Withering Frights
Is wilting produce wasting away in your fridge? Learn how to use it to create edible, nutritious meals

By Colin Berry
Photos by Rita Maas

Here's a personal question: What's in your fridge? I mean, besides milk and eggs and mustard and last night's takeout, what's really in there? If you're like most of us, the deepest reaches of your icebox hide an abundance of formerly fresh fruits and vegetables: shriveling snap peas, puckering plums, a drooping cuke or carrot. They may have been plump and fresh when they caught your eye at the organic grocery or farmers' market last week, but now they sit languishing in the crisper, destined for the compost as soon as their wrinkled appearance overwhelms your guilty conscience for not using them at all.

In an ideal world, we would prepare and eat everything we buy when it's at its freshness peak. But take heart: Within that sagging celery, those browning bananas, and that tired-looking cauliflower lay the makings of a delicious, easily prepared meal, one that will save you money and shopping time and still provide excellent nutrition for your family. All it takes is a few supplemental ingredients, a little creative thinking, and an everyday selection of fading produce to create hearty, simple meals for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Some of the best meals emerge from the worst-looking scraps, and what may no longer appeal to your eyes may yet greatly gratify your palate.

Following are specific examples for using up less-than-perfect produce—fading fruits and vegetables that, envisioned in a new way, transform from drooping bags of guilt into edible pleasures.

Squash and Black Bean Enchiladas

Serves 8 / I discovered the soul of a great enchilada—roasted squash—while poking around the kitchen of some friends, who loved the results. Little did they know how easy it was to make. Add cooked chicken to the mixture before stuffing, if desired.

2 cups cooked rice
2 cups cooked black beans
1 baked acorn or butternut squash, flesh scooped out
1 small onion, diced
1 bell pepper, cored and diced
Fresh corn kernels cut from 1 ear of corn
14-ounce can diced green chilies, drained
10 sprigs cilantro, chopped
6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated and divided
Salt
1 15-ounce can red enchilada sauce
1 dozen corn tortillas, fresh if possible
1 15-ounce can green enchilada sauce
1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt or sour cream

Cook It Ahead Of Time
Going to the trouble anyway? Prepare extra and refrigerate leftovers.

Black beans, lentils, or other legumes
Brown rice
Fresh herb pestos
Grilled vegetables: peppers, small squashes, asparagus, portobello mushrooms
Minced garlic
Roasted vegetables: squashes, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes
Sautéed mushrooms
Toasted nuts or spices

—C.B.

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine rice, beans, squash, onion, pepper, corn, chilies, cilantro, and 4 ounces of the cheese in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and mix well.

2. Pour red enchilada sauce into a deep plate; dip each tortilla to coat. Fill each tortilla with one large spoonful of enchilada mixture, roll tightly, and place in a 9" x 13" baking dish or lasagna dish. When dish is full, cover enchiladas with green enchilada sauce.

3. Cover with foil and bake 45 minutes. Remove foil and top enchiladas with remaining cheese. Bake 10 more minutes. Serve immediately with dollops of yogurt or sour cream.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 422 calories % fat calories: 21 Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 22mg Carbohydrate: 68g Protein: 17g Fiber: 12g Sodium: 937mg

Berry Lemon Applesauce

Serves 6 / A 21st-century upgrade to a classic recipe, this simple dish uses fruits of varied ripeness. It's great scooped on pancakes for breakfast, as a side dish with lunch and dinner, or topped with frozen yogurt for dessert.

5 large apples, peeled if preferred, cored, and roughly sliced
1/3 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup clover honey
2 cups blueberries, raspberries, or sliced strawberries
1 tablespoon lemon zest (2 medium lemons)

1. Place apples, cranberries, cider, lemon juice, and cinnamon stick in a large pan and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.

2. Stir in honey and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Remove cinnamon stick and mash apples with a wooden spoon to desired consistency.

3. While mixture is still hot, stir in remaining fruit and lemon zest. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 181 calories % fat calories: 3 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 47g Protein: 1g Fiber: 4g Sodium: 5mg

Risotto Autunno

Serves 4 / This risotto can be customized for any season. For best results, be sure to dice all the vegetables in advance; keep the stock boiling while you add it slowly; and use the highest-quality, freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 small white or yellow onion, diced
1/2 pound arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart organic, low-salt chicken or vegetable stock, boiling
Small portions late-summer or early-autumn squashes, peppers, mushrooms, corn, celery, peas, carrots, or leafy greens, diced or chopped
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Salt and fresh pepper, to taste

1. Place a deep soup pot over medium heat. Add butter or oil and stir, making sure to coat sides. Add onion and cook until translucent. Stir in rice and toast for 2-3 minutes, being careful not to let it burn.

2. Add wine and cook until absorbed, 3- 5 minutes.

3. One ladle at a time, add half of the piping hot stock, adding more only when the rice threatens to burn or stick to the pot. Continue to stir often.

4. When rice is al dente (10-15 minutes), add vegetables. Stir. Continue to add remaining stock as before until all has been incorporated, 10-15 minutes more. Stir in cheese. Add rosemary and lemon juice, stir, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 440 calories % fat calories: 26 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 8g Cholesterol: 31mg Carbohydrate: 64g Protein: 18g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 754mg

Beet Salad with Feta, Red Onion, Capers, and Dill

Serves 4 / An all-time favorite originally made entirely from leftovers, now I "accidentally" find the ingredients "left over" as often as I can. You can also chop, sauté, and add beet leaves to this salad.

2 large beets
1 small red onion, diced
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 sprigs fresh dill, snipped with shears
Salt and fresh pepper

1. To cook beets, remove beet tops. Place beets in a saucepan and cover with water. Boil for 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and cover with cold water. When beets have cooled slightly, rub off outside layer. When cool, dice.

2. Combine all ingredients in a glass bowl and mix thoroughly. If possible, refrigerate 1-2 hours before serving.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 53 calories % fat calories: 34 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 3mg Carbohydrate: 8g Protein: 2g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 410mg

Szechuan "Firecracker" Lentils and Brown Rice

Serves 4 / I created this spicy, whole-protein combination for my vegetarian wife. It's the best way I know to use wilting produce. Be sure to chop the vegetables into sizes that cook in the same amount of time—for example, smaller carrots and larger leafy greens.

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon crushed ginger
1/2 pound firm tofu, diced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup cooked lentils
Any of the following vegetables: bok choy, snap peas, carrots, celery, bell peppers, corn, cabbage, scallions, zucchini, spinach, kale, asparagus, green beans, fennel, leeks, mushrooms, broccoli, or cauliflower, diced into uniform cooking sizes
1 thumb-size gingerroot,
peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1/2 tablespoon cracked Szechuan or black peppercorns
2 tablespoons tamari or liquid aminos
Vegetable stock (optional)
10 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1/3 cup unsalted peanuts, chopped
2 cups cooked brown rice
Warmed Tamari, toasted sesame oil, chili flakes, and bean sprouts, for garnish

Always Use A Condiment
Sometimes the secret to dressing up weary food is a jolt of new flavor. Try these items to jazz up your meals.

Capers
Chutneys: commercial or homemade
Dulse flakes
Flavored vinegars
Fresh herbs: basil, cilantro, rosemary, chives, tarragon
Interesting mustards or aiolis
Liquid amino acids
Olives: diced, sliced, or whole pitted
Pesto
Red pepper flakes
Sun-dried tomatoes
Tamari
Thai chili sauce
Toasted sesame seeds

—C.B.

1. Combine soy sauce, crushed garlic, and crushed ginger in a medium bowl. Add the tofu and toss gently to coat. Marinate for 20 minutes or more.

2. In a wok or large saucepan, heat oil until sizzling. Add all ingredients except cilantro, peanuts, and rice. Cook, stirring, 3-4 minutes, or until vegetables show deep color. If the mixture seems dry, add splashes of vegetable stock.

3. Stir in cilantro and peanuts. Serve over warm rice and garnish with tamari, toasted sesame oil, chili flakes, and bean sprouts.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 407 calories % fat calories: 38 Fat: 18g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 45g Protein: 19g Fiber: 9g Sodium: 1029mg

Simple Fruit Cobbler

Serves 6- 8 / This is a perfect way to use up seasonal fruit. A mixture is best. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or frozen yogurt.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
1 large egg
5 cups combined fresh fruit, such as blackberries, blueberries, figs, apples, pears, bananas, peaches, or nectarines, roughly diced
1/3 cup maple syrup

1.Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with knife. Place flour, oats, brown sugar, baking powder, and cinnamon in a food processor; pulse twice or until blended. Add almonds; pulse briefly until chopped. Add egg; pulse four times or until mixture resembles coarse meal.

2.Toss fruit in a bowl with syrup. Spread in a 9-inch baking dish and crumble oat mixture over fruit. Bake 35 minutes or until bubbly.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 243 calories % fat calories: 10 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 35mg Carbohydrate: 53g Protein: 4g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 75mg California-based Colin Berry is a regular contributor to Print and Surface magazines and NPR's All Things Considered.