I usually start my stories on a lighter note.
But this isn’t much of a laughing matter.
Since I came to this country, I have been amazed by the nice
people, the good food, and the general sense of abundance
and well-being. But while walking around several neighborhoods looking for a place to rent, poverty and homelessness can be seen everywhere—the same as any big city in Chile.
It sparked me to do some research, and the results were staggering.
One in six Americans struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. Really? Here? In the U.S.? Why?
Of course it’s not a problem of money or food—there
is enough for everyone. The real issue is two-fold: how food is distributed and how food is wasted.
Consider this chilling anecdote:
“Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of
the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land,
and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the
United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States
today goes uneaten.” (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2012)
Wow, 40 percent. As a visitor to this country, it’s hard to believe that isn’t the great public scandal of our day.
American families throw out approximately a quarter of the food and beverages they buy, the reasons myriad: confusion over label dates, spoilage due to improper storage, impulse or bulk purchases, or just poor planning and over-preparation. But the most important problem, and an underlying cause of all the rest, is how we undervalue foods—a lack of understanding the nature of what you eat everyday.
Which leads me to write about it here.
Food is not something to take for granted. We enjoy it, we love it, and we talk a lot about it—especially in the pages of Stock & Barrel—but we also should consider its economic, environmental, and social implications. You can donate all the dollars you want to hunger, but what really matters is the changes you can make at home.
So I asked for the assistance of , a 27-year-old Columbus chef with experience in highly recognized restaurants in New York City (Mission Chinese and the legendary WD-50), as well as in Veritas Tavern in Delaware. Avishar, who is starting a new project with chef Silas Caeton (also ex-Veritas and head of Kitchen and Threads), represents a new generation of cooks: socially conscious and opinionated, and in ongoing dialogue with nature, people, and culture. Over a long and caffeinated conversation at Mission Coffee, we tried to dig into his experience at restaurants and also as a home chef, to find inspiration and education on avoiding household food waste.
The result? Eight useful lessons and one excellent recipe for you to try. Time’s a-wastin!
1. Freeze it
Besides cooked potatoes (the texture gets weird), cooked eggs, and whole fruits, you should be down to freeze just about anything. The texture of whole vegetables and fruits will be probably ruined after freezing, so dice, puree, or juice them beforehand and use them for smoothies, sauces, or soups. Best things to freeze? Avishar has two favorites: cooked rice and bread.
“Usually you buy more than you need, and if it is a good bread and you want to preserve it, slice it, put in a Ziploc bag. It loses no quality in the freezer.”
And of course “look at what you have in the freezer and use it.” Just remember to check what you already have stored away before your next grocery shopping trip.
2. Rescue the flavor
If you have any leftover sauces or cooking juices, just freeze them so they can be used again in future preparations. Chinese cuisine does this often with master sauces, which are saved and used again and again, developing a deep, potent flavor. Barua talks about how to avoid wasting flavorful scraps.
“If you have leftover roasted chicken carcass, make it a soup, and now you have roasted chicken stock. You can use even what is cooked, and you can use it again. There is always more flavor you can get out of it.”
You can use sugar to preserve fruits scraps, too, useful for infusions. You can add flavor to spirits, oils, and vinegars by infusing them with tasty scraps. Grapefruit zest-infused gin, anyone?
3. Perfection is for losers…
Unless it’s for a special occasion. You’re house isn’t a restaurant, so the food you make doesn’t have to look like it. You don’t have to make a perfect square from your salmon fillet for your Tuesday dinner. But for special dishes—like a holiday dinner—if you need filets or uniform pieces, try buying the whole fish or cut of meat. With a little bit of research you can have some fun cutting it yourself and leaving yourself scraps to extend your purchase. Steak and chicken bones make for excellent stocks, and buying things like whole salmon give you an alternative option for the scraps.
“We once had to get salmon fillets from a whole big salmon—all pieces had to be regular. You want them all to look nice and uniform because it is a restaurant. But we were doing salmon hamburgers with the rest of the non-regular pieces. We were grinding it out and making salmon patties. We started doing it to save money, and then we had to order scraps because people liked it so much.”
4. Embrace nose-to-tail
This restaurant concept isn’t so applicable at home, because, well, who is going to buy a whole pig? But at least buy whole chickens when possible, and learn how to butcher and utilize them entirely. Beyond that, support nose-to-tail restaurants, and try to go out of your comfort zone and try new animal parts or organ meats that you normally wouldn’t.
Barua said there was zero waste at Mission Chinese:
“We were buying pieces that people wouldn’t normally buy. We bought lamb breast before it was like a huge deal; we used the turkey neck. We were going to the butchers and [saying], ‘What are you not selling, what are you not using?” He encourages us to be brave and ask the butcher for the same.
“I think the scraps are actually the best parts to cook with. They have a lot of collagen, extra fat. They would give you a lot of things you wont get from a standard prime cut.”
5. Dry and grind
You don’t need a dehydrator. With your oven, creativity and patience you will be fine. Dry carrot peels, herbs, citrus rinds, fruits, and vegetable scraps. Just be sure to dry everything thinly sliced or chopped in small pieces, so it doesn’t take too much time.
“At restaurants, we dry and powder things a lot. If you put anything in a sheet and dry to low heat, you can make your own spice mix.”
7. Fat is the new black
Avishar’s message is clear: don’t throw away the fat. It is pure flavor and goes well with everything. Just don’t eat it by the pound, or every day.
“Don’t be afraid of fat. Love fat. Animal fat can [be] better for you than margarine or artificial stuff.
You can use bacon fat or lard. Anytime you make a stock, it is naturally seasoned fat, so render it and use it. When you buy a steak, I encourage to buy the big piece and cut it in pieces. You have the trim. Or if you buy trim and it has fat in it, render out the beef fat and use it to reinforce the beef flavor. You don’t need to be afraid of it, just use in moderation. It is not as bad as we thought is was. Lard is more pure than a lot of fats [that] we use. Oh yeah, don’t be afraid of fat.”
8. Love the leftovers
Cooked items can be stored in the fridge for up to one week. So don’t toss it, especially when this “aging” process can improve the flavor, just like what happens in stews, soups, or almost everything that has been cooked long and slow. Braised meats are delectable the next day, and Barua says old ice cream makes for great sauces, like a crème anglaise.
“Dip leftover cake in it; melted ice cream into milk and cereal is the best.”
If you weren’t listening until now, leftover ice cream ought to do the trick.
The Recipe: Fried Rice
The best application for an at-home food scrap recipe, Barua says, is frying frozen rice. “All Chinese restaurants use one-day-old rice to make the dried rice. Frying it from cool or frozen is the secret.”
So, here, we unlock the secret with a recipe adaptable to anything and everything you may have in your fridge or freezer. The most important thing is the technique. Please try to use day-old or cold rice, as the starches have set, improving your chances of success. Freshly steamed rice can get gummy if not finessed properly.
1.5 cups cooked rice, cold or frozen
2 eggs, beaten vigorously with chopsticks
3 tbsp. neutral cooking oil or butter
2 tbsp. oyster sauce (if you don’t have it, now is a good time to buy it!)
1 tsp. chili garlic sauce/Sambel Oelek (Sriracha is fine, and hopefully somewhere in your fridge)
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. garlic, minced
1 tsp. ginger, minced
1 tsp. scallion whites, minced
1 tbsp. scallion greens, cut into rings
1/3 cup leftover meat, diced medium
1/2 cup leftover vegetables, diced medium
Use a 12- to 14-inch wok, preferably carbon steel (if not available, use a 10- to 12-inch skillet, being mindful that everything will cook faster due to the extra surface area of a skillet versus a wok)
An open mind and common sense
1. Preheat wok/skillet over high heat. The wok is ready when a drop of water evaporates within one to two seconds. If using non-stick, add oil from step two before preheating. When oil begins to shimmer it is ready.
2. Swirl in one tablespoon cooking oil and allow to coat the bottom of the wok. Immediately add the beaten eggs and scramble quickly with a spatula, or roll into a thin omelet if you are awesome. Remove and set aside just before you think it is done (a moment before all egg mass is fully coagulated). Season with salt and pepper as desired.
3. Bring cleaned wok back up to temperature. Swirl in remaining two tablespoons cooking oil. Add ginger, garlic, and scallion whites, and stir-fry until aromatic. Do not burn.
4. Add leftover ingredients. If raw meat or vegetable scraps are being used, cook until soft or just under fully cooked.
5. Add rice and stir-fry, breaking up any clumps to ensure rice stays separated and begins to sizzle (the difference between stir-frying and steaming). If rice begins to stick, add extra oil as needed to keep all ingredients lubricated and in motion.
6. After rice is hot, all grains are separated, and other ingredients are all warmed through (taste it after two to three minutes), add oyster sauce and chili garlic sauce, and stir to incorporate.
7. Adjust final seasoning with salt and pepper, add reserved egg and scallion greens, swirl in sesame oil, and plate.
8. Eat while hot!