As I write this, I’m getting ready to head out of town for a short trip. Since I’ll be gone nearly a week, I have been cleaning out the fridge in anticipation.
I started a few days ago, by refraining from buying anything perishable (which is pretty much everything, in the heat we have been having), and trying to use up what was left in my veggie bins.
As I was pulling together a final salad the other night, I was reminded of another meal long ago, back in my college days.
I was staying at home and working at a mindless summer job while my parents and younger sisters were gallivanting around Europe. (They were doing it on the way cheap, crammed into a too-small rental car, and camping, so I wasn’t exactly sorry not to be with them. Their travel style made even the classic student backpack trip of that era, complete with Eurailpass, youth hostels and the “Europe on $5 a Day” book, look luxurious.)
So anyway, there I was alone in the house, fending for myself in the boring burbs and marking time until I could go back to school. I can’t recall what I was eating for dinner while I was there — probably stuff mom had left in the freezer. I wasn’t going hungry, but nevertheless, I was very grateful when one of her friends called me up and invited me over for dinner.
When I showed up at her house, the chicken was in the oven and she was just starting to make the salad. She brushed aside my offer to help, but invited me into the kitchen to keep her company.
She pulled the salad ingredients out of the refrigerator and started working with them one by one, while I watched in fascination (and utter horror).
She began with the lettuce. The tips of the leaves had gotten brown and mushy, so she cut them off and salvaged the few good parts. Then she moved onto the cucumber. It had gone soft at one end and had a few other bad spots, so she nonchalantly cut around them and came up with several OK slices that went into the bowl.
Next came the tomatoes, which were also starting to go soft. She sliced off the squishy bits and cut up what remained; those pieces followed the cucumber into the bowl. Then she sorted through the carrots until she found one that hadn’t gone limp. Once she peeled off the bristle of hairy roots, it looked pretty normal, and those slices went in too.
Most of the green pepper had rotted, but she managed to find a few good inches to slice up. Then she washed the slimy coating of rotted leaves off the radishes and added them.
I think there may have been a few other ingredients as well (a stalk of yellowing celery? An overripe avocado?) but you get the picture.
Amazingly, the finished salad was bright and colorful, and looked perfectly fine.
It probably tasted perfectly fine, too, but I wouldn’t know. Having seen what went into it, this squeamish 20-something couldn’t bring herself to do more than politely push a small serving around her plate and murmur something about not being very hungry.
Fast forward many years to this week, and I flashed back on that horrifying salad as I cleaned out my fridge.
Because, basically, I was replicating it.
Now don’t look at me like that. Come on, admit it. You’ve made that salad too. I suspect we all have.
The good news is that in making it, it turns out we are right on trend. Finding ways to reduce the whopping 40 to 50 percent of food that ends up as compost or landfill in this country is the new hot topic. My mother’s friend was just several decades ahead of the curve.
These days, I’m all for preventing waste too, though remembering to eat my veggies before they go bad would probably be a better way to do it. But in hot summer weather, the window is short and the difference between ripe and rotten is a nanosecond, so I suspect salvaged salads are always going to be part of my repertoire.
By the way, the one this week turned out great. I even served it to a friend, who pronounced it delicious.
I’m not stupid, though. I learned a powerful lesson from that long-ago meal.
I didn’t let her watch me make it.
Sweet Potato-Turnip-Potato Soup
For the remaining foods in the fridge, I set myself a challenge to invent a dish that would use them all up. After clearing out the truly rotten items, I found myself left with two sad-looking small sweet potatoes, a single white potato, three distressed turnips, half a package of multicolored baby carrots, one lime, my last stalk of spring garlic, two white onions and a half-full container of beef broth.
The beef broth made the solution obvious: put them all together in soup. So that’s what I did.
And surprise! It actually turned out so good that I would make it again, even without the pressure of fridge clean out. The sweetness of the carrots and sweet potatoes works well against the richness of the onions, garlic and beef broth. The turnips and potato disappear into the mixture, but add body and another subtle layer of flavor. And the squeeze of lime at the end adds a touch of much-needed acid. Altogether a winner.
Note: because of the nature of the sad veggies I was working with, the quantities of all ingredients are approximate. Feel free to increase or decrease the amounts and add, subtract or substitute ingredients. You could easily make this soup vegetarian and vegan by using olive oil in place of the butter, and vegetable stock.
2 onions, chopped
1 stalk spring garlic finely chopped (or 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped)
1 Tbsp. butter
3 turnips, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks
8 baby carrots (or two regular carrots, peeled), sliced into coins or chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
4-6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped (or 1/2 tsp. dried sage)
1 bay leaf
2 cups beef broth plus 1 cup water (plus additional if needed)
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lime
Put the onions and butter into a large (3 quart) saucepan over medium heat to sweat them. When the onions start to give off liquid, add the garlic and continue to cook until the onions begin to look translucent, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t brown.
Add in the turnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, potato and stock. Bring the mixture to a boil and then turn it down to simmer uncovered, adding in the sage and bay leaf.
Cook until all the vegetables are thoroughly cooked and soft, about 15-25 minutes, depending on the size of your chopped pieces.
Transfer the mixture to a blender (or use an immersion blender if yours is strong enough — mine wasn’t) and puree to a smooth consistency. You will probably need to do it in two batches.
Taste the finished soup, adding salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste and squeezing in the juice of one lime.