Tip #15: Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you

Some of the most common questions I get from readers are produce-related: where to find affordable produce, how to use certain vegetables that may be new to that particular cook, what fruits & veggies are kid-friendly, and so on. 

The most common one, however, is one that I’m sure almost all of us have asked ourselves before: How do you make your produce last longer?

It’s a valid question, especially the way food prices are skyrocketing these days.  Sometimes when I’m in my local Safeway, or even my beloved Trader Joe’s, I’m absolutely horrified by some of the prices I’m seeing.  $2.19 for a head of green lettuce; $0.99 for one cucumber; $4.99 for a pound of tomatoes… how is anyone supposed to eat well when all the good stuff – fruits and vegetables – is priced so ridiculously?

A lot of that has to do with the extra costs that are trickled down to consumers: wax treatments to make apples look shiny and new; plastic and foam packaging; and all of that fluoridated water that drenches things like spinach or cilantro until they’re practically drowning.  I won’t go too far into my whole rant about the food industry (I’m creating an entirely different blog for that, lol), but suffice it to say that they’re not in the business of helping people stay healthy.  They’re in the business of making big profits.

Even so, there has to be a way to make the most of the overpriced produce out there.  Fortunately, there’s more than just one way!  Canning, which had lost some of its mojos a couple of decades ago, is back in full force.  Sites like Food in Jars and Punk Domestics showing us that canning is not only effective use of preserving fruits & vegetables but wickedly cool!  From chutneys & pickles to jams & jellies, home cooks everywhere are getting creative and making some incredible preserved food.

Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you
These little pickled veggies last for weeks!
But what if you don’t have the time or equipment to engage in these fun canning projects?  What if canning’s just not your thing and you’d rather have a bowl of homemade vegetable soup or a chopped salad?  Here are some other ways to make your produce last a little longer…

Dry 'em out...

If you’re not able to find a farmer’s market close to you (or if your farmer’s markets are only open during certain seasons), grocery store produce is pretty much your only bet.  But as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, some of that produce – particularly leafy, green things like lettuces, spinach and fresh herbs – is often so drenched in water from those little spray nozzles that it wilts or spoils pretty quickly. 

Excessive moisture is not a vegetable’s best friend (there’s a reason why you have crisper drawers in your fridge!).  To make sure your produce doesn’t spoil as quickly, be sure to remove as much moisture as possible before storing it in the fridge.  A salad spinner works wonderfully for lettuce, spinach, herbs and even some smaller fruit like cherries and grapes.

Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you
Non-drenched onions are happy onions!
No salad spinner?  No worries!  Use paper towels or napkins to blot excess moisture from your fruits & veggies.  Once they’re nice and dry, store them in a clean dry bag, then place in your refrigerator’s crisper drawers.  No extra bags?  No worries again!  Dry out the one you used from the store, then put your food back inside.

Freeze 'em...

Frozen fruits and vegetables do exist in their own packaging and they’re very convenient, especially during the winter months when fresh produce isn’t always as accessible.  But what if you do score a killer deal on some of your favorite fruits or veggies – let’s say, some sweet, juicy blackberries?  Freezing your produce in small portions will allow you to use them however you like for quite awhile. 

It works for most fruits & vegetables, though there are some exceptions (fresh tomatoes & cucumbers come to mind).  I’ve frozen everything from butternut squash to chunks of stone fruit like peaches & plums, so I can use them later in smoothies or other recipes.  Freezing is also a great way to store beans & other legumes you might have cooked from scratch, which is a huge timesaver on busy weeknights.

Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you
Best way to preserve the flavors of summer? Freeze your berries & cherries!

Sure, it takes a little extra time to put things together, but the payoff is well worth the effort.  I like to stock up on fresh produce during my non-scary paycheck (the non-rent check, lol).  Once I’ve had my fill and set aside certain things for dishes I may already have in mind, I will take the time to freeze whatever is left.  It makes life a lot easier for me and cuts down actual meal prep time quite nicely.  If you can set aside a block of time for this sort of meal prep on the weekends or a day off, it’ll be a lot easier to put your meals together during those uber-hectic weeknights when you don’t really want to cook something elaborate, but don’t want to go the fast food route, either.

Use every part you can...

Like the resourceful, creative chefs that make amazing dishes out of offal (a.k.a. the “nasty bits” of animals), it’s time for home cooks to start using as many parts of their fruits & veggies as they can.  I’ve seen terrible displays of wasted product at friends’ or family members’ houses, sometimes even on TV.  While helpful gadgets like a tomato corer aren’t always accessible or affordable, that doesn’t mean half the tomato should be wasted just to avoid the core. 

But there’s more to it than that!  A lot of those stems and leaves that many folks throw away are quite useful – and tasty!  Did you know that the majority of the flavor in cilantro comes from the stems?  Next time you’re making salsa or guacamole, don’t just use the leaves – chop up those little stems and add some real flavor to the dish.  Broccoli stems & rabe (leaves)?  Same thing – tons of uses, tons of flavor.  The rabe makes a delicious pesto, and the stems are packed with nutrition & flavor, making them a perfect addition in soups, salads and other dishes.

Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you
This Cilantro-Pistachio Pesto uses the entire bunch of leaves & stems for the best flavor

Easier than all that: use your veggie scraps to make homemade stocks & broths, chopped salads, or just about anything that requires a small number of chopped vegetables.  Then there’s the aforementioned canning, which uses up parts of food even I didn’t realize you could use (like corncobs… apparently they make a pretty tasty jelly. Who knew?).  The point is, using as many parts of your fruits & veggies not only reduces senseless waste; it’ll stretch your food dollar much further.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

These are just a few of the ways I’ve learned to get around the short lives of my favorite fruits and vegetables.  If not for them, my meals would be far less nutritious and just plain boring to look at or enjoy.  But sometimes there isn’t enough money to get that juicy, ripe tomato, or that pound of Brussels sprouts that are just begging to be roasted or turned into a salad.  So, due to the fact that I refuse to live a life without fresh fruits and vegetables, no matter how broke I may be, stretching out their lifespan is crucial to me.

Be kind to your produce & it will be kind to you
How can you not be inspired to eat such beautiful food?
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to use them once they’re on their way out (like overripe avocado hair treatments, etc.), but if you actually want to make them last longer so you can eat them, these should help a bit.  Hopefully other broke fruit & veggie fiends like me will find some of these ideas helpful!  If you have any of your own tried & true methods to help stretch out your fresh produce just a wee bit longer, please be sure to share them with us in the comments below.  I’d love to hear them!
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