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THE FRONT BURNER

FLS reporter Katie Thisdell serves up news on local food finds, tales from home cooks and inspiration to help you have fun in your own kitchen.

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Don’t throw it all away.

It’s a common conundrum this time of year.

You lovingly put together a big dish of food for a potluck supper, or return from the store with a giant party tray of something delicious, only to find that you must win an epic game of refrigerator Tetris if you want to find space to stash the goods.

Too many half-used bottles of this and foggy jars of that are crowding the valuable shelf space.

It’s very easy for this situation to result in a big collection of jars and containers with just a little bit of something left in them weighing down your kitchen trash.

The average American family of four throws away $2,275 worth of food each year.

Before you toss something you’ve bought with your own hard-earned dough (the kind with presidents on it, not the kind you make pizza with), here are a few tips for making the most of what crowds many of our refrigerators and pantries.

Plain yogurt – If you find yourself with just a little bit of yogurt left and nobody seems to be claiming it, try baking with it. Most quickbread recipes will tolerate replacing some or all of their butter, oil or milk with yogurt. If you’re adventurous in your beauty routine, there are a number of homemade recipes for face masks and cleansers that include plain yogurt, which is said to calm skin. Depending on how much is left, you could whip up a Tzaziki sauce or even strain the yogurt overnight to make a spreadable cheese comparable to cream cheese.

Buttermilk – How many times have you bought buttermilk for a recipe, only to watch the unused portion wither in your fridge? You could cook large batches of biscuits or pancakes to freeze for later, or you could actually freeze the milk itself until a time when you have more culinary inspiration. Measure out tablespoon portions and freeze in ice cube trays so you’ll know how much you’re using later. Since buttermilk tends to separate when frozen, you’ll want to whisk or shake it before using once it’s thawed.

Rice – I can’t ever seem to make the exact amount of rice my family needs to eat with any given meal. Don’t dump leftover rice. I freeze mine in zip-top bags, adding to each bag until I have enough to serve at another complete meal. Leftover rice is also a great excuse to make fried rice (Just add oil, a beaten egg or two, whatever veggies or meat leftovers are hanging around and soy sauce or your favorite seasonings.). It also makes a nice filler for soups.

Baby food – If you make your own baby food and find yourself with too much, consider adding the puree to your next batch of muffins (particularly good with pureed fruits, squash and sweet potatoes) or soup. Vegetable purees can also help add body and nutrition to meatballs and meatloaf recipes.

Bacon – I know, I know, who would EVER have leftover bacon? This is usually due more to forgetfulness than to lack of appetite in my house. I’ll buy a pack of bacon for a recipe and only use the called-for amount. If you catch the rest floating around your fridge while it’s still good, don’t forget that pretty much everything, from pasta sauce to soup to sauteed vegetables, tastes better when the first thing to hit the pan is bacon. Chop up raw bacon, render the fat, set aside the crispy morsels, continue your cooking with the good stuff and then use the bacon pieces as a garnish on the finished product. You can also freeze the leftover portion. It’s a lot easier to chop raw bacon when it’s frozen.

Bread heels, odd hamburger or hot dog buns and other bread remnants – Steve Martin had a point in “Father of the Bride” when he suggested that the weiner-makers and the hot dog bun makers were in cahoots to never leave us with the perfect number of buns for our franks. Instead of getting arrested for acting like a fool at the supermarket, use your leftover bread products to make bread pudding for dessert or a strata for supper. Both egg-based dishes call for leftover bread, and can be vehicles for using up other leftover ingredients. Whir bread pieces up in your food processor for homemade breadcrumbs (store in the freezer), or cube, oil, season and toast them to make croutons. You could also stick a piece of bread in your brown sugar jar to keep it from going dry.

In addition to finding ways to use these odd bits of food, it’s also helpful to consider how they got there in the first place. Every month or so, it can be useful to set aside a week or even a few days to make meals only from what is already in your house.

This will help you keep from losing track of treats stashed in the freezer and it will force you to get creative and could clue you in to some new favorite recipes. These days, finding a use for odd ingredients can be as easy as plugging them into Google, or to a specialty search engine like Allrecipes.com.

Every time I do this, I find it helps build a little more efficiency into the weekly chore of stocking the fridge and pantry.

Spinach and Cheese Strata

This recipe is an example of a strata recipe, and could be adaptedto use up whatever leftovers you have on hand. The amounts of eggs, cheese and milk can be adjusted to suit your needs, and you can substitute your own available vegetables or cooked meats for what is called for.

Recipe adapted from MarthaStewart.com

1 teaspoon olive oil

10 ounces spinach

3 cups day-old bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

5 large eggs, beaten

1 cup whole milk

1 1/4 cups grated cheddar cheese

salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a colander and drain, pressing with a rubber spatula to release as much liquid as possible. (Similarly, saute whatever other vegetable you may be using. If meat is already cooked, it can usually be placed into the strata as-is.)

Place bread in a greased 8″ by 8″ baking dish. Top with spinach and any other vegetables or meats you are using.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and 3/4 cup cheese. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Pour over baking dish and top with 1/2 cup cheese. Set dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until set in middle and golden brown on top, 35 to 40 minutes.

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