Open up your fridge and look in the crisper drawer. There’s probably a bunch of garbage in there. On a recent weekday, I found the following: Half a bunch of languid celery, a bag of dried out baby carrots, two unused halves of onions, a bunch of dried thyme, and a bunch of beet greens.

When it comes down to it, your refrigerator is a reflection of your best intentions, and rather than throw things away, I was encouraged, as the Europeans are, to make a court bouillon.

To properly utilize all the ingredients that you may think you have little use for, the easiest way to maximize your productivity in the kitchen is to use what you have and preserve it. Cucumbers become pickles. Sugar, water, and lemon juice/zest become a granita to eat for a refreshing treat. All of the stuff in my fridge was about to become a flavorful stock.

Open your freezer. What do you see? Boxes with labels and ingredient lists a mile long. That’s not how it should be. If you’re ever encouraged by the great things you can find at the farmer’s market or at the grocery store- those peppers that shine and hold flecks of water, and the zebra striped tomatoes that could make a salad taste so delicious, BUY THEM. Use what you can. Save the carrot tops, the mushroom stems, the little bits of pepper and the nubby ends of onions and leeks.

These vegetables clearly won’t make it through the weekend. What can I do to extend the life of the produce to best suit my needs? Like a good game of chess, using all your faculties as a culinarily minded being, knowing that you have access to a freezer for preservation (assuming you can get rid of that box of fish sticks that, even with the best of intentions, you know you shouldn’t eat), think ahead. 99% of the people I know have access to running water and a stove. Let’s take stock of what we have, and make stock.

Take your medium saucepan.  Turn the heat on to a low-medium. Swirl it with a little olive or canola oil- whatever you have will be just fine. Remember all the vegetable bits you have? Separate them into soft, hard, and leafy bits. Onions and carrots are hard, peppers and celery are softer, and carrot tops are your leafy components. Got it? Great. Start Choppin’.

Onions and the orange part of carrots first. Just rough chop them into medium chunks. Sure, the more surface area you have, the more flavor you’ll end up with, but it’s not rocket science. This is going to be soup. Got a couple cloves of garlic? Good. Slice them thin (No need to juice them-Slicing yields a milder garlic flavor throughout). All chopped? Great. Put them in the pot. They should sizzle a little bit, but not too much. Give them a stir and coat them with the oil. Let them go for a couple of minutes, until they sweat out some of their water content and become glossy/translucent/whatever you want to call it.

Next, the softer items. These require less time to cook, so you can leave them in bigger pieces. Just a quick rough chop and into the pot. Little stir, leave them be for a few minutes on the low medium heat.

Last, the leafy bits. Celery tops, carrot tops? Got a little fennel frond? Some of those hard stemmed herbs? Chop the leafy bits up fine, and for the fresh thyme, just throw the stems in there for something to make your kitchen smell nice.

Throw them all in the pot and let them sweat until you smell the thyme start to aromatically bloom. Is it smelling nice? Great. Throw a little salt and pepper on there, seasoned just like you would a big tub of popcorn, and stir it all together. Let it go for a minute or two.

What you have in your pot right now should look just like what I’m thinking of in my head right now- a giant pile of sloppy vegetable bits. What you want to do now is get some water and cover the vegetables with it. Get them wet. You want to add enough water to cover the vegetable matter, and then enough so if you looked at it from the side, halfway up would be vegetables, and an equivalent amount of water would be covering it.

This is the hard part. Are we ready? Just let it go. Let it simmer. Let it get up to the point where it has just a few bubbles. If it looks kind of scummy, skim it. It’s not bad for you, but you’ll be proud if you can make it out with a relatively clear stock. The two ways that you end up with a cloudy stock are by having the liquid set on too high of a heat, or if there are a bunch of bits of vegetable detritus floating around in it for too long. Impress the friends with a lovely clear soup base. Keep it clear.

Just check on it every five to ten minutes. Skim a little off the top if it’s foamy, turn down the heat if it’s bubbling too much. After about 30 minutes, turn the heat off. Strain the vegetables out. They’ve had all their still valid nutrients extracted, and they have you to thank for extending their life to have a little bit of meaning. Pack up the liquid in a Ziploc in your freezer. One sandwich bag full of the stock is a good base for a soup for two. Take it out of the baggie when you’re ready to use it, and put it in a saucepan on medium heat until it’s thawed. Then, add a bit of broccoli, some cream or milk, and some cheddar cheese. Taste it. Adjust the seasoning of Salt and Pepper if you need to, and then puree the whole thing. It’s an easy dinner, utilizing all the ingredients that you thought you’d have to throw out.

Have a loaf of bread that’s really hard? It’s still great for dipping. Slice it, brush the sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put them in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes while your soup is cooking. You just made croutons that taste great and go well with your soup. Best part is, you’re not being wasteful.

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Look in your trash can. What do you see? In terms of foodstuffs, there are two primary items that are in your trash can right now. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to look to see what they are.  You’ve got packaging- Frozen pizza boxes, empty yogurt cups, beer cans, milk cartons, etc., and old food that you never got around to eating. Working with the old food before it goes moldy is key to cutting down the waste, both organically related to what you’re putting back in the landfill, and economically. The money that you throw away instead of putting back into your freezer is stuff that you could funnel away for a lazy Sunday afternoon at the park, buying iced creams and corns on the cobs from that weird guy. Bruised apples can make applesauce. Buy a porkchop or a pull a bratwurst out of the freezer, and have a great, quick meal with it. Think twice before you give up on your food. If you can make something healthy and nutritious, and or delicious, it’s a sure sign that it hasn’t given up on you.

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