in order to stretch their budgets.

For me it’s about getting maximum use of food as well as food dollars. For example, recently I simmered some of last year’s frozen raspberries and rhubarb as a yogurt mix-in. The finished compote was far too juicy; I like my Greek-style yogurt to stay thick. So I strained out most of the liquid, which was too tart to drink.

Into the “vegetable cooking water” freezer container it went. The liquid added a certain je ne sais quoi – French for “hey, don’t throw that out!” – to the next batch of soup stock. That’s the fun thing about homemade broth: It never tastes the same way twice, which means that the soup never does, either.

 

Frugal food follies

Although I’m not a food blogger I sure do write regularly about cooking and eating. That’s because, as I’ve often said, food is the budget category with a huge number of potential tweaks.

When it comes to reduce-reuse-recycle in the kitchen, I pin the medal on DF. One year he made rhubarb soda and hated to throw away the cooked rheum rhubarbum once he’d pressed out most of its juice. So he added sugar and turned it into fruit leather in the dehydrator. It was actually pretty tasty.

Before I moved in with him, some carrots went wrong in my housemate’s fridge. They were so de-crisped you could bend them; heck, you could practically tie them in knots. DF retrieved the veggies and took them home to puree and add to an absolutely delicious curry. When life hands you origami carrots make supper, not compost.

Readers: Has the rising cost of food made you more careful about how you buy, store and cook? What’s your favorite frugal food hack?

 

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50 Comments

  1. I love that frugal hack, Donna! I really need to be saving my produce scraps. I love freezing seasonal produce at its peak, especially when it’s super cheap at the Farmer’s Market. That way I can save during the colder months when it’s expensive to buy all the stuff that needs to be shipped in.

    • Donna Freedman

      Our farmers’ markets are anything but cheap, alas. Some of those heirloom tomatoes we’ve been growing cost as much as $9 a pound. Yikes.

      However, some u-pick farms exist out in the Matanuska Valley, and local potatoes can be fairly cheap. And again, we’re preserving whatever we don’t eat. Next year we’ve got plans to expand the garden and DF is already pleasurably anticipating starting seeds indoors in March. Hey, we need a little green at that time of year.

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment. Hope to see you at FinCon….?

  2. Love it!!

  3. Love that it comes so easy to you and DF and that you share it. I have been working at getting better in the last few years. We have the garden to help with the cost of fresh herbs/veggies during the summer. I have recently really started watching how much I am making and what leftovers we have in the refrigerator. We have a leftover night to clean them out by eating them … not throwing them out. I am also putting them in the freezer if I know that I won’t use them right now.

    Our neighborhood is just the best! One neighbor has chickens and is always giving out free eggs. I offer her my herbs/veggies in return. I made a zucchini pizza which turned out to be to much for me and my husband, took the balance to another neighbor…she sent cake home for our dessert. It is like a little food co-op!

  4. kandace

    I keep some vegetable scraps and bones in the freezer for stock and whip up a batch every once in a while, but certainly not with the zeal of you and DF.

    However, this week I bought a couple dozen ears of corns which I cut off the cobbs and froze. Then I took the cobbs, covered them with water and added some salt and bay leaves, and cooked for about a half an hour and made some lovely cobb/corn broth, which also went into the freezer. It should be a great base for chowder later in the season.

    • Donna Freedman

      Sounds good! We do put corncobs into our boiling bag when we have corn, which isn’t often.

      And yeah, “zeal” is the right word. Recently we had a boiling-bag soup with the addition of frozen corn and peas, diced potatoes, chunks of leftover beef and some of last year’s dehydrated greens. We pulled out some homemade rolls from the freezer, too. As we ate the soup (which turned out quite well if I do say so myself) he noted that the main course was based on stuff that would otherwise have been thrown away. That made us both happy frugal physicists.

  5. I have ten chickens. Frees me up from guilt a lot of times. I’m trying to be more frugal with waste after reading the statistics. I may try to start the boiling bag habit. Probably more in the winter as I try not to use energy from 1PM to 7PM during summer rate period. Crock pot will go in winter. Summer try to use solar oven-a little harder to do a very long slow cook in that. My next project is to put together meal plans to work through a lot of our canned produce in a timely fashion.

  6. I haven’t tried the boiling bag or the vegetable broth, but we don’t waste much food. I’ve been cooking smaller portions, making “freshovers” — that’s when you serve something left from last night’s dinner with something freshly made — and reworking leftovers for my entire life. It’s funny how reduce/reuse/recycle is good not just for the Earth but for your wallet!

    • Donna Freedman

      So when DF makes a value pack of chicken on the Weber and we eat it off and on for a week with different side dishes, it’s “freshovers”? Good to know!

      Some people cook extra on purpose, then freeze portions — a square of lasagne, a container of soup — for later lunches. We don’t do that with main dishes because it all gets eaten eventually (DF comes home for lunch most days and packs a lunch on the others) but we do like cooking a big batch of seasoned black or pinto beans and freezing them. We can turn them into fast burritos with tortillas from the bakery outlet (often they’re $1 a bag and “buy one, get two free”), a little salsa and sour cream, and whatever leftover meat we have on hand. Sometimes I use them for huevos rancheros, or just heat them up and poach an egg on top. Or they become chili, or get added to soups. Very, very convenient.

      Some people cook and freeze rice, but we’ve never done that.

  7. Question – Do you keep your boiling bag in the freezer? In the summer I usually have enough garden scraps, etc. to boil down each week – but winter will be different. Thanks.

    • Donna Freedman

      We keep it in the freezer year-round and just keep adding whatever’s available. Right now that includes garden veggie scraps; in the winter it’ll be stuff like onion skins and carrot tops and potato peelings and apple cores.

      Once the liquid is cooked and strained it, too, generally goes into the freezer until we feel like making soup.

  8. Cathy in NJ

    I love the international flair -potage de garbage and je ne sais quoi. C’est tres chic:) Even some latin – rheum rhubarbum.

    I certainly want the $375 a person in food waste dollars in my wallet. In my household, the market is very close so we make several trips a week to avoid overbuying perishables. We definitely plan meals to incorporate leftovers.
    I am an occasional scrapper with a few bags in the freezer. My focus time-frame is short, about 2 weeks otherwise I forget to incorporate what I have into the meal plan.

  9. It’s just me here, but I cook planning to have leftovers. I can eat chicken for days in several different ways. Since I have a chicken to feed, she gets the occasional dropped blueberry, all peelings, a scrap of sandwich bread. I even take bread and soak it with the chicken broth. She loves it. I put oatmeal in the broth, too. Besides, my freezer is tiny over the refrigerator, so any container, even a plastic bag won’t fit at the moment. When I get another upright, I will incorporate more of these techniques.

  10. We have an abundance of NJ zucchini from our deck garden and CSA. Yellow squash, too. We have 4 loaves of zuke/choc chip bread and 2 loaves of white choc chip squash bread in the freezer. Multiple dinner zucchini fries, which are quite tasty. Ratatouille, roasted zuke/eggplant/tomato with shaved parmesan and fresh herbs from our garden-it’s all good.

    • Donna Freedman

      I keep hearing about zucchini fries. Maybe I should put in one — one! — zook next year and see how they taste. We used to fry both summer and zucchini squash when I was a kid, and I like them steamed along with slivered carrots and onions.

      That Tamar Adler book referenced elsewhere on the page got me roasting hard winter squash (and other vegetables) with olive oil and salt. Although summer squash and zucchini strike me as having a higher water content, wonder if they’d respond well to the same technique?

      • Michelle

        I made roasted zucchini for a dinner party last night and it was a huge hit! I used three medium zucchinis and it wasn’t really enough for 4 adults.

        Slice the zucchini thinnish and spread them out on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with olive oil spray. Sprinkled the whole sheet with some season salt, then sprayed the whole pile with a little more olive oil spray. Baked for about 20 min at 400. YUM!

        I usually sprinkle it with some grated parm when it comes out of the oven, but forgot it last night – it wasn’t missed. The thinner slices (I’m not a very uniform cutter!) browned up/caramelized and were fabulous! I use the same method for asparagus but bake for only about 10 min depending on how thick they are. I’ve heard you can do it with broccoli too, but haven’t tried it myself.

        • Donna Freedman

          I roast broccoli and cauliflower with olive oil and salt; usually add sliced onions and carrots, too. Served at room temperature on rice, it’s a favorite lunch item when those crucifers aren’t too expensive. Today they’re listed at $1.49 a pound so I think roasting is in the immediate future.

          • Michelle

            Right after I posted my comment, I watched part of a Martha Stewart Cooking School episode where she roasted grapes of all things. Same method, baking sheet, 1 1/2 lbs seedless grapes, EVOO, S&P. 45 min. They came out looking like plump raisins. She added them and all the roasting juice to a salad made with Farro, and baby kale with EVOO and cider vinegar for dressing. I never would have thought to try roasting a grape!

  11. These are my favorite posts from you. It serves as a great reminder to use what I have. My problem is I carefully save it all, and then fail to use it. I have to do better. I work a lot, so I just purchased a pressure cooker and can’t wait to try it.
    For what it’s worth, I never soak beans. I put them in the pot and they just cook. I bring them to a boil and then simmer them until they are done. I have never had a problem. And yes, I save the bean liquid for soup.
    Keep writing!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks for your kind words, Sandy. Sometimes I worry that I write too much about food, but eating is one thing we all have in common, right?

      • Carolina Cooper

        Nah, Donna, you do NOT write too much about food. For, as you say, it is one of budget areas that has the most flexibility.
        Unlike other areas, this is one that applies to everyone. We all need to eat.

  12. Mirabella

    I have been incorporating more batch cooking and scrap-soup making into my repertoire these last couple of years. This especially comes in handy when chicken is on sale for half-off. We will buy whole chickens, roast them with onions and lemons, remove all the meat left on the carcass after eating what we can, and then throw all the chicken/onion/lemon scraps into a pot with other leftover veggie scraps and the chicken juice that oozed out during roasting. Add water and seasonings, simmer for an hour, strain out the scraps, and what’s left is a fantastic soup base, either plain broth or the start of chicken noodle soup with the leftover chicken meat added back in.

    This basic process gets tweaked for other meats, and I have considered making a pure vegetarian broth for the Lenten season. All in all, our food budget has definitely stretched out because of increased “frugal food physics.”

    • Donna Freedman

      Those vegetarian broths can be quite tasty with the right seasonings. Adding one of those vegetarian bean broths can help, too. When we cook beans to freeze we season them with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder or cumin, and garlic. Sometimes we throw in bit of whatever else catches the eye (thyme, say, or smoked paprika) but the beans have a lot of power on their own. As Tamar Adler notes in her book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, “Beans make their own sauce.”

  13. We are food wasters that are trying to be a little better (we probably do throw away about $500+ of food that we forget to eat per year). Like, I wasn’t even going to comment here because I didn’t want you to fuss at me, lol. BUT, I figured I could at least ask, what is the one, big thing that everyone could do easily that would lead to less food waste? Like, I probably would forget about frozen scraps and we don’t eat as much soup as you seem to (we live in Texas, and hot soup regularly just makes me sweat…), but there has to be something you could suggest for pretty much anybody…?

    • Donna Freedman

      The one main thing? If you cook a lot, freeze some portions immediately.

      And if you’re not a cook but tend to bring home prefab food or leftovers from restaurants? Ditto: If you know you aren’t going to eat it within a day, freeze it.

      Bonus suggestion: Some people keep lists of what’s in the fridge posted on the fridge. That way, if the leftover pulled pork gets pushed to the back of the fridge it won’t turn into a science project.

      • Thanks. 🙂 I’m so proud because we just started immediately freezing uneaten portions of meals a few weeks ago and it’s already saved us throwing away perfectly yummy meals that I’ve reheated for lunches and snacks! We’re getting a dry erase board to keep up with what’s in the deep freeze this week too. Yay!

        • Donna Freedman

          I sense the approach of a Budgeting In The Fun Stuff blog post: “How we saved big bucks while saving the Earth.” Well, a little corner of one landfill on Earth, anyway.

  14. Donna, I know I should take lessons from you. I try and can some things. I do save some broths, I never used onions skins and things like beet and carrot tops. I will have to give it a try. I tried boiling bones, turkey-but it came out like water with no taste and a lot of grease. I guess I don’t have the right touch. Keep your DF, as when I seem to try different things, hubby complains! I save where I can, but could be much better at it all. I will just keep reading your column with hints and hopefully I will do better. Love your columns or blogs.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks for your kind words. Note: I boiled only the beet greens, with no hint of beetroot attached. Would certainly make the broth an interesting color if I used the roots, but I don’t know how it would taste after long simmering.

      Re the turkey bones: Use relatively little water rather than a whole kettleful. Maybe three cups, max; you can always dilute it with vegetable stock later if you want a huge pot of soup. Let the broth cool and skim off the fat and it won’t taste greasy. As noted in the piece, you can use the fat to saute onions.

    • Aunt Leesie

      Robin, I make the best turkey broth by being lazy. Leaving the carcass in the roasting pan, I simply add 4-5 cups water, cover the carcass and return it to the oven (300-325 degrees) for a half hour or so. I remove it from the oven, let the pan cool a bit, remove all the turkey bones, etc. and then pour the remaining liquid through a strainer into a small stove top pot. I refrigerate that overnight so I can easily remove the fat that rises to the top. In the meantime, the roasting pan has “soaked” in the oven while making the broth, so it’s an easy clean up from there. Your chilled broth will be like gelatin. Use it right away, or transfer it to a freezer bag for flat storage in the freezer.

  15. One idea that I use doesn’t work for everyone. Once a week cooking was a bit difficult to get started, but once i got going, it provides more peace of mind knowing that dinner is already taken care of when I get home. It also ends up with way fewer dishes. I keep a list on my freezer of whatever make- ahead meals I have on hand. I make a good stock from veggie peelings and bones, but I will have to try hanging on to the less obvious odds and ends for broth. Thanks for writing- it is nice to know others believe in making good, inexpensive meals.

    • Donna Freedman

      Batch cooking is popular among many folks, some of whom cook once a month. Although as you note it can be tough to get started, they say once you’re organized it becomes second nature.

      Thanks for reading, and for sharing your story.

  16. These are really cool. I have, at times, had the “boiling bag” too. Sometimes I still do, sometimes I’m a bit overwhelmed with kids and work and PTA and sports…

    That will slow down a bit as time goes on I think.

  17. ro in san diego

    I always enjoy your posts. Many of your great ideas won’t work for me since my husband has a very narrow range of tastes in a very small range of foods. I try not to waste food so for us take out satisfies my picky eater partner leaving me free to enjoy our leftovers from the previous night. I cook a few nights a week and am experimenting with an electric pressure cooker which has had many wins that Mr. Picky and I can both enjoy.

  18. I just love this post. The heart of frugality is creatively making do and celebrating the win that comes from it, and your soup du garbage is just that.

  19. Aunt Leesie

    I don’t usually have to buy broth, which is good since the cartons in grocery stores cost $3-$5 each… and you can’t find, say, ham, pork or sausage broth for sale. Whenever I roast meats, I pour the pan juices through a strainer into a measuring cup, chill that, remove the fat as Donna does, and then freeze the concentrated “broth”. But I also boil bones, and for sausage broth, brown the sausages in a skillet, add water, cover and simmer them until they’re fully cooked. I make vegetable broth by boiling up trimmings in lightly salted water. My 3 guys are picky eaters, too, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t eat “garbage soup stock”, but they’ll eat most soups I make from homemade meat or veggie broths.

  20. Lake Livin'

    I’m in awe as to how you and DF waste NOTHING! I started a veggie boiling bag earlier this year thanks to you (already good about using the chicken carcass to make stock), but sometimes I forget to add my veggie scraps. There’s always room for improvement!

  21. kandace

    I love Tamar Adler’s book so much (checked it out from the library at first) that I bought a used copy.

    I also forgot to mention the peach and pear syrup I made last summer. I took the peach peelings and pits and pears peelings and core (separately but when canning), covered them with water and boiled them down. Strain the water, then add about half as much sugar as water and cook down again until syrupy. Then can and process for about ten minutes. It’s been a nice substitute for honey, syrup, sweetener with a hint of fruit flavor. It’s one more way to squeeze out something before it gets composted.

    • Donna Freedman

      Wow — that’s a new one on me! Impressive.

      I have heard of people boiling apple peels down to make apple jelly. And of course Tamar Adler talks about making syrup from citrus zests and turning them into Italian-style sodas with seltzer.

      • kandace

        It’s not that complicated to make and has been a nice addition to our pantry. It just uses energy and sugar, so it doesn’t totally come free.

  22. Simka Johnson

    And why didn’t I save that pretzelbag salt for boiling pasta water?
    I just poured in salt. Good reminder! I did save stale bread mixed with herbs, nutritional yeast and cashews for the topping. Yum.

  23. Simka Johnson

    For breadcrumbs mixed with a teaspoon of grapeseed oil, from my mini chopper.

  24. Simka Johnson

    forgot to say, For breadcrumbs mixed with a teaspoon of grapeseed oil, from my mini chopper.

  25. I am not a very frugal cook, but at least I have discovered that leftover refried beans are fantastic when mixed into tomato-based vegetable soup. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      That sounds good. We sometimes add a chunk of the beans from the freezer to soups to make them heartier.

      Have you ever wound up with soup so thick that you could make burritos out of it? That sounds good, too.

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