Harnessing Every Last Bit Of Your Leftover Ingredients

This Internet-wide preponderance of food blogs, food porn, recipe-shares, Pinterest pinwheel cookie pins—it’s no flash in the pan (filled with tilapia). People love food. Case in point: the Food Network has created a second entire network to fit all of its televised cooking and food-related content. Twenty-four hours a day wasn’t enough.

And food is a relatively easy, highly Instagrammable form of creative expression that you get to eat afterward. But I and others like me—who swoon at those unattainable middle shelves of Whole Foods aisles, dreaming of making that $40,000 salary—can’t easily justify buying a three-dollar bunch of rosemary just for the required tablespoon, chopped, in that cornbread-dumpling beef (or tofu!) stew. However! Don’t overlook the recipe or the ingredient, even though it costs almost as much as the beef (or tofu!) shoulder you bought in the first place.

Seriously, don’t leave it out. Rosemary, like most other fresh herbs (you heard me, genetically-programmed cilantro haters), is a delight, especially in an entrée or sauce with other earthy flavors in it. Its piney notes make your dish seem more dimensional and polished. But no one is going to use an entire package of rosemary in a recipe, unless you’re cooking for squirrels, because that dish is going to taste like an evergreen. So what to do with the remains? I’ve found that the longest-lasting and most practical use for it is to make a simple syrup or infusion with the leftovers:

  • Add the leftover herb (washed—don’t be lazy like that) into a small saucepan with equal parts sugar and water. A cup of each should be fine, depending on how much you have to work with.
  • Slowly dissolve the sugar and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring so nothing burns, and then turn the heat off and let that pretty little syrup chill in the saucepan, covered, for up to a couple hours—or more, I guess, if you fall asleep or something.
  • Then strain it through a mesh strainer into some kind of container, cover, refrigerate, et voilà! It should last for a few months or so.
  • Any herbaceous syrup will be delicious in homemade cocktails (yes, even cilantro, which is muy delicioso in a margarita). You’ll look super professional to your friends, like you planned the whole thing, as opposed to it being a byproduct of that pot of stew you ate by yourself while you marathon-ed Fringe. And for your non-imbibing friends (bless them), the syrups make for a lovely refresher when mixed with club soda.

If you’re not a fan of the sweet stuff, you can also let those leftover herbs sit for a couple of days in a bottle of gin or vodka for a more hardcore (and omgg bikini-friendly) rocks drink.

So what about your leftover scraps of everything else? One of the most crucial tools for maximum usage of your scrappies is your freezer. Sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the variety of items that will keep and even improve by being put in the freezer. It’s not just for ice anymore!!!

Exhibit A: baked goods. Brownies, cakes, cookies, and chocolate will all keep remarkably well in the freezer—much better, in fact, than in the refrigerator. The fridge tends to degrade that moleculo-confectionary-mouthfeel (it’s science), while the freezer will fix the pastry in its delicious original consistency. They only take about an hour sitting out or a ten-second zap in the microwave to thaw—or you can just eat them frozen, which is surprisingly tasty.

Okay, baked goods aren’t necessarily an “ingredient,” but bread often is, and that freezes up like a charm. Other things that freeze like a 13-year-old doing the Cha-Cha Slide are meat, which is obvious, as well as butter and other types of animal-based fat, like bacon fat and lard—both of which are way fun and totally not gross to cook with, contrary to your probable opinion. Also cooked pasta, especially in some kind of tomato-y sauce, is often improved by “resting” in the freezer for a period of time. Obviously broth or stock will last until doomsday in there, as will ginger root and even bananas, which turn an unappetizing brown color but then eliminate the need for ice if you throw them in a blender with other smoothie ingredients. Other things worth saving in the freezer are anything with seeds, such as a spice mix containing sesame seeds, or flaxseeds, which you can also grind up in the aforementioned smoothie. That’s a trick a little old man who runs a spice stand in a shuk once explained to me: high oil-content seeds like that will quickly go rancid in a room temperature cupboard. At least I think that’s what he said.

What other ingredients could you possibly have left over after all that? …Milk? I guess you could make yogurt with it (you psycho), or else, you know, drink it. Vegetables? Odds and ends from onions, garlic, shallots? SFTS: stir-fry that shit. I’ve got a freezer full of lard if you need it.

Photo by Anastasia Heuer

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