What was your best improvisation?

ynnejJanuary 3, 2012

I just returned from my mother's house. She has two refrigerators, and while I was there she dumped out about one whole fridge's worth of contents because of spoilage. It made me sad to see that much food go to waste and made me stronger in my waste not, want not conviction. My mother has never been an experimental cook- she has a few tried and true recipes that she never strays from, which means she is constantly buying ingredients to use for specific recipes that she will have no reason to use again by the time they go bad. So tell me, what is one of your favorite/ proudest improvisations? How did you make leftovers exciting enough to finish off, or what foods have you substituted to make use of what you had?

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As the old saying goes, wasted food is the most expensive food we purchase. I've thought about making this subject into a class at the Extension Office, so I'll be interested in all the input from the wonderful people around here.

I avoid wasted food by:

1. Following a meal plan.

2. Make ahead and freeze in user-friendly amounts (cook once and eat several times). I make mashed potatoes a few times a year (when potatoes are buy one bag, get one half-price or free, my small potato harvest from the garden), but I always have mashed potatoes in the freezer ready to heat and serve or use in another dish.

3. I have a strict food budget of $125 per month for two adults, which doesn't allow for a lot of waste.

4. Dehydrate food instead of letting it die of loneliness in the refrigerator or crisper drawer, or dehydrate or freeze it when plentiful from the garden. I also use some freeze-dried foods to avoid a lot of waste. Freeze-dried peas and freeze-dried corn are two really excellent foods to have in your pantry.

5. Stick to whole foods - which are much easier to consume as Nature's original "fast food" with multiple uses. I also make my own convenience foods, rather than buying them. Therefore I store "ingredients".

6. I only have the freezer on my (one) refrigerator, so space is limited and used wisely. Having more than one may be a nice convenience, but it is also an energy waster and a place for forgotten bargains and good intentions.

7. Stick to fewer foods that have more uses, and tomato powder is a good example of that. I use tomato powder to make nearly all my tomato products along with a few spices and other pantry items like vinegar, sweetener... The benefit is that I can make amounts I need. I make tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, taco sauce, etc., and no longer have to purchase those items. Add to that some homegrown tomatoes in the freezer (fresh in-season) and dehydrated homegrown tomatoes, and that's all the tomato products I use. I can even make a good substitute for ketchup and bbq sauce from tomato powder and pantry ingredients.

Example: Homemade Chili with Beans
I store chili in the freezer in 1/2-cup and 1-cup amounts and use chili as a soup, as a topping on a baked potato, or as a Taco Salad (similar to what you get at Wendy's using their chili). Not fond of chili dogs, but that's another use, and there are others like Frito Pies and a Girl Scout recipe we call Pow Wow Pot Luck.

Example: Cooked Seasoned Beef or Chicken Strips (I prepare my own, but commercially prepared would be just as versatile.)
Used in stir-fry, wraps, dinner salad, served on a homemade burger bun topped with a little bbq sauce and some shredded cabbage or coleslaw....

Example: Roast beef, chicken, pork, turkey
Shredded or ground for sandwiches, added to fried rice, pot pie, Bisquick Impossible Pies, pizza topping, Mexican entrees..... Most large portions of meat are cooked on Monday and most are also used as the base for soup/stew as well, which are portioned and frozen. Saturday is soup/sandwich day, and soup is also used for lunches. The large portion of meat is also used for sandwiches and hopefully some for the freezer for another meal, pizza, casserole, etc.

Example: Homemade Pizza (which we have every Sunday night)
An excellent way to use leftover bits of cooked meat of all kinds and veggies. The same goes for stir-fry (which we have every Wednesday).

Example: International (Thursday)
Usually something with a tortilla, taco shell, pasta or noodle. I keep seasoned "taco" meat in the freezer, which can be made with cooked ground beef, shredded beef/chicken/pork. I also have spaghetti sauce in user-friendly amounts in the freezer.

Example: Bread crumbs (fresh and dried) (I make all our breads, so I hate to waste even one heel.)
Bread crumbs are saved in the freezer and used for breading, recipes for cookies, brownies, waffles and pancakes.

I do so many things out of habit it's hard to separate improvising from regularly scheduled programing.


    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 4:45PM
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Bought jalapeno peppers one time to add to chili. I'm NOT into HOT stuff, but like a LITTLE kick. Bought peppera at a place called Produce Junction... total no-frills fruit/veggie place, stuff in semi-bulk, prices GREAT... ex: 6 BIG lemons for $1! Jalapeno's... probably a 1 lb bag... which is a LOT of peppers... maybe 15-20? Used 1-2 and just knew rest would end up going bad. First thought was mince them ALL up and stash in freezer. Then thought... I have a cheap-o dehydrator in garage! I cut off stems, slice length-wise, left seeds in, and just let them dehydrate until "crispy". Then ground up in coffee mill... only used for spices. Ended up with a good amount of ground/powdered jalapeno. I sub it in rubs and spice mixes for black or cayenne pepper.

Was making a BIG batch of real lemon-ade for a day trip to the beach. Thought... wish I needed lemon zest right now, shame to toss all that peel. Hauled out rarely used apple peeler/corer, stuck lemons on, swung corer part out of the way, and ended up with a BIG pile of lemon zest ribbons. Let at just air dry till crispy and ground up... made lemon-pepper that wasn't mostly SALT like stuff you buy in jars in spice area of supermarket.

Have never bought cinnamon sugar in a jar!?! Just plain silly... just sugar and cinnamon... thinking if you do any amount of cooking, probably HAVE those 2 items on hand.

Made a cheese spread from bits and pieces in fridge... half a block of cream cheese, 2 small hunks of different cheddars (shredded), shot of hot sauce, horse radish, worcestershire, a few green olives or capers, all of the above, and whirred in food processor.

I figure, if I like ingredients separately, will like them together... within reason, of course. Came home on Christmas with a "doggy bag" from dinner... good amount of SIL's killer cauliflower au gratin & big pile of spiral cut ham slices. Diced up a few slices of ham, stirred into cauliflower, stuck in oven till bubbling... et voila... dinner!

A little OT, but just CANNOT toss bones (chicken especially) without making stock. Bones from a few pieces (baked, broiled, grilled, even BBQ), some onions/celery/carrots, in big pot of water. Just simmer till "done"... and pretty much FREE chicken stock. Might have been HERE where someone suggested putting everything for stock into cheese cloth so you could pull EVERYTHING out at once... gonna try that next time I make stock.

Only buy bread crumbs on RARE occasion when I think I have them and I don't. Just cube up bread getting close to being stale, put in big bowl and let dry till hard. Then into food processor. Keep them in one of those vac sealbale cannisters from Food Saver.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 5:36PM
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Thank you Grainlady. I have learned a lot from you.

You are another contributor to this Forum why I joined.

Always helpful with amazing knowledge, never ever negative.

Thank you and have a very delicious and healthy 2012.


    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 6:03PM
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Very good examples from all of you! I think my proudest improvisations stem from my twin boys being picky eaters- if they won't eat what's on their tray I'll sometimes stick it all in the food processor, add an egg and breadcrumbs, form patties, and fry or bake them. It makes me feel sneaky, and like I won the battle after all!

    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 6:37PM
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When I make bread, we first eat it fresh, then in some type of toasted sandwich for a day or two, then it becomes croutons. I cut it up, spread it on a half size pan, add olive oil, sprinkle with a bread dipping seasoning, and put it in the oven on dehydrate. Stir occasionally. Good for salad, but I especially like it in soups.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 9:28PM
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GL, one of my programs when I worked for Extension was "Planned-Overs". Funny...we were just talking about that last night. I made a big ol' pot roast, and tonight is broiled open face sandwiches... beef on French rolls w/ caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and sweet/hot horseradish mustard. Any leftover beef will join the potatoes, carrots, onions and gravy for stew later in the week. Leftover stew will become lunch, and if there's lots, it will be snarfed by my coworkers.

I improvise most of the time, but I don't think I have anything remarkable to share. We keep a lot of food in the house because it's 14 miles to the grocery store and I hate running out of anything. It seems like the best dishes have been thrown together. And can I ever remember what went into them? Nooooo......

Our biggest challenge is cooking for two. I just can't make a small pot of soup or spaghetti sauce. After the Kid with the mega appetite moved out we tossed a lot of food. I still cook for 4-6, but we've learned to be better about freezing (and labeling/dating!)leftovers. One shelf in my freezer is the fast food center.

I think just about anything can be made into soup or stew.

    Bookmark   January 3, 2012 at 9:57PM
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Grainlady I know you are the ultimate organizer. But how do you get away with just having the frig freezer? There are just the two of us, but I can't imagine not having a chest freezer.

You surely don't bake just 1 loaf of bread at a time, do you?
What about buying meat? Since you don't shop often, you must stock up somewhat on chicken, hamburger, etc.

Your tomato sauces are canned, I'm assuming, where I just freeze mine. I'm just trying to see how an uber-organizer and planner does it.

You are just amazing!

    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 7:47AM
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I'm not quite sure I understand what this thread is asking for "improvisation" I thought it was going to be how you changed a recipe because you didn't have an ingredient but ended up with something better...HA!

But it seems people are writing how they keep from wasting foods. I can't think of a whole lot that's not already been said but the mention of LEMONS made me remember a lady at the flea market/farmers market told me when I bought a big bag of lemons that she slices hers all up and freezes them on a cookie sheet, then she can use them as she needs them for tea etc. This works great...I like to take it out a bit before I use it to thaw.

I don't throw away tortilla chip crumbs, these make EXCELENT toppings for casseroles/hamburger helper type dishes. We put them in a container in the fridge then after we make our plate, we sprinkle some on our dish..YUMMY! Of course you could sprinkle them on as it's baking too. Probably like the last 10 minutes of baking a casserole.

BTW, I have never in my life heard of tomato powder? What the heck is that and where do you buy it?

    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 5:39PM
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"---BTW, I have never in my life heard of tomato powder? What the heck is that and where do you buy it? "

There are a few kinds of tomato powder. Grainlady will be able to tell you.

I make my own tomato powder:

1. Lots of ripe tomatoes (95 lbs fresh tomatoes for 1 lb of powder.)

2. Make tomato sauce, remove skin and seeds.

3. make tomato leather in dehydrator.

4. Using extra tomato leather sheets, dehydrate till crispy.

5. Use blender to turn crispy leather into powder.

Very nice sprinkle TP on any dish, like pasta, fish, etc.

Yes, they sell tomato powder.


    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 5:53PM
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I buy tomato powder from Harmony House, and I think they have good prices as well as a decent selection of other dried vegetables that I like, such as cabbage, corn, peas, etc. I frequently throw a few dehydrated vegetables into a soup if I think it lacks body and/or flavor.

I don't freeze lemons, but I do freeze lemon rinds and then use them when I am making chicken stock. If I can figure out when my lemon tree is going to go dormant (for fruit), I might start freezing some lemons in anticipation. I have very limited freezer space.

I'm not sure how to answer the original question, but I did want to mention a source for tomato powder.


    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 8:04PM
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We have a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer and we gained some space by purchasing a model that doesn't have an ice/water dispenser, which also makes it cheaper to run (something like 7-cents per day when we checked it with a Watt-a-Meter). The freezer space was the same size as our 3/4-size upright freezer we gave away. The FoodSaver is my best friend when it comes to freezer storage.

We use a 1-pound loaf of bread each week. I might make 2 loaves out of my recipe, or I'll make one loaf and something else (choices: 6 pecan rolls, 8-inch pan of dinner rolls, 6 burger buns, 6 hot dog buns) - whatever is needed. These are stored on the freezer door, and there is usually some cornbread, English muffins, regular muffins, freezer-style Whole Wheat Angel Biscuits, tortillas, (all homemade) also in the freezer.

I try to keep meat purchases to $2 per pound or less, and spend no more than $10 per week for meat no matter how much it cost per pound. At the moment have cube steak, sirloin steak, ham, chicken breasts, chicken tenderloins, turkey burger, cooked ground beef/gluten, leftover roast turkey, cooked pork sausage/gluten, small packets of ground roast beef for roast beef salad sandwiches, some sliced meat for sandwiches, cooked ground beef, small packets of shredded meat, a variety of breakfast meats..... Packets of meaty bones for soup/broth.

Tomato sauce: 1 part tomato powder to 4 parts water
Tomato paste: 1 part tomato powder to 3 parts water
Pizza sauce: 1 T. tomato powder + 3-4 T. water + little vinegar, sweetener (salt - optional) and Pizza or Italian Spices.

I don't store cans or jars of commercial tomato products, nor do I do home-canning anymore - it's not cost effective for me. I make everything from tomato powder, homegrown tomatoes in the freezer, or dehydrated homegrown tomatoes. I buy tomato powder in #10 cans, but I first bought a small jar from The Spice House to see if it would work (link below). I never seem to have enough tomatoes to make my own tomato powder.


I love the name "Planed\-Overs" and may have to borrow it for classes ;\-). 

I've been into home food storage (similar to what is taught by the LDS Church) for many years now. I only purchase food at rock\-bottom, stock\-up, prices; and the biggest benefit is that I almost never run out of anything. 


Here is a link that might be useful: [The Spice House \- tomato powder](http://www.thespicehouse.com/spices/tomato-powder)
    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 8:23PM
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GL...Planned-Overs is yours, lol. I bet you come up with some good handouts, too. I did a dehydrating class at our LDS church. I felt like I was preaching to the choir.

We got into the habit of stocking up when we were young poor, living in a cabin and had a 1/2 mile hike to the county road in the winter. Now we own a snowplow, can afford to buy good food but prefer to grow/preserve our own, and I still stock up when there's a sale. (My house will never be done, but that's another story.)

I don't use my tomato powder fast enough, I guess...it seems to lose its color and flavor. I usually grind dried tomatoes in small amounts. This year I made paste and dried 1 tbsp. plops. Very handy.

Lars, I've taken corn chowder to work that was made from all dehydrated vegies. No one believed me.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 9:49PM
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I am a bit scatterbrained, I suppose. I'm sorry if it confused anyone. I have enjoyed your answers.

    Bookmark   January 4, 2012 at 10:46PM
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Too many to list. My latest was chicken stuffed shells though. I had cooked twice as many shells I needed for the amount of cheese I had and had no sausage or ground beef on hand either. Having just deboned pounds of chicken breasts i figured ....

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 2:15PM
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Another improve... over holiday baking "season". The way my house is laid out, the kitchen is down-right CHILLY once temps drop... whole level on a big COLD cement slab. So when cookie recipe called for soft or room temp butter... lucky if it gets to 65 degrees... NOT very soft. After several attempts to perfect softening butter in microwave... NOT too successful, always half liquid no matter how close I watched, did an experiment. Took the 2 sticks of butter right from fridge (in wrappers), popped into zip bag, and into large container of room temp water... probably 70-ish. Then started gathering all the other ingredients... measuring/sifting dry stuff, measuring sugar into mixer bowl, cracking eggs, preheating oven, putting parchment paper on sheets. By the time I was done with those tasks, butter was nice and soft... just squeezed... squooze?... it outta the paper.

Chicken stuffed shells! Don't eat much prepared/frozen stuff... can be expensive and none really measures up to home made. BUT Stouffer's USED to make a chicken stuffed shell in cheese sauce that I LOVED!! BIG chunks of REAL white meat chicken... NOT that pseudo-chicken that's in most heat/eat things. Wish that was still around!

    Bookmark   January 6, 2012 at 3:15PM
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The best thing I came up with was when I was making a double batch of Monster Cookies. Instead of having 4 cups of oats I only had 2. So I used the 2 cups of oats and added 2 cups of Muesli cereal. They came out so good that's how I make them all the time now.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 12:00PM
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