Sunday, November 2, 2008

Make the most of leftover ingredients

I admit: I wasn't always very careful about food waste. Not a week would go by where something in the fridge didn't get deep-sixed as a result of being neglected and forgotten. Oftentimes, a recipe called for parts of a whole, for example, 1 cup of pumpkin puree (and a can contains almost 2 cups) or 1/2 block of tofu, or 1 tbsp chopped parsley.

These days, with most of us feeling "the pinch," thus being more mindful about maximizing our food dollar, paired with the awareness of consumption and waste patterns that are literally ruining our planet, it is more important than ever to do our best to minimize food waste. At the same time, of course, we want to maximize nutrition and flavor.

Here are some tips around what to do with leftover ingredients.

Fresh parsley, cilantro, or other fresh herb

Many of us buy parsley a lot: quite a few recipes call for a tablespoon or two of fresh parsley, and it always makes a fine garnish. But if your parsley (or other fresh herb) is starting to look a little sad, remove the big stems, rinse well, chop it up (or put it in your food processor for a couple of pulses) and use it as the base of a tabouli salad. Traditional tabouli is made with parsley and cracked wheat (bulgur), but you can make awesome tabouli with nutritious, gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet, and any herb you want. Just cook up a cup of dry grain with 2-4 cups of water (depending on the grain: refer to a grain cooking chart like this one). Use a pressure cooker, if you have one, to save time. Then fluff the grain, let cool, and toss with the parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. Get creative and add pine nuts, halved cherry tomatoes, and/or cooked beans. Fresh herbs are also great for homemade tomato salsas, bean dips, hummus, and dressings.


Not only should you welcome incidental grain leftovers -- I recommend cooking up extras for future meals. Cooked grains will keep fresh in a covered container in the fridge for up to 5 or so days, and they cut time off of meal prep. You can use them at every meal: hot porridge in the morning with soy milk, nuts, and dried fruits; a lunchtime salad (see herbs above), a side dish at dinner, or made into a main dish with the addition of any combination of cooked vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, and seasonings.

Tomato paste / tomato sauce

Raise your hand if you never witnessed your tomato paste grow a fine white or green mold. No one? Not surprising. Most recipes call for just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, and while they come in little cans, they're still too big for most recipes. I have found that measuring it out in 1-tablespoon blobs and storing it in a covered ice cube tray in the freezer is a great solution. If you'd rather use it up, keep in mind that opened tomato paste keeps in a covered container in the fridge for about 2 weeks. Tomato paste can boost the flavor and texture of tomato-based sauces, salsas, and most soups and stews (whose flavors would not be overpowered by the addition of tomato). I often add tomato paste to canned low sodium lentil soup for a nice flavor kick, and tomato paste can even be added to some baked goods, like hearty muffins and homemade yeast breads.


Leftover tofu goes bad fast. Even faster if you forget to change the water it's stored in each day. Here are a few great ways to use up leftover tofu: sliced, fried in a bit of oil, and used as a sandwich base. You can cube and add to most any main dish. Or freeze it: squeeze out the water, wrap it tighly in plastic wrap, and freeze. It lasts several months, and can be used as a chicken substitute, as it takes on a chewy texture once frozen. One of my favorite ways to use tofu (leftover or not) is in a tofu "egg" salad. Mash it coarsely and add chopped celery, vegan mayo, salt and pepper, and fresh or dried dill. Serve on crackers or in a pita with leafy lettuce and sliced tomato. (My son loves to find this in his lunchbox, on whole wheat bread with crunchy romaine lettuce.)


I love leftover potatoes! I make extra, just to have leftovers. Sweet or white, potatoes have endless culinary potential. You can do a breakfast hash, twice-baked stuffed potatoes (scoop out the pulp of a leftover baked potato, mash it up with other stuff, put it back, and bake again!), cubed and added to curries, soups, and stews, cubed and made into a salad (try one of the awesome potato salad recipes at, mashed and served with golden gravy, the list goes on and on.

Coconut milk

I end with this one because if you noticed in my last post, my recipe called for just 1 cup of lite coconut milk. Usually I try to use all of a can of something, but coconut milk is pretty rich, and stretches very well between two recipes.

The photo above is one of my many curry renditions. This one used leftover cubed tofu, leftover coconut milk, and leftover curry simmer sauce. You can make up your own version too. This recipe goes great with leftover potatoes too.

Make-the-most-of-leftovers curry

  • 1/2 can lite coconut milk
  • 1/2 jar vegan curry simmer sauce (Trader Joes makes a nice tomato-based one, which is what I used here)
  • 1 small onion, preferably organic, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic (or 1-2 tsp jarred garlic)
  • 1 tbsp canola or olive oil
  • 1 1-lb bag frozen chopped spinach, preferably organic
  • 1 can chick peas, preferably organic, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 block tofu
  • garam masala (optional)
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds or whatever nut you've got on hand

Whisk together the simmer sauce and coconut milk. Adjust to taste by adding curry powder or, if too strong, add water. Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until the garlic starts to brown. Add the spinach and cook, stirring and breaking up any blocks of frozen spinach, until the spinach is heated through. Add about 1/2 of the sauce. Add the chick peas and tofu, stir well, and add the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with garam masala to taste. Stir until heated through. Serve with leftover or freshly cooked rice, and sprinkled with sliced almonds.

Note: The variations here are truly endless. You can start with an onion and a sauce, and then really anything goes!

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