How to save the planet, one leftover soup at a time.

How Cooking Like Your Great-Grandma Can Help Save the Planet
White wine coq au vin, from Sunset's Test Kitchen. Photograph by Peden + Munk.

Your great-grandma probably lived on a budget. She didn’t throw anything away if she could help it; she found clever (and I hope for your family’s sake, delicious), ways of using scraps and trimmings. She probably assessed her fridge and pantry on a daily basis and worked whatever she found into a series of nourishing dinners. In short, she learned how to use her leftovers.

As it turns out, throwing away leftovers is not only a waste of money but also a mean thing to do to the planet: rotting leftovers release methane, a gas that the EPA says is 20 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. Not good.

Great-grandma also probably made a lot of soup, a miracle way to use up leftovers. Cooked meat, rice, pasta, vegetables—just about anything can go into soup.

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In honor of Earth Day and inspired by my great-grandma, my grandma, and especially my mother, who makes soup at least twice a week, I’m going to make soup tonight.

As a template, I’ll start with a great coq au vin recipe from our Sunset Test Kitchen. But I will depart freely, guided by the bits and pieces from my fridge and freezer:

  • Leftover chicken.
  • Chicken broth that I made and froze a couple of months ago, as a gift to my future self. Thank you, self!
  • A tiny bit of white wine. Not as much as the recipe calls for, but the soup will taste good anyway.
  • Carrots, onions, potatoes, and half a fresh fennel bulb.
  • A couple of dried red chiles.
  • A handful of pasta.
  • The hard, impossible-to-grate heel of a chunk of Parmesan cheese that has been in my fridge for approximately a month.
  • At the very end, tons of fresh herbs—some of them from the pots on my patio: Parsley, cilantro, a little mint, even.

This will all take about half an hour. Then my significant other, Peter, and I will sit down to huge bowls of this bright, fragrant soup, with crusty bread. We’ll have a glass of wine and drizzle some olive oil into our bowls, and we’ll be happy.

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