Easy Tips for Using the Last of Summer’s Produce

Fun ways to ensure a waste-free harvest season.

It’s a sad fact that nearly 50% of the food we grow goes to waste. Some of that is wasted in the fields, after harvest, and some in distribution. Out of the food that actually makes it to the store, we, as consumers, throw away nearly 1/3 of the food we buy and take home.

Clearly we need to work on using what we have on hand. Even if you routinely use up your produce before it turns to mush in the crisper, if you’re a gardener, or a farmer’s market deal shopper, you’ve probably ended up with a bumper crop of vegetables and a shortage of ideas.

In honor of the harvest season, here are some tips for dealing with large quantities of produce.

Puree it—Pureeing produce can whittle large amounts of produce down to more manageable quantities. Take a large winter squash for instance. You can roast it and puree the pulp and use it in soups, risottos, pancakes, muffins, cookies, quick breads, and even oatmeal. Pureed squash also freezes well. You can roast and puree small quantities of odds and ends like summer squash, eggplant, peppers, and even greens like spinach and mix and match them to make a variety of delicious dips like Ajvar, spinach dip, and more.

Soup it—Of course you can puree anything (broccoli, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, greens, squash, tomatoes) and turn it into soup but you can also make a chunky, brothy, minestrone like soup with many different types of vegetables. Mix in some cooked beans for added protein. Green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, shredded greens, summer squash, and sweet potatoes all lend themselves well to this method. It’s fine to focus too. If you have a lot of leeks, onions, and garlic, and not much else, simply sauté in butter, add broth, and puree for an elegant allium soup.

Salad it—Anything can become a salad. Lettuce not required. Roast a bunch of beets, potatoes, squash, or sweet potatoes and combine with a tasty, full flavored dressing. Add protein if you like, herbs, green onions, cheese, toasted nuts. Anything goes. Some of these vegetables lend themselves to mixing with grains. Beet and farro salad anyone?

Dip it—If you have an abundance of peppers, carrots, fennel, and other sweet and crunchy vegetables, you may consider cutting them into sticks and making crudités. There’s no better excuse for making Bagna Cauda, a warm anchovy and garlic dip from the Piedmont region of Italy; a luxurious French brandade, or baba ghanoush.

Stock it—Lots of odds and ends, especially aromatics? Make up a big batch of vegetable broth and freeze it for soups later on. Or freeze the scraps from prepping over several weeks and make a big pot of stock once you have a good stash. Carrots, celery, leeks, onions, potatoes, mushrooms (including stems), garlic, chard stems, lettuce, and corn cobs, really just about any other vegetable that’s not too bitter is fair game for vegetable stock. Just make sure you include a balanced assortment.

Freeze it—We talked above about freezing pureed vegetables. Skip the potatoes, as they don’t freeze well. Fruits like berries and stonefruit are also great for freezing. Sliced plums and peaches will serve you well all winter in pies, cakes, and crisps. Too many tomatoes? Make a big batch of salsa and freeze it. The texture will suffer slightly but it will still taste better than store bought salsa come January. Cut corn kernels off the cob and freeze them in bags to add to casseroles and soups all winter long.

Shred it—Summer squash is easy to shred. Freeze it or use it right away to make savory cakes,  quick breads, and salads. Shred potatoes or sweet potatoes for potato pancakes.

Dry it—Make your own “sundried” tomatoes by cutting them in half (or slices), salting them, and putting them in a very low oven for several hours. This process concentrates their flavor and makes for a very versatile ingredient in soups, stews, pastas, and on pizzas. And then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous kale chip, which, when you get right down to it is dried kale, and an excellent way to use up a lot of kale in one fell swoop.

Can it—Saving the obvious solution for last…don’t forget canning, a method of preservation used by our foremothers (because they had to or risk starvation) and by plenty of current cooks (for pleasure and fun). Order a book and go to town. Or visit one of the many great websites focusing on canning and preserving. Two of my favorites are Punk Domestics and Food in Jars.

Happy Harvest! Use it or lose it!

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.