Food that's on it's way out gets a second life in new cookbook

Hosted by

Condiments on the refrigerator door, like mustard and jams, can be used in unexpected ways to make the perfect salad dressing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

On average, an American household of four wastes about $30 in food every week. Multiply that by the population and we’re wasting about $400 billion of food a year, or roughly 40% of the food produced in the United States. With work to be done at every level of the food chain, what can we at home do for our part? Sisters Margaret and Irene Li, who run Mei Mei Dumplings in Boston, have suggestions for all the wilted, shriveled, about to expire, or "only needed a teaspoon but bought an entire jar" items in your fridge and pantry. Their book is Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking.

KCRW: I liked this book so much. I think it's because the illustrations make it much easier to understand how to fix this issue. It's very frustrating when you go to your refrigerator, you see something that's on its way out, and you just don't know what to do.

Margaret Li: Yes, so many people open up a fridge full of food, and it's hard to figure out what to do with it. We loved the idea of having a cookbook with illustrations rather than photographs. It felt like you had more flexible options for figuring out what to do with your food rather than working with one specific photo of what it should look like. You might have one vegetable or another vegetable, you can swap things out or substitute. That really helps you use up the food that you've bought but don't necessarily know what to do with.

Irene Li: We were so thrilled to work with one of our favorite illustrators, Iris Gottlieb. I think she brings such a sense of fun to the book. Food waste is a very serious topic but if we don't have fun with it, we're not going to get better at cooking our food and not throwing it away. So the illustrations are one of our favorite parts, too.

Stash kitchen scraps in the freezer after every vegetable prep and you can transform them later into a waste-free stock. Illustration by Iris Gottlieb.

Let's talk about how you organize the refrigerator to avoid waste. I am finding more and more that the vegetable bin is a wasteland. You put the stuff in there, and it's either too full or too empty. When it's too full, it's so easy to just not see things.

Margaret Li: From both our restaurant experience and our personal experience, we have absolutely suffered from things just getting lost in your refrigerator. Irene brought the great idea from our restaurant of putting something called an "Eat Me First" box in the refrigerator. The idea is that you have this little container, whatever kind you like, and you put in items that need to be used up sooner or that you have half of. I used to have moldy lemons all over the back of my fridge because I never knew where they were so I would just cut open another lemon. Now, I put them in the "Eat Me First" box, so I know exactly where to find things that need to be used up first. 

It makes it so much easier when you have a system that works for you. I try to keep it at eye-level and towards the front of the fridge. That helps me make sure I'm actually using up the things that I have purchased.

I would love it if we could talk about the fridge door. Many of us, if we don't use store-bought dressings, tend to rely on the same recipes over and over again. So the refrigerator door is filled with condiments and things that form a dressing. Give us some advice.

Margaret Li: I have a tendency to buy condiments when I have a fridge already full of condiments but it's great because they add so much flavor and boost so many different foods. You can then use them in so many different ways, sometimes in unexpected ways. It's also great, if you have that last little bit of mustard or jam or honey clinging to the inside of the jar and you want to get it out. Making a dressing inside the jar and shaking it is the perfect way to use up that last little bit.

Stir-fries are super fast ways to use up vegetables on their last leg while making a quick meal. Illustration by Iris Gottlieb.

That's really smart. You have advice for these different dressing flavor profiles. You have a base and then you have recommendations for something a little sweet, a little tangy and creamy, a little nutty and creamy, or a little salty and umami. Take us through a couple of those ideas.

Margaret Li: I am always trying to get my kids to eat salad. I have two children who are four and eight and are notorious greens haters, like many children. I realized that my daughter will eat a salad if there's fruit in it, and it really helps to have a sweet dressing. That's when I started making dressings out of jam. We eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so if there is a little bit of jelly left in the jar, adding oil and vinegar to the jar is a great way to get the kids involved because they like to shake it themselves. It makes my daughter eat a salad, which is always a good surprise.

What foods do you save and freeze? I'm always afraid to do this because if something languishes in the crisper, I feel like it's even worse in the freezer.

Irene Li: We like to call the freezer a magical time machine. It can buy you time on an item that you know you aren't going to use or that is on its last legs. We advocate for good labeling in the freezer, since it's hard to tell what things are when they're frozen. We also want to make sure people know that you can freeze just about anything, especially if you're willing to take a gamble on the texture.

We learned in the writing of this book that you can freeze lemons. You aren't going to get the exact same texture of the flesh but you can still get the zest and the juice. If, like me, you can't resist buying the bulk bag of lemons at the grocery store instead of the one that you really need, you can throw half of them straight into the freezer, if you know you're not going to use them but you might want them in another two or three weeks.

Margaret and Irene Li use their restaurant experience to cut down on food waste and save money. Photo by Mel Taing.

Margaret Li: Another tidbit I learned during the making of this book is the freezing of spinach, raw and straight in the bag. Our friend learned this from a spinach farmer at the farmers market. You can just shove your uncooked spinach into the freezer. You don't want to eat it raw, afterwards. It's not going to be good in the spinach salad. But for soup or for sauteing, you can pull the frozen spinach straight out and cook it. It's really nice when you have bought this bag of baby spinach and you've been eating spinach salad for a few days and you know you're not gonna get to the rest of it before it goes bad. Just shove it straight in the freezer.

What are some of the items that we should have in our pantries that are the building blocks of dishes? The kinds of things that if we have them, we will always be able to utilize something that is about to go.

Margaret Li: If you have pasta, you can always throw in what you've got. We have a recipe called Anything In The Kitchen Pasta. We've got a toss-in-what-you-want fried rice. We also love eggs because there's always omelets and scrambled eggs and frittatas, which can take any vegetable that you've got, any cheese, any deli meat, any odds and ends. It can take random condiments, like pickles or olives, and sauces. Frittatas are great for all of those.

Irene Li: I also love keeping puff pastry in the freezer. I know it's not a pantry item but it is a secret weapon because it allows you to turn anything into something that feels a little bit fancy. If you have leftovers or odds and ends, throw them into a freeform puff pastry tart and all of the sudden, your leftovers feel a little bit French. So that is a neat party trick that allows you to make your leftovers feel sexy again.

I would love it if you could each share a favorite hero recipe for summer vegetables that have seen better days.

Margaret Li: One of my favorite recipes for summer vegetables is gazpacho.

Irene Li: Oh, that was going to be mine.

Margaret Li: Gazpacho is not a recipe that I made or ate often before this book but it is such a magical way to use up vegetables, especially the bursting, flavorful, oozing with juices stuff you brought from the farmers market when you got too excited and now you've got tons of tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers. If they're getting bruised or they've been sitting around in your kitchen for too long, pop them in the blender, puree, add a good amount of olive oil (that's the key to making it seem like you're not drinking tomato juice) and season it well. It is so drinkable and delicious.

Irene Li: One of my favorite hero recipes in the book is our Cream Of Anything Soup. Building a creamy soup is just a formula. You adjust it based on what you have available, what kind of stock or other liquids you have. Even cream is negotiable. There are a lot of ways to make a soup creamy without using dairy. You can use plant dairy. You can use bread or potatoes. It feels like a comforting bowl of something but it's so flexible, especially with a good hunk of crusty bread and a little olive oil drizzled on top. That is a hero recipe for any kind of bumper crop and it works any time of year.

With tips like storing lemons and spinach in the freezer and recipes for dishes such as a mushroom bolognese, Perfectly Good Food makes zero waste cooking doable. Photo courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.

I think all of us have found ourselves in a situation where we need one tablespoon of a fresh herb and we end up with an entire bunch. I'm looking at you, cilantro. I need a recipe for cilantro because I always have some dying in the fridge somewhere. How do you use excess herbs in other recipes?

Margaret Li: Another favorite dish of mine is the Herby Green Rice. It's so nice because it's basically a one-pot meal where you make a green sauce. Then you cook rice with it and you use either ground meat or tofu or a plant-based meat substitute. You can make this hearty, delicious, one-pot meal that has the herbs infused throughout.

Can we talk about mushrooms? I'll have a yen for mushrooms. I'll buy them. Then something will happen on my way home and they end up sitting around for way too long. Give us some mushroom advice.

Margaret Li: My favorite mushroom dish is this mushroom bolognese sauce. It is 100% not an authentic bolognese but it will use up so many different vegetables that you have in your fridge. Mushrooms of any kind in basically any amount (it's okay if they're wrinkly or a little bit dried) and anything from a rutabaga to a cauliflower can be tossed in this sauce.

The idea is that you're cooking down a whole bunch of vegetables. If you have a food processor, that makes it really easy. You chop everything up fine. Once you add the tomatoes and the seasoning, it tastes almost meaty. At the same time, it's totally vegan. I love it because once you've got this sauce, it's good on so many different things. I like to spoon it onto eggs. It's good on pasta or in lasagna. You can also eat it on rice or mashed cauliflower or whatever you like. It's super flexible.

Irene Li: I also really love pickled mushrooms or a mushroom conserva cooked in olive oil. For mushrooms and for lots of other fruits and vegetables, when we're a little grossed out by them, it might be because they're a little old or slimy or dried. Often, we're having an issue with the texture. The texture is not what we expect or want it to be. I feel like a lot of the book is about opening people's minds to different textural options. For example, we have a stir fried lettuce dish, a lettuce soup, and a stir fried cucumber dish. For people who are mushroom haters because of the texture, we recommend changing the texture around. 

Margaret Li: I think the bolognese is a great example [of a way] to chop mushrooms finely and treat them almost as if they are ground meat. Cream of mushroom soup is delicious. In a lot of cases, I think pureeing can be the answer. I think that's why so many of our answers are soup and sauce-based.

Conversely, I really like to put things into fritters and fry them until they're crispy and delicious. That's another way to change the texture. I often have leftover broccoli and leftover rice in the fridge, so I mix them with some egg and a little bit of flour. Then I fry them into these little pancakes and it feels delicious, crunchy and new. I don't think, "Oh, this is the broccoli leftover from last night." I think, "Oh, this is fun and tasty."

This book is so great. I look forward to getting my copy very messy.

Margaret Li: We would love that. We hope you spill lots of soup on it.