Trash is for tossers, so eat up
Top tips to avoid food waste, and the guilt that can accompany it
In the best professional kitchens today, none of that waste would be permitted
“Waste is a failure of the imagination”, chef and restaurateur Douglas McMaster, of Silo restaurant in Brighton, told the audience at Galway’s Food on the Edge festival.
Just to add a little salt to the wound, he offered us another unforgettable aphorism: “Trash is for tossers.”
Oh dear. As if we didn’t already feel bad about the amount of waste that our cooking and our kitchens produce every day of every week of the year. It’s become a modern truism that one of the worst things for our mental health isn’t the food we eat, it’s the food we don’t eat: the stuff we throw away is crippling us with anxiety. We’re the tossers.
So, what can we do to remove the anxiety of creating food waste that we know is bad for the planet? And how can we do so without it requiring time that we simply don’t have?
For many people, especially those who live alone, the answer to avoiding waste is to buy convenience foods, foods that are ready-made, in single portions. You heat it up, eat it up, and it seems simple. Until you consider the amount of processing that is common in these foods, and the horrendous amount of packaging that they require.
Convenience foods are not the answer, for your health, or the health of the planet.
Part of the problem with creating waste is the very way in which we think of food. We buy a bunch of carrots, and toss away the tops. We buy a bunch of beets, and chuck away the leaves. We peel our spuds, and our parsnips and our Brussels sprouts, and throw away the peelings.
In the best professional kitchens today, none of that waste would be permitted. The carrot tops are used to make a carrot top pesto. Beet leaves are used the same way as spinach, and the beet stalks are chopped and cooked. Potato skins and many other elements are repurposed through being dried, pickled, or preserved. In a professional kitchen, waste costs money.
In her brilliant book The Cultured Club, Dearbhla Reynolds, the leading fermentation expert in Northern Ireland, shows just how far you can take this idea. Reynolds saves her avocado stones to grate over sandwiches or salads, or to incorporate into smoothies. She uses pineapple skin to make the Mexican drink, tepache, and she grinds up eggshells to sprinkle over her porridge, all the better to get at all the calcium locked into the shell.
So, the most obvious way to reduce food waste is to use it all. And to use it all, it is best to cook it all. How many times have you come back from Saturday shopping, stacked a bunch of stuff away in the fridge, then gone back on Wednesday evening only to discover that the broccoli florets are squidgy and the tomatoes are turning black.
One of the best lessons I learned from a smart book on frugal cooking, An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler, is that the ideal time to cook is straight away, when you get home from the shops.
If you roast that broccoli, then it will only need to be gently reheated on Wednesday evening, and being cooked means it will hold better. When the carrot tops are fresh, make that pesto: by Wednesday evening they will be stalky and past their best.
If you get a whole heap of cooking done after the shopping, then mid-week means good eating, and no tossing stuff into the trash.
And here’s the other thing the weekend is good for: cooking something that will give you delicious meals of leftovers. Some of the most imaginative food writing of recent years, from talents such as Jamie Oliver and Diana Henry, is actually all about using left-overs.
Jamie Oliver’s book, Save With Jamie, is a brilliant resource for ideas that can follow on from the Sunday lunch. Your leftover roast lamb, for example, goes on to make burritos; Scotch broth; lamb noodle salad; shepherd’s pie; lamb pastilla; and lamb biryani.
Diana Henry roasts a chicken, and then uses what is left to make Chiang Mai noodles; chicken and parsley risotto; Vietnamese chicken; chicken and ham pie; chicken and bread salad; and chicken with wild rice and blueberries.
The only thing these dishes need is leftovers, and a little imagination. The result is no wasted food to make you feel bad.
April Bloomfield’s Carrot Top Pesto
100g delicate carrot tops, stems discarded, roughly chopped
Small handful basil leaves
55g walnut halves
25g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 medium garlic clove, halved lengthwise
1 tsp sea salt
110ml extra virgin olive oil
Combine the carrot tops and basil in a small food processor, pulse several times, then add the walnuts, Parmesan, garlic and salt. Pulse several more times, add the oil, then process full-on, stopping and scraping down the sides of the processor or stirring gently if need be, until the mixture is well combined but still a bit chunky. Taste and season with more salt, if you fancy.
John McKenna is editor at guides.ie