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Tips for smarter cooking

Preparing meals for young children definitely hasn’t made me a better cook. But there’s good reason to believe that, over the past few years, I’ve become a smarter cook.

Specifically, I no longer discount tiny amounts of protein, cooked grains, beans or vegetables that can help to fill little bellies. The ethic has expanded to feeding the entire family by incorporating small quantities of food that otherwise might go to waste into another, larger dish.

The average American wastes 245 pounds of edible food each year, according to Southern Oregon Food Solutions (southernoregonfoodsolutions.org). And the average American family of four spends $1,600 per year on food that ends up in the trash. It would serve everyone well to value the old adage: “Waste not, want not.”

Kitchen economy, of course, is nothing new. It’s how generations before us stretched more costly ingredients with cheaper ones and transformed scraps and trimmings into nourishing staples, such as stock. Using a food in its entirety — which is to say: not wasting — is a guiding principle behind The Whole Dish.

But abundance has a way of promoting laziness and diminishing the appeal of a half-serving of leftovers. Becoming accustomed to some scarcity in one’s kitchen can be as simple as cutting back on trips to the grocery store. When I go to the supermarket only twice a month, I’m forced to get more creative in my meal planning and more conservative about what goes in the compost and chicken-food buckets.

Take broccoli stalks, for example. A significant portion of the weight in each head of broccoli resides in the stalks, but most of us buy broccoli for the florets. My thrifty soul can’t conscience discarding so much organically grown vegetable matter, however, and experience has taught me that when fresh vegetables are running low, broccoli stalks can be a mealtime miracle worker.

Simply strip the tough skin from broccoli stalks using a vegetable peeler, and either slice the trimmed stalks into coin-sized pieces for braising or roasting, or julienne them for quick cooking or even consuming raw in a salad or slaw. While broccoli stems are tasty additions to stir-fry and fried-rice dishes, I’ve found they have the most character simmered in Thai-style coconut-milk curries, where they assume almost a meaty texture if sliced thickly enough.

Speaking of broth-based Asian-style dishes, I recently repurposed restaurant leftovers in a way that fed more people than did the original dish. Ordering ramen at a Medford eatery, I finished with a large quantity of broth and meat in my bowl but not enough noodles to justify another meal.

I asked for a takeout container anyway, and a couple of days later found myself reaching for the broth as a braising liquid for frozen wontons. First, I fished the strips of meat from the container and laid them over the wontons searing in the pan, then I strained the broth through a fine-mesh sieve into the pan, covered it and, within a few minutes, had a delicious meal to serve with steamed rice and broccoli. The little bits of restaurant noodles and soggy veggies went to the chickens.

Cooked noodles in excess of what I need for a recipe, however, have engendered one of my family’s favorite side dishes. I’ve served roasted spaghetti squash for years as a healthier, lower-carb pasta alternative. In possession of a fairly small squash last fall, I was racking my brain for a way to extend it when I remembered a cup or so of plain, cooked linguine in the fridge.

I snipped the noodles with scissors to mimic the length of the squash strands, stirred them into a skillet, where I’d sauteed the roasted squash in a bit of olive oil, and garnished the whole thing with grated Parmesan and toasted pine nuts, plus some red pepper flakes for the adults’ portions. My husband declared that he liked the dish better than either spaghetti squash or pasta on its own. Adding heft with cooked pasta has engendered such classic Italian dishes as spaghetti fritters and spaghetti pie.

When it comes to pasta dishes, I’ve been known to enhance sauces and fillings with unlikely contributions. My favorite to date has been leftover Stouffer’s spinach souffle — an occasional guilty pleasure — stirred into sauteed onions, mushrooms and spinach for vegetarian lasagna. The souffle blended seamlessly into the filling and, if anything, reduced the overall amount of salt I needed in the new dish. For that matter, I could have added the souffle (which I can’t fathom reheating for consumption in its initial state) to pesto or even folded it into meatballs or meatloaf, quiche or an omelet.

While this devil-may-care attitude may seem at odds with learning to cook, I say it’s an important step toward reducing one’s reliance on recipes. Developing the confidence to think — and cook — outside the box starts to alleviate some of the stress and drudgery associated with mealtime, not to mention distaste for eating leftovers in the same form for days on end.

So give leftovers a makeover and yourself a gold star for combatting food waste.

Marinated Broccoli Stems

3 or 4 broccoli stems

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large garlic clove, peeled and very finely chopped or pressed

1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or use equal parts oil and vinegar)

Peel the broccoli stems and cut them into 1/8-inch-thick slices. In a jar, combine stems with the salt; refrigerate overnight. In the morning, pour off water that has accumulated in jar.

Add the garlic, vinegar and oil to jar, stir well and refrigerate for several hours. These keep for a week or more, but color will fade.

Makes 4 servings.

— Recipe from Martha Rose Shulman via Los Angeles Times.

Leftover Spaghetti Pie

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 pound leftover pasta

Salt, to taste

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

3 large eggs

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping

About 1/4 cup milk or light cream

1 cup cooked and crumbled sweet Italian sausage

1 cup diced tomato

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pasta, season to taste with the salt and red pepper flakes; toss to coat until warm.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and then stir in the cheese, milk or cream, sausage and tomato.

Pour warm pasta into bowl with egg mixture; toss to combine ingredients. Pour spaghetti mixture into a greased, 10-inch pie plate; push noodles up onto sides and bottom to form a crust. (Alternatively, press mixture into a springform pan.) Sprinkle with additional cheese, if desired, and bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with additional red pepper flakes.

Makes 4 servings.

Chicken and Rice Soup with Crispy Tortillas

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 large green pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced

2 large chicken breast halves, each cut in half

8 cups (or more as needed) homemade chicken stock or fat-free, lower sodium broth

1 (28-ounce) can stewed tomatoes

1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles

1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce, diced

2 tablespoons chile powder or more to taste

1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons favorite all-purpose seasoning

1-1/2 cups cooked, Spanish-style rice

Salt, to taste

Baked tortilla strips (see note), for serving

Shredded Mexican-style cheese (optional), for serving

Diced avocado (optional), for serving

In a large stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and pepper and saute until translucent, for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken breast pieces and 2 cups water. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pot and poach chicken for about 15 minutes or until tender.

Remove chicken (leave remaining ingredients in pot) and use 2 forks to shred chicken. Return shredded chicken to pot. (Alternatively, use 3 cups cooked, shredded, leftover or rotisserie chicken instead of poaching chicken breasts.)

Add 2 more cups water to pot with the chicken stock, tomatoes, green chiles, chipotle in adobo sauce, chile powder and all-purpose seasoning. Simmer soup for about 45 minutes, uncovered. Taste and season with the salt to taste. Stir in the cooked rice and simmer for about 10 minutes more.

Serve soup topped with the baked tortilla strips and, if desired, the shredded cheese and avocado.

Makes about 16 cups.

NOTE: To make tortilla strips, cut 20 small corn tortillas into 1/4-inch strips. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place tortilla strips on a sided baking sheet and drizzle with 1/4 cup canola oil. Sprinkle with chile powder, a pinch of cumin if desired, and salt. Bake in preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until strips are crispy. Strips will keep several days stored in plastic bag.

Tune in to Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.