This morning, I opened the refrigerator to find wrinkled, overripe strawberries staring back at me. After several days of eating, we had finally come to the bottom layer of a large container of berries that I had bought at Trader Joe’s for something like $7. The strawberries seemed to look at me reproachfully as if to say: “Look at us now! You know the kids are going to call us ‘yucky’ and refuse to eat us. You’re going to have to throw us away and so much for your false economy of buying the big thing of strawberries. Serves you right, lady!”
Who knew that strawberries could be such snotty little jerks? But there was no way I would throw out those strawberries no matter how rude they talked back to me. Whenever you are faced with fruit that is not actually moldy but is just a little past its prime, there’s always a way to salvage it. For one thing, you can bake with it.
I turned those overripe, back-talking strawberries — okay, maybe I imagined that part — into a delicious strawberry-lime yogurt cake that will serve as a tasty breakfast or after-school snack for my family all week. On top of a cake, no one can tell that the strawberries had gotten wrinkly and a bit soft. The baking process covers up all those flaws. And it is not just old strawberries that can be salvaged by baking. Any kind of berry or stone fruit, such as peaches, plums and apricots, that is past its prime can be used in baking without ill effect. And I’m talking about easy baking projects too. No need to make elaborate fruit pies. The yogurt cake recipe that I link to above is absurdly easy: it does not even require an electric mixer — think: kid-friendly — and can be made with almost any fruit. You can also make a buckle, which is an old-fashioned one-layer fruit cake, with almost any berry. My favorite fruit cookbook Rustic Fruit Desserts has recipes for a lemon-blueberry buckle and a cranberry-orange buckle.
Everyone knows that you can make banana bread with overripe bananas but did you know that you can also freeze bananas? If your bananas are going brown and for whatever reason you don’t feel like making banana bread that day, just throw them in the freezer, peel and all. They will turn a disconcerting shade of black, but they are perfectly edible. I wouldn’t eat frozen bananas straight, but once thawed, they will work just fine in banana bread, banana cupcakes or a smoothie. As a matter of fact, I like to throw a mushy banana in the batter almost any time I am baking cupcakes. You hardly taste it and it helps keep the cake moist. You can do this with cake mixes as well.
What about overripe melon? I haven’t actually tried this, but a friend told me that cantaloupe can be pureed in the blender and then mixed with yogurt and frozen in Popsicle molds. Apparently kids love it. Overripe watermelon can be made into watermelon gazpacho, granita or, frankly, some sort of crazy cocktail. In fact, a crazy cocktail is probably the best and highest use for watermelon, okay?
Bruised and overripe apples and pears can also be baked in cakes as well as chopped up and cooked into apple or pear sauce. My favorite way to use slightly imperfect apples or pears, however, is as a topping for bread pudding. And here is where my kitchen frugality really goes into high gear. When I get to the end of a loaf of bread — not supermarket sandwich bread but good bread like challah or a baguette — I freeze the heel. When I have collected enough bread odds and ends, I thaw them and turn them into bread pudding. Bread pudding just happens to be my husband’s favorite dessert. It’s a great dessert for entertaining as well because it can be prepared entirely ahead of time and then popped into the oven when you sit down to your main course. Perfect timing!
To make an apple or pear topping for bread pudding, just saute sliced apples or pears in butter with some sugar until the sugar caramelizes — don’t walk away from this project because it will happen quickly! Pour the fruit and caramel on top of a prepared (but not baked) bread pudding and you have a really special dessert ready for the oven. Here is a more complete recipe for the caramel apple bread pudding that I made for my elegant dinner party last month.
We Americans throw away so much food every day and there is simply no need for it. There is almost always something you can do with food to use it up before it goes bad if you just think about it in a different way. If you, like me, buy a lot of fruit because your kids like to eat fruit way more than they like to eat vegetables, you probably also have found yourself with fruit that is starting to get a bit yucky. Before you toss it though, try to give that fruit one more chance to feed your family. Bake with it, freeze it, turn it into a smoothie or a popsicle. Just don’t throw it out!