But this post is really more general. While it is inspired by what I did with all my 122 lbs of past prime cheapo produce that I bought last week, hopefully it'll also be useful for anyone who is interested in buying past prime produce but not letting it spoil and go to waste, or for people who are interested in buying cases of produce from the farmer's market/wholesale for much cheaper than their going rate, but want to know how to use them up in the best way possible.
Transporting It Home
So, first off, when deciding what to buy, you have to realize that most past prime produce is much softer than your average produce, and to get the most use out of it, you need to transport it home very carefully, or you'll just have a lot of unusable mush when you get home. Boxes and hard walled containers are useful for this- nothing squishes soft produce more easily than a shopping bag being squished against others, or being packed into a backpack. Additionally, you definitely don't want to put anything heavy on top of them or they'll burst open. If you need to pile things on top of each other, pile as minimally as possible, and pile the softest things on top of things that are harder and/or heavier.
This past shopping trip, when I had very soft tomatoes, pears, peaches, and bananas, I made sure that those went on the very top, since those were the most likely candidates for becoming a mush. I put my peaches and tomatoes in a cardboard box on top of my stroller, so that they wouldn't get squished by my other groceries. They made it home relatively safely.
Of the softest produce, only take home as much as you can get home without packing it too tightly so that it squishes. Also experiment a little bit- see how well you're able to take it home when you have only a little amount, and if you succeed in that, then try a larger amount next time. I consider it a success if I make it home with only a drop of liquid seeping out of the bottom of my past prime produce...
When you get home with all your produce, you need to do a triage of sorts, assessing the level of "damage" that your produce has. Some produce is sold cheaper simply because it has a weird color or is funnily shaped or sized, but not because it is on its "last legs". This stuff is what I'd call "Grade A". Then you have the produce that is whole, unblemished, but very ripe and generally soft. This is Grade B. You'll have Grade C as well which has blemishes, but isn't entirely spoiled. Then there's Grade D, aka "The trash". In every bit of past prime produce, you'll generally have some of each, but if you pick out your stuff carefully you should have very little D.
Once you have your produce home, divide each type of produce into grades A, B, C, and trash.
To take full advantage of your produce, and make sure the least food ends up in the trash, you want to eat it up in order, saving the best for last, and using up first grades C and then B. Many of the items in group A, especially if they're things like potatoes, onions, zucchini, carrots, apples, cabbage, oranges, grape fruits, lemons, etc... should last at least a week or two or three in the fridge, possibly even more. Grades B or C will likely not last more than a week, so they should be used up first.
Wash and Dry
Mold and rot are caused by fungus spores, spread from one item to another. If you have one item that is molding or spoiling, and it touches other produce, that other produce will also start molding or spoiling, unless you take care of it. Soft items and wet items will also spoil much faster. To prevent your produce from spoiling, it is ideal to take all your past prime produce and, as soon as you get home and sort out the various grades, wash all the grade A and B produce in a wash with vinegar and water. Vinegar kills mold spores. Once you wash these off- and give them a good scrubbing if you notice any powdery type mold on them, then dry them off. Towel drying works, but if you can also dry them in a dish rack as well to get every last bit of moisture off them, it works even better. You don't want any moisture on your produce when you're going to put it away.
What To Do With Bad Condition Produce
So you already threw out your grade D, aka trash, produce, the stuff that was entirely rotten or moldy or whatever. But you have some produce that has spots of mold or weird looking bits that you don't want to eat. What you want to do with that produce is cut off any icky parts, and then use it up ASAP.
Cooking kills any mold spores, and stops spoilage... or gives your produce a fresh start, allowing it to start the spoilage process from square one, even if it was just one day away from spoiling when you cooked it. So if you suspect any item might spoil before you can get to it, if you cook it up immediately, you can stall that molding.
Pears- When I did my last shop, I knew, even before I got home, that my pears would make it home as mostly mush. I did not have a single intact pear upon arrival- and I had a lot of pears. I was considering not taking the pears at the farmer's market specifically for that reason, because I knew that would happen, but the vendor practically threw them at me, so I took them anyhow. They probably were somewhere between grades C and D when I got home. I rinsed them and cored them, and with the rest, I just made pear sauce immediately, which I then froze. I knew that if I even left them a day, they'd probably spoil, so I just chucked the entire thing into the pot, minus the cores, and cooked it, not cutting off any soft spots or peeling it or anything.
Peaches- I also had a lot of peaches that were not in as nearly as bad condition as the pears- just had soft or occasionally moldy spots on them. These, I cut off the dirty spots, pitted, and froze. Freezing also extends the life of produce and stops it from spoiling, even if it was close to spoilage prior to freezing. The frozen peaches will be used for smoothies or for baking things like peach pie, peach crumble, peach cake or even peach compote. I left a few peaches with icky spots on them in the fridge- I knew they'd last a few days without spoiling, and then just cut off the icky parts before we ate them fresh.
My bananas, some were grade A or B, some C. Basically, what I did was I saw which bananas were firm, and I set those aside to be used as is, like sliced in yogurt or hot cereal. The soft bananas were peeled and then frozen, to be used for baking, smoothies, ice cream, or even just as a sweetener, since the softer the bananas are, the more overripe and sweeter they are.
Apples- I didn't have so many apples this time, so I just left mine in the fridge, and cut off the bad parts before eating. Even with icky spots, apples can often last a week or more in the fridge.
Tomatoes are the item I often find the most issues with, are most likely to "burst" on the way home, and most likely in general to spoil quickly of all my vegetables. Because of this, I find it important to sort out my tomatoes immediately.
Any tomato with a moldy spot, or a crack gets relegated to "use up immediately" status. Only complete, whole, tomatoes, soft or hard, get put in the fridge as is. (And I make sure not to pile them on top of each other, or put anything on top of them, but put flat, on one level in the fridge, so they don't possibly squish each other or spread spoilage between one another.) Ones with icky spots get the bad spouts cut out. Broken ones are left as is.
Then, I decide if I want to cook them immediately or freeze. Frozen tomatoes do not defrost "well"- they defrost completely mushy, as if they were canned. I only ever use frozen tomatoes for cooking, but since I enjoy using cooked tomatoes in many dishes, it's not a problem for me.
I either freeze tomatoes whole (less often) or chopped up (more often), and occasionally even first make them into tomato sauce before freezing. I try freezing them in the portion sizes in which I'd most likely need them to make my life easier. This time I froze chopped tomatoes in cup sized portions, which works out well for when I want to add tomatoes to a dish like curry or chili or whatever.
Carrots I usually end up getting grade A, but occasionally I get them grades B or C- wet, with many black moldy type looking spots on them. Usually these black spots aren't on my entire bag of carrots, and even when they are on a carrot, its usually just on the peel of the carrot- once peeled, the carrots are entirely normal. I sort through my carrots and if there are any carrots that are mushy, they get tossed. All the carrots with black spots get cooked right away. And the rest get washed with vinegar and saved for later.
Cucumbers- Though it is tempting to ferment these and make them into pickles, you can't salt pickle past prime cucumbers unless they are grade A- because grade B and C already have mold spores, and you'll likely just end up with mold, not pickles if you try to salt pickle. You can, however, extend the life of grades B and C cucumbers by making vinegar pickles or other recipes that are full of vinegar, like cucumber salad. Cucumbers are one of those veggies that I find are most quick to spoil, so these should be used up first. If you do notice the outside of a cucumber get wet and slightly slimy, try peeling it. If it is normal under the skin, use it immediately. If it is soft and gross under the skin, it's too late- toss it.
Peppers- After cutting out any icky parts, you can chop and freeze peppers, or just use them immediately. Slimy things need to be cut off. The day I came home from the farmer's market and had a bunch of peppers that were grade C (no wonder the vendor pretty much gave it to me for free) as well as a lot of grade B and C tomatoes, I chopped up the two and made chili.
Once you have the stuff all sorted out, if you have any grades C or B stuff still in your fridge, use those up first over the next few days. Eventually, you'll start noticing that grade B stuff will become grade C, and grades A will become B or C. To minimize spoilage, keep an eye out and watch as things get soft, and plan your menu around those items. When you see peppers needing to be used up, make a dish with them. Same with carrots or zucchini, etc... And if you see you can't use it when it needs using up, stick it in the freezer for later.
You can get a lot of produce, most of it even past prime, and still not have it spoil on you.
Now, a week after my last grocery shop, I have not had anything spoil on me yet. I still have a fridge filled with produce, and a freezer packed as well. I've saved my oranges until now, since I notice that they often last the longest. I have half my melons left, plus a couple of peaches and apples in my fridge. I used up the last of my fresh tomatoes today, since I saw they were starting to all go soft. The zucchinis that I finally used up today were still in perfect condition. I used up my cucumbers as well. All my firm bananas have been used up, and most of my carrots. My beets are also in pretty good condition. And my freezer is still packed with all the produce I froze last week... My celeriac roots were finished up, but I still have some of their stalks and leaves to still use.
I foraged a bunch of greens to supplement my vegetables, and hope to not go produce shopping again until at least next week. My goal to not let any of that 122 lbs of produce spoil is definitely doable- so far so good!
Do you buy past prime produce, or large quantities of produce in one go? What do you do to make sure that you don't end up chucking any of it into the trash? Or rather, how do you make sure to get the most use out of your produce?