Cleaning out the is refrigerator is such a drag! For those of us cooking for one, it is often triggered by that appalling smell that greets us when we open the door of the refrigerator to get the milk for morning coffee. It is the harbinger of the lost leftover or the bunch of beautiful leafy green stuff (now transformed into juicy, olive-drab color in the crisper because it was simply too much to use? How do we avoid this kind of waste?
I’ve always disliked wasting food; I’ve also always had a dislike of most leftovers—they usually taste leftover! Admittedly there are thing better on the second day—but that does not make them leftovers that I dislike. It’s true leftover leftovers that I dislike so I’ve always looked for ways not to have them. Frequently, that involves sharing the pot of soup with a friend and putting some in the freezer, because I am constitutionally incapable of making a small pot of soup! Most of my neighbors understand about my “food crises”.
The implications of my dislike of leftovers and having too large a quantity of something was brought home to me recently when I was reading about sustainable agriculture. In Just Food by James E. McWilliams was a discussion of the carbon footprint of food. We typically think in “food-miles”, but he introduced the concept of “life-cycle assessment” which looked at the energy consumption of food production from seed to its appearance on the table. There were some startling statistics there—the greatest energy consumption, according the studies cited by this author, is in production, not transportation. What really hit me was the studies on food waste: 1.28 pounds per day per typical household (p. 28). So? I know I’m not a typical household, just me and the cat, but I had to wonder about the amount of waste from my food use. (Admittedly, the cat usually leaves the bits of carrot and onion from her tiny part of the beef stew, but let’s not get too picky here.) I am interested in environmental responsibility, carbon footprint; so I need to waste less food. How can I do that?
Assuming that I cannot buy smaller quantities, I obviously must be more efficient in my use of whatever quantity I purchase. So I need to do some “prep”, not just put what I don’t use into a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. There are two primary causes of spoilage (changes in texture and flavor that make food inedible): microbial action, and the plant’s own enzymes (On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, p. 166). Obviously just simple refrigeration is not enough for my rate of usage–in order to prolong the viability, I need to protect against microbial action and against the action of enzymes. That would suggest at least blanching the extra green stuff (or any other color veggies) before I refrigerate or freeze them. Not anything too time consuming in that.
Blanching is a simple technique: In this process, food is simply immersed in boiling water for a short period (depending on thickness) and then plunged into ice water. This is enough to kill surface microbes and to inactivate enzymes, so my green stuff should stay edible longer. The down side of that is it may be an extra step–I certainly don’t want that. Cooking also achieves these ends–so maybe I can sauté my greens in some basic way that will allow me multiple uses and eliminate the extra step (and energy expenditure) and still preserve them; however, despite the cooking, the food still needs to be treated as a “leftover” (not eaten within two hours of cooking) and safety precautions for “leftovers” observed. The rule of thumb seems to be 4 days for things like cooked meats, chicken, et cetera; if it smells off, don’t eat it even if it’s less than four days. Lots of additional information is available from some of the links above.
Toscano kale, or other greens can be sautéed quickly with some basic seasonings, for example, a mild olive oil, a bit of salt and then have additional seasonings added as needed for other uses. I’ve done this basic thing and use the prepped greens in pasta sauce, filling for an omelette, as a side dish with some red pepper flakes and garlic added…very flexible and the entire batch of greens got used! Planned, flexible leftovers!
That raises the question of how long can I store something like the cooked greens in my refrigerator and still not lose taste or have a health hazard. First the refrigerator should be set to hold a temperature of 40 ° F or less (USDA) or less. You should keep a refrigerator thermometer (inexpensive and available at the grocery store) to monitor the temperature of the refrigerator. If it is within that range, you can find suggested time for refrigeration of meats, poultry, seafood at FoodSafety.gov. But remember that the safety of refrigerated leftovers depends on their proper cooling and storage. Don’t leave your hot food to cool on the counter. Put it in the refrigerator right away–that’s what refrigerators are for–to cool things and keep them cold. See the food safety links for instructions on how to cool foods properly and how to store and use leftovers safely.