Honourable husks (a.k.a. Okara)

If you’ve studied Japanese, one thing you may have puzzled over is why some things earn the honorific prefix “o-” or “go-”, while other equally (or even more) noble things don’t. Why are beer and telephones (o-biru and o-denwa) worthy of honour, while wine and computers are not? It is a mystery.

Traditional foods often earn honorifics in Japanese, even humble ones like “o-kara” – a byproduct of the tofu making process. “Kara” literally means husk or shell, and okara is the pulp that you filter out of the soybean slurry to get soy milk. Anyone could be forgiven for not seeing what’s so honourable about it; it’s bland, and not known to make anyone’s mouth water (though one of our cats seems to like the smell).

That being said, okara does have some redeeming properties. It’s high in fiber, as you’d expect, and contains protein, calcium, iron, and riboflavin. It’s flexible. And, although it goes bad very quickly, it freezes nicely, so you can store it until you need it.

The Japanese have long understood that okara is a valuable food, not to be thrown away. There, it’s often served as a side dish, unohana, made with okara, vegetables, sugar, soy and sake. Unohana is served cold – and I ate it for years thinking it was made with tofu. It’s only when I moved to the United States and started making tofu that I realized what okara was, and had to start figuring out ways to use it (as every litre of soy milk generates about a cup of okara, and we weren’t about to throw it out).

So, for those of you who might be struggling to use up all the okara you generate, and who regularly throw some away, here are a few of the experiments we’ve tried, with varying levels of success:

Okara falafel: We found this recipe online last week and tried it out with a few changes. We added a bit more flour to give the mixture the consistency of drop biscuit batter, threw in some cayenne pepper, and used cilantro rather than parsley. The result was so good that we served it to guests recently (with some tahini, lemon and garlic sauce). Everyone enjoyed it, and was surprised to find out what they were eating. The “falafel” was dense, flavourful, and moist with a crispy crust. Simply amazing.

Okara falafel cooking

Okara falafel

Baking: Many people use okara in baking, and it gives breads body and moisture. Bonnie Lee used okara in the pumpkin bread I blogged about a few weeks ago. This was another huge success.

Pumpkin bread

Stealth okara: This isn’t one dish, but rather a class of dishes. Okara has the texture of porridge, and, being bland, can be mixed into a number of foods without significantly changing their flavour or texture. This includes things like mashed potatoes, actual porridge and polenta. Okara is almost undetectable in mashed potatoes and porridge (when it makes up about 25% of the volume). Okara made the polenta I tried creamier (I used ¼ cup corn meal, 2 cups water, and ¾ cups okara) – though I found that it set less well, and wasn’t suitable for slicing and frying the next day. These stealth applications are a great way to use up okara.

Vegan shepherd's pie

Okara polenta

Vegan pancakes: I haven’t experimented with this much, but did make one batch of my usual recipe substituting buttermilk with soy milk, and the eggs with okara. These ended up being heavy, but tasty enough. I use a mix of baking powder and baking soda, so a little dash of vinegar will help lighten them up next time.

Okara pancakes

Soups & eggs: We’ve added okara to a few soups and to omlettes. It can add a little grittiness to those if you overdo to okara, but we’ve had a few moderate successes there. More experimenting needed here.

Okara & eggs

Things we have yet to try: If you make tofu at home, I strongly suggest that you get The Book of Tofu, which has many ideas to springboard off of, including: okara soufflés, croquettes, chapaties, granola and a variety of baked goods.

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Lessons from the animal kingdom

There’s a lot we can learn about better ways to interact with the environment from our fellow creatures. Edo and Pyx, much to our amusement and edification, make it their daily challenge to find new ways to reuse old things.

Caught hiding in their new fort

Our tireless feline upcyclers

As imaginative and dedicated as they as they are, they can’t hold a candle to Norman.

222 million tons in LA Times

Yesterday this URL got more than its usual amount of exercise thanks to an article in the LA Times: New app builds on efforts to reduce food waste. Most food waste articles focus on the magnitude of the problem, so it was particularly nice to be featured in a piece that was looking at what people are doing to make things better, including some who are already making a huge difference like EcoScraps and Food Cowboy.

It was my first interview, so I didn’t quite say everything I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it, but hopefully I’ll get other opportunities to bring attention to the food waste issue and things we can all do to make a difference.

Supermarket periphery cereal

I’ve always been a big fan of cereal – and as a kid, there was no cereal I liked better than Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries™. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about these newfangled GMO blue, green and purple crunch berries. I’m talking about the original red ones – the ones that grow on crunch berry trees, and are coveted by the likes of the infamous Jean LaFoote – natural crunch berries, that grow wild. Man I loved those berries … the way they stained the milk pink … the way they kind of cut the roof of my mouth.

The great tragedy for us Canadian kids was that crunch berries were only available for a brief period – just long enough for us to fall in love with their subtle charms. Then they simply disappeared. It was a dark time.

We kids knew they still existed just south of the border, as we could see ads for the cereal on US channels, taunting us through a translucent veneer of white noise. But, for whatever reason – perhaps an embargo on the import of tropical fruit – they couldn’t cross the 49th parallel.

Fortunately, I had family in Massachusetts that I stayed with for a few weeks every summer. A highlight of those trips was always heading to a US supermarket – a magical place with an entire aisle of brightly coloured, plastic-toy-laden cereal boxes. Fortified with niacin. I was always allowed to choose a box of my favourite, and that favourite was always Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries™.

Funny thing: now that I live in the US, I never even walk down that aisle. Aisles are where the processed food lives. The packaging alone represents a level of waste that is hard to justify – never mind the fact that it often involves multiple stages of processing and transportation, and the waste associated with the creation and use of additives and preservatives that humans can easily live without.

But, damn it, I still love cereal.

Fortunately, I married Bonnie Lee .. and, fortunately, a few months after we got married, she made her first batch of granola. It gave the milk a lovely brown tinge and caramel tone, had a satisfying crunch, and best of all was made with ingredients we could find in bulk at the edges of the supermarket (plus oil and honey). When I had my first bite, I knew it was love.

Granola has been a staple in our home ever since (except when we were in Japan, and had an oven the size of the bottom third of a shoebox). The recipe is never the same twice, so we don’t get bored, and it keeps well in the fridge. The recipe for Bonnie Lee’s latest batch is below.

July’s batch of granola

Granola

Ingredients

  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 1½ cups shredded coconut
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup flax
  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds
  • ¾ cups vegetable oil℉
  • ¾ cups honey
  • 1 cup dried cherries
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • ½ cup raisins

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 300℉.
  • Place rolled oats, shredded coconut, and sliced almonds in the largest glass baking dish you have.
  • Place the baking dish in the oven, and toast the ingredients for 15 minutes, stirring them every 5 minutes so that they toast evenly.
  • Remove the baking dish from the oven, and increase the temperature to 375℉.
  • Mix the flax and pumpkin seeds in with the toasted ingredients.
  • Heat the oil and honey over low heat or a microwave. The goal here is just to make the mixture a little less viscous, so that it blends well.
  • Stir the honey and oil mixture into the dry ingredients, until they are evenly coated.
  • Return the baking dish to the oven, and bake until the granola is nicely browned (about an hour), stirring it every fifteen minutes or so.
  • Remove the granola from the oven, pack it down, and let it cool.
  • Break the granola into chunks, and add in the dried fruit.
  • Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container.
Granola & Thai pickled cherries

Granola & Thai pickled cherries – probably not so great when eaten together.

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.