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’Save the sauce’

Tips for reducing food waste and maximizing flavor

From glass bottles and tin cans to cardboard and newsprint, recycling is an ethic I’ve long upheld.

That ethic increasingly has extended to recycling food, which goes beyond merely keeping edibles out of the compost and trash to transforming them into another — occasionally tastier — meal. Cooks who do this well can recycle leftovers that fall short of a single portion into a dish that feeds everyone at the table.

The average American wastes 245 pounds of 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.

Because restaurant meals often entail more meat than I typically like to eat in a sitting, that’s an obvious place to start. A noodle soup I recently ordered at a local Thai restaurant, for example, contained so much chicken that I brought home a full cup of the cooked slices.

That quantity isn’t enough for me and my kids. But I wanted tofu in my stir-fry, anyway. Reassigning the chicken to a different Asian-stye dish simply entailed separating the large chunks of meat from leftover bits of broken, soggy noodles, then straining the cup of soup to use as a braising liquid.

I chopped fresh broccoli, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms from my refrigerator and tossed them into the hot skillet to sear slightly. After a few minutes, I poured in the strained leftover soup, covered the pan and allowed everything to braise until tender. Stirring in already cooked meat in the last couple of minutes keeps it from getting tough.

Tough tendons on a lamb shank were too much for me to tackle with grace at a locally owned dinnerhouse. But there was no way I was admitting defeat, either, forfeiting the bone with its considerable flesh to the kitchen’s waste bucket — not when I knew the shank’s connective tissue only needed an hour or so of simmering in liquid to attain succulence.

The next day, I retrieved my meal’s remains from a carryout container, stripped what meat I could from the shank and set it aside to fold into the finished dish. In a soup pot, I sweated some chopped onion and then stirred in a cup of red lentils to coat with oil.

Along with the bone, I added 3-1/2 cups of water and brought the mixture to simmer, continuing to peel and chop carrots, turnips and celery root, adding each in its turn. Curry powder, fennel and coriander seeds and salt and pepper seasoned the mixture. I even added the half cup of brown rice pilaf salvaged from my restaurant meal. After 30 minutes of cooking, the lentils had collapsed, the vegetables were tender, the shank relinquished its remaining meat, and I could gnaw the cartilage to my heart’s content.

Efforts to conserve the byproducts of meat preparation may seem bizarre. But I’m gratified that chefs also value the greasy gunk left in the bottom of a pan after roasting meat. In cooking parlance, it’s commonly called “brown bits.” The classical French term is “fond,” translated simply as “the bottom.”

But the bottom harbors deep flavor. So perish the thought of tossing it out. If it can be poured from the pan, I simply transfer it to a jar. If the mass is really stuck, pour in a cup or so of wine or water, bring it to a boil and scrape all that gooey goodness off the bottom.

Stored in a jar in the refrigerator, “fond” will most often solidify into a gelatinous mass, covered with a thinner layer of congealed fat, which keeps the liquid underneath from spoiling for weeks, sometimes months. Scrape the fat off and use it to sauté vegetables. Or skip that part, if you’re too squeamish, and excavate the gelatinous bottom layer to use in other ways.

Diluted with water, it becomes stock or braising liquid. It also makes a concentrated base for sauces and gravies. Start by heating the mass until it melts, strain out any particles that betray its origins and taste the liquid. If the solution is highly salted, seasoned or otherwise strong, thin it with a little broth, stock or water, thicken with a cornstarch slurry and enrich with a knob of butter for a shortcut sauce.

“Save the sauce” is another thrifty cook’s edict. Leftover salsa can season black beans or a chicken tortilla soup. Simmer marinara with chili powder and garlic for enchilada sauce. Leftover marinara also is a good base for minestrone. Satay sauce for chicken or beef skewers could season a rice or noodle dish.

Rice is one of the easiest vehicles for absorbing assorted bits of cooked meat and vegetables. Make it fried rice, given that eggs are among the most readily available, low-cost extenders. Think quiche and frittata, too, for those odds and ends. Putting a cooked egg on top has a way of making any mishmash appealing.

It’s worth recognizing, however, when it’s time to raise the white flag on leftover food. Some items are just harder to recycle than others. In the case of my Asian noodle soup, the few remaining pieces of steamed broccoli were bitter and rubbery. So I substituted fresh florets from my fridge. Augmenting leftovers with at least one item that’s fresh goes a long way toward eating enjoyment. This exercise should foster feelings of abundance, after all, not deprivation.

Consider this lentil soup a repository for simmering any meat bones and seasoning with your preferred spices. This is a dish for using strained pan drippings, diluted with water, for some or all of the stock. Saute the aromatics with fat saved from the “fond” instead of oil. Split peas could even be substituted for lentils with some additional cooking time. Bulk it up with leftover cooked potatoes or rice, if desired.

Curried Lentil Soup

1 cup orange lentils

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 large onion, peeled and diced

1 celery rib, diced

1 large garlic clove, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 pound leftover or soup bones, either cooked or raw (optional)

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth (or water)

Salt, to taste

1 tablespoon cider vinegar or lemon juice (optional)

1/4 cup plain yogurt or sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Diced jalapeno or chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Wash the lentils and drain them well in a colander.

In a large pot, add the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and garlic. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. Add the lentils and saute for about a minute. Stir in the tomato paste, curry and whole spices, allowing tomato to darken slightly and spices to toast, for about a minute.

Settle the bones into pot, add the diced carrot and pour in the stock. Cover pot, bring to a simmer and cook soup for 20 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and lentils have collapsed.

Turn off heat, remove bones and set aside to cool slightly. Season soup with the salt and vinegar or lemon juice, if desired. Strip any meat from bones, discard fat and cartilage and add meat back to soup.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with dollops of yogurt or sour cream and chopped fresh jalapeño and cilantro, if desired.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.