9 Chef Secrets For Getting The Most Out Of Your Veggies, Scraps Included

Use up all your vegetable peels, carrot tops, and melon rinds with these clever strategies.

January 5, 2018
food scraps
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About one third of food produced worldwide is wasted, and of that waste, 40% occurs at the consumer and retail levels. But it’s not hard to make the small changes that would make a huge difference: take it from Chef Jehangir Mehta of the nearly zero-waste restaurant Graffiti Earth, in New York City.

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Mehta’s approach, inspired by his Persian and Indian background, is to look at each ingredient as a new source of inspiration, down to the scraps. “Just like how people talk about nose-to-tail cooking, this is how we’re talking about how a vegetable can be done in the same format,” he says.

Thanks to his tips, you too can cut down on food waste at home.

woman at the farmers market
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1. Shop smart

Avoiding food waste starts in the supermarket (or the farmer’s market!) Many retailers end up with bits and pieces that are, for some reason, undesirable to consumers: less than beautiful vegetables, slightly wilted herbs, even broken scallops. All of these can be purchased and used, cutting down on food that is wasted at the retail level. (Here are 25 pieces of "ugly" produce that will make you smile.)

“Broken scallops get thrown back into the ocean,” says Mehta. “We only source broken scallops from fishermen. This way, we're utilizing a product which was going to be thrown away by fishermen, because they had no market for it.”

While as a restaurateur, Mehta has agreements with different sellers to source these items, he notes that it’s pretty easy for consumers to source these undesirable goods at their own farmer’s markets. The secret? Get there late.

Related: This CSA Is Helping Customers Go Organic On A Budget By Choosing Ugly Vegetables

“Go to the farmer's market at the end of the market,” he says, noting that seeing as farmers have to cart everything they haven’t sold back to the farm, you’re likely to have quite a selection of food that the farmer would otherwise have to throw away—and, Mehta notes, you may even get it at discounted prices.

“Some will tell you to take it, because it's one less thing for them to do,” he says. “So they'll be more than happy to give it away.” If you’re a regular at your farmer’s market, you could even strike a deal with one (or several) of your favorite vendors: let them know that you’re willing to buy whatever ugly or aesthetically damaged produce they have, and make a commitment to picking it up every week.

Between you and the farmer, you’ll be reducing food waste quite a bit before you even hit the kitchen.

veggie stir fry
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2. Cook more plants

While we’re on the topic of shopping, make an effort to spend more time at the produce stands than you do at meat stands: this will make a huge difference in waste. Though it might seem like you toss less when you buy meat—after all, very little of it is sold on the bone—the truth is that cooking mostly plants is far more sustainable and contributes to less waste at the production level.

Related: Why It's More Important To Be An Ethical Omnivore Than A Vegetarian

Experts estimate that it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef, as compared to about 700 gallons for one pound of lentils—a discrepancy that’s far from insignificant. But this doesn’t mean you need to be eating a 100 percent plant-based diet, as Mehta’s menu shows.

“In our burger, we add close to 30% mushrooms,” he says; a pound of mushrooms requires less than two gallons of water to produce, and according to Mehta, they not only grind very well, but they also bring a similar umami flavor as beef to the burger.

Lentils are another option: these earthy legumes are featured in Mehta’s lentils-and-ribs dish, which is made up of about 55% lentils and 45% meat. “Even when we do use meat, we see to it that it's balanced,” says Mehta.

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vegetable soup
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3. Make a veggie scrap soup

A lot of things that get tossed in the kitchen are bits and pieces that seem inedible: onion skin, carrot tops, tomato stems, potato peelings, cauliflower leaves…all of these and more can be saved to make a soup or stock, along with any leftover bones—from a store-bought rotisserie chicken, for example.

While at the restaurant, Mehta can do this regularly, the volume of scraps that a home cook has may not be enough to do this every day. But according to Mehta, that’s no problem: just refrigerate or freeze them until you’ve accumulated enough, and then cook up your stock when you have the time.

Related: An App That Rescues Your Restaurant Leftovers (Plus 4 More Amazing Ways To Stop Wasting Food)

pepper seeds
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4. Save your chile seeds

Recipes are constantly demanding that you remove the seeds and white membranes from hot peppers, claiming that they’re too spicy to use. But Mehta doesn’t throw these away.

“We save those chile seeds to put into soup,” he says, noting that once they have simmered away with the other veggie scraps and then been strained out, they’ve imbued the soup with a lightly spicy note.

Related: Why Spoiled Leftovers Are Worse For The Environment Than Plastic

broccoli
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5. Get creative

Perhaps one of the best secrets for ensuring that nothing goes to waste is thinking outside the box, something that Mehta has grown adept at with time and experience. Recently, he suddenly came into far more basil than he could use as a garnish, and his mind started racing.

“I'm just thinking that I'll make a whole basil dish—either a basil panna cotta or a basil sorbet or a basil cake or something like that—and put that on the menu,” he says.

Related: 11 Tasty And Nutritious Reasons These Are Food Scraps You Can Actually Eat

This sort of culinary reasoning is Mehta’s M.O.—and the way that he developed one of his signature dishes, a broccoli crème brûlée: He was speaking at a conference with Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, who mentioned during her portion of the talk that she had lots of leftover broccoli florets due to a dish she made in the restaurant using the stems.

“She didn’t know what to do with it,” Mehta recalls. “The staff was so tired of having broccoli dishes constantly brought to them for family meal. So basically the minute I came on stage, I said, ‘I'll take all your broccoli.’” From there, Mehta came up with a sweet, earthy crème brûlée recipe topped with homemade granola.

 
 
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6. Consider conservation

Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t keep very long, but once they’ve been cooked with sugar, they’ll stick around much better. That’s why Mehta champions the technique of confiting: slowly cooking fruits or vegetables in fat or sugar. This technique is great for using up extra onions or lemons, he says. He then keeps them around in the fridge, to use as condiments.

Related: 5 Easy Jam, Jelly, And Preserves Recipes

The same can even be done with veggie scraps: instead of using them in a soup, he’ll sometimes cook scraps in a sugar syrup, which he uses as a cocktail base: a recent concoction included simmering carrot tops in a sugar syrup to make a carrot martini.

“That's another thing that can last a long time,” he says. “If you put that bottle in the refrigerator and keep using it when you need it, so it's a good way of using things up.”

pickled vegetables
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7. Get yourself out of a pickle

Pickles are a great way to use up vegetables that might be on the verge of going bad or things you have too much of: Mehta notes that everything from carrot tops to cauliflower leaves get pickled in his kitchen.

“At the restaurant, we do a watermelon salad,” he says, noting that all of the rind is then pickled, to be used as accompaniments for other dishes. “Watermelon has a lot of wastage, in terms of weight, so this is another way, again, to showcase how we can utilize the whole fruit.”

He also loves to use excess veg scraps to make spicy Indian pickles or chutneys.

“The other day we got tons of Chinese cabbage, so we just made it into a very spicy oil pickle with mustard seeds and stuff like that,” he says, noting that like confits, these sorts of preparations keep much better than their raw counterparts and make for the perfect condiment to add a special-occasion touch to a simple dinner.

See how to make refrigerator pickles:

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8. Give coffee grounds new life

If you make coffee at home, chances are you’re tossing lots of coffee grounds. But before they hit your garbage bin (or compost pile), Mehta notes that they can be used again to add coffee flavoring to desserts. (Here are solutions to your 7 most common compost problems.)

“We cold-steep it and make ice cream out of it,” he says. The cold-steep process allows you to extract enough additional coffee essence to flavor a dessert—and use only half as many grounds.

 
 
leftovers
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9. Don't toss leftovers

When you end up with just enough leftovers for about half a portion, you might be tempted to toss them. Instead, put your thinking cap on: Mehta saves his leftovers and tries to come up with unique ways to repurpose them into a new dish, from a quiche to a ravioli to a dumpling. (Try these genius ideas to use up leftover salad.)

“If there are scrambled eggs, sausage, and oatmeal left over from breakfast, how do we make that work for us in terms of lunch?” he says, noting that leftover scrambled eggs can easily be mixed into a fried rice, and leftover oatmeal can be cooked up into an oatmeal cake or oatmeal pudding. “It's just small things,” he says, but together, all of these small things can make a big difference.

Related: I Tried To Eliminate All My Food Waste For A Month—Here's What I Learned

cauliflower pickle
Photograph courtesy of Jehangir Mehta
Try two recipes from Mehta's Graffiti Kitchen

CAULIFLOWER LEAF PICKLE

10 cauliflower leaves, cubed
1/3 cup grape seed oil
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
2 green chiles, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
1 fresh turmeric, finely chopped
6 fenugreek seeds, ground with a mortar and pestle
½ teaspoon asafetida (optional)
1 teaspoon table salt
10 curry leaves
½ cup lemon juice

1. In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and stir. Once the seeds begin to pop, add the green chilies and ginger. Reduce the heat to low and stir.

2. After about 3-5 minutes, add the turmeric and fenugreek seeds. Add the cauliflower leaves, and after 3-5 minutes, add the lemon juice and the salt.

3. Cook over low heat until the leaves are soft. Add the asafetida and curry leaves, cook for an additional 7-10 minutes, and then remove from the heat.

4. Cool the pickle, then place in airtight container in a cool, dry area, or in the refrigerator if you want to keep it over two days.


BROCCOLI CRÈME BRÛLÈE

1¾ cups heavy cream
1½ cups milk
½ cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for brûlée
1 large egg
4 large egg yolks
1 cup broccoli stems or scraps
4 tablespoons store-bought or homemade granola
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts

1. Heat oven to 350° F.

2. Place the cream, milk, and broccoli into a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

3. Blend the mixture and strain it.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together ½ cup sugar, the egg, and the yolks until well blended and it just starts to lighten in color. Add the broccoli cream bit by bit, stirring continually.

5. Pour the liquid into six 7- to 8-ounce ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan.

6. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake just until the crème brûlée is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes.

7. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. Remove the crème brûlée from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to serving. When ready to serve, sprinkle with the sugar and use a kitchen blowtorch to melt it and caramelize it.

8. Allow the crème brûlée to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving. Top it with granola and peanut mixture and serve.