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A Waste of Thyme?

The effects of climate change have long been a concern of mine, particularly on the topic of food waste and I’ve been hugely inspired by the young Swedish environmentalist, Greta Thunberg with her call to arms highlighting the imminent dangers of global warming. According to a YouGov poll in June 2019, public concern about the environment has soared to record levels in the UK since Thunberg “pierced the bubble of denial”. Thanks to vociferous campaigners such as Thunberg there can be few amongst us who have been left unaware of the challenges we all face from climate change and I feel strongly that through my role at The Cooking Academy it behoves me to encourage people to make the small changes that I know can bring long term benefits.

My upbringing absolutely compels me to wage a war on food waste. I grew up in a house where you were expected to eat every last grain of rice, not because of monetary implications but from a spiritual standpoint. It was embedded into my consciousness that people were dying from hunger in other parts of the world and thus wasting food was considered to be sinful. My parents also imbued in me an absolute respect for the land and for nature’s produce.

Today of course there are additional factors that must be taken seriously with regard to food waste. The scale of our profligacy is quite simply staggering, here in Britain we throw away 5 million tonnes of perfectly edible food every year, in other words a third of the food purchased per annum is never eaten. It doesn’t stop there, waste food decomposing in landfill sites releases greenhouse gases that are hugely detrimental to the environment. There’s a moral issue too, surely the surplus foods languishing in these very landfill sites should be used to nourish those who are in food poverty? And what of the wasted energy it takes to grow, harvest, transport and package?

As a chef and food scientist, but more importantly a human being, these issues surrounding food waste trouble me greatly. Common sense tells me that the situation we find ourselves in stems from a number of factors which, with the right approach and education could easily be addressed.  I seek to use this piece to identify the surmountable barriers that it is possible to overcome in order to significantly reduce our domestic food waste.

Packaging

Many products are packaged in quantities that are simply too large for our needs including fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables which inevitably results in an element of wastage. This plastic packaging creates a disconnect between the quantities that we do buy versus what we actually want to buy. The current situation makes it all the more important for us to understand how to make the most of an excess of ingredients.

In this scenario the freezer is your friend. Meat can of course be frozen but so can a whole host of other products including fruit, vegetables, cheese and even crisps believe it or not!

Freezing is one of the oldest ways of preserving food. It’s a misnomer that fresh food is superior to frozen as fruit and vegetables for example can be snap frozen immediately after harvesting thus preserving their nutrients for longer. Freezing foods is a great way of extending their life and planning your freezer properly can pay dividends in saving time and money.

It’s advisable to label everything that you freeze clearly in order to avoid confusion at a later date. You can freeze practically anything if you store it correctly!

Labelling

There appears to be a general lack of understanding around use by and best before dates, leading to perfectly edible food being discarded for no good reason. To be clear, a use by date is about safety and generally refers to perishable products such as meat that are not safe to consume after the use by date. The best before date however is about quality, the food may not be at its best beyond this date but is still safe to eat.

We need to trust our senses more; smell, sight and taste all help to determine whether a product is fit to consume and we have to be creative about the way that we use ingredients. Tired looking vegetables take on a new lease of life when transformed into a soup or stir fry for example.

Organisation

It’s a cliché but “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” really does apply to shopping and meal planning. Failing to check what’s lurking in the fridge or kitchen cupboards before embarking on the weekly shop inevitably leads to the duplication of ingredients.

If we plan meals for the week there is less temptation to go off-piste when shopping and it’s also an opportunity to factor in items left over from other recipes. It’s a worthwhile exercise to keep a record of everything we throw away for a couple of weeks. In this way we can see patterns emerging and adjust our purchasing accordingly. It really is worth taking stock of your fridge before shopping day, making a list of what you have left and seeing what you can make with it.

Storage

Understanding how to store food is key to extending the useful life of ingredients. Some products such as bread, bananas, pineapples, potatoes and onions keep better out of the fridge. Temperatures are important as well with many domestic fridges being too warm- ideally the fridge should be set to 4c or lower and the freezer to -18c.

Invest in a fridge thermometer to assist in maintaining the correct temperatures. Learning how to effectively store food is key to preventing spoilage and keeping food fresh.

Lack of Confidence

Cooking is a vital life skill that has become diluted through the generations. Many cooks lack the skills or confidence to make substitutions in recipes or create a meal from leftovers. I’ve included a few ideas at the end of this article to get the culinary creative juices flowing.

According to research undertaken by UK Harvest the 5 most commonly wasted ingredients in British households are:- potatoes, bread, milk, bananas and salad. This seems to me to be a logical jumping off point to get the ball rolling and share some of my hints and tips plus a great way to immediately start to reduce wastage.

 

I passionately believe that we all have our part to play in helping to take care of our world. Managing to reduce one’s food waste by even one bag per week can truly have a massive impact. It’s ok to take baby steps too- shopping locally, reducing meat consumption and introducing more plant rich dishes into our diets are all good starting places. Furthermore studies have shown that if one person makes a sustainability orientated decision others will follow. So why not try adopting a few of my suggestions, have a go at some of the recipes and tell your friends and family about it? Let’s start a “domino effect” together.

“What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (David Mitchell)

The Recipes

Potatoes- It’s preferable to store potatoes out of the fridge in a cool, dark place to prolong their useful life. The humble spud freezes fantastically well; par boil potatoes for 5 minutes and freeze, also freeze left over mash or roasties (you can heat roast potatoes in the oven from frozen). Don’t forget good old bread and butter pudding either- the great British staple.

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

 Ingredients

1kg potatoes

Rock salt- optional (the salt helps to dry out the potatoes)
350g plain flour
½ tsp table salt
Pinch of nutmeg
2 small eggs, beaten

To fry the gnocchi

1 tbsp butter

¼ tsp salt

Sage leaves, rosemary stalks or thyme

Zest of a lemon

Cooking Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 190c/gas 5 and wash the potatoes. Dry them well and prick all over, then cover the bottom of a baking tray with a layer of rock salt (if using) and arrange the potatoes on top. Bake for about an hour until completely cooked through: this will depend on the size of the potatoes, so check them regularly.
  2. Remove from the oven, and as soon as they’re cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and discard.
  3. Scatter 250g of the flour over a clean work surface along with ½ tsp table salt and a pinch of nutmeg, if using. Use a potato ricer or push the potatoes through a fine sieve from elbow height, onto the flour, then make a well in the centre and add the eggs. Mix together, adding more flour if necessary, but stopping as soon as it comes together into a soft dough.
  4. Set the dough aside while you clean the work surface and dust it with a little more flour, then return and flatten it into a square about 1.5cm thick. Divide this into 1.5cm-wide strips, then roll these into sausage shapes.
  5. Lay the sausages side by side and cut them into 1cm-wide segments. Dust these with flour, and roll each over the tines of a fork, pressing your thumb into the back, so you have an indentation on one side and grooves on the other. Put the finished gnocchi on a flour-dusted tray.
  6. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, then turn down to a simmer, and tip in half the gnocchi. Stir, then wait for them to rise to the surface. Then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  7. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and when sizzling add the gnocchi. When the gnocchi are starting to brown and crisp up add the herbs of your choice and sprinkle over the salt.
  8. When the gnocchi are golden brown sprinkle over the lemon zest and serve immediately.

Cook’s Tip- Don’t discard your potato peelings- make crisps instead. Heat the oven to 200c/gas mark 6. Put the potato peelings on a baking tray and drizzle over 2 tsp oil, ½tsp salt, ¼tsp pepper and ½tsp seasoning of your choice (cumin, chilli powder, paprika etc). Mix well with your hands to ensure all the peelings are well coated and then spread them out in an even layer. Bake for 8-10 minutes until slightly browned and crunchy.

Bread- Keep bread out of the fridge as the condensation can make it go mouldy quickly. Freeze bread in packs of slices, bread toasts perfectly well from frozen. Make breadcrumbs or croutons from leftover slices.

Bread Sauce

 Ingredients

600ml milk

50g butter

1 onion, chopped

6 cloves

6 peppercorns

2 garlic cloves

1 bay leaf

3 thyme sprigs

100g breadcrumbs

4 tbsp single cream or mascarpone

Pinch of nutmeg

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp black pepper

Cooking Instructions:

  1. Simmer the milk, butter, onion, cloves, peppercorns, garlic and herbs in a saucepan for 20 mins.
  2. Strain through a sieve and return the liquid to the pan. Add the breadcrumbs and simmer for 3-4 mins. Stir in the cream or mascarpone.
  3. Add the nutmeg, season with the salt and pepper and serve.

Cook’s Tip- Transform stale bread, just sprinkle it with water, then pop briefly in a warm oven.

Milk- Skimmed and semi-skimmed milk can be frozen successfully whilst full cream milk tends to separate. Use sour milk in any recipe that calls for milk as an ingredient, think scones, cakes, bechamel based sauces.

 Cottage Cheese or Paneer

 Ingredients

1 litre whole or semi-skimmed milk
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp salt

Cooking Instructions

  1. Rinse a large non-reactive saucepan with cold water and then drain. This prevents the milk from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
  2. Bring the milk to the boil in the saucepan. Remove from the heat. Add the lemon juice and salt. Stir well and set aside.
  3. After about 5 minutes, the milk will begin to separate into curds and whey (a watery liquid).
  4. Once the curds have completely separated from the whey, strain through a sieve, reserving the whey.
  5. Rinse the curd under a cold tap to cool it down. Push down to squeeze out as much water as possible. The cottage cheese is now ready to eat.
  6. To make paneer- once you have squeezed out the excess water, put the curds in a clean cotton tea-towel or muslin cheesecloth. Twist and squeeze the cloth to remove any excess liquid. Put the cloth over a sieve over a bowl and leave for 3 to 4 hours to drain further.
  7. Put the cloth and curds on a plate or chopping board. Top with another plate or board. Add heavy weights, (tins of beans or tomatoes for example). The weights pressing down compresses the cheese and squeezes out those final drops of liquid. You will be left with a firm cream cheese.

 Cook’s Tip- Don’t pour the acid whey down the drain. There are lots of things you can use it for, from making lemonade to adding it to your bread dough.

Bananas- Peel and freeze bananas to use in smoothies, banana bread or to add to ice cream.

Banana Pancakes with Crispy Bacon and Syrup

Ingredients

8 rashers smoked streaky bacon (or pancetta strips)

140g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tbsp light soft brown sugar

2 ripe bananas, 1 mashed, 1 thinly sliced

2 large eggs

25g butter, melted, plus a little extra

125ml milk

Maple syrup- to serve

Cooking Instructions

  1. Heat the grill to high. Arrange the bacon on a baking tray lined with foil. Cook for 5-7 mins until crisp, then turn off the grill but leave the tray inside to keep warm.
  2. In a bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and sugar with a pinch of salt. Make a well in the centre and add the mashed banana, eggs, butter and milk. Whisk to a smooth batter without any flour lumps.
  3. Heat the butter in a large frying pan. Once sizzling, ladle in small dollops of the pancake batter, leaving a little space between each, as they will spread out. Put 2 or 3 slices of banana onto the surface of each pancake and cook for 2 mins over a medium heat.
  4. When you see bubbles appear between the banana slices, flip the pancakes over and cook for 1 minute more, until puffed up and golden. Transfer to a plate and keep warm with the bacon while you cook the rest.
  5. Serve the pancakes with the crispy bacon and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Cook’s Tip- Turn soggy bananas into banana chips. Slice them on to a tray covered with baking paper. Brush with a little lemon juice then bake for 2-3 hours at 100c/gas mark ½. Peel the chips gently from the paper halfway through cooking and shake to release any moisture.

Salad-  If your wilting salad leaves are still attached to the root put them root first into a jar of water. If they’re already soggy cut off any slimy bits and put the leaves into icy cold water for 30 minutes-1 hour. Keep leaves fresh by laying them in a container on kitchen roll. Change the paper every 2 days. Soggy cucumber?- chop the ends off and leave in ice cold water for 30 mins. Limp celery?- cut it into sticks and stand them in glass of ice cold water.

Hong Kong Style Stir Fried Lettuce

Ingredients

1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp Shaoxing wine or dry sherry (or a splash of water or stock)
1 tsp dried chilli flakes

½ tsp sugar

¼ tsp black pepper

Half a head of iceberg lettuce or 2 little gems

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

3 garlic cloves, finely minced

5 spring onions, cut on the diagonal (including the green parts)
½ tsp salt

Cooking Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine (or sherry), dried chilli flakes, sugar and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste and add a pinch more sugar if necessary. Set aside.
  2. Tear the lettuce leaves into large chunks.
  3. Heat a large frying pan or wok until smoking hot. Add the rapeseed oil and immediately add the garlic and about three-quarters of the spring onions. Stir and then add the lettuce.
  4. Stir-fry for 1 minute, stirring every 10 seconds or so.
  5. Pour in the sauce and cook for 1 minute, so that the lettuce is coated in sauce.
  6. Taste and then add salt if required (it may not need extra salt as the soy sauce will be salty).
  7. Serve topped with the rest of the raw spring onions.

Cook’s Tip- Make “smacked” cucumbers by gently smashing cucumbers with a rolling pin or the back of a heavy knife just to break open. Tear them into irregular 2″ pieces and place in a medium bowl; season lightly with salt. Let them sit for at least 5 minutes and up to 1 hour. Meanwhile pare a strip of peel from a lemon and slice it finely and whisk it with 1 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and ¼ tsp celery salt in a medium bowl to combine add the cucumbers and stir gently to coat, taste and season with extra salt to taste.

#savetheplanet #zerowaste #wastenot #environmental #nofoodwaste  #kumudgandhi #Greta Thunberg

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