New Year, Less Waste

Consider composting and using up all those leftovers in the refrigerator.

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By Melissa Clark

On New Year’s Day I finally tidied up under the kitchen sink to prepare for the overdue repatriation of my compost bucket. Before the pandemic, my family composted regularly. Each week, we’d draw straws to see who had to lug the leaky biodegradable bags to a drop-off site several blocks away. Then the pandemic lockdown closed the site, and we exiled the bucket to the basement. A break from drippy bags! I planned to bring up the bucket as soon as composting resumed. But when it did, you know, someone had a cold; the furnace conked out; I had a work deadline. The months ticked by.

But Susan Shain’s recent article for The Times has jolted me back into my composting groove. She wrote about how an Ohio community substantially reduced its food waste, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and responsible for twice as many emissions as commercial aviation in the United States. That’s a lot of emissions.

Households, she writes, “account for 39 percent of food waste in the United States, more than restaurants, grocery stores or farms. Change, then, means tackling the hard-wired habits of hundreds of millions of individuals, community by community, home by home.”

The statistics left me nowhere to hide. What we do in the kitchen can make a difference: creating meal plans, shopping with a list, composting and using up the leftovers.

This last one is my happy place. I turn it into a game, saving bits of this and that in little containers, then puzzling out how to use them to seed future meals.

That handful of sautéed kale, those roasted vegetables, a tranche of salmon fillet? Chop it all up and fold it into a creamy risotto for color and flavor, or make a base for a loaded frittata (above).

Half-wilted bunches of cilantro or parsley and bags of baby arugula or spinach can find homes in all kinds of soups, like a lemony turkey and white bean soup, or pasta dishes like a pantry-friendly midnight pasta. Sturdy salads — cucumber or, say, yesterday’s takeout green papaya — will work as a topping for any rice bowl, including sesame salmon and katsudon (pork cutlet bowls, so beloved in the anime series, “Yuri!!! On Ice”).

If you have a motley band of root vegetables softening in your produce drawer, perhaps from an overenthusiastic spree at the farmers’ market or a surprise bonanza from your CSA box, you can upcycle them into a warming, adaptable vegetable soup. Enlist your wilted or leftover greens; rutabagas, turnips and kohlrabi, come on in!

As for leftover dessert, a batch of brookies or bread pudding (made from stale bread). Let’s just say this is never an issue in my sweet-toothed family. We gleefully finish every crumb.

You’ll want to subscribe to get the recipes. You can also check us out on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, where you can fall into the hypnotic rhythm of making Bryan Washington’s cheese enchiladas. And for all manner of technical help, you can email [email protected].

Now, one of the great re-users of the last century was the artist Joseph Cornell. He would raid thrift shops and used bookstores for items that he felt had a special magic — often toys or images of children of the past — and then alchemize them into assemblages, like his art series “Medici Slot Machine.” They are far greater than the sum of their parts, and every time I see a Cornell box, I feel that upcycling can overcome the work of time, for a while.

Sam’s back on Friday, and I’ll see you here on Monday.

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