It’s 8 p.m., the night before I’m leaving on a trip of eleven nights, and I realize the fruit left in the refrigerator will rot. Most people at this hour would pack and repack; instead, I panic, slice, and dice. The blueberries and half of the strawberries easily pack a plastic bag destined for the freezer, as do the chunks of cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew. I beckon my partner into the kitchen to deal with her vine-ripened tomatoes, and when she notices a blemish, she effortlessly tosses them into the compost bin. I, on the other hand, am consumed with guilt when I cannot save the raspberries and the other half of the strawberries from the same fate, their hints of mold unworthy of any future role.
Raised around a dinner table where the mantra was “taste everything on the plate,” rather than “waste not want not” or “there are starving children in Africa,” I grew up appreciating a variety of food tastes, learning that eating meant much more than nutrition. Eating meant delighting in the purity of taste, fully enjoying my meal, and sometimes leaving a plate almost licked clean. My parents did not view food as readily disposable, and they never obsessed over scraps of food remaining unclaimed.
My father, raised during the Depression, disliked tossing dinner leftovers from the refrigerator into the trash, and on many weekend mornings, he would proclaim the tastiness of aged cold pizza or leftover Chinese food. While I occasionally eat some leftover dinner food for breakfast, I have converted a genetic tendency to keep food from the trash into my superhuman powers of recycling. Over the past couple of years, transformative acts of food creation taught me that food can be a gift that keeps on giving.
Most people toss the wilted leaves of lettuce, limp flavorless pieces of celery, slightly soggy onions, tough stems of kale, and random bits of unused herbs into the garbage, or compost bin if they feel guilty for trashing veggies. In my kitchen, these become highly valued ingredients for a tasty uncomplicated vegetable stock. Gather all the scraps and let them congregate in a large pot, cover with water, add the rind (the part that usually ends up in the garbage) off of that big piece of Parmesan cheese that has been exiled to the back of the fridge for months, and simmer on the stove for three to five hours. Strain and discard everything but the flavorful broth into the sink disposal.
I don’t just limit myself to veggie stock. Beef bones make the perfect ingredient for a hearty beef stock, something I prepare just in case I’m inspired to cook onion soup. Unfortunately, my dog does not take kindly to losing his bone to my obsessive savior complex, so be forewarned that a sulking dog is almost enough to make this food conservator abandon her mission.
When it comes to shrimp, however, my dog shows no interest. My freezer has been keeping a huge bag of shrimp peels hostage for many months, and even though they have yet to be liberated, I sleep better knowing that if a risotto or bisque beckons, a shrimp stock is close at hand.
Stocks are not the only realm where my food conservator triumphs. Baguettes hold great promise for a future reincarnated. Since their taste diminishes after a day or so, there’s always opportunity for croutons, breadcrumbs, crostinis, or stratas—never the trash.
Several months ago, I saved an innocent bowl of reconstituted shitake mushroom water from the kitchen sink. After pondering possibilities, I settled on spilling the fungi liquid into a pot of boiling water to soften the rice pasta and flavor it with a hint of mushroom.
Recently, after an inaugural session of mozzarella cheese making, I began staring down a gallon of whey. I could not fathom pouring it down the sink; I desperately needed to reuse it. When my hopes to transform whey into ricotta cheese were dashed–my leftovers were of the acidic kind, not suited for other cheeses–a bit of research turned up several options: feed it to dogs, pigs, chickens; use it in pancakes, pizza dough, breads; soak grains to help them be more digestible; cook rice in it; add it to soups and stock.
I did attempt to feed the dog some whey, but he immediately walked away, unimpressed. I soaked several cups of dry beans in this milky bath overnight, only to discover no tasty difference between this method and my typical water soaking. I added whey to a vegetable stock base for the roasted squash, sitting in the freezer for eight months, and the chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, sitting in the refrigerator from their last use a week ago, and finally achieved success. Combining all these leftovers, carefully preserved by the food conservator, yielded a delicious soup.
While I admit that the inside of my freezer appears as if Armageddon is approaching–plastic bags filled with discarded food ends–there is no call for alarm. This waste actually finds its way to inspired new beginnings, saved from its demise in the compost pile. My food conservator ultimately sees all this waste as a possibility to test the limits of creativity, not a condition worthy of a DSM IV diagnosis. I proudly proclaim myself an equal opportunity employer for all foods usually relegated to the scrap pile.