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7 ways to make use of sub-par produce

Her grocer sells the not-perfect fruits and veggies at a big discount.

By Karen Datko Apr 21, 2010 8:51AM

This post comes from Linsey Knerl at partner blog Wise Bread.


My grocer has a little-known secret: It sells damaged and past-date produce weekly. To find it, you have to go around the corner of the regular produce aisle, next to where the employees take their breaks, and right in front of where the forklifts go in and out. It’s in a wire bin with no special markings or signage.


It’s our little piece of heaven.


In addition to your typical antique bananas and bags of slightly bruised apples, there are other delicious treasures: plastic-wrapped packages of bell peppers, bags of pre-washed organic lettuce hearts, and sacks of a hodgepodge of items like avocados, artichokes and lemons. While not everything here is worth buying, they charge 50 to 99 cents for each package -- regardless of what’s inside or what shape it’s in.


Because we are not food snobs, and we’ve learn to adapt our diet to include the parts of produce that others throw away, we love stocking up as much as we can fit into our cart. Anything that gets home in too bad a shape for us to eat happily goes to our 40-plus laying hens for some much needed dietary excitement. Here are the ways we use up the good stuff, and how we eat well for pennies per pound of produce.


Dehydrate (drying). This is perhaps one of the easiest ways to use up food. Bananas are especially delicious when sliced thinly and placed on the drying racks of our $25 food dehydrator. Other foods we have had fun doing this with include whole chili peppers and apple rings.


You’ll want to consult the directions that come with your food dehydrator to see if you’ll need to add citric acid to your produce, but as long as the portions you are drying are not too bruised and are mold-free, you’ll have a way to keep food for many months or even decorate your kitchen. (Our dried chili peppers are beautiful on the counter.)


Breads. Sweet breads, muffins and cakes are very forgiving to the quality of fruit and veggies you can use. The parts of the bananas that are too mushy or brown to be dried effectively end up in a plastic bag that gets mushed up and made into banana bread. As long as the fruit hasn’t reached the stage of fermentation (smells like alcohol), you’re usually safe to put past-date fruits of all kinds into your favorite baking recipes. Don’t forget that you can do this with some veggies, too. My favorite carrot cake recipe uses a whopping 3 cups of grated carrots, and this vegetable garden bread puts cabbage and celery to good use.


Soups. While salads are often more about presentation than flavor, soups are the exact opposite. Traditionally, soup pots have been a final destination for the parts of the veggie that most of us today just chuck into the compost pile. The skins and rinds of certain produce, however, can contain more than just hearty flavor; they also house some of the most nutritious portions of the vegetable. Potatoes, for example, are chock full of vitamins when the skin is left on (just avoid anything that has already begun to sprout or places where the skin is green -- this signifies a high glycoalkaloid content, which is toxic.) By using up your slightly wilted celery, less-than-juicy onions, and blemished carrots, you can create delicious soup bases, stocks and stews. Hungry for a skin-on potato soup? Check out this mouth-watering rendition from J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly.


Note: Please be careful to wash all produce carefully, and be aware that some items will be healthiest when purchased as an organic offering.


Freezing. My favorite way to quickly store the oodles of green, red and yellow bell peppers my grocer likes to put on quick sale is to simply rinse each pepper, slice into fourths, remove the seeds, and toss into a freezer bag.


This is a great way to have green peppers on hand for making fajitas, meatloaf or any other dish that requires cooked bell peppers. You can also freeze most any fruit or veggie, but blanching and citric acid may be required to maintain quality. (Dicing up tiny pieces of peppers, celery, and berries and then freezing them in ice cube trays make preparing soups and smoothies a breeze.)


Jams and jellies. Much more labor-intensive, but possibly the most long-term of all solutions, making up a batch of strawberry jam or jelly is a tasty way to use up that couple of pints that didn’t look so appealing at the grocery store. While the process itself takes some mastering, you can enjoy the “fruits” of your labor for many months to come.

Note: As a few readers have pointed out, some types of overripe fruit may not be suitable for typical jams and jellies, as they will not contain the pectin needed to set well. Some ideas for long-term storage of fruit concoctions include chutneys, some berry jams that are stored in the fridge, and using overripe fruit as an addition to a basic jelly/jam or in homemade applesauce. Thanks to our many jam and jelly experts for your tips.)


Juice. Have one of those expensive juicers at home just taking up space? Maybe you don’t use it more because you hate cleaning it after every use. Or you just figured out how darned expensive it is to feed your juicing habit. Enter the miracle that is discounted produce: Use those bruised apples, bumpy carrots, and overripe berries to fuel you up before you leave for work. Feel good and save money.

My absolutely most frugal tip of this article is for the tiniest of foodies. Avoid buying pre-made baby food if you can make it yourself -- for far less with reduced-price produce. Whether you enjoy making up tiny portions of applesauce (slow cookers work nicely for this), or you want to give a steamed, mashed broccoli mix a try, any edible, thoroughly washed, and properly cooked fruit or veggie can be blended into a beautiful and affordable puree for baby. Freeze for weeks’ worth of snacks and meals.


Before you turn up your nose at the “manager’s special” offered in your grocer’s produce aisle, consider how much money you could save by buying their unwanted fruits and vegetables. Then look at the typical amount of fresh food wasted by the average American family. Buying slightly damaged produce isn’t disgusting -- throwing away your money on overpriced food that you’ll eventually let rot in the bottom of your crisper drawer, in my opinion, most certainly is.


Related reading at Wise Bread:

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