The Washington Post

Free Range on Food: Expiration dates, imperfect produce and more

Sep 18, 2013

This week's theme: Cutting your food waste. We'll have tips on reviving wilted produce, figuring out expiration date labels and buying fruits and vegetables that may look less than perfect but taste great.
Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions.
Past Free Range on Food chats

Good afternoon, Rangers! The bosses are away today: Bonnie's at the Association of Food Journalists conference while Joe is roaming the lands, promoting his latest cookbook, "Eat Your Vegetables." Which means only one thing: that us monkeys are at the controls, and we're going bananas. We don't even care if those bananas are bruised and slightly imperfect. Because as we learned from Daphne Miller, a family physician and author, imperfections can make for perfect fruits and vegetables. Daphne's cover story was one of three in our special "Trim that waste line" section: Food writer Carol Blymire also explained how to revive those vegetables wilting at the bottom of that ironically named "crisper" drawer, while former Food section staffer Jane Black cut through all the confusion about sell-by and best-by dates and argued for a better system for dating perishable foods.


In other words, we have lots to talk about, so let's get to it. Daphne, Jane and Carol are all on board to take your questions. And to mark this special Food section, we're giving away not one, not two, but THREE cookbooks today. I get to pick the winners myself, based on the quality of your questions. And unlike some around here, I do expect perfection!

What a great story! It would have been nice to have in June before I started getting my CSA delivery - I had some green beans I could have saved. I recommend putting a link to this article on your pages with the farmer's market map and CSA map.

And what a great suggestion! You'll find the wilted produce story now on the CSA map and farmers market map pages. Thanks for the reminder. 

What is the best way to store green onions? They wilt so fast in my refrigerator.

I've been able to keep green onions fresh for nearly 10 days by doing the following:  pat the green part dry with a paper towel; fill a far or drinking glass with about an inch of water (just enough to cover the white part of the onion); then, stand the onions in the glass and then loosely cover them with a plastic bag.  It does take up space, but it works pretty well. 

Sigh. I made a really great salad last night - thinly sliced cabbage and red pepper, with edamame, cilantro, cashews and a peanut dressing, and packed myself a lunch. I pulled it out of the fridge this morning just to forget it on the counter. Do you think it would still be safe to eat when I get home? It will have been out about twelve hours. I can't think of anything in it that needs to be in the fridge, and will give it the smell test too, but it just feels wrong to eats stuff that's been sitting out.

Can't guarantee that it will be edible or safe but do you have a compost or a worm bin or a community composting program? Recycling your food back into your garden is a great way to ensure that nothing goes to waste. You will get a chance to eat your salad on the second round.

Looking for ideas on what to do with basil, chives & parsley for use later. Tried a basil infused oil and freezing chives but still have tons I need to use up before the frost comes.

Pesto!! its not just for basil but for all types of herbs,

Here is a good recipe that you can riff on.

And here's our story from a few years ago on preserving your herbs for winter.

I would love to see the proposed changes implemented! Last night I opened two packages of chicken marked "sell by September 18." Both were stinky-bad. One was skin-on and bone-in thighs and the other chicken cutlets. So then the question becomes, do I schlep back to the grocery, spoiled meat in hand, to request a refund (a two-hour sojourn as I use public transportation), or do I "eat" the expense and toss the meat a.s.a.p. to save time? This happens way too often. What if I'd had guests over?

Yikes. That's a problem. (And an interesting one given that most of the article is about how things should be good longer than you think! Good using your nose.) Here's what I'd do: I'd call the grocery store and tell them what happened. Most likely, they'll tell you to just bring in your receipt next time you come; they don't want the stinky chicken back. Otherwise, I'd just stick them in the freezer and take them back next time you go to the store. No reason to eat the expense or put yourself out.

There is a photo of what appears to be a cucumber or zucchini salad on the Food page. Can you link me to that recipe? Thanks!

Definitely. It's Stephanie Witt Sedgwick's Winter Salad of Shaved Cucumber and Radish With Lemon Vinaigrette.

Winter Salad of Shaved Cucumber and Radish With Lemon Vinaigrette

I have to any of you go to the MD Renaissance Festival? If so, what horrible food do you gorge yourself on? My personal favorite is the chocolate covered cheesecake on a stick.

I haven't been in years, but when I go, I can't resist the temptation to carry around a massive turkey leg. It's totally medieval.

Wow, we could have almost the same conversation about dating -- Do we choose what or who looks good, or what/who is beautiful on the inside, better for us?

... and how to revive the relationship before it goes bad.  ;)

Yes, those shapely looking fruits with perfect skin can be so bitter. (Male or female.)

Posting early because I will probably be no where near a computer around 12. I have a massive (the size of my 3 year old's head massive) eggplant that was left on the vine too long. Is it even worth trying to cook or is it going to be way too bitter?

Give it a try! In my experience over-ripe eggplants can get bitter. But if the stem is still bright green, the skin is a deep purple and the flesh is not too mushy then give it a try. Remember, its the skin of the eggplant that has most of the don't discard the best part. Enjoy!

I saw a recipe in a cookbook I want to try (from Mike Isabella - roasted with pancetta and a maple glaze). Do roasted brussels sprouts do well as leftovers, or should I divide the recipe to make just enough for one person and one meal?

Carol, here.  What a nice coincidence!  I worked with Mike on his cookbook and can tell you that the roasted Brussels sprouts do just fine as leftovers.  If you reheat them in the microwave, they get a little mushy.  I'd just put them in a saute pan or small baking dish and stick them in a 400-degree oven for about 7-10 minutes.  My favorite thing to do with those leftovers is pre-heat the oven while I'm in the shower, then reheat the sprouts as I'm getting dressed, then top them with an over-easy fried egg for breakfast.  Perfect for a chilly fall morning.  

I juice them

That's a good option. Thanks for the reminder.

How does one keep bread fresh ? It rots both on the counter and in the fridge,,,

Bread that rots quickly is usually whole grain bread-- the healthiest kind for you to eat. You can freeze it or just buy it in smaller quantities.

Living in the HEAT of Arizona, fresh produce and fruits do not last long. If I refrigerate them they lose taste. And even when shopping many fresh items are wilted before purchase. Any ideas.

You are between a rock and a hard place. Depending on what you are using them for, frozen fruits and vegetables might be a good option (spinach, peas, broccoli, berries). But otherwise, you are probably going to just have to shop more often than you would like. If you shop at a farmers market, the produce may have more shelf life as well because there wasn't a few days of transport from field to shelf.

I'm trying to remember the proportions for substituting yogurt for buttermilk, for example in baking. Add a little water, yes? Roughly how much? Thanks!

"The Food Substitutions Bible" says you can do a one-for-one substitution if thicker is all right. If not, you can do half yogurt and half milk.

Do you leave in the bruised, mushy parts?

Yes! As long as its not too mushy or rotty--throw it all in.

Carol, how might have Luke Danes - or...Graham Chase, for example - reduced food loss in their commercial kitchens with your crazy un-wilting philosophies?

Was a vegetable ever served at Luke's or Al's Pancake World?  I think the denizens of Stars Hollow were served well by Doose's Market carrying the freshest produce in town, except for when that hippie dude did his own rogue farmers market.  

I love when stores offer sample tastes of foods and that could be a good way to get customers to buy for taste instead of looks. Especially if an "ugly" Gravenstein and a flawless-looking, styrofoam-tasting Red Delicious were offered side-by-side.

Very true. Unfortunately, I think the first people we have to convince are the produce buyers at these mega supermarkets. They're in love with supermodel fruits and veggies.

Thanks for trying to answer my question last week on homemade mozzarella but i take it you all have not personally tried it. The vermont chersemaking recipe is the one i used and my understanding is less kneading is better. I am just trying to get an idea of what consistancy i should be expecting from homemade. Thanks.

If you're making fresh mozzarella by forming a curd ball in hot, salty water you only need to stretch, pull, and reform that ball 4-5 times.  All the lumps and air should be gone and it should have a smooth, shiny texture.  You shouldn't knead it on a surface.  You can only work the air and lumps out by pulling and stretching it.

When I was Deputy Executive Director of CPSC, I attended a meeting of the Regulatory Council at which USDA or FDA officials were announcing new food labeling requirements, or advisories, or something. THEY were very proud, but I pointed out that the benefits would be reaped primarily by the firms that SOLD the food, since consumers would be throwing away vast quantities of foods that were just past the dates on the containers, and were perfectly OK to eat. The column today by Ms. Black DOES contain references to the amounts of food thrown away, for no good reason, but DOES NOT point out that the beneficiaries are the food companies. Another example of unintended, but not unforeseeable, consequences. Robert Knisely

Certainly food companies do benefit from this; and there are no doubt unscrupulous companies out there. For fresh foods, there's not much wiggle room. But with shelf-stable ones, sure, popcorn or pretzels aren't really bad if they are unopened past a date of "peak freshness." That is why the report recommends only having dates on fresh products. It makes those dates more weighty and eliminates the problem that you suggest.

My sister bought me 2 bunches of red beets six weeks ago. Somehow i never got around to using them. do you think they are too old to cook or is there a preperation that might work. they look fairly intact, no wrinkles or molding.Thanks- I ve been really working hard on not throwing away food, but these got away from me between vacation and emergencies.

Actually chilled root veggies can last surprisingly long without losing flavor or too much nutritional punch.  By the way, I store roots that I will eat raw (such as carrots, radishes and small beets) in a glass tupperware with filtered water and a tsp of lemon and a pinch of salt. They keep twice as long.

I grabbed a simple recipe off the web (not WaPo): cook green beans and carrots in water, saute onions and mushrooms, combine and cook a little more. The recipe called for salt and seasoned salt and white pepper and garlic salt - did I forget a type of salt? :) - and I replaced with pepper and garlic, and was underwhelmed. I cook low salt, omitting salt in most (but not all) occasions, and I don't think that was the problem. What spices (or herbs) do you suggest to give this dish a little kick, please?

If you don't salt while cooking and only sprinkle a little once the food is on your plate, you'll get a lot more salt bang for your buck. This is a low-salt tip that I give patients with hypertension who are trying to watch their sodium intake. I prefer keeping salt in a small bowl over a shaker because you can control the amount more carefully. Just a tiny pinch will give tons of flavor. Hint: You can add rice to the salt bowl to prevent clumping.

Crushed red pepper flakes are good for a kick. You could also try za'atar, one of our favorite ingredients over here.

I have glass bowls, stainless steel bowls, and plastic bowls. It's time to downsize. What bowls are better for mixing, storing, etc? Thanks!

It depends on whether you want to use those same bowls for serving. Personally, I love my stainless steel bowls. They're sturdy and versatile. And because I don't have picky friends, I can also serve in them. But if you want something classier, the ceramic or glass bowls would work just as well. But they're also heavier and can chip easily.

I am really happy with all of your articles this week (sell-by date, bad beautiful produce, not wasting wilting veg, and mushroom popover by mollie katzen). I love the popover idea for dinner, it's a nice change from my vegetable pancakes; but as much as I love mushrooms, hubby equally doesn't. I was thinking spinach might be a good alternative. What else might work? Also, I have always taken sell by dates with a grain of salt. I might let perishables go a few weeks where cans and jars can go months and months. I always find taco shells, however, go stale only a week after I've bought them, even though I never open the package until we're ready to use them.

Mushroom Popover Pie

Joe suggests butternut squash and arugula as possible options. I bet it would be nice with caramelized onions too.

The single best way I've found for cutting food waste is to be realistic about how much cooking I will do during the work week. Having gone from cooking for 4 to cooking for one in recent years I still found myself buying more than I needed and thinking that I would cook everynight. I've learned to buy less and more importantly to recognize that I'll probably only cook one night during the week. The other nights I eat leftovers or throw together a salad (which I don't consider to be cooking).

That's good advice. We do tend to overbuy. My husband and I cook almost every night at home and what I've learned to do is to, first, be flexible about what we eat. We do plan but we also know that sometimes we have to eat things -- greens, beans, whatever -- that will go off if we don't. So even if we're in the mood for pizza, we eat what needs to be eaten. Another (less oppressive) tip is to embrace frozen vegetables. I never bought them regularly but now I like to have them on hand to make a quick stir fry or serve with something when we don't have fresh vegetables. A lot of vegetables are great frozen: peas, broccoli etc.

When it comes to packaged foods, I don't always know how to react to expiration dates. I know a bag of chips will often be fine a few weeks after the date on the package, but a carton of milk will not. If I have a jar of pickles with an expiration date, does it matter when I first open the jar? I know that some foods will say they should be used withing a week of first opening, even if the expiration date is months or years later.

And there's the rub. The unfortunate answer is: It depends. It does matter when you open that jar of pickles (though pickles take a lot to really go bad so they are not the best example). It also matters how you treat a product. If you left it in the trunk of your car during a heat wave, it may be bad even if it is not past the expiry date.

The short answer to your question is that these fixes would go a long way to making it clearer to consumers but there really isn't any date that anyone can put on food that will guarantee you that it's okay to eat. Your nose and common sense are the best line of defense.I recently found a half pint of cream two weeks past the date in my fridge that was unopened. It was fine (which is sort of scary for other reasons). We used it and survived.


I've been flumoxed with what to do with the bounty of my CSA. There are so many great things in there, but sometimes by the time I get around to eating, they look less great. But, on Monday I made a Gazpacho with different tomatoes, cucumber, cilantro, bell peppers, hot pepper, and banana peppers, and it turned out really well. No specific recipe but I added some garlic, salt, pepper, water, sherry vinegar and olive oil. Then I made a frittata with some leftover eggs and the rest of the leftover veggies. Do you have any other recommendations on how to hide tomatoes and other veggies once their past their prime?

A layered veggie pie is a great way to use up all kinds of vegetables quickly. In Greece they call this a Bireiki. Here is a recipe you can riff on it with whatever veggies you have. 

You could also make a vegetable lasagna, then cut it into individual portions before freezing. It's always nice to have something like that in the freezer, especially right before and after a vacation or business trip when you might not have or want a fully-stocked refrigerator.

YEs, because they need to know the lot or batch number. If it's really bad way before the sell-by date, there could be a need for a recall.

Yes, that's a good point.

What do I do ask for half a loaf? More and more foods come pre-packaged these days and the packagers assume we all have a dozen children at home. I would LOVE to be able to buy servings for one.

Great question. Some ideas:

1) Freeze it

2) Team up with another single eater and split the loaf

3) Buy from a local baker and request that they start to make you a "demi-pain."

Thank you for this article. Our church food pantry won't even take canned goods past their expiration dates, Canned goods used to be called "non-perishables." I often use them six months out of date, but would like your opinion. I assume tomato products are more vulnerable, but what do say on the safety of canned goods?

This is a good point. It would be hard to say that it is safe six months out, but I'm with you, it more than likely is. Canned foods are preserved foods. This is when you use your nose!

There is an interesting story going up in Boston, though, that speaks to your issue about food pantries and grocery stores that won't/can't sell or give away expired products. Doug Rauch, a former executive at Trader Joe's, plans to sell meals prepared with food that is edible but has passed its sell-by date to low-income consumers in Boston. There are more details in the Boston Globe.

I got about half a pound of blackberries from a friend's garden a few weeks ago, and immediately put them in the freezer since I was going out of town. I'd really like to make some homemade ice cream with them, but am worried the freezing/thawing will add water to the ice cream and form into ice crystals. Should I try to partially "dehydrate" the berries first? Maybe thaw then put them in a low heated oven for a few minutes?

You could thaw and puree them and then strain or run through a food mill to remove the seeds, as we suggested in our ice cream graphic.

You could also cook them with some sugar to turn them into more of a sauce. That's what I like doing with berry and cherry add-ins. "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home" suggests combining 2 cups of berries with 1 cup of sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil until it reaches 220 degrees, about 5-8 minutes. Let cool slighly, run through a sieve to remove the seeds (or you can leave some in). Refrigerate until cold before adding to the ice cream.

Don't get my wrong, I LOVE the cookbooks give aways, and really the BBQ one I got about a year ago. However, I was just thinking about how sometimes specific dishes call for specific ingredients you don't necessarily have in your home (like almond flour for macarons, or fish sauce for an asian curry) and I was thinking...what if you guys gave away an ingredient instead of/in addition to the cookbook(s)? I realize there would be a lot of kinks to work out there, but that could be really fun. Like Iron Chef for the person that wins!

Are you suggesting we give away a sack of almond flour? :)


We do get a number of products around here that most of us will never use, but that's because they tend to be highly processed commercial foods or cake mixes. I'm not sure that's the kind of stuff that our chatters want. But giving away items other than cookbooks is an idea worth considering.

I am finally crossing Thai X-ing off my bucket list next week and am super pumped! I have a couple questions for the experts: first, what type of wine should I bring? Our group of four is pretty open and likes good wine, but would like to keep it under $20/bottle, assuming we'll bring two. Second, the website says you can bring a birthday cake. Our dinner isn't a birthday but is to say goodbye to two good friends. I'd like to bring a cake, pie, whatever to the restaurant to celebrate/comiserate. I know they typically serve mango sticky rice with the dessert, so I'm not sure if I should try to compliment or contrast that. My mind is swinging between light sponge cake or all out chocolate cake. Or something pumpkin. Please help!

This is purely personal preference, but I enjoy Riesling or a crisp rose with Thai food.  Santa Cruz food blogger (and soon-to-be Thai restaurateur) Pim Techamuanvivit posted this helpful pairing guide on her blog Chez Pim.  As for dessert, I'll let others chime in on that.  I'd prefer an after-dinner whiskey over something sweet.

I would suggest something like this Coconut Cheesecake, which would be a perfect ending after all those hot, sour and fishy flavors.

As I was reading last week's chat, I clicked through the link to the Upside-Down Three-Chocolate Brownie Pie. Oh, man. Just the picture made me want to fan myself and smoke a cigarette. I'm totally making it as soon as it cools off enough for me to order in some good chocolate and not have it melt in transit. It brought up a question I've wondered about, though: why unsalted butter? I see that all the time and I've always wondered, does it really make that much of a difference? How salty is regular butter -- should I reduce or omit the salt in the recipe to make up for using salted butter? If I had a taste test, would the unsalted butter recipe be noticeably better? Or (and I'm reaching here) is there a chemical reason? Set me straight, guys; I'll buy it special for this if you tell me I have to.

Upside-Down Three-Chocolate Brownie Pie

We call for unsalted butter in pretty much all our recipes. So does most everyone else. It gives you better control over the amount of salt in a recipe. Plus, the quantity of salt varies by brand. There's also the theory that salt is a preservative, so your salted butter may be older and/or made with less fresh cream. If you still want to use your salted butter, yes, cut what's in the recipe. But I might suggest you attempt switching to unsalted from here on out, and save the salted variety for spreading on toast (or your favorite other medium).

since everybody I know is sick of me talking about my vitamix, let me branch out to you. :) It is the perfect appliance for potentially-wasted produce--stick it all in the vitamix, wilted chard and imperfect apples and all--and drink up! One could also make stock of course, or can or freeze things. But: smoothies!!! I'm so on top of this bandwagon. This morning I put figs, wilted spinach, and an old banana in mine and it was fantastic. Tomorrow, anything is possible. This thing is a produce-drawer vacuum. I don't think I have a question, other than: why waste 90 minutes re-hydrating your chard? Smoothies!

Totally agree that a vitamix is fabulous. My favorite smoothie of the moment is kale, banana, cucumber, and apple juice with a little ginger and lemon juice. I shamelessly ripped this off from Lyfe Kitchen, which I wrote a story about recently for the paper. It is so good. Here is the recipe, though you really don't need one.

I am hoping to have a fall/autumn themed potluck where I send out a list of about 10-15 ingredients, and each dish must feature at least one of these. So far I am thinking pumpkin, butternut/acorn squash, apples, brussel sprouts, cranberries, chesnuts...what am I missing??

Sweet potatoes! And maybe figs, kale and pears.

Other thoughts?

I remember going to visit an organic farm, and the farmer was explaining that he had to take the outer leaves of romaine lettuce off because they were "ugly" and wouldn't sell otherwise. That made me so sad! Those leaves were perfect for lettuce wraps! Shhh...I swiped a few before they went into the compost bin. They were delicious!

Yes and it turns out that those outer leaves also are the most nutritious since that have had to produce antioxidants to protect the plant from sun, bugs etc.

I eat it. I wouldn't be there today if my ancestors hadn't survived eating food that wasn't refridgerated.


The recipe in your database looks very good, although I usually use only 2 cups of basil. However, please change the cuisine category - it currently says Central/South American(!)

Ha! Well, further proof that we are human. I'm on it. Thanks!

Hi Rangers! I've received a couple of winter squash for the last two weeks of my CSA--large butternuts, very large acorns--and I'm not entirely sure what to do with this wealth! I've used some of the butternut for a salad, but what are other foolproof things I can do with it? And as for the acorn squash, there are only so many black bean squashy burritos I can eat, and I don't especially want to roast them with brown sugar all the time!


Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut Squash Soup

Paired with Roasted Squash Sandwich.

Roasted Squash Sandwich

Dairy-Free Butternut Squash Soup

Dairy-Free Butternut Squash Soup

Laura's Favorite Butternut Squash Soup

Laura's Favorite Butternut Squash Soup

You could also use the butternut in Joe's aforementioned Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Pizza.

For the acorn, how about Sweet and Sour Glazed Squash from Jacques Pepin?

Sweet and Sour Glazed Squash

I appreciate dates on spoilage items, for having a general window in case they've been hiding out for months in the fridge. But I don't toss my milk because the sell-by was yesterday - it's still fine. If my meat is a day or two past the use/freeze by date, I'm still going to cook it up if I've kept it properly. Canned foods are generally good unless the can is deformed be it one year or five years, or ten years. Frozen foods might degrade in quality somewhat, but if they're well frozen time is also not really a factor for safety. Bread might get stale, but if it's not moldy I'd figure it's good to go for something (like french toast!). A lot of food waste could be avoided if people got creative with their stale/older items and didn't get confused by sell-bys.

How right you are. As we've all got farther away from the farm and cooking, we like to see something to give us peace of mind. But it can't. An equally important part of the equation is that people have cooking skills to be creative. But it sure is easier to legislate rules on dates than make everyone learn to cook!

One of my pet peeves is the amount of waste that happens because stores put out such huge piles of produce. If you're there early in the day, it can be hard to extract an apple or tomato without setting off an avalanche from the display (which just bruises the ones that fall on the floor). Also, when shoppers sort through the pile trying to pick out nice pieces -- heavy lemons or peaches that smell like peaches -- everything is constantly getting jumbled around and bruised. I know today's Food Section focused more on waste at the consumer level (and did a great job of it), but the price we pay for waste at the store certainly adds to the family budget, too.

Agreed! Give your local grocer some feedback on this issue. Having spoken with a number of produce buyers for markets, they are always trying to figure out how to do it better. After all, their goal is to sell the fruits and veggies before they go bad so they are always looking for customer ideas.

I like to take bread recipes and make mini loaves. I freeze whatever I'm not eating that day, or let it get a little stale and make french toast or bread pudding.

Yes, good ideas. Thank you.

In addition to using your nose on canned items, watch what happens when you open the lid of the can. If the liquid in the can pops out as if it's under pressure, toss it! This was a very valuable lesson after suffering through botulism poisoning from a can of green beans gone bad!

Oh, my gosh. Yes, botulism is rare but serious. Bulging cans are a no-no. So glad you're all right, though.

Definitely keep the metal bowls- they're great when you have to mix something in a chilled bowl

After seeing that picture, I, too wanted to see the recipe! But your link did not take me to the recipe - just a heads up. And for the green beans/carrot poster who doesn't add salt, I use lemon pepper on my green beans. MMM good.

Ooops! Here's the correct link, and I'll fix in the original posting.

In my experience, expiration dates are suggestions. I'm currently eating peanut butter that is dated December 2012, and grape jelly from 2011, with no problem. On the other hand, I once had the misforture of tasting a chip from an unopened bag two months past its date; that thing was seriously rancid. Yogurt gets more sour with age, but it is spoiled milk to begin with. Canned foods may be safe, but they may also soften to mush. I write the exp. dates in big numbers on top of products, just to make it easier to keep track of them.

What a cool tip -- writing the dates on top in clear marker.

All of these examples speak to the general unreliability of dates on foods. The best story I heard recently was someone who told me that this summer they went to visit family and everyone ate bagels and cream cheese. It was only after that they realized the cream cheese had expired in 2011!! No one got sick.

They say shop in bulk but that is too much for one person. I have found it easier sometimes to go day by day otherwise I lose track of what I have.

Cooking for one is a challenge. (Too bad Joe isn't here to chime in.) I think the key is to plan. We make a list every week with the things we plan to make and the ingredients we need. After we shop, we keep the list of what we plan to make up on the fridge so we remember that we bought the butternut squash for risotto or greens to eat with the leftover sausage and beans. But then I'm super forgetful and need to write everything down.

Of all the CSA veggies I receive, the one that is most at risk of sitting there unused is butternut squash. I prefer spicy, savory treatments but tend to run out of useful thoughts when I have an actual butternut in my possession. Help!!

Here is a link to the recipes from my previous book The Jungle Effect. I recommend the Tres Hermanas stew from Mexico as great way to use up your gourds.

Potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets, etc. are what root cellars were all about. They're storage vegetables that get you through the winter.

Yes indeed!

I have tons of basil - what is the best way to dry it? The article does not say.

I love storing in see-through containers so I can tell at a glace what I had.

I don't (yet) have a cast-iron skillet. Would this recipe work in a run of the mill caphalon-type skillet?

Joe responds from the road!


Hey! If the pan is oven proof and deep enough it should work. Just make sure to coat it well with the butter as directed.

I have been craving a good baba ganoush and want to make some homemade this weekend for the first time. What type of eggplant should I get? There are so many varieties. I see a lot with the white/purple strips too. Are they just prettier to look at or do they taste different?

For the dip, you can probably use any kind of eggplant you like, though I might stay away from smaller ones since you'll want to be removing the charred skin -- I'd rather do that for one or two big ones than a bunch of little ones. Skin color doesn't make a difference. "The New Food Lover's Companion" notes some differences in the firmness of the flesh, but that shouldn't matter for baba ghanoush. The book suggests choosing a firm, smooth-skinned eggplant heavy for its size, avoiding those with soft or brown spots.

Need a recipe? E-mail me and I'll send you a scanned copy of my favorite from "Gourmet Today."

I was so pleased to read today's "waste not" stories and finally find a use for fennel stalks! I love fennel and have used the bulb in all sorts of ways (raw in salads, sauteed in soups, roasted as a side) and the fronds as an herb, but the stalks, apart from one vegetable stock venture, generally get tossed. Fennel simple syrup sounds like a great use for them, as well as the candy. Are there other vegetable discards that would make interesting simple syrups for cocktails?

Candied Fennel Stalk and Fennel Syrup

I think that some veggie discards may work great in simple syrups, where others may be better in infusions (grain neutral spirits will suck the flavors right out). Pea pods seem like they could be useful in simply syrups, and herb stems as well. I dunno about you, but I always have celery left over when I make mirepoix, and that could play a nice role in something with gin. 

The one thing I'd mention is that you want to be cautious in doing this--there are some veggie discards that are chucked out because of toxicity issues, so I'd be sure you know the properties of whatever you're playing with. I think I'd send you along to Amy Stewart's book The Drunken Botanist for ideas on this one, and maybe to Amy herself -- she's one of the bloggers at Garden Rant and may have played around with veggie discards more extensively! 

do you carry a cooloer to transport the chicken from the grocery store to your home? If the chicken is termperature abused from the grovery store to your home, it is not surprising it went bad.

I'm passing this on to our original questioner. But I will add that depending on how far you are from the grocery store, a cooler may be overkill. It is smart though to keep products like chicken and milk inside the car which is temperature controlled rather than in a hot trunk in summer.

You told me where to get them, now I need to know how to make a dessert out of them! I was thinking about just adding some mild ones to my favorite brownie recipe, but wanted to hear more creative options!

My favorite chili dessert is from Mexico: dry the chilis, grind them in the coffee grinder and dust over chilled slices of mango or orange. Delicious and great for the circulation!

Yes, I agree with Daphne on that Mexican street food. I've eaten them in the Yucatan, and I've also had them at Pupuseria La Familiar in College Park, where they sprinkle lime juice, hot sauce and alguashte (or ground pumpkin seeds) over green mangos. Delicious!

Does cooking a food on its expiration date extend its shelf life, or should that food only be eaten on that day?

Yes. If it's the last day for chicken and you cook it and refrigerate it, it's fine for another few days at least!

Just wanted to give a shout-out to (with which I am not affiliated). My son went through a freshness phase like the kid in Jane's column. I think stilltasty is on the conservative side on some things, but it's very comprehensive in its coverage and has been a great resource for us.

Thanks for this. Or the Food Marketing Institute's is helpful. Check it out folks.

One thing I do with wilted greens is make what I call salad soup - basically like spinach soup but with whatever greens I need to use up. Saute onions and garlic in olive oil, add the greens, nutmeg, salt and pepper and broth to cover the greens, simmer for a few minutes, then puree. Sometimes I add toasted nuts or parm cheese before pureeing. Then a squirt of lemon juice and feta cheese to serve.

Sounds delicious.

I taught myself how to cook using Mollie Katzen cookbooks. My mother was an, er, utilitarian cook, so when I first looked inside The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, I thought, "Chop an onion? I don't think so!" But her style is so encouraging that I eventually started trying things. Thanks to Joe for alerting me to her new book!

Hi there! The good news--the apple harvest in our old NYS (Fingerlakes) orchard is GREAT this year (who knows--maybe the trees taking a year off last year due to a late frost did some good!). The bad news? I don't want to waste any of them (most are Macs, I think), but, I also don't know what to do with them! We have enough that we really need to preserve them (in one fashion or another)--eating and selling are not an option, as these are not "perfect" apples. Canning really isn't an option for me, so I'm wondering--can I make applesauce and freeze it? Can I freeze slices, maybe in a simple syrup? Are there other ways I can use/preserve the apples? Thanks for any suggestions!

Apple sauce is a great idea. You can certainly freeze it. You also might consider doing some baking? This apple cake, from Joan Nathan, is super easy and freezes well.

I would LOVE to make an caramelized onion tart or pie. Any recipe recommendations? Preferably with an easy crust and no ingredients that are too fancy or rare as the grocery store near me is pretty bland and basic? I love caramelized onions!

Ding ding ding! Onion Pie With Lavender, Bacon and Blue Cheese from our former Gastronomer, Andreas Viestad.

Onion Pie With Lavender, Bacon and Blue Cheese

If you can't get your hands on culinary lavender, you could try experimenting with another dried herb, maybe thyme.

I'm bringing some provisions for the freezer of a friend who just had a baby, and I'm stumped. We both love all kinds of creative, interesting foods, but when I cook at home, I'm usually cooking creative and interesting for one or traditional and comforting for a big crowd. I know you've got a ton of freezer recipes in the database, but none have really inspired me, and you guys are so good at providing direction and you have the best ideas. Can you recommend a couple of your favorites? I need something tried and true (a new meatloaf recipe I made for another new mother was a DISASTER) that won't break the bank. Thank you!

Quick question:  did she *ask* for freezer meals?  The only reason I ask is because a number of friends of mine who've had babies recently told me they were inundated with casseroles and other freezer provisions when what they really wanted was for me (and our other friends) to get some takeout from an Indian restaurant, come over and have lunch or dinner with them so they could have some adult interaction, and then keep an eye on the baby for a few minutes so they could take a shower.  Check with your friend to see what she prefers and go from there.  If freezer goods are still in play, how about whipping up some homemade ice cream or a fruit tart or pie?  New moms shouldn't have to give up dessert!

I keep chickens, so I always browse the reduced price produce section in search of bargains to give my girls treats. I can't tell you how many times I have found absolutely perfectly ripened melons and other fruit and veg for a fraction of the normal price. Many times I've come away with treats for me, and the chickens get the scraps! Always check that area of the produce department.

My husband's grandparents have chickens that get all the fruit and vegetable scraps on their farm. It is a sight to see them scramble.

I'm looking for a cookbook recommendation. Friends are getting married and honeymooning in Italy, and we'd love to be able to give them a cookbook that's going to help them hang on to some of the flavor that they experience on their honeymoon. Do you have any recommendations for cookbooks that really capture the Italian spirit--and, maybe slightly less importantly, have recipes with cooking times that can fit into a busy lifestyle?

I'm a fan of anything written by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Cucina del Sol (if they are going south in Italy) or the Essential Mediterranean. Or the classic is Marcella Hazan's books. As these are classic recipes, none of them are terribly hard. Though none of them are geared for 30 minutes or less.

Anyone else got suggestions?

Using your nose is one of the best ways to determine if something is good. Unfortunately, I have a terrible sense of smell. I appreciate labels because of that. I would appreciate labels even more if they were consistent in their meaning. A safe-to-use-by would be optimal for me. While preferring peak freshness, I will happily eat something past its peak rather than toss it. I just want to know when it is no longer safe, especially if my nose refuses to assist me properly in determining that.

An absolutely fair point. This is why more consistent date labels with more regulation are important, not only for waste but for safety. Anyone else at home to help?

I appreciated today's article as I am one that is loathe to waste my fruits and veggies and use as much of the produce as I know how (mostly trimmings are for broth, with some exceptions). However, I think that much of the waste problem is a social issue - most people just don't care or have the drive. This is due to many factors, including being able to throw food out because we can afford it (a sign of status), or good intentions (taking home leftovers but then allowing that to go bad, wasting both the food and the packaging the leftovers were sent home in due to not wanting repetitive meals - this is where Joe's cooking for one column may help). Any thoughts on how to get a mindset change with persistent food wasters? I don't think that pointing out the money helps enough.

I see composting as a guilt-free way to discard vegetables. That being said, if we all took a little more time to cook then wastage would not even be an issue. I find that most home cooks have about 5 recipes that they riff on depending on the season and what is available. You don't have to be a highly skilled chef to eat a diversity of veggies and make healthy meals for yourself and your family.

Daphne's piece in today's Food Section advised against buying produce sold in sealed plastic bags, because it might have been sitting around for a while and it might have absorbed chemicals from its wrapper. (She also mentioned the fact that you can't smell it, which is definitely a disadvantage). But then Carol's piece quoted Deborah Madison as saying she stores vegetables in plastic bags on the shelves in her fridge, and says that keeping the vegetables in "plastic bags provided by vendors" gives them a better chance of lasting longer. Any way to reconcile these viewpoints -- should we just buy unbagged produce, and figure it won't absorb too many chemicals while stored in bags in our fridge? Also, I have seen plastic bags marketed as specially for produce storage -- anything to this, or is it just advertising hype?

Yes, there are some plastics that are quite safe but I have been amazed at the concentration of BPA (unhealthy chemical) in fruits and veggies reported in some studies. BPA is often found in single use plastics and clamshells. Paper bags and cloth bags are always better. I store my salad in the salad spinner (BPA free)-- that aerates it and seems to work quite well.

If you had an enormous amount of basil, olive oil on hand, and no time to get to the store, would you start the pesto and just refrigerate it a few days, adding the pine nuts and garlic later? If so, how many days can I wait for step two? I'd prefer not to freeze a half-finished product.

Yes, you're right on target. As this Basil Paste recipe recommends, combine the basil and oil and then add the rest when you're ready.

Basil Paste

To pass on my thanks to Cathy Barrow for her suggestion of grating apples to create a Blackberry & Apple Pie Jam - It turned out great! I just added a little cinnamon and clove to give it a bit more pie flavor & it's really exactly what I was looking for.

Awesome. Cathy is a great resource for all of us. I will pass along your kudos.

I was intrigued by the purple beans at the farmer's market this weekend and ended up buying stuff - I have a hard time saying no to fruits and veggies. Any ideas for what to do with them. I've thought about just quit sauteeing them in olive oil or steaming them and keeping them crisp, but any other great ideas to highlight them?

My favorite way to cook beans is to steam them quickle in a pan with a tiny bit of water and then use the flavored water plus olive oil plus spices and lemon to make a yummy vinagrette.

What's the reason for failure of Congress to pass legislation? Is it a political party thing? Is there significant push-back from industry? Who's at fault?

I think there just wasn't enough momentum in the 1970s or now when Rep Nita Lowey has tried. It doesn't seem particularly partisan and the industry even understands it's a problem. If there is any resistance from industry, it's inertia and the struggle to figure out what new system would make sense. 

Given the rising awareness of food waste, this might be the time that it could get through -- or at least that is the hope of the authors. The trend towards making a food's path from farm to table more transparent might also be a good push.  Scannable labels, which are already becoming popular, could put a lot of information out there from pack and ship dates to use bys for people who want good info.

The other night I had a delicious salad, which was a combination of cooked asparagus tips and raw stems, thinly sliced (as in mandoline and translucent) dressed with olive oil and sliced almonds. My question is how the heck do you slice asparagus stalks since they are thin?

One of my favorite kitchen tools is my super sharp mandolin slicer. It transforms all veggies into something so delicious that even my picky kid will try it. I have not tried asparagus but assume that it would work if you sliced crosswise or at an angle. Just watch your fingers!

I have lots of boxes of bagged teas, herbal and not, many a year past their expiration or best by dates. Do you think I can still use them? I'd donate them but no place will take stuff that's officially expired. Do the teas in individual wrappers last longer than the ones that aren't?

I can't guarantee anything from afar. But it certainly seems unlikely that they will be undrinkable. Stale perhaps. But fine. The ones that are individually wrapped should last a bit longer because they go stale less quickly.

My favorite way to do acorn squash - mixed with bacon, of course :) 


Increasingly, vegetables and fruits are looking at wax models! What is the best test for picking such vegetables? Intuition or chance? Tks in advance!

Funny you should ask. From today's paper here is your answer!

I bought what seems like a mountain of dill in one bunch and don't want it to go to waste. Any recommendations for recipes that use large amounts at a time?

The question about returning smelly chicken reminded me of something I learned while working in a restaurant kitchen years ago. Sometimes chicken wrapped in plastic will come out of the packaging with an "off" smell. If it isn't too intense, I'll soak the chicken for fifteen or twenty minutes in a big bowl of cold water with a cup of 5% vinegar--plain or apple cider, then rinse with clear water and sniff. If it still smells bad, I throw it out (or return to the store for a refund). But sometimes if the bacteria causing the off smell was just on the surface of the skin, the acidulated soak will solve the problem. I've never gotten sick from bad chicken.

Interesting. I hadn't heard that. You do have to be brave to do that; you have to know enough to really trust your nose. But I certainly like the way you are thinking about not wasting perfectly good food.

Is cheek bacon the same as hog jowls? If not what is the difference and where can I find? Thanks!

Cheek bacon and jowl bacon are quite similar (jowl bacon has a little more fat in it).  Chef Nathan Anda of Red Apron Butchery makes the most divine guanciale, so I stock up on it at his shop at Union Market.

Hello Food section, I just moved into my own studio, and I now have a refrigerator/freezer to myself! After years of shared house living, I am beyond thrilled and would like to put the space to use by making my own veggie stock. If I roast a whole squash, can I freeze the peel (that I would normally discard) with the raw peels from carrots/onions/etc and use all of that to make a stock? Or is it best to start with all raw peels? Thank you!

In my experience, it's best to start with raw peels.  I tried making veggie stock once and threw in some roasted squash peels and it made the whole pot of stock a little slimy.  Probably had something to do with the natural sugars changing when the squash roasted.  I'd stick with raw all the way.

My usual response to family and friends who are fretting about food that was left out for 15 minutes at room temp. After a stay in a Romanian village where all sorts of foods were kept at room temperature, I relaxed considerably. Obviously, common sense should be applied. If you're immune suppressed, be more cautious. If you smell or taste something off, toss it.

Right! When I lived in Ireland, everyone left butter on the counter. This made it easy to spread and was perfect for morning toast. Of course, it's cooler there than here. I don't leave it out all the time but I often take butter out in the cooler months and leave it out for a few hours then rerefrigerate. No idea if that's officially kosher. But I'm still standing.

I tend to use food past it's "use by" or "sell by" dates as long as it smells ok. I find dairy to be a mixed bag though- yogurt, in general, is fine a couple weeks past the dates. But I can't twll you how many times I've bought a carton of milk that was on the verge of the "sell by" date and I could already smell/taste that it was starting to go. Not bad YET, but you can tell it won't last long, if that makes sense? It really turned me off milk for a while. I've since taken to buying mlk with the "sell by" date as far into the future as possible, and try to get the somewhat-local brand in the glass jars at Whole Foods. It's good stuff.

Remember that fruits, veggies, meat and dairy that spoil the fastest are also the food that has the LEAST amount of preservatives. Just buy smaller quantities and by all means do not use your dairy past its sell-by date. In general, that is a recipe for disaster as a large percent  of the cases of food poisoning in this country are linked to bad mayonnaise and dairy.

One of my family's favorite meals (and it's quick, too!) is to roast butternut squash cubes on one side of a large jelly-roll or other type of pan, and some chicken thighs (w/ bones in and skin on) on the other side...425 degrees...for about 35 or so minutes (maybe less, depending on size of chicken). Partway through stir the squash so it gets covered with chicken juices. We *love* this, esp. paired with a "green" like kale, etc.


What time should we be over for dinner?  That sounds really good!

I love roasted peppers (especially poblanos, which are hard to find when they're not in season). When I have some peppers about to go bad, I roast them on my gas stove and freeze them. I could have roasted poblanos all year long if I didn't end up eating them too quickly...

When I'm faced with an abundance of the chile peppers from my garden, I just toss them in the freezer as-is. Usually they get whirred into a soup or sauce anyway, so works just fine.

Hi free rangers! I loved the articles today. Anyway, one of the best investments I have made is FridgeSmart containers from Tupperware (yes they still exist). They have 2 vents and pictures on the side showing whether none, 1, or both vents should be opened for specific fruits and veggies. Strawberries have lasted over 2 weeks in these with no spoilage, celery has been close to a month and still firm. Have used for various other things but those were the 2 that came to mind as far as stuff I always had trouble using before it went bad. Highly recommend!

I once asked the produce guy what he does w/ the old produce, he gives it to our local zoo and that made me feel so good.

Years ago, when I moved out of my apartment, I had bottles of mustard, salad dressing, peanut butter, etc. that had all be opened and likely were from when I first moved into the apartment. Many items, I didn't remember buying them. Since then, I started using a sharpie marker to put the date (month and year) when I open the container, just as a point of reference. Also, when I have two unopened containers, I will check them for dates and open the older one (provided it isn't too old). It helps give me an idea of the Mayo might be a little too old to continue to use.

Super tips.

Have you ever done a secret shopper exercise to see if stores are storing their meats properly? I always grab my meat from the back & bottom, because I feel stores really don't refrigerate their meats at cold enough temperatures. I've also had problems with meat seeming off before the sell-by date.

Interesting idea. We'll give that some consideration.

During CSA season, especially end of summer/autumn, I make soup about weekly as a way to use up veggies that are past their prime or at risk of aging out in the fridge. You can dice and saute or roast them, then add to soup pot in which you've sauteed some sausage, garlic, beans, spices, really whatever you like.

I too frequently forget peppers that I've bought (and if they're red/orange/yellow bell, they're expensive). It used to upset me to throw them away, and then it occurred to me to roast them. If they're not moldy, peppers that have started to age and get wrinkly are perfectly fine roasted, since the outer skin gets peeled off.

For those with children (or partners/roommates/spouses) that don't get enough healthy stuff in their diets, I cook and puree produce that's about to go bad (carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, broccoli, apples, bananas) and freeze in individual serving sizes. Then I throw them into a variety of recipes for an extra nutrient kick - ie carrots/squash into mac and cheese, ground beef, pasta sauces or bananas/apples into muffins, breads etc.

Smart. Thanks for sharing the idea.

I've had great luck with Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan. He has a 30-minute pasta book too, but I haven't used it.

For the person with lots of McIntoshes: this is a wonderful recipe:

You can also use a vegetable peeler to shave asparagus.

As soon as we get home from the bakery (or wherever) we portion the bread out and wrap tightly in foil, then in plastic, and freeze. When time to thaw we remove the plastic, but keep it wrapped in the foil. It tastes bakery fresh!

You can make apple butter in a slow cooker (Martha Steward has a recipe) and freeze it.

I carry an insulated bag and live 20 minutes from the store. Other chicken has been fine so I don't think this was my fault.

Well, we're all as wilted as vegetables in a crisper. Thanks for spending the hour with us. The winners of the cookbooks are as follows:


The person who asked about mixing bowls gets a copy of "The Washington Post Coobbook," signed by Bonnie herself.


The person who first asked about bread and how to save it in small portions gets a copy of Tara Duggan's "Root to Stalk Cooking."


And the person who submitted the pet peeve about the giant mounds of produce at grocery stores, you get a copy of Daphne's "Farmacology." Lucky you.


For the winners, please send your contact information to Becky Krystal at


See you next week!

In This Chat
Tim Carman
Tim Carman is the Food section staff writer; joining us today are Spirits columnist Carrie Allan, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin and editorial aide Becky Krystal. Guests: Food section contributor and former staff writer Jane Black; freelance writer Carol Blymire; Daphne Miller, a family physician and author most recently of "Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing."
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