One way to reduce food waste: Campus Style

UC Davis Dining Commons Demonstration of what college kids waste for Love Food, Hate Waste in January 2013.

Two days ago, I saw a headline in my news feed that I nearly passed over. It read: “Elimination of trays decreases food waste in dining halls.” All I could think about were the opportunities to trip classmates struggling to carry their milk and dinner plates to a table. And then I decided to read on, and learned that in just two years Manchester University has saved:

  • 15,000 pounds of food from becoming waste, and
  • 200,000 gallons of water.

How? They removed trays from the dining halls. They removed convenience, and judging from the article it wasn’t a popular solution. But its makes a lot of sense.

If you drive to the supermarket, grab a big shopping cart, and have a lift to carry your groceries from car to home, then it is very easy to just pile unnecessary food into your life. If you have to think about how you are going to carry it all to the car and into your home, you probably make different choices.

I like that one simple decision has changed how an entire community consumes. It would be interesting to see if that same choice also helped students maintain weight. I mean, if not using a tray helps that freshman not gain infamous 15 pounds that many do gain in the first term, wouldn’t they willingly embrace the idea?

If the same could be said about using smaller shopping carts to lose weight, would people be more willing to embrace a small change?

It’s a joke, right?

Cover - Good Omens

Sometime around the time Jean-Francois and I started dating, he presented me with a few books to read. Some were his favourites (Kurt Vonnegut), two were books he picked because he wanted to show that he “got me”. One, Foucault’s Pendulum, was a literary historical suspense thriller by Umberto Eco. It had me researching references for weeks. The other was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a comedy about the Second Coming that was also lush in layered interpretation, jokes, allusions and generally good fun.

There is one joke in Good Omens that is like a latent virus in my memory. It flares in response to certain events or topics centred on food and nutrition. It is a joke about one of the four riders of the Apocalypse: Famine. In this novel, Famine is a ruthless 1980’s business executive in the food industry. His latest two projects, Nouvelle Cuisine and Highly Processed Fast Food, both so beautifully meet his primary goal, that he cannot help being a bit smug. His goal, starving humans to death.
Why does Famine keep coming to mind? Because I think anyone who works in the industrialized food industry worships, intentionally or not, at his altar. My reading list this week supports this theory:
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, looks at the science behind make food we crave–even if it is bad for us. I am on the second chapter of this one, and really loving his investigated challenge to these moguls. It’s like he wants us to ask them all: How could you not know that you are helping to make us all sick?
Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is more about how the demands of our lifestyles created a market for processed foods that now is making us fatter, slower, and sicker. Combined these two books look at the relationship between our desire for convenience to enjoy the good life and our desire to make enough money to have the good life.
And then there is Just Food by James E. McWilliams, published in 2009. This book looks at how those of us trying to make smarter, healthier, and more sustainable choices about what and how we eat, is creating deep anxiety in regular people. Basically we feel guilty all the time.
Each of these books is well-written and researched. But the subject matter makes me flip between the three. Why? Because each reminds me of Famine, and his cool, clean, metro sexual smugness. Pratchett and Gaiman were joking, trying to remind us that not all food is created equal. So, why are we still choosing to grow, make, market, and buy foods that hurt us and some many of our friends and family? Famine is winning despite the availability of nourishing food for many of us. (Don’t get me started thinking about all the food deserts created by executives who put cost benefits above humanity when deciding where grocery markets should be located.)
Yes, Jean-Francois always did understand how to set my mind on fire. He still does.

7 April: World Health Day

Yesterday Danielle Neirenberg sent me an email telling me that 7 April is World Health Day and that the focus for this year is high blood pressure. Her email had me thinking all day about nutrition, our health and the food we eat. Let me be clear: I have never met or spoken with Danielle, but I always read her emails when they grace my inbox because she and her organization, Food Tank, have a mission. She wants to feed every person on this planet. No, “feed” is the wrong word–she wants to nourish each and every one of us.

The distinction is important. Her email explains why. Our food is not as nutrient laden as it once was. High yield agriculture and other practices (like sending food to landfills rather than composting) have altered the “nutrient life-cycle”. Her email came a few days after I read “Modern chicken has no flavour” in Salon–which laments the sad reality of high volume food production. It robs our tongues of pleasure by stripping our food of its sensuousness and its purpose.

Rooster profile

The Salon article talks about the science of additives to make our food taste the way it should, often using vegetable by-products to increase nutritional content and flavour. Which, if you think about it, is doubly wasteful. I mean, why not just eat the vegetables and let the flavourless chickens live?

Danielle’s concerns are different. She argues that what we are feeding ourselves is making us sick, harming our planet, and making it harder for us to nourish the 7 billion people who live on this planet. In her email, she outlines nine things we can start doing today to be healthier and kinder to ourselves, our neighbours, and our planet.

This is what she recommends:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  2. Encourage farming practices that keep essential nutrients in the soil.
  3. Learn how our food nourishes us. (How many sources of calcium can you list?)
  4. Eat whole grains.
  5. Eat at home more.
  6. Opt for organic produce whenever possible.
  7. Support family farms that are more likely to produce foods that are more nutrient rich than commercial farmers.
  8. Choose meats from grass-fed, pasture raised animals. (Anyone know where I can find pasture-raised fish?)
  9. Support farms that cultivate indigenous, heritage, and heirloom plants and livestock.

Okay, so none of this is a surprise. But the question buzzing around in my head is: Are we starving ourselves by eating processed foods and could that be one of the reasons for the alarming rise in obesity we are seeing in developed nations?

The spice of life

Aside: Thanks to the Salon article, I plan to read Pandora’s Lunchbox next week. If anyone has read it, I’d like to hear your thoughts about this book and any others that have been published recently about the quality of our food supply.

March: It’s Celery’s Month

Does anyone out there know who decides which events, foods, people will be celebrated each month of the year? I ask because March is National Celery Month. (It is also Nutritional Health Awareness month, Women’s History month, and frozen foods month.) Why does celery deserve a whole month of celebration?

Sausage pizza with cornmeal crust

Celery: only good as a supporting role?

Personally I get it. This blog owes its existence to celery (or rather our lack of it) when we lived in Japan and pined for days when we could buy more than one stalk of celery at a time. Silly us. Now in Los Angeles, we always looking for new ways to use a full head of celery before it goes limp.

After all, there has to be more to celery than mirepoix and hors d’oeuvres?

Moving beyond Ants on a Log

Last March, Jean-Francois wrote about a surprisingly refreshing tall glass of celery. What he did not mention Pepsi’s attempt to market cucumber soda in Japan for a week or two. And Dr. Browns sells a celery soda. Maybe drinking celery (and cucumbers) might be fun way to bring out our Irish this week.

Celery is crunchy, naturally salty, and nutritious. It can be grilled, pureed, creamed, steamed, fried, pickled, infused, baked, and braised. Huffington Post has some fun ideas for celery, including a salsa with green olives and mint.

Yesterday, cooking for one, I attempted to make celery and mushroom ravioli. If you are vegan, try substituting wet okara or soy-cheese for the egg and cheese.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 chopped onion
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 5 button mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 6 wonton wrappers

Recipe:

  1. Heat olive oil in skillet.
  2. Add onions and celery. Cook until translucent.
  3. Add mushrooms and salt. Cook until all water evaporates.
  4. Transfer onions, celery and mushrooms to food processor. Add cheese and egg and blend into a paste.
  5. Put about 1 teaspoon of paste in each wrapper. Use water or egg to seal the wrappers.
  6. Cook ravioli in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes.

I ate these bundles with a lemon butter sauce. However, I have no photo to share because I ate them in 3 minutes flat. But I will try this again, maybe adding nuts to the filling to help give the meal more weight. And I will take a photo.

In January, The New York Times published five celery recipes that put my creative effort to shame. I can’t wait to try the “Pan-Cooked Celery with Tomatoes and Parsley” and “Celery Risotto with Dandelion Greens or Kale”.

Healthy Family, a blog dedicated to living organically and healthfully, also shares four celery recipes for March, including a breakfast drink, a soup, a salad, and a treat with salmon.

By the way, 22 March is World Water Day. May we all slake our thirst and raise our passions with a stick of celery, an ice cube, and Betty Friedan.

Asian lessons in food waste

The first thing that struck me was the abundance of fruits and vegetables. I hadn’t stepped into a North American supermarket in over a decade, and had expected it to feel familiar and comfortable, but somehow it didn’t. There was something here that made me feel uneasy – which is an odd thing for fruits and vegetables to do. Against the backdrop of the bizarre food experiences I’d had living and traveling in Asia, how could a stack of onions not feel normal? From a food perspective, Asia had been such a strange ride, right from the beginning…

* * *

 It was August, 1998 – the evening of the 22nd, to be exact — and Bonnie Lee and I were heading out for a special meal. The town had no street names, and we had only a Japanese map to guide us. If we were concerned about anything at all, it was that we’d be late for our reservation, or not find the restaurant at all. We had no idea what to expect when we got there; no idea that we’d soon be greeting our long-anticipated celebratory meal with horror; no idea that this was one of the countless Asian experiences that would change our relationship with food forever.

There was a lot we didn’t know.

We were fresh off the boat. We’d been living in Kitakyushu for just over a month, and it wasn’t at all what we’d expected. The apartment we lived in was old and run down, and it had a squat toilet. The bugs in Southern Japan were like something out of a science fiction movie, and the fauna in our apartment included dani (little red biting critters that live in tatami mats) and mukade (venomous, armored centipedes). The river that ran through Kitakyushu was brown, and its basin was lined in concrete – the only legal construction material in the area, it seemed. The exotic rural charm we’d been expecting wasn’t really what Kitakyushu was known for; it was more famous as center for toilet manufacturing.

Oh, and it was hot.

The temperature had been hovering around 90℉ since our arrival; the humidity, around 85% – which was a challenge given the lack of air conditioning at home and at work. We weren’t at all sure we’d made the right move in coming to Japan for a year, and as the guy who’d suggested the move, I had a lot riding on this dinner.

We’d just gotten our first paychecks, and this was our first indulgence. Food was one of the things that had drawn us to Japan, and the restaurant had been recommended by a coworker. His English was bad, and my Japanese was worse – so I hoped that I had managed to communicate just how special I needed this night to be. I wanted something purely Japanese, something extravagant that we could never find elsewhere, something with air conditioning.

ようこそ ようこそ

We found the place easily (though we had to double and triple check the Chinese characters on the door to make sure), and it seemed perfect. The building was made of dark wood, not concrete, and the dining area was small, quaint and well appointed. There were white table cloths, and the waitstaff was attentive a very professional. The menus were in Japanese, of course, and none of the waitstaff spoke English, but that was no surprise. We were very likely the first non-Japanese who had ever entered the place – perhaps the only ones who ever would. And although we couldn’t read, we knew a few phrases, the most important of which was, Osusume wa …? – “What do you recommend?” We didn’t quite understand the whole answer, but it contained a few words we did know: sake, oki and ebi – rice wine, big and shrimp. Perfect. Local wine and jumbo shrimp. We ordered that.

The sake came along with a few small, beautiful starter dishes, and it was lovely. It was served cold, and complex – nothing like the pure, harsh ethanol they call sake in North America. We were excited to see what would follow. It wasn’t long, however, before that excitement turned into something quite different.

The oki ebi – which was actually lobster and not jumbo shrimp – came out in a small basket. On some level, it was beautiful. It was served on a bed of shredded daikon, and decorated with wasabi, a couple of slices of carrot, and a few fresh, bright green shiso leaves. But all that freshness and beauty were juxtaposed with something else altogether. The lobster meat, which was uncooked, was garnished with the head and thorax of the mutilated but still-living lobster, which sat upright in the daikon in obvious distress.

Now, many people would argue that a lobster’s capacity for pain is minimal, if not nonexistent – but here’s what I know for certain: whatever that capacity is, this lobster was feeling the extent of it. It was having as bad a day as any lobster can have. Its eyes were wiggling back and forth frantically at the end of their little lobster eye stalks. Its antennae, which were long and fell outside the basket, were in constant motion. If its legs were still attached, it would have been trying to get away – but those legs were impotent now, and arranged neatly in front of it on a bed of daikon.

We were a little taken aback.

Although neither of us was (or ever became) a fan of raw shellfish, we felt that we had to eat our new tablemate. To not eat it at this point seemed like far too great a waste – though there was no way we wanted to eat it while it was still staring at us. Our initial plan was to wait until it stopped moving, but after 15 minutes it became clear that the creature was determined to live despite its obvious challenges. We placed it face down in a (clean) ashtray, and ate its flesh while it died.

* * *

Despite the disturbing meal, despite the concrete, despite the bugs, despite everything, we ended up enjoying Japan that year, and for the next twelve years after that. In that time, we traveled both in Japan and in the rest of Asia, and our notions of food were constantly challenged. Some images that stand out: buckets of silk worm pupae sold as snacks in Seoul, bright purple meat topped with the disembodied dog heads in a street market in Hanoi, fried grasshoppers in Bangkok, perfectly bronzed Peking duck served with bill and all … well, you get the picture.

All the larvae you eat

Sparkle

So what was it about this supermarket in L.A. that I could possibly find so disconcerting? Well, for one thing, the celery. In Japan, celery is sold by the stalk, and each stalk costs about a dollar. Over the years, that had come to seem normal. When you spend a dollar or more on a stalk of celery, you don’t do it casually. You buy it because you have a use in mind. You don’t just slather it in Cheese Whiz and wolf it down. You prepare something that highlights its crunch and flavor. You savor it, perhaps over two meals … or even three.

On some level, I’d been looking forward to buying bunches of celery again, but now that I could, it seemed wrong. The bunches were huge – much bigger than I remembered – and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would use a whole bunch in a week. Images from childhood popped into my head – images of wilted, unused celery stalks finding their way into garbage cans by the dozen. After thinking in terms of individual stalks for so long, that was a level of waste I couldn’t comfortably be complicit in.

Not far from the celery, I saw something that surprised me: yamaimo, mountain yams indigenous to Japan – and a food which I have a personal connection to. My first year in Japan, Bonnie Lee and I had headed into the mountains in search of yamaimo with a friend. We had dug waist-deep holes for hours in hard dirt, and had emerged from the day exhausted, with one, tiny, misshapen yamaimo to show for our trouble – and our friend was thrilled with the haul. He turned that one six-inch root into three dishes that celebrated the elusive tuber’s raw earthiness and glutinous texture. He turned one little yam into a feast for three, and a precious memory.

Understanding the amount of effort that went into finding one yam, the whole notion of wasting even a gram of it was out of the question. But what did an exotic yam with a slimy texture represent to the typical shopper here? Perhaps just an experiment that could easily be discarded if it didn’t work out. On some level, that was at the core of what I was feeling in the market that day. It was as if all the food had been stripped of any intrinsic value. It was cheap, plentiful and robbed of all history, of all connection to labour and life.

In China’s Guangxi province, there is a village called Ping’an, which sits in the heart of some of the most impressive terraced rice fields in the world. The town houses about 180 families, and their ancestors carved the terraces out of the surrounding mountains over a period of about 300 years. The slopes are steep, and the only way to get there is by foot. It’s well worth the walk. From Ping’an, the terraces spread out as far as the eye can see. When the rice fields are flooded, the landscape is made of giant mirrors — and during the growing season, the mountains are ringed with bright green contour lines.

Ping'an village from above

In Ping’an, people get the value of arable land – they had to build theirs from scratch – and they get the value of the food that grows on it. We were fortunate enough to have a meal there, which was a tribute to the valley that spread out in front of us. Our lunch for two consisted of six bite-sized pieces of chicken fried in a glutinous rice paste, a light soup made from the wild mountain vegetables that grow between the terraces, and a small bowl of rice – and it was served with an 8 ounce glass of sweet, smooth, weak rice wine.

Everything was from the land, and the portion size was enough to thoroughly satisfy, but not enough to stuff – designed to virtually eliminate the possibility that guests would leave something uneaten. Nothing was wasted. When you waste food in Ping’an, you see what you are wasting: the effort that went into building the very land, and the effort of those you can see working in the fields.

Out standing in his field

Not so in our local supermarket. Here, it seems that the relationship we have with food is broken. Half the aisles are filled with chemical experiments that our ancestors would barely recognize as food. We’ve transformed produce and meat into an industrial products, and commoditized them, removing all our connection to them. At least dog heads on piles of meat are honest. They remind you where the meat came from. They remind you what was given up so you could eat. They remind you not to waste. And, although I didn’t enjoy watching that one lobster suffer, that memory serves as a constant reminder of where I chose to stand in the food chain, and of the connection I have to the living things that are affected by my choices.

Marching comfort food down the food chain

My handy desktop dictionary defines comfort food as, “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.”

I would add to that definition this: comfort foods, at least my comfort foods, are all warming. They are the equivalent of food hugs. And although not all my comfort foods are associated with childhood or even home cooking, they do share one trait: they are all tinged with nostalgia. Many of them are foods from Japan that I can no longer get easily, like udon – a bowl of which I always indulge in whenever I have a stopover in Tokyo, even if it’s in the middle of the night.

Of course the strongest nostalgia, and the warmest hugs, come from childhood foods – but often those are out of step with how we like to eat. Shepherds’ pie (a.k.a. pâté chinois in my family, and junk in Bonnie Lee’s) is one of those foods. Meat doesn’t cross our threshold very often – and when it does, it is for an indulgence, like our recent Thanksgiving meal – so Shepherd’s pie has been off the menu for a very long time. For day-to-day meals, we like to eat a little further down the food chain.

That’s why I was really happy to see this recipe for vegan shepherdess pie on Kellie’s Food to Glow (and endless source of food inspiration). I was on a trip when I saw it, and I knew it was something I’d be trying when I got home – and I did. It didn’t disappoint, either. The blend of umami and mashed potato, the textures, and the warmth led to a perfectly nostalgic moment, and the grown-up touches that my childhood palate might have missed (like the celery root in the mashed potato) added just enough of a twist to make it interesting.

Vegetarian shepherd's pie

So, I’m curious. What are your comfort foods? Have you adapted any of them to be more sustainable?

Mad dogs and Englishmen. And me.

What is most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections.

Michael Pollan

The gate to the Hindu temple grounds was locked, and had a sign on it warning off non-believers. From my vantage, I could see a small corner of the main temple building, which sat on Bukit Gasing’s peak, on a point overlooking the jungle – and its elaborate, colourful design hinted at wonders within. There was no getting closer to get a better look, though. Even a walk along the outer wall was impossible, the only path being closed off by fences.

Clearly, the temple wasn’t the main attraction for hikers here – and it wasn’t immediately obvious what was. The way forward was blocked. To my right there was a cliff; to my left, some fairly uninviting jungle. The only way forward, in fact, was backward, down the road the cab had used to bring me here, and I already knew there was nothing particularly interesting about that. Still, I had no choice.

It occurred to me that I could have taken a minute to do some research before heading out, but I had made the decision to go on this hike on a whim. After lunch, and some prompting by Bonnie Lee over Skype, I had realized that I needed to take a few hours off. Between work and things 222, I had stared at my computer solidly, day and night, seven days a week for more weeks than made sense – and I knew there was some hiking to be done on Bukit Gasing. So I headed down to the main road without much thought, and grabbed a cab.

The cab driver had no idea where Bukit Gasing was, let alone any hiking trails, but after asking a few other drivers, he had whisked me here, up the road I was now walking back down. At least I wasn’t staring at the computer – and it was a beautiful, sunny day, on a road that offered a view of a huge mosque with a sprawling mess of city spreading out from it in every direction.

Still, I had come here for a hike, and so when I saw a gap in the trees, I decided to step through it and into the jungle. If all I was destined to do was walk down a hill today, then I figured I may as well do it surrounded by nature. I was immediately rewarded with the sight of a couple of macaques busily foraging. The one closer to me stared me down, and made a noise that I’m sure he thought was threatening, but which only managed to be cute. I steered away from him to let him get on with his day, and started my descent into what I had thought of as a jungle, but which the macaques (it now occurred to me) probably thought of as a big salad.

A cousin of the troupe I saw on Bukit Gasing, who I met in Batu Caves

The way quickly got steep, and it was at times a bit hard to get my footing, which made for a clumsy but controlled descent – and one that was noisy enough to scare off any and all creatures of the woods. Whenever I stopped to take in my surroundings, I could hear frantic activity about hundred yards ahead, as macaques crashed through the leaves to escape from the new guy in the neighbourhood.

One big salad

I came to a level clearing, and as I walked across it, casually wondering where I was, a sudden rush of sound and motion gave me a start. The dirt just ahead of me seemed to come alive, and sprinted away with a rapid series loud thumps. Whatever it was came to a stop just as suddenly, and as I got closer to take a look, I saw that it was a lizard (a monitor lizard, I now know) – at least two feet long – and it struck me that I had no idea what lived in this little piece of jungle. Did these particular lizards bite? Were there snakes? I didn’t have a clue, and hadn’t done an ounce of research, though it was clear to me now that the salad I inhabited wasn’t purely vegetarian, and I wasn’t 100% certain where I sat on the local food chain. Yet here I was, on a little used path, staring at a medium-sized carnivore staring at me, with a way to go (I guessed) and no easy way back. I reminded myself that I should plan a bit better next time, and moved along giving my new friend a wide berth.

Dragonfly

For the next fifteen minutes or so, I moved down the hill a bit more cautiously, and paying a bit more attention to the shadows. I don’t know if there are snakes on Bukit Gasing, but I do know that something brown with yellow stripes that might be a snake lurks there … as do some very cute little mammals that look like squirrels with funky haircuts. And there are dragonflies, beautiful red and burgundy ones – a small cluster of which swarmed around me when my jungle path finally met up with a real hiking trail.

The real trail was beautiful and wide. I could see the way back to the road from where I was, but decided to explore the more manicured part of Bukit Gasing while I was there, even though I was a bit thirsty by then. I made a mental note to bring water on my next impromptu hike in the tropics.

I stuck to the flat paths just to get a feel for the place, and was about to turn around and head home, when I met a sweat-drenched couple coming in the other direction. They mentioned that they had gotten lost in the paths ahead, and for a second I considered turning back. Then they mentioned that there was a river ahead, and that they had followed a steep path on the right after that. This had led them to some abandoned homes, and a very spooky ancient deity.

Well, the universe doesn’t have to ask me twice, and the wisdom of turning around suddenly evaporated.

Jungle mushroomsSo off I went to find the river and the path and the spooky deity. The river I found soon enough (the water was brown and undrinkable), along with some very funky looking mushrooms (which at this point were looking quite tasty), and I chose one of the steep paths on the right. And up I went. And up. And up.

The jungle eventually gave way to a steep escarpment, which I clambered up, until I came to a wall – a very familiar looking wall, with a Hindu temple behind it, only now I was on the wrong side of the point. Rather than climb down the escarpment (which seemed a bit treacherous) I followed a narrow path along the wall out to the point, and back to the side I had come from, hoping I would see a way through to the road (though suspecting there was none that didn’t involve pole vaulting).

And this is where I lucked out … there was a gap in the wall that I could step through, and suddenly I was where only the faithful could go, locked into rather than out of the temple grounds. I was tempted to get a closer look at the temple, but there was a gatekeeper nearby, who, when I explained how I had accidentally found my way in, was only too happy to let me out.

And so there I stood again, outside the gate, back where I had started. Drenched in sweat. In 100 degree weather, I would later learn – something that would have made sense to check before I headed out.

I found another path into the salad, and headed down the mountain again. By now, I was a bit peckish, and parched – and it seemed ironic to me that I felt this way in what was essentially a giant buffet. Edible greens, fruits, nuts, mushrooms and roots were all around me, not to mention bugs and meat in various forms – yet I had no way to know what was edible and what was not. I didn’t have the basic sense not to starve in the middle of a buffet. I was dumber than even the bugs here, who had figured out that I was food hours ago.

Note to self: the next time you go to the jungle, bring bug spray.

Wish you were here

One of the great tragedies in life is that we often don’t truly appreciate people until they’re gone. As I reflected on my recent eulogy for our three cup Cuisinart, I realized that the same is often true of appliances – and that’s a shame.

That’s why I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge our immersion blender, a plucky little orange kitchen warrior that is often called upon to help out with a meal – and one that I am truly missing this week, as I try to make meals in a kitchen equipped with a Teflon-coated wok and a wooden thing that is neither spoon nor spatula. There is also a bowl.

Now here’s a fun (and germane) fact about vegetables: if they’re a little limp, any dish that calls for them to be pulverized probably won’t suffer. So when I see a vegetable that’s a little less turgid than I’d like it to be, one question I ask myself is: what would happen if I took my orange friend to it?

The most recent meal old orange and I made together was a refreshing cold cucumber soup – a favourite at our place that, I should hasten to point out, can be made with limp cucumbers. It’s one of the recipes in Bright & Bold collection on the 222 million tons app, but you don’t need to buy the app to get the recipe. It’s right here:

Cold cucumber-yogurt soup (serves 1)

Cold cucumber soup

Ingredients

  • ½ cucumber (turgid or limp)
  • 1 scallion (turgid or limp)
  • 1 Tbsp cilantro
  • ½ jalapeño pepper (turgid or limp)
  • 1 small clove garlic
  • 4 oz plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp lime juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • ¼ tsp salt, or to taste

Directions

  • Chop the cucumber, scallion and cilantro coarsely.
  • Remove the seeds and membranes from the jalapeño pepper, and chop coarsely.
  • Crush the garlic.
  • Using an immersion blender, blender or food processor, blend all of the above with the lime juice, olive oil and salt, until it looks like soup.
  • Put the soup in the refrigerator to chill.

Rescued mushroom risotto

A few months back, I wrote an entry on stone soup, which suggested that people freeze vegetable peels and bits that they would normally compost or throw away, and then use them to make stock. If you followed that advice, you will have noticed by now that you generate a fair amount of stock. We end up making about 8 cups of it a week.

This week, I found myself with about six cups of stock to use up, and was in the mood for something heartier than soup. We also had a few oyster and porcini mushrooms that were drying up in the vegetable crisper – all of which added up to the perfect excuse to make a white wine and mushroom risotto.

I started by rehydrating the mushrooms in white wine, which not only made the mushrooms nice and plump, but also gave me a rich-coloured mushroomy liquid to start the risotto with. (Bonus! That wouldn’t happen with fresh mushrooms.) That, plus a stone soup broth that had strong corn, beet and celery notes made for a dish with a complex palette of flavours and a creamy texture. Not bad, considering that the slightly shriveled mushrooms and stock ingredients were all things that would have ended up in the bin in many homes.

Of course, we ended up with more risotto than we could eat in one sitting – but the leftovers made for very good risotto cakes.

One thing I should mention is that making risotto the old-fashioned way takes time (about 45 minutes) and much that time is spent stirring. If you don’t have time for that, you can make it in a rice cooker with a lot less fuss (there are a few recipes on-line). I’ve tried that, and the result was quite good, though not as good.

Mushroom risotto

Rescued mushroom risotto, served with faux meat balls & salad

Rescued mushroom risotto (serves 6)

Ingredients

  • ½ cup dried mushrooms
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups stone soup (or other) stock
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ large onion, sliced thin
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1½ cups Arborio rice
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 Directions

  • Cover mushrooms in wine, and allow to reconstitute. This can take up to 30 minutes, depending on how dry the mushrooms were to begin with.
  • While the mushrooms are reconstituting, heat your stock in a deep skillet, and keep it warm over medium low heat.
  • When the mushrooms are reconstituted, set the liquid aside for later use. Sauté the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until they are tender – then set those aside for later use.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat, then toss in the sliced onion and crushed garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent.
  • Add in the Arborio rice, and sauté for an additional 2 minutes.
  • Add in the liquid from the mushrooms, and stir until it the liquid absorbed.
  • Add in the warm soup stock, one ladleful at a time, and stir until the liquid is absorbed. When you’ve used up about ¾ of the stock, add in the mushrooms, and keep going. After each ladleful is absorbed, you should taste the risotto. When the the rice is al dente, and the sauce is creamy, it will be done. You may need a little less stock than indicated, or a little more. If you need more, and have run out, just use water that has been boiled and is still warm.
  • When the risotto is done, stir in one tablespoon of butter, the parmesan cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
  • Serve immediately.
Fun facts
Amount of shriveled mushrooms saved from landfill per six portions of rescued mushroom risotto. 1/4 cup
Approximate volume of shriveled mushrooms that could be saved from landfill every year if everyone in the US had 4 servings of rescued mushroom risotto a year. 12,000 cubic meters
Approximate volume of the Tower of Pisa. 10,000 cubic meters