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Originally published Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Save money, eat better by using scraps creatively

Seattle chefs Maria Hines and Christina Choi share tips on how to use kitchen scraps — everything from Parmesan cheese rinds and tomato ends to fennel and beet tops — to make delicious dishes that waste nothing and save money in the process.

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photographed by John Lok

THE FINE-DINING menu at Tilth — organic ingredients, heirloom tomatoes, wild salmon — hardly seems like a lesson in old-fashioned frugality. Look closely at the kitchen, though, and find chef-owner Maria Hines living an enduring proverb: Waste Not, Want Not.

Hines and her crew find delectable uses even for the scraps and stems of their ingredients, getting the most out of every product down to corn cobs and cheese rinds. It's partly a philosophical bent for the eco-focused restaurant, one of just a handful in the country that is certified as organic. But it's also an essential skill for a small-business owner in an industry that reaps narrow profits.

"It's all about trying to make sure you can bring as much to the bottom line as possible, where it makes sense," Hines says. Besides, she says, avoiding waste "challenges you creatively."

It's a challenge that home cooks often struggle to surmount. One government study says Americans waste some 14 percent of food at home. The figures are outdated, but have the ring of truth to anyone who has seen as much food in the trash can as the fridge.

"I was thinking recently how odd it is that everyone thinks leek tops are bad," says Christina Choi, chef-owner of Nettletown, another small restaurant with a focus on ecologically sound practices. Leek tops can be used the same way that leek bottoms are, she says, though they're a little more pungent and slightly more toothsome.

Choi thinks she's starting to see society's pendulum swing from wastefulness toward conservation. We asked her and Hines for tips to help us on our way. Some are mainly inspirational; others are everyday; some are downright proverbial on their own:

Eat Your Greens: Beet and turnip tops, often discarded, make for tasty braising greens, Hines notes. Fennel tops can flavor fish stocks or marinades.

From Small Acorns Mighty Trees Grow: When breaking down a whole chicken, for instance, it's hard to make use of a single liver. But, says Choi, "I have a Ziploc in my freezer. Every time we cook chicken, which is two or three times a week, we put the chicken liver in a Ziploc." Eventually, that adds up to a batch of chicken-liver pate.

Itty Bits Make Great Hits: Hines harvests juice from the scraps left over after cutting out perfect tomato slices: "Throw them in a coffee filter, put a strainer under it, throw it in the fridge, and let it strain out," she says. She adds salt and white pepper to the "tomato water" and uses it as a broth for fish. With cruciferous vegetables, it's not all about the florets. Hines turns broccoli stems into a rich soup (see recipe), and purées cooked cauliflower stems for flan. Shucked corn cobs are steeped in liquids to add flavor to corn stock and to Tilth's bourbon-white corn ice cream.

For salmon, turn scraps into a tartare hors d'oeuvre, Hines says. "Chop it up, toss it in some lime juice and cilantro and your leftover onion." And, for vegetables with a browned or tough end, such as celery, Choi urges just shaving off the offending part rather than slicing off several inches.

Say cheese: Parmesan rinds enhance soups and stocks with tremendous flavor.

Take stock: Save bones for meat stock; blemished vegetables or scraps for vegetable stock.

Walk on Eggshells: Crushed eggshells help deter slugs in the garden, creating a lacerating barrier around plants. ("Kinda cruel," says Hines, but organic.)

A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned: Use a rubber spatula to transfer food from a mixing bowl to pan or plate. It conserves every last bite, Choi says. Looking into the bowl before scraping it out, "I often think, that could be one more serving."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Tilth Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Serves 4

1 ½ pounds broccoli

1 quart water, light chicken stock or vegetable stock

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 ½ cups whole milk

2 ½ cups grated Grafton cheddar*

Salt and pepper to taste

Juice of ½ lemon

1. Trim the broccoli and separate the florets and stems. If the stem is a little woody, peel the skin off. Set aside a cup of florets. Give the rest of the florets and the stems a rough chop. Bring the water or stock to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and add the broccoli. Let simmer until the broccoli is tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Puree the stock and broccoli in a food processor or with an emulsion blender.

2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add the reserved broccoli florets and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add a touch of lemon juice to balance the flavor. Set aside.

3. Place the puree in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir gently until cheese has melted and incorporated into soup. Add salt and pepper to taste and a squeeze of lemon to balance the flavor.

4. To serve, place some sautéed broccoli florets in each bowl. Top with a cheddar crostini (recipe below) and ladle the soup around the broccoli and toast.

*Note: Grafton cheddar is expensive, but its sharp, nutty flavor adds a lot to the soup. Substitute another aged cheddar if you prefer.

Cheddar Crostini

4 slices baguette, cut on the bias

1 clove garlic

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup grated Grafton Cheddar

1. Preheat the broiler. Slice the garlic clove in half. Rub the cut side on each piece of baguette. Drizzle with olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Place under broiler to toast until it starts to brown. Add a sprinkle of cheddar to the top of each toast and put back under broiler until cheese melts. Remove from oven.

— Recipes courtesy of Maria Hines

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