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How Chefs and Home Cooks are Embracing Misfit Fruits and Vegetables

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misfit carrot

Bulging tomatoes. Carrots with appendages. Extraterrestrial strawberries.

Sometimes, the fruits and vegetables we pull from the ground or pluck from the vine are nothing like the centerfold ­worthy image we envisioned when the seeds were scattered many months ago. If we “eat with our eyes”, as the expression goes, it’s no wonder that the perfectly round, perfectly colored, and perfectly shaped produce are the first to make it into our shopping cart.

As chefs, cooks, and artisans, we’re faced with a critical choice: make the most of the grotesque, the misshapen, the imperfectly formed, or cast off these garden variety misfits while contributing to the global food issues of our time.

Because shoppers demand “pretty” produce on grocery store shelves, an estimated 40% of all food grown never makes it onto our plates. Besides the obvious cosmetic issues, rejection of misshapen produce is contributing to major issues in food waste, water waste, and methane “rot” that crowds our already unhealthy ozone.

As it turns out, Americans are dumping “imperfect” foods – around $165 billion annually – in exchange for produce that meets grocer’s standards of size, shape, and color.

However, chefs and farmers are increasingly working together to embrace perfectly imperfect crops of fruits and vegetables, cleverly using them in soups, sauces, and salads where customers are unaware of their original condition and get to enjoy the taste all the same. Farmers also benefit from this direct buy relationship, selling their most prized produce to grocery store chains for top dollar while also profiting from the cosmetically challenged crops that will find their way into some of the country’s best restaurants and kitchens.

Last spring, chef Dan Barber turned heads by dishing up haute cuisine at a pop­up restaurant called wastED, replacing its usual service at Blue Hill. For 18 days, Barber and star chefs like Mario Batali, Danny Bowien, and Sean Brock crafted veggie burgers from leftover pulp from hipster juice bars, tossed “dumpster dive” vegetable salad made of bruised vegetables, and fried skate wing cartilage repurposed from filleted fish direct from the fishmonger.

While New York City’s food critics were mixed in their reviews, wastED managed to serve 10,000 dishes, 600 lbs. of ugly vegetables, and 900 lbs. of waste­fed pigs in an effort to educate New Yorkers on the effects of food waste while experimenting with food otherwise destined for the trash.

Several startups have begun the work of positioning ugly produce in a new light by educating consumers on issues of food waste, while reassuring them that misshapen vegetables taste the same – if not better – than the ideal.

One California-­based company, Imperfect Produce, has begun selling boxes of 5­8 different types of undesirable fruits and vegetables to Bay Area foodies. Area grocery stores have also joined the movement towards “zero waste,” selling the company’s produce in stores at deep discounts, often 40 percent lower than normal looking fruits and vegetables.

Just this week, the company announced that it has struck a deal with Whole Foods to test the sale of funky fruits and vegetables in its Northern California stores beginning in April, on the heels of a Change.org petition called #WhattheFork that called for big box retailers to embrace ugly produce and encourage more Americans to end food waste.

Another company, Hungry Harvest, is on a similar mission to deliver recovered fruits and vegetables to hungry consumers, help farmers profit on their entire crop rather than just some of it, and donate a healthy meal to a partner nonprofit organization for every box of ugly produce sold. Talk about making the most of misfit produce!

So how can you embrace the “ugly” side of the produce aisle and elevate these worthy fruits and veggies into a gourmet affair?

1. Transform them into something extraordinary.

These special fruits and veggies are best reserved for dishes where they can be mixed, whipped, pureed, or incorporated in with other ingredients. Instead of roasting carrots in their natural form, try a cream of carrot soup or whipped carrots and parsnips. For a leisurely brunch, chop up that bulbous pepper and throw him into a frittata, or if you’re running out the door, try a quick and healthy fruit smoothie. You’ll be the only one who knows how unique these fruits and veggies really are!

2. Preserve their flavors and textures.

Oddities quickly fade from memory when you turn fruits and vegetables into preserves like jams, jellies, pickles, sauerkraut, marmalade and fruit butters. Most fruits and vegetables will last up to a year when canned and stored properly, and they make for lovely house-warming gifts too. Here’s a step­-by­-step guide for canning done right.

3. Make them part of your “base.”

The most common “ugly” produce I purchase at the store are tomatoes and apples. My family’s go­to sauce is oven roasted, and makes the most flavorful base for any tomato-based recipe that I use, from pizza sauce to pork ragu, cream of tomato soup to casseroles:

  • 1 lb fresh tomatoes, preferably Roma or a mix of tomatoes in peak season
  • 1/2 small white or yellow onion
  • 5-­8 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
  • 1/4 cup smoked spanish arbequino oil EVOO (Buy in the Postcard Pantry Shoppe!)
  • 1 TBS fresh oregano leaves, chopped or 1tsp of dried
  • 1 TBS fresh basil leaves or 1tsp of dried 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 pinches salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 pinch granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp flat­leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 tsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
  1. Preheat oven to 300 and put rack in the lower 1/3 of the oven.
  2. Core the tomatoes and slice lengthwise into quarters.
  3. Squeeze out the seeds and pulp. (Important! The sauce will have a bitter aftertaste if you skip this.)
  4. Peel the onion and cut into 1­inch chunks.
  5. Combine the tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, oregano, basil, and crushed red pepper flakes in a bowl.
  6. Season liberally with salt and pepper; toss gently to mix all of the ingredients and to thoroughly coat the vegetables with oil and spices.
  7. Spread evenly onto a rimmed baking sheet.
  8. Bake until the onions and garlic have cartelized and the tomatoes have released their juices, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  9. Remove from oven and cool 10­15 minutes
  10. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a blender.
  11. Add the sugar and vinegar and pulse until smooth.
  12. Add the herbs and pulse to combine; season to taste with salt and pepper.

How do you embrace the “ugly” produce in your pantry? Share your tips, tricks, and recipes with us on the Postcard Pantry Facebook page!

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