It’s Time To Fix Home Kitchen Food Waste

As much as we love Thanksgiving, there’s a problem there, one that we’ve tried to address as an enduring theme here – managing and avoiding food waste. Huge amounts of it, and frankly, it’s not just the holidays. It’s every day, in our home kitchens. Massive waste. It’s time to address that.

Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.

Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.

There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.

That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.

The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?

When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?

Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.

When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.

When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.

And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.

A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’

Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.

To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.

Potato Peel Stock

5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
2 Carrots
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper

Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.

Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.

Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.

Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies

Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.

Where the last of your turkey needs to be
Where the last of your turkey needs to be

And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.

We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taster or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

A Tale of FIFO

I’ve written here on the FIFO principle before; standing for First In, First Out, it’s a core concept to adopt in any kitchen. FIFO is critical to food safety, and the best way to reduce waste in your kitchen.

This weekend, I was cooking at my Sister’s, when… Well, I’ll just let her tell the story – Check it out here.

A tart, sort of...

It looked good though, didn’t it?

Scared Local Yet?

If ever there was a siren song for reform of our food production and distribution system, this New Yorker piece is it. Read it, and get involved. Start by buying local whenever you can. Know your sources for what you put in your body every day. Take a stand on the system that allows this kind of thing to exist and multiply, and make your voice heard. I don't know what our governments spend most of their time doing, but it isn't properly regulating this. Let's light a fire under 'em.

 

Storing Oils & Fats

Follower Christy sent another great question, “Which oils/fats need to be refrigerated and which do not. Also, shelf life. I'm always looking at that little bottle of sesame oil and wondering…”

Heres another topic that simply doesn't get the attention it should, from both a food quality and food safety perspective, so let's have a look.

Air, heat, light, and age all can and will negatively impact the quality of most edible oils. High storage temperature and oxygen exposure are the primary causes of spoiled oil. Rancidity will result rather quickly if not properly stored. The same compounds that provide the smells and flavors we like in a given oil will cause unpleasant changes if we're not careful. That means, naturally, you should store your oils in a cool, dark, dry place, and in an airtight container. As such, cruets or open top pour spouts are not the best choice, even in a busy home kitchen. Additionally, exposure to direct sunlight causes a substantial loss of antioxidants, especially tocopherols, meaning many of the benefits of healthy oil choices are lost as well.

Rancid oil generally won't do you serious harm; nonetheless, it's obviously not a desirable pantry guest. When your oil looks, smells, or tastes off, it is, and should be discarded. Smells described as winey, metallic, or skunky are clear signs that something is amiss.

As for shelf life, the method of production for the oil in question has a bearing. Most unrefined oils, (cold or expeller pressed), will keep for 3 to 6 months, properly stored. They may be refrigerated, and will last a bit longer as a result, though they'll tend to solidify and will need to return to room temperature to liquefy again. Too many such cycles can impact the chemistry of the oil, and the need to re-liquefy might inhibit spontaneity, so you're probably best served buying smaller quantities and storing carefully at room temperature. If that sesame oil Christy mentioned is older than 6 months, it's time for it to go. Refined oils, (oils obtained from heat and solvent extraction), tend to keep twice as long as unrefined oils; at least 6 to 12 months if stored properly. Oils high in polyunsaturated fat, (walnut, safflower, and hazelnut oil, for instance), have a much shorter shelf life than high monounsaturated, (think peanut), or saturated fat oils, (like canola). Again, refrigerated storage is an option, but small containers of fresh oil at room temp is best.

Most solid fats traditionally used in cooking are animal based, (lard, ghee, duck fat, schmaltz, etc), however tropical plant oils such as coconut oil, (one of my favorites), are also solid or semisolid at room temperature, as are vegetable shortening and margarine, (made from plant oils and solid due to the hydrogenation process). Many solid fats also contain a higher proportion of saturated fat than liquid fats do; as such they're generally quite stable and will keep well for at least 6 months. Solid fats will absorb the flavor or scent of other foods readily, so should be kept in airtight containers.

Our industrial food system has lead us all, to some degree, toward keeping things longer than we should. Just because something can last 6 months doesn't necessarily mean that we really want to cook with it. I'll guarantee that, whether the ingredient be oil, fat, spice, or even flour, fresh will always taste better than many moons old.