Right now, as we burrow in, it’s important to make sure we all make the most of our food. Here’s how.
The Homemade Kitchen | Clarkson Potter, 2015
“Oh, the food we waste.”
Thus begins one of many practical and information-crammed essays tucked within Alana Chernila’s cookbook-cum-homekeeping-how-to-manual, The Homemade Kitchen. Unlike so many trendy treatises on DIY everything, Chernila’s book seems to come less from a place of hey-look-at-me-environmental-do-gooder-ness and more from a sense of plain-old-fashioned-do-the-right-thing-ness. Take those five words that begin her essay on how to waste less food. And yet as you read Chernila’s girl-next-door prose, you’ll be reminded that when it comes to making a difference, all the hipster artisanal soda-making and bacon-curing and small-batch bourbon-imbibing and heirloom pickle-creating in the world can’t counteract all the waste taking place cumulatively in kitchens around the planet each day. And yet it’s not an insurmountable shift that needs to be made. Changing even a single habit? That’s powerful. As Chernila says, quiet revolutions add up. We’re sharing her thoughts on how to waste less food essay below, and, in the spirit of inspiring insurrection, we’ve included several suggestions of our own. Got some frugal tricks you’d like to share? We know you do. Kindly let us know in a comment below.—Renee Schettler
Oh, the food we waste.
It wasn’t always this way. Many of us are descended from immigrants who scraped and saved to get here and arrived with nothing. My family stepped off the boat just in time to settle into tiny apartments to sit out the Great Depression. There was no such thing as wasted scraps then. Bones were stunning centerpieces of great meals, cooked, stewed, and celebrated for their marrow. Vegetable peels were pressed together for pancakes, and a soup was an opportunity to make nearly anything edible. My grandmother, the youngest of nine in a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, survived off scraps entirely. Her father made gin in the bathtub and sold it to feed all the open-mouthed birds in his nest.
As food became cheaper and its production more industrialized, habits shifted. Scraps became garbage. Now even the most well-intentioned and frugal eaters clear out the crisper, pulling out bags of slimy parsley and forgotten carrots that bend at the waist. We throw away bones, discard bread ends, and buy vegetables that have been peeled, cored, or stripped down to their most attractive parts. Romaine hearts come bare and naked, as do the inner bits of artichokes.
Food production has become a system of waste and excess, and it’s hard to find our way out.
Start here, with a curvy butternut squash. You may live in a world of wasted scraps, but today you’ve used this whole vegetable, and you’re sticking it to the man, one bowl of spicy squash seeds at a time. Quiet revolutions add up.
USE YOUR SCRAPS
Butternut Squash Seeds
Cut a butternut squash from top to bottom with your sharpest knife, preparing it for roasting. Then scoop out the sticky seeds at its center and place them in a bowl you’ve set in the corner of your cutting board. Once you tuck the squash into the oven, fill the bowl with water and agitate the strings and seeds with your hands to make the seeds rise to the top. Fish out the seeds, boil them in salted water for 5 minutes, drain, and dry in a towel. Toss with oil (about 1 teaspoon per cup of seeds) and salt. You can also add chili powder, cumin, rosemary—any herbs or spices you like. Roast in a 350°F (177°C) oven until they pop and sizzle, 17 to 20 minutes, shuffling the seeds around halfway through the baking time.
Bread ends become sweet bread puddings and bread crumbs.
For the more adventurous, apple cores make vinegar. [Editor’s Note: And for the less adventurous, whole bananas can be tossed in the freezer, peel and all, and then thawed, peeled, and blended into smoothies.]
Any time you have a Parmesan rind, throw it in a bag or container in the freezer. Add a chunk to a pot of soup, and it will infuse the soup with a deep, ripe, and wonderful flavor.
Make a pesto of 2 cups packed cleaned and chopped beautiful green carrot tops (remove the large stems), 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 chopped garlic clove, and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Process in a blender or a small food processor, or by hand with a mortar and pestle. Then add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, and process again.
Save chicken, beef, or pork bones in the freezer until you’re ready to make stock. Then pack the bones into a pot along with a leek (or leek top), a carrot, a few garlic cloves, a handful of peppercorns, a tomato if you have one, and any fresh herbs you have on hand. Just barely cover with water. Cook, covered, on low heat for at least 2 hours but up to all day. You can also follow this process in a slow cooker. Pack the cooker at night and you’ll have rich stock by the morning.
Slice stale bagels as thin as you can (carefully!) and cut old pitas and dried-out tortillas into wedges. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake in a 350°F (177°C) oven for 12 to 18 minutes, until brown and crispy. Use instead of crackers.
If you buy beets, turnips, kohlrabi, or radishes with their greens, separate the roots from the greens when you get home, as they store better separately. Cook up the greens as you would kale or Swiss chard.
Treat tough green leek tops and other veggie scraps as you would bones for stock. Celery leaves also go into stock. [Editor’s Note: Also carrot peels, onion skins, cilantro stems, the outer layers of lemongrass and ginger, and so on. Even carrot tops!] Keep a separate bag in the freezer and toss in scraps as you create them. When it’s time to make stock, throw them all in the pot.
Whether you fry or bake bacon, pour the bacon grease into a jar, straining it through cheesecloth or a paper towel to get rid of any bits. Store the jar in the pantry and use it to fry pancakes, collard greens, and other foods that benefit from bacon’s smokiness.
For food scraps that just can’t be eaten, the last stop is compost. No matter where you live or what you know about composting, try to find a way to incorporate it into your kitchen. The best composters create a carefully crafted scientifically balanced cocktail of dry and wet and the perfect nutrients, but most of us have a pile of scraps on the side of the yard that go into the garden or dissolve back into the earth right where they are. If you live in the city, there are small composting systems for you, too, or maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a city that composts for you. However you compost, you’re keeping it from the landfill. [Editor’s Note: Compostable materials include coffee grinds, tea leaves, crushed egg shells, strawberry hulls, any veggie or fruit that’s become soft or slimy, the pulp from your juicer, wilted flowers, and so, so much more. Here’s a more complete list of what you can compost.]
STORE YOUR FOOD PROPERLY
Of course, this shift in mind-set is not all about using up the scraps. To have scraps in good shape in the first place, we need to be conscious of how we store our food and how strategically we use it. Here, tools that help food last longer.
Tape and a marker
How many times do you throw something away because you just can’t remember how many days it’s been in the fridge? Keep masking tape and a permanent marker right by the fridge, and label food as it goes in.
If you’ve got leftovers that you’re not sure when you’ll use, freeze them right away. Got half a jar of pasta sauce left? Freeze it. Half a ginger? Freeze it. Use the freezer liberally and generously. And label everything.
I try to decant everything in the pantry into a jar to eliminate stale chips and crackers, hard dried fruit, and everything else that happens when my family hastily grabs a bag and puts it back without sealing it properly. Mason jars seal nearly airtight. They’re also inexpensive and easy to find at any supermarket or hardware store. [Editor’s Note: And almost every flea market or vintage housewares store!] Originally published October 10, 2015.<
Chiming back in with a couple of more ideas. Lately I’ve been consciously choosing vegetables that produce less waste. For example, instead of the widely available large eggplant, I buy small Italian or Asian type as the thin peel can be eaten. Same with squash or pumpkin—whenever available, I buy kabocha in place of butternut or pumpkin, as the dark green skin is deceptively tender when cooked. In fact in Japan, kabochas are almost never peeled. Smaller younger turnips and beets, and English cucumbers also make my shopping cart before their larger counterparts do.
Chiyo, thank you for this! We love the way you think.
In addition to saving bacon and chicken fat, almost never peeling carrots and potatoes, and composting, here are some of other things I do to reduce food waste:
I chop up cauliflower leaves (with their thick white ribs) and add them to soups and stews. They are like sweet cabbage.
The green part of leeks can be used for stock. Wash, pat dry, and freeze. Grab them right out of the freezer and add them to the pot.
I also save shrimp shells (put them in a bag and freeze them until I’m ready to use them) to make seafood stock.
I zest all lemons, limes, and oranges before composting the peels. The zest is frozen in individual bags and used for salads (tuna salad!), marinades, cakes, etc.
Lovely and perfect and inspiring, Chiyo. Many thanks!
I, too, grew up with both my grandmother as well as my mother never wasting anything, and not due to economics (apart from the Portuguese revolution time), but because it is simply wrong letting food go to waste. Still, to date, I avoid wasting. Any seeds are roasted and replanted, all veggies that are starting to go are immediately thrown in a soup or veggie stock, bones are reserved for stock, shrimp shells are oven dried and then created into a fine powder to be used as a shrimp concentrate, fat is always resused, stale bread goes into soup or açorda, and all meat leftovers are frozen and, when we have enough, we create meat croquettes. Even red wine leftovers are pouring into an opened jar to have wine vinegar and so on.
Sofia, wow, you are truly an example to us all. Thanks!
Great idea regarding winter squash seeds, including pumpkin, but don’t know why you bother with the parboiling. I just fry them up in peanut oil with plenty of kosher salt & leave them out on the counter for the family to nosh on. They don’t last long.
Question about the bacon fat–I used to do that until I read that toxins accumulate in fat. So unless a person uses bacon that is naturally cured exclusively is this really safe?
Similar question regarding saving vegetable peels, onion skins, etc.–unless you buy all organic produce wouldn’t there be too many pesticides in peelings to make this a safe practice?
Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to share your seeds trick. Good to know! As for bacon drippings and vegetable scraps, I’m speaking from my own personal preference here as science seems to be conflicted on the topic, but yes, absolutely, ideally all this repurposing of scraps would be done only with naturally cultivated and raised veggies and meats. Whatever one chooses to bring into one’s household, one can use the scraps frugally, although I believe one is far better off if as much as you can manage to afford contains no nitrates, antiobiotics, GMOs, pesticides, etc.