Learn how to keep your soups, stews, grains and legumes for longer, with this comprehensive guide to storing plant-based leftovers.
For some people, leftovers carry a negative connotation, as if they would only ever be some sort of 'last resort' before shopping day. For others, like myself, they present the opportunity to save both money and time, which is especially important during busy weeks where time spent in the kitchen needs to be minimal. One of the best things about following a whole-foods, plant-based diet is that so many of the dishes can be refrigerated or frozen for later consumption. Soups, stews, casseroles and curries can be made in large batches and kept refrigerated, often for up to 4 or 5 days. Knowing that you can head home after a busy day and have a healthy, filling meal ready in 10 minutes will definitely reduce the temptation to reach for unhealthy fast-foods or take-out meals!
One of the most important things for you to learn is how and where to keep different "leftover" foods. A lot of this can be based on common-sense and personal judgment, but this guide will give you the extra know-how needed to safely store those leftover meals.
You may not think of fruit when talking about leftovers, but what I am really referring to is "extra" fruit. You may have bought a whole heap of fresh blueberries because they were on sale, and have quickly realised that you will not have time to eat them all before they begin to spoil. In a situation like this, you can freeze most fruits, like berries, grapes, cherries, mangos, pineapple, papaya, peaches, nectarines and bananas, in order to preserve them longer. Frozen fruits are fantastic in smoothies or as a sweet treat. You can also used them in desserts and fruit salads if they are thawed first.
Frozen fruits will last between 6 and 12 months in the freezer, though bananas should be used within a week as they will start to discolour.
Most cooked vegetables will keep well in the fridge for 2-3 days. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, peas, corn, broccoli and cauliflower are likely to hold their texture and keep longer than more watery vegetables, such as cooked mushrooms, courgettes or peppers. If you have plain, cooked vegetables left over from a meal, drizzle them with a little lemon juice to prevent discoloration, then store in an airtight container in the fridge. It is best to consume them the following day.
If you want to prepare cooked vegetables for the week ahead, wash and cut them as you normally would, boil in a pot of water for 1 minute, then drain and rinse with cold water. Once the veggies have cooled completely, pat them dry with a towel, and transfer to zip lock bags (make sure you get all the air out of bags in order to prevent freezer burn.) Your vegetables can now be stored in the freezer for 1-2 months, and added to meals as needed. This is a great way to preserve fresh vegetables that you think may spoil before you have a chance to use them.
Not all salads make good leftovers; lettuces start to wilt, and pre-cut salad vegetables can become slimy. Leaving the dressing off salads means that they are likely to keep longer, and you should always do this if you're preparing them ahead of time for parties and picnics. Salads with bean or grain bases (like this one) will fare better when stored as leftovers, and can usually be kept in the fridge for 1-2 days.
There's nothing sadder than having to throw out beautiful fresh herbs because they went bad before you had a chance to use them. To avoid this, finely chop fresh herbs, place them in ice cube trays, and cover with a layer of water. You can pop them out and use them in soups, stews and curries whenever you like. Some hardier herbs, like thyme and rosemary, can be frozen on the stem in zip lock bags. Frozen herbs won't be ideal for salads or as a fresh garnish, but are still great for adding flavour to cooked dishes.
If I'm cooking legumes from scratch, I like to make big batches, rather than having to repeat the process day after day. But sometimes I'm a little over zealous, and end up making more than I could possibly eat in a week! Fortunately, most cooked legumes will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for 3-5 days (a little lemon juice can be added, to act as a natural preservative). The bad news is that beyond this point they can become a little slimy and unpleasant. If you have surplus legumes, freeze the extra portions.
- Freezing Beans: Once the cooked beans have cooled completely, rinse them well, then pat dry with a towel. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking tray and pop them in the freezer for a couple of hours. This will help them to keep their shape; if you pile them in on top of each other, they're likely to freeze together in one great big bean-mass. Once the beans are firm, transfer them to sealed containers or zip lock bags and store them in the freezer for up to 3 months. Make sure you get all the air out of bags, and fill any containers completely, in order to prevent freezer burn. Defrost before adding to your meals.
- Freezing Lentils and Split Peas: Once your lentils/split peas are cooked, allow them to cool completely. Transfer to sealed containers and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. Defrost before adding to your meals.
Like legumes, cooked grains are great to have on hand for when you need a healthy meal in a pinch. Cooking brown rice, barley or quinoa in double or triple batches is a good idea. Once the cooked grains have cooled, you can store them in the fridge for 3 days, and reheat as needed. If you want to keep them for longer than 3 days, portion your cooked grains into airtight containers or zip lock bags, and store them in the freezer. They'll keep for several months, and can be defrosted in the microwave or on the stove (just add a little water first.)
SOUPS AND STEWS
These meals are standard 'leftover' fare in our house, and will generally keep well when stored correctly. Sadly, soups and stews are often forgotten in the back of the fridge, or spend eternity as a "mystery meal" in an un-labelled container in the freezer. To avoid having to throw food away, make sure you refrigerate leftover soups and stews in airtight containers, and use them within a week. If you are likely to become bored with them, or possibly forget about them, then put them in the freezer. They'll keep for up to 3 months there, but remember to always label your containers to avoid confusion, as a lot of cooked meals will start to look surprisingly similar once frozen!
How well soups and stews hold up will depend greatly on the ingredients in it. Things like beans, lentils, carrots, peas, and corn will hold their texture better than watery vegetables, so keep this in mind if you are cooking with the intention of storing leftovers.
Depending on the variety, muffins, brownies, cookies, cakes and slices can often be kept frozen for up to 3 months. This is especially good in one or two-person households when you want to have baked treats, but don't know what to do with the surplus (and probably know better than to eat everything you bake in one day!) Freezing baked goods is also a great way to save time when preparing for a birthday party or afternoon tea, as you can have everything ready for the occasion days in advance.
Regular varieties of muffins, cookies and brownies can be sealed in zip lock bags and frozen once they have cooled. Non-frosted, un-filled cakes or slices can also be cut into portions and stored the same way. When the time comes to eat them, simply remove what you need from the freezer a few hours early, and leave to thaw completely. You can also defrost and warm your baked goods in the oven, at around 160°C / 320°F. Defrost times will depend on the size and density of the product; less for cookies, more for large muffins or brownies.
Article photo courtesy of Kathleen Franklin via Flickr