Over the years, whilst immersed in the exploration of food, beer, wine, and spirits, I have often been the brunt of familial jokes about food-snobbery and cooking elitism, as well as the seemingly ridiculous lengths I reach for to incorporate every part of every ingredient I cook with. My frugality in the kitchen does, I readily admit, come across as bordering on neurotic and obsessive…
“You are not seriously going to throw away those chicken ears, are you? You should freeze them until you have enough to make Ear Stock, which, as I am sure you know, is a key ingredient for saucing roasted Tibetan Yak nostrils.”
Okay, I do tend to save what others blatantly discard. Most vegetable trimmings (onion and garlic skins, carrot peelings, the green outer layers of leeks), go into a freezer bag, the exceptions being anything with a strong, overpowering flavor, such a broccoli, mushroom stems or asparagus. They each get their own bags, respectively.
I buy whole chickens and break them down into manageable sections. The breasts get filleted, but I leave the skin on; it helps keep the breasts moist, tender and plump during cooking. If you are counting fat-calories, remove it after cooking. Your taste buds will thank you.
The bones go into a freezer bag, along with the backbone, neck and wing tips. They are a remarkable source of flavor and nutrition. Combined with the vegetable trimmings above, they will make terrific stock or soup, as will the leftover carcass from a roasted chicken.
The wings are split in two and placed in another bag until I have enough to make a bowl of wings for Sunday Football or my next barbeque. Legs and thighs usually end up in the same dish and are frozen together.
The giblets are the one part of the animal most Americans avoid. Please do not. Separate the livers from the rest and freeze them in their own bag. When you have enough, you can make Pâté or dice them and sauté with fresh thyme, shallots and garlic, then serve on crostini. If the flavor of liver is not your thing, then finely chop and add them to your next meatloaf. You will not taste them, but you will marvel at how rich your meatloaf suddenly tastes.
When you acquire enough giblets (minus the liver,) defrost and cut them into small dice. Sautéed until slightly crisp, they make an excellent addition to meat sauces such as Bolognese and Ragu. The naturally high levels of Umami, the flavor our taste buds sense as savory, add another layer of complexity to these sauces and nobody will be able to figure out why yours taste so much better than theirs.
I do discard the lumps of fat removed from the cavity of the bird. It can be rendered slowly to liquefy the fat, then used as a cooking fat (a practice common in certain Jewish communities where it is known as schmaltz), but I try to watch my cholesterol intake and, therefore, cast aside this artery clogging practice. You see, I am not that frugal.
Rendered goose, duck and pork fat, however, are another story. I gladly utilize them, on occasion, in my cooking; I just keep a cardiologist’s number on my speed dial.
Left over stale bread becomes bread crumbs. Remove the crusts (or not), allow the bread to dry out and become brittle, then hand grate it or toss it in a food processor or blender. This will taste far superior to the dust you spend a fortune on at the supermarket.
Bits of leftover cheese can be grated together, frozen and saved for Mac and Cheese. Topped with the aforementioned bread crumbs, it becomes a rich, homey meal that costs pennies.
Do you have wine that is past its prime? If so, simmer it over high heat until it is reduced by two thirds. Let it cool, then pour it into ice-cube trays and freeze. Next time you need a quick sauce, melt some in a pan with chopped shallots, onions or garlic, add a sprig of thyme, rosemary or tarragon, and reduce by half. Remove from heat, swirl in chilled pats of butter, one at a time, waiting for each one to melt thoroughly before adding the next. When thickened, correct the seasoning with sea or kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, and voila, French-influenced butter sauce (a variation of Beurre Blanc or Rouge, depending on the wine used).
Grow your own herbs. All that is needed is a small window sill, good sunlight and potting soil. Ask your local garden center for tips; that is what they exist for. Trim a few sprigs each day to flavor your cooking. I own very few dried herbs. The few I do have are for a specialty dishes like Jambalaya, which require the building of layer-upon-layer of complex flavors. The delicate nature of fresh herbs could never stand up to such a flavor bomb.
If growing herbs is not an option, buy them at a Farmer’s Market. They are usually far cheaper and fresher than their supermarket counterparts and you will be supporting the local economy. Trim the bottom half-inch off, place them in a cup of water and cover loosely with the plastic bag they came in. Stored in the refrigerator, they can last for weeks, depending on the herb. Remember to change the water once or twice a week and trim a bit more off if they start to wilt. They should refresh in a few hours. Leftover parsley stems can be added to your vegetable freezer bag. Large leftover rosemary stems, soaked in water for twenty minutes, become skewers for kabobs on the grill.
These ideas are not new or innovative. Reaching back to antiquity and beyond, our ancestral mothers, out of necessity, utilized everything that was available to them. Their thriftiness added enormous depth of flavor, as well as nutrition, to their cooking. Rather than gripe about the high cost of living, begin exploring frugality in your kitchen. The savings quickly add up and your cooking will drastically improve; both quality-of-life enhancers we could all use a bit more of.
And when your family makes sport of you for your new parsimonious ways, keep in mind that Great-Great Grandma is smiling down upon you and saying, “Now that’s how you run a kitchen.”