Repurposing: The Fourth “R”

You’ve heard the expression “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” a million times probably, the Three R’s so commonly stated in anything sustainability-related.  Well, I propose we add a fourth: repurpose.  Sure, this could pertain to the typical recyclables here, but that’s not what I’m referring to.  I’m speaking strictly of the kitchen, where the cooking happens.  Food, specifically, and the incredible amount of waste we (I!) produce unnecessarily.

This is the story of how I came to take a stand against food waste, and how I plan to do my part in repurposing the foods I buy as much as possible.

A few months back an old Snowmass Lifty friend came to visit.  His name is Ian, and he left after the ’10-’11 season in Snowmass to pursue his passion in the culinary art.  He currently works as Sous Chef at Edibles, a top class restaurant in Rochester, NY and is planning to attend an honors program at a culinary school in New York City in the fall.

Skirt steak and green beans over a brussel sprout, bacon and potato hash

Naturally, he cooked two incredibly delicious meals for a gathering of friends while he was in town.  One of them was skirt steak and green beans with a brussel sprout, bacon and potato hash, and the other was a pork tenderloin served over mushroom risotto.  Also naturally, I was right behind him every step of the way, asking a million questions and taking pictures of every little thing he did.

He pan sauteed the potatoes in reserved bacon grease, which he used to flavor many elements of the meal

There was a focus in his eyes that I admired greatly while he cooked.  There was a purpose in his every preparation, and there was an absolute patience that I have yet to develop.  But what struck me the most about the way he cooked was the use of almost every meat scrap he trimmed and every part of the vegetables he diced.  Almost nothing went directly into the trash without being utilized in some way.  He told me that he often saves vegetable scraps from previous meals in a bowl in the fridge, using them to create a broth or sauce when he wants the extra depth of flavors.  “Fat”, he says unfailingly, “equals flavor”.  I assume he would say the same for vegetable skins, scraps and ends as well.  Absolute genius, this kid is!

Into this sauce he added beef fat trimmings, red wine, water, whole peppercorns, bay leaf, the skin and ends of an onion, salt, and butter

It’s this exact mentality that got me thinking about the amount of food we amateur chefs often waste in our preparation of a meal.  I had previously assumed that the fat trimmings and bacon grease should be disposed of immediately.  I never considered repurposing a lemon once the juice was squeezed, or the stem and skin of a vegetable that was not of immediate benefit to the meal.  It makes perfect sense now though, as I learn how to enhance my kitchen experience, that using these bits and pieces in nonconventional ways can not only enhance a flavor profile but also tie the elements of a meal together simply and without over-seasoning, which is crucial to a well-rounded meal.

Then, I stumbled upon the book An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.  It is a book in which the ideas are as invaluable as they are numerous (and with almost 300 pages, that’s a lot of ideas).   A main theme, I gather, is how to enhance flavors through simple cooking, mostly by repurposing pieces of your last meals to utilize in future cooking.  She says “the bones and shells and peels of things are where a lot of their goodness resides…the skins from onions, green tops from leeks, stems from herbs must all be swept directly into a pot instead of into a garbage.  Along with the bones from a chicken, raw or cooked, they are what it takes to make chicken stock, which you need never buy, once you decide to keep its ingredients instead of throwing them away.” (p. 81).  It makes sense that when you buy a whole ingredient you would want to make the most out of your purchase.  Another suggestion: “save the lovely green murk from the Swiss chard pan to warm the Swiss chard tomorrow, which will be happier for the chance to spend time with yesterday’s more experienced cooking” (p. 82).  This idea is applicable to far more than Swiss chard, just as this book is applicable, clearly, to far more than what I’ve described in this post.  I suggest that you read it.  Like…NOW.

Fat trimmings, skin and bones of meat can, and should, produce the richest broths when boiled in water.  But what about fruits and vegetables?  Citrus peels should be zested before they’re tossed, or further could be combined with sugar and water to produce a citrus simple syrup or be made into a marmalade to spread on some crusty toast.  You can save your fruit and veggie scraps in a small bowl in the fridge for up to a few days when you have the time to boil them in water and strain the ingredients to create a simple, easy and beautiful homemade vegetable broth.  Or take a handful of wilted greens and throw them in a blender with some garlic, a ton of olive oil and some toasted nuts and you’ve got yourself a homemade pesto.  You’re hopefully starting to get the idea here.

A mix of rainbow chard, celery stalks, celery leaves, parsley, and garlic

So, yesterday I found a whole bunch of wilted greens that were somehow forgotten among the kitchen frenzy that exists in this apartment of five.  In the spirit of Ian, I seized the opportunity to do something good for myself, the integrity of the greens and even the environment.  I coursely chopped the bunch, added it to some water in a saucepan and brought it to a boil.  To this mix I added a dash of salt, a couple cloves of whole garlic, and the core and skin of a tomato which I had just blanched for a different recipe.  Once boiling, I reduced the heat to a simmer and allowed it to sit for an hour or so, strained the solids, poured the liquid into a jar and placed it straight into the fridge. Now that I have a flavorful broth available anytime the next meal calls, I can do away with the greens guilt-free, knowing that I was able to repurpose them rather than just throwing them out blindly.

Not only is it the environmentally conscious choice to repurpose your scraps, ends and wilted produce, but it’s also fun to get your creative juices flowing and leads to a more flavorful meal.  Quite importantly, though, and not always considered, it provides each individual ingredient with a purpose greater than one flavor in one meal.  By extracting flavors, nutrients and textures that might otherwise have been thrown out, you are extending the life of a plant or animal.  And for the amount of vitality plants and animals bestow upon us as humans, it’s really the least we can do.

Think about it.

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Roasted Tomatillo Avocado Salsa

When I was in college I found this awesome recipe for chicken enchiladas.  While the enchiladas turned out really well, all in all it took me about five time consuming hours to make them. This entailed roasting a whole chicken from start to finish, preparing the sauce from scratch, assembling the dish and then baking.  It’s not that I mind spending a few hours cooking a dish, or even all day if that’s what it takes and I have the time on my hands.  It’s just that between work, school, family and social life or whatever other hobbies we choose to spend out time doing, it’s not always a possibility.  Thus, it’s important for me to find shortcuts in cooking that can ease the accessibility of a recipe that might otherwise take a million years.

For instance, a whole chicken pre-roasted on a lazy sunday can last up to a week in the fridge.  I like to roast the chicken and then shred it, the pieces of which can be used in home-cooked meals for the next few days.  Or as another example, the roasted tomatillo salsa with which I topped my chicken enchiladas in college.

For those who are unfamiliar with a tomatillo, its a green fruit bearing a similar resemblance to a tomato that comes wrapped in a husk.  Tomatillos are best eaten when cooked and have a sweet tangy flavor that can be found in many traditional Mexican staple dishes.  My tomatillo salsa recipe is a simple, easy way to make a sauce that goes well with any number of latin-themed dishes.  You can top it on tacos, quesadillas, burritos, or enchiladas, use it as a salad dressing in a taco salad, or even serve as an appetizer with a bag of tortilla chips.  In my version I add avocado, which gives it a creamy consistency in between a salsa and guacamole.

 

Roasted Tomatillo Avocado Salsa

Ingredients:

  • 5 or 6 healthy looking tomatillos, husks peeled and washed
  • Half an onion chopped into quarters (in my pictures I used a red onion, causing my salsa to take on an almost pink color.  I would recommend using a white or yellow onion to prevent this discoloration)
  • One jalapeno, sliced in half length-wise, and then halved again (for spicier salsa, keep the seeds in tact.  For mild, remove seeds and white inner pith)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 avocado, peel and seed removed
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350.  Poke a few holes in each tomatillo with a fork.  Assemble the first four ingredients onto a baking sheet and toss into oven for at least half an hour, or until the juices begin to seep from the tomatillos and all ingredients are thoroughly caramelized and softened (without being burned).  Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes.  Add all ingredients to a blender, including raw avocado, olive oil, salt and pepper and pulse until smooth (its okay if there are a few chunks).

So, in conclusion what I’m really trying to say here is that if you have a tendency to be incredibly lazy at times like me, then you’ll come to love and appreciate all the little shortcuts we can take in the kitchen during those precious moments when we are actually feeling a bit inspired.  I’ve created a new category on my blog called “short cuts” where you can find this recipe as well as other similar posts in the future to help make cooking just that much more convenient for all of us busy folk.