Tainted soup and green pineapple

It’s rare that I eat something and wish that I had thrown it away instead.

But it happens.

In fact, I spent much of last week wishing I had thrown away a particular bowl of soup – specifically the one that I ate in Sentral Station in Kuala Lumpur, and which led to a fever, chills, a few nights’ worth of lost sleep, and general gastrointestinal grief. Needless to say, my desire to write about food suffered.

But the experience did remind of a striking photo series by Klaus Pichler that I ran across several months ago. The project was inspired by the same UN study that inspired 222 million tons; it is called One Third (one third being the estimated ratio of all food products wasted worldwide), and was done as a way to draw attention to the issue of food waste.

The food in the photos shares one thing with my tainted soup: it’s well past it’s due date –yet it’s beautifully photographed. If you’re curious, you can click on the moldy pineapple below to see the full series.

Moldy green pineapple

Place of production: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Cultivation method: Outdoor plantation
Time of harvest: All- season
Transporting distance: 10.666 km (linear distance)
Means of transportation: Aircraft, truck
Carbon footprint (total) per kg: 11,94 kg
Water requirement (total) per kg: 360 l
Price: 2,10 € / kg


Fuzz is for peaches

One 20 hour flight later, I’m back in LA (for a little while anyway) – and one of the first things we did when I returned was head to the farmers’ market in Torrance. I figured a little sunshine and fresh food would help me forget my jet lag.

I was wrong.

We didn’t do much shopping in the end, though we did pick up some stunning Seascape and Chandler strawberries – two varieties that are bursting with flavor, especially when they’re perfectly ripe (as these were), and bright red all the way to the center.

Seascape & Chandler strawberries

Our Seascape & Chandler strawberries, begging to be devoured

It seems that whenever we get strawberries at the local supermarket, we find one or two in the middle that are covered with fuzz – and the rest of the batch isn’t far behind. That’s why I’ve gotten in the habit of soaking berries in a vinegar and water solution for a couple of minutes before putting them in the fridge (I use about 3 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of water). That kills the beasties that lead to fuzz (and waste), and the berries generally keep for a couple of weeks after that. (It helps that supermarket berries are inevitably underripe.)

None of the berries from the farmers’ market had any fuzz, but I soaked them in a vinegar solution anyway – just to be safe. I needn’t have bothered, as they only escaped being eaten for a couple of days. The few that weren’t eaten immediately, ended up in strawberry rhubarb crisp.

Strawberry rhubarb crisp (serves 2)


  • ½ cup cut strawberries
  • ½ cup cut rhubarb
  • 1 Tbsp +1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 1 Tbsp rolled oats


Preheat your oven to 375℉, and grease a baking dish with butter or cooking spray (you can do the planet a favor and make your own cooking spray with oil and a spray bottle). You want the fruit to be about an inch to and inch and a half deep – for this quantity, a round dish with a 5¾ inch diameter did the trick.

Toss the cut strawberries and rhubarb with 1 teaspoon of the brown sugar, then place it in your greased baking dish.

Melt the butter and stir in the flour, rolled oats and remaining sugar – then crumble the mixture on top of the fruit.

Bake at 375℉ for 45 minutes, then enjoy while it’s still hot.

Fertile grounds

Turning food waste into fresh food is a neat trick if you can pull it off – and that is exactly what the founders of Back to the Roots are doing. Their first product, Grow Your Own Mushroom Garden, is a cardboard box (made of recycled materials), filled with coffee grounds (that would have otherwise ended up in landfill) and oyster mushroom spores. Just make a slit in the box, mist it twice a day, and within a couple of weeks you’ll have mushrooms. After that, you can flip the box over, and start again.

The tag line for their product is: No green thumb required – so Bonnie Lee and I decided to give it a try. Now, everyone knows that mushrooms are like vampires, and not too fond of direct sunlight (and the instructions tell you as much), so we started off our garden in the darkest corner of the kitchen.

On day 2, we noticed a distinct fishy smell coming from the back of the kitchen, and so we moved the mushroom garden onto the balcony, and tucked it where the sun never shines (under the worm composter) – and there the mushrooms thrived for 6 days.

Alas, our mushrooms would never see day 8. My theory is that I didn’t tuck them far enough under the composter the night before and that they got a bit of sun – but, whatever the reason, what greeted me when I went to mist them that day was a bunch of mushroom-shaped Styrofoam. You may not need a green thumb to use this product, but basic common sense comes in handy. Need to get me some of that.

I harvested the Styrofoam, and fed it to some very grateful worms, then put the box back under the composter – determined to get it right with side two, after I come back from my next business trip. Just before I left on that trip though, I got an unexpected harvest: a single oyster mushroom, which made a great addition to my last breakfast in LA (compliments of Bonnie Lee).

There are a few things I like about this product:

  • I’m a big fan of mushrooms.
  • If you post a picture of your mushrooms & mushroom dishes on their Facebook page, they’ll donate a kit and curriculum to the elementary school class of your choice – and potentially kick start the little gardener or environmentalist inside a child or two.
  • Some people who buy the product will choose to compost the grounds when they are done, so some food waste is kept out of landfill.
  • Even if the grounds do end up in landfill, they have at least been reused on the way there, and more has been gotten out of the initial investment in water, sunshine, and nutrients that went into growing the coffee.
  • It makes people think and talk about ways to divert food out of the waste stream.
  • It’s inspired me to try growing mushrooms (perhaps more exotic ones) in our own coffee grounds, which is obviously a greener way to go. I’ll let you know when I figure out that trick.
  • I think the mushroomy coffee grounds will make a nice treat for our worms.

Stone soup dahl

About a month ago, I wrote an entry on what I call stone soup. The recipe in that entry is simple:

…whenever I peel or chop vegetables or meats, I toss any bits that would usually be destined for the compost or garbage bin into a colander, wash them, then put them in a container in the freezer.  When I want to make stock, I throw the stone-like frozen scraps into water and boil.

As one friend noted, though, “Ive started my stone soup freezer bag! Once you start, it grows quickly!” Very quickly – and the challenge is to find varied ways to use up all that stock (we end up making about 8 cups of it every weekend). Last week, I did something based on this great dahl recipe from  Wolfgang Puck, and it’s definitely a keeper.

For the version I made, I used brown lentils, rather than orange ones – and stone soup stock rather than chicken stock. The stock that week was made with a healthy amount of beet peelings, and was dark colored with earthy tones, which worked perfectly in this recipe. I served the dahl with some homemade dosa (a rice and lentil batter pancake), kale salad, a spicy coleslaw, and some watermelon rind chutney – a satisfying, warming meal.

One thing to note: unless you’re catering a wedding, I suggest that you make about a quarter of the recipe at the link. That makes about 4 normal sized servings.

Food waste in Singapore

According to the UN study quoted in the first entry on this blog, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia throw away an average of 13 to 24 pounds of food a year – which, compared to the 210 to 250 pounds of food the average North American or European consumer throws away each year, is amazing.

As I was in Singapore in March, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a little research into food waste there. The first thing I wanted to figure out was if Singapore, with the (by far) highest GDP per capita in Southeast Asia, was typical for the region when it comes to food waste. I wasn’t able to find any rigorous studies on household food waste per capita. What I did find was a two-week study of 150 families that found that the average household food waste per consumer was about 7 pounds a year. Given the methodology, my suspicion is that that estimate is a little low – but probably the right order of magnitude, so very much in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. And one thing is certain: with total food waste (commercial and household) coming in at 570 million kilograms per year (or 248 pounds per person), there’s no question that household food waste is significantly lower than in the US, Canada or Europe.

So how to people manage to waste so much less? I had a few conversations with locals and expats in Singapore to try to tease that out.

South Indian curry

One big reason has to do with transportation. Owning a car in Singapore is expensive. There is a registration fee of 1000 SGD – except the first time a car is registered, when that fee is 150% of the car’s value. There is an import duty of 41% on cars. There are road taxes, and extra fees if you drive your car on busy roads during rush hour (tallied automatically, thanks to transponders installed in all cars). And those are just the big ticket items. The good news is that there is a great, reasonably priced, countrywide metro and bus system, and most people (for obvious reasons) use that for daily travel. So what does that have to do with food waste? Well, a lot. For one thing, it means that food markets have sprouted pretty much in walking distance of everywhere. People tend to go to local stores, and the fact that they have to lug whatever they buy home in 90 degree humid weather encourages them to buy only what they need for the next day or two – something that naturally leads to better planning and less waste.

Typical hawker center

Another factor keeping household waste low is hawker centers. These open air eateries are everywhere, and house multiple food stalls featuring good, cheap fare. You can eat well for less than 5 Singapore dollars (less than the cost of cooking at home) – and most people I asked said that they ate dinner out at least three times a week. That certainly reduces food waste in homes – but what about restaurant waste? I suspect that is small relative to restaurants in the US. The hawker portions are smaller than those in US restaurants, and so a lot less gets left on plates – and each hawker stall makes a limited number of dishes with a limited number of ingredients, and keeps only a small amount of inventory on hand, which reduces waste due to spoilage.

Nothing earth shattering here, but it does suggest a couple of good practices that anyone can implement to reduce food waste, no matter where they live:

  1. Only buy what you need – plan!
  2. Finish what you buy – avoid leftovers or eat them.

Those things are easier said than done in an environment that makes it easy to waste (the US, for example, has 5 times more cars per capita than Singapore, cheap groceries and huge restaurant portions) – but they can make a huge difference (less than 25 pounds of wasted food vs. more than 200 pounds of wasted food).

What happened to the pizza dough ball?

It’s a Montreal thing–and a darn clever one at that. It’s simple, practical, sustainable, cheap, and edible. It is a ball of pizza dough, placed at the center of the pizza before cooking, that protects the pizza from the cardboard cover. And yet, it hasn’t caught on. Instead, people gush over something that is wasteful, unsustainable, and proprietary: a plastic tripod that is made in China and shipped to pizza shops all over the United States.

Pizza with plastic tripod

There is a better (and tastier) solution

Yes, I know. Take-away pizza is hardly the smart choice to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Those boxes they come in (not to mention the fuel to bring your cheesy pie home) are sinful. But, at least the box is compostable–that plastic tripod has no redeeming feature.

The expense of those tripods alone puzzles me. Its almost like we want to be wasteful.

Yet there is a simple, sustainable option: the pizza dough ball.

And so, while waiting for my pizza at Fresh Brothers, I found my calling. I am going to nag, pester, annoy, and shame pizza shops–starting right here. So, I asked the store manager about the store’s sustainability practices. I asked if he had heard of the pizza dough ball. I searched my phone to find an image of a pizza dough ball. I asked how much those plastic bits cost, and about storage and transportation.

The manager humoured me, took my email address and promised a response. I am still waiting. I think, I could use some help.

Unless you really believe that the bottom of the pizza box really that much more sanitary than the lid that we’d need to insert a plastic tripod in the center of our pies, would you help me convince pizza joint owners all over the world to change their practice?

Especially since that cooked ball of dough is rather tasty with a little bit of salt and parmesan.

(To see what the dough ball looks like, visit http://benlefthome.blogspot.com/2011/01/pizza-update.html)

Looking for other wasteful creations for your pizza? Look right here: http://www.yankodesign.com/2012/02/15/neat-pizza-fingers/

and here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/07/the-3-big-advances-in-the-technology-of-the-pizza-box/242116/

And if you don’t believe that people gush about those tripod things, just read an excerpt from this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=m6QsJPZcWUUC&lpg=PA7&dq=pizza%20box%20tripod&pg=PA5#v=onepage&q&f=false

If that’s breakfast, this must be Singapore

Mee siam

Mee siam

I’m tired – a special kind of tired, born of twenty hours on a planeful of babies who took turns at voicing their displeasure. I’ve been up 47 hours, with the most recent 10 of those spent working.

Yup, tired sums it up.

So I will be brief.

I am in Singapore, and as far as this blog is concerned, that means a few things:

  • I’ll be away from my kitchen, so no recipes for a few weeks.
  • I’m in a country with a love of food, and a very different relationship to it than the US. If it’s a typical Southeast Asian country, then consumers here waste about 10 times less food than typical American and European consumers. I need to see if I can find some stats, and learn how people pull off that trick.
  • Thanks to this trip, and others to this fair city, my carbon footprint is Sasquatch-sized – so I find myself motivated to learn more about carbon negative activities and carbon offsets. If anyone has and suggestions on specifics to explore, please share them in the comments.

So, hopefully I’ll have a few minutes in the next three weeks or so to escape work, learn a few things, and share.

For now, though, it’s bedtime.

Puffy veg

I recently read Spree’s blog post about “pint-size” spinach soufflés, and it got me thinking. I’d gotten out of the habit of making soufflés in Japan (where the typical gas oven is roughly three inches tall), but they’re a perfect way to use all sorts of vegetables, not to mention cheeses and herbs. I got more beets this week, so decided to try my hand at making beet green soufflé.

Beet green soufflé

Beet green soufflé, sans souffle

The results are in the photo to the right, and tasted pretty darn good – though my soufflé lacked a little souffle. I think I need to get my soufflé skills back up to speed before I share any recipes, but for now just wanted to share the idea with those of you whose skills are already there. This is one classic dish that you can play with, and use to make the least sexy of ingredients taste great, and (my recent experiment notwithstanding) look like something worthy of a five-star restaurant.

I served the beet green soufflé with carrots in a lemon dill vinaigrette, and froze the peelings and ends for the next time I make stock — one of the many great tips that Zo shared in her blog entry, Save our skins – deliciously and easily.

Fun facts
Weight of beet greens rescued from landfill per serving 1 ounce
Reduction in food waste if every person in the developed world saves just 1 ounce of beet greens from landfill About 31,250 short tons
Weight of the average sperm whale bull 45 short tons
Number of average sperm whale bulls needed to balance 31,250 short tons of beet greens About 695

Save Something from Landfill Day

As one commenter pointed out, today is 2/22 (thanks, Mami), which cries to be a special day on this tiny sliver of the web. Maybe when the 222 million tons Facebook “likes” swell to numbers well beyond the current 11, I’ll have the clout to lobby for February 22 to become International Save Something from Landfill Day. Until then, I’ll just have to try making a small dent in the problem by sharing observations like this one: beet leaves and stems are tasty.

Beet green linguine

They’re often overlooked for the same reason that watermelon rind is; they live next to a real attention grabber – in this case beets. But beet leaves are tender and flavorful, and their stems are red, crisp, and have just a hint of beet flavor. Unlike beets, they don’t overwhelm, but they do add color and character to salads and other dishes.

Our most recent experiment with beets greens was a linguine with beet greens, which was good enough to share here.

Linguine with beet greens (serves 1)


Linguine with beet greens

  • 2 oz linguine
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh garlic
  • ¼ onion
  • 5 button or crimini mushrooms
  • 5 sun dried tomatoes (the ones packed in oil)
  • 1 tsp oil from sun dried tomatoes
  • 10 oz beet leaves with stems
  • 1 pinch salt, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp pepper, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp dried chili flakes, or to taste
  • ½ oz crumbled goat cheese


  • Fill a pot with water, and bring it to a boil.
  • You’ll be lightly sautéing the vegetables for this dish, and don’t want things to over cook while you’re busy practicing your knife skills or hunting for spices, so it’s best to do all the slicing and dicing up front. So, as the water comes to a boil:
    • Crush the garlic.
    • Slice the onion.
    • Clean and quarter the mushrooms.
    • Slice the sun dried tomatoes into strips.
    • Wash the beet leaves, remove their stems, and chop them into one- or two-inch lengths.
    • Slice the beet leaves crosswise into ¼ inch strips.
    • Crumble the goat cheese.
    • Get your spices ready.
  • By now the water should be boiling, so prepare the linguine according to the package directions. While that is cooking, you can cook the vegetables.
  • Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions and garlic for two or three minutes, until the onions are translucent.
  • Add in the mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and sun dried tomato oil, and sauté for two minutes.
  • Add in the beet leaves, and sauté until they start to wilt.
  • Throw in the stems, and sauté until they have imparted their color to the mushrooms and onions. Be careful not to over cook them, though, or they will become brownish and lose their crunch.
  • Remove from heat, and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • By now your linguine should be ready. Plate it, and top it with the sautéed vegetables.
  • Sprinkle with chili pepper flakes and goat cheese (I did that after I took the pictures).
Fun facts
Reduction in food waste per serving 10 ounces
Reduction in food waste if every person in the developed world saves just 10 ounces of beet greens from landfill About 312,500 short tons
Weight of pig iron structure of the Eiffel Tower About 8,000 short tons

Watermelon rind is food too

Watermelon rind has it tough. It lives next to sweet, pink, refreshing fruit that can be eaten as is, or easily become the base of colorful drinks, salsas, granitas and soups. How many of us even acknowledge rind as food? How many of us stop eating when we reach the unsexy, white, flavorless stuff? How many rinds end their lives needlessly in landfill?

Too many to contemplate.

But watermelon rind is food too, and there’s no reason to throw it away, or even compost anything but the hard, dark green skin (less than a millimeter thick). Although the rind is not as flavorful as the rest of the fruit, it is slightly sweet and has a firm, crisp texture that holds up well to cooking. It can be incorporated into the aforementioned drinks, salsas, granitas and soups — but also does well on it’s own in both sweet and savory concoctions.

Watermelon rind chutney

Take that, sexy, pink, attention-grabbing watermelon flesh

I’ve been in the mood for Indian food lately, so when I found myself with 10 cups of watermelon rind earlier this week (harvested from a 7 pound watermelon), I decided to use it to make chutney. The recipe is below, and the result is a spicy, sweet, sour, aromatic condiment that makes a perfect accompaniment to Indian food, meat dishes or strong cheeses.

Watermelon Rind Chutney


Cubed watermelon rind

Cubed watermelon rind

  • 10 cups watermelon rind, diced in ¾ inch cubes with dark green skin removed
  • 2 cups raisins
  • 2 serrano peppers with seeds, minced
  • ½ cup ginger, skinned and coarsely chopped
  • 1½ Tbsp garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp red pepper
  • ¾ tsp cinnamon powder
½ tsp cardamom
  • ½ tsp ginger powder
  • ¼ tsp powdered cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • 1½ cups sugar


  • Place watermelon rind, raisins, serrano peppers, ginger, garlic, red pepper, cinnamon powder, cardamom, ginger powder, powdered cloves, salt and half of the vinegar in a large pot.
  • Add enough water to just cover the fruit, and give everything a good stir.
  • Bring the liquid to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to low.
  • Cook on low heat for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the rinds take on a translucent quality.
  • Add in the rest of the vinegar, the lime juice and the sugar, and stir until sugar dissolves.
  • Bring the liquid to a gentle boil, and, stirring frequently, continue to boil until the liquid has the consistency of jam.
  • Put the chutney in a sterilized jar.

This chutney will stay fresh for several months in the refrigerator.

Fun facts
Reduction in food waste per batch of chutney 10 cups
… and if every household in the US makes 1 batch Over 9.6 million cubic feet
Volume of the Washington Monument About 1 million cubic feet