Last week, I got fed up and added a new 2015 goal: zero food waste. I’m planning to keep a running public list of everything edible I have to toss, as well as use these Wednesday food posts to discuss how I’m making this happen. This week: no-waste food tip #1 (laddering); a report on how I did at the grocery store (not as well as last week!); and a totally delicious packed-lunch recipe.
No-Waste Food Tip #1: Laddering Meals
Laddering is the practice of building one meal off of leftover ingredients (or just leftovers) of previous meals. It’s obviously related to meal planning, because in order to do it effectively you have to think about the whole week (or two-week sequence) as a unit, but it’s a distinct skill. With basic meal planning, I might buy tomato sauce and pasta to have on Monday, steak (hah! not on my budget) and spinach to have on Tuesday, and chicken breasts and carrots to have on Wednesday. Often, however, I end up having to buy too much of something perishable and it goes to waste since it’s not in the dish I was making.
Laddering solves this problem. In laddering mode, I think to myself: huh, I’ll have twice as much spinach as I need to go with the steak. What can I have on Wednesday that would use exactly that quantity of spinach without my needing to buy more? And I might decide to make a stir-fry, or a flexible dish like the one below. At its most elaborate, laddering can turn a potentially dull week of leftovers into a kitchen adventure, as in this lovely article by Jane Smiley about an infinite pot of French onion soup (I have followed her lead and done exactly this, and it works great.) But it can also be simple, and a good excuse to look for some new recipes if you just don’t know what to do with a spare quarter-cup of sour cream.
I ended up laddering several times this week. Before I went shopping last Saturday, I checked the fridge and found I had half an avocado and some chopped cilantro from the posole I’d eaten for lunch. As it happened I had just seen a recipe for avocado and kale salad, for which I had everything on hand but the kale, so I bought a bundle — which had more than I needed for the salad. So I took the extra, diced it up, and stirred it, along with the cilantro and some coconut flakes that have been hanging around my pantry for over a year, into the spinach-chickpea dish below. Voila: zero food waste, and as a bonus, the kale added a lot more nutritional value to the stew.
Weekly Grocery Shopping Report
This was a more expensive trip than last week’s. I stayed within the bounds of the cash in my wallet, but I’m now having to be tighter on spending money than I was last week, when I indulged in such things as a movie (only $6! And a classic Italian tearjerker!) and a latte (first one in months!)
Banana, $.17 (yes, just one. I love being able to buy only what I need of something.)
Can of chickpeas, $.85
Sweet potatoes, $2.49
Coconut milk, $2.19
Fresh ginger, $.20
Mozzarella cheese, $3.99
Chicken broth, $2.59
Dishwashing gloves, $1.19
1 lb baby spinach, $4.12 (Because I am now CHEAP, I noticed it was a day past its expiration date and asked the cashier about a discount. He gave me 25% off. I only saved $1.37 but I felt it was important for flexing my frugal muscles!)
Bottle of Marsala, $11.99 (ahah, no wonder I don’t have any $$ in my wallet anymore. So much for the frugal muscles!)
Total with tax: $39.97
Italian sausage: $5.28
Granola (bulk), $.99
organic lemon, $.99
Almond croissant, $1.99 (too indulgent in an expensive week, shouldn’t have done it)
Total with tax: $10.76
Coffee (1 lb whole bean), $12.00
Ground ginger, $1.75
Grand Total: $66.98 (!!!!!!!!!!!)
The coffee and marsala really did me in here, but what can you do — can’t manage without coffee! And I needed the marsala for the pasta dish I made as one of my two ‘mains’ this week, plus I can keep using it all year until it’s gone. And I stayed inside my cash, so again, not too bad.
Braised Spinach & Chickpeas
Adapted (only a little) from The Kitchn and rewritten/commented by me
4 generous or 5 smaller portions
2 tsp oil
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 c sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated (if necessary) and chopped)
1 lemon, zested and juiced
optional: chopped fresh ginger and red pepper (I didn’t use the pepper, and did use ginger but regret it — too much work for too little payoff. If I’d had some red chili paste in the fridge I might have stirred some in though; it would have been good in this.)
1 lb baby spinach and, optionally, other greens — I shredded all my extra kale. The tougher the leaves the finer you should chop them.
1 can coconut milk (I used light, as I usually do, and it was fine)
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
Sweet potatoes (I used one per serving)
toasted unsweetened coconut flakes
Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork and roast them at 400 in the oven for approximately 1 hour.
In a small bowl, pre-assemble the garlic, tomatoes, lemon zest, and, if using, fresh ginger and/or pepper. Have any additional greens pre-chopped and ready to go, and drain/rinse the chickpeas; things move relatively fast and you don’t want to be prepping while you cook.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a big dutch oven; mine is 7 quarts and was perfect. Saute the onions for about five minutes, then dump in the bowl with the garlic etc and give it another two or three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chickpeas and cook another two or three minutes, again stirring frequently, until the chickpeas are golden and coated with the garlic mixture.
If you have other greens, add them now, along with a little water. Stir, scooping the hot chickpea mixture over the greens to help them wilt. When they’ve started to cook down, begin adding the spinach, one large handful at a time; when each is wilted and fully incorporated, add the next, until you’re done. You may need to add a little water, depending on how dry things seem — a very small amount is fine. I put the lid on the pan for about a minute and let it steam while I opened the coconut milk to be sure the spinach was really wilted.
Stir in the salt, ground ginger, lemon juice, and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Taste to check the salt/lemon juice levels and add more if necessary.
By this point the sweet potatoes should be about done. Peel the skin off (be careful about steam; if you’re packing this up for lunches just wait til everything cools down before you peel) and divide them between bowls and/or office-going tupperware, mashing them slightly with a fork. Ladle the stew in, and top with toasted coconut and cilantro. Reheats fine in the microwave at work all week 🙂