The hassle of microwave popcorn?

Continental breakfast?

Americans are off microwave popcorn. At least that is the gist of a story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday that left me shaking my head. No, we are not embracing simpler, healthier  ways of popping corn. We are buying already popped and bagged corn. It seems microwaves, air poppers and stove top approaches to popping our kernels are fraught with risks.

The few comments on the story are insightful.

wdwpixie writes: “How about the fact that there’s been health issues associated with the microwave popcorn?  Every time I make a bag here at work I have to hear about it from a pharmacy associate….it’s not a lazy factor, it’s a possible health risk, plus the pre-popped can be put in a lunch bag or taken on the road as a snack.”

And, Xalm1983 says she’d “rather buy ready-made popcorn because it just tastes better and doesn’t stink up the apartment if burned.”

justdoit1 seems to prefer the limitless bounty of flavours that manufacturers add to pre-popped corn.  S/he argues that “The already made comes in various flavors, which is hard to do at home without opening up 10 different packages.  most (sic) people buy it because it’s cheaper in bulk than buying 10 different flavored popcorns.”

The thought that popping corn is easy and very inexpensive seems not too have occurred to these commenters. And I think I understand way. They’d rather pay for the convenience (and the waste that comes with it) than take that extra step in their own homes. I mean, is it really easier to buy pre-popped corn with additives to preserve freshness and flavour than air pop some kernels and top them with salt, olive oil and grated cheese?

We consume rather than create. And this focus on consumption that “saves us time” is helping us avoid the larger issues surrounding food waste, hunger, and obesity. And it couldn’t be more disappointing.

On 20 May, Jean-Francois and I “Got Wasted” with a remarkable group of people (both in the audience and on the Panel) and talked about the problem of food waste and hunger in Los Angeles. It was a motivating event that generated a lot of talk on Twitter. You can link to the audio recording of that discussion and Twitter feed below:

(BTW, we’ve moved, unpacked, found computers and plugs, and calmed our cats. And, I have finally found my rhythm in the new place…so I hope to post more regularly.)

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Eggless, Yeastless Yummy “Stone Soup” Bread

Vegan bread with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and sage.

Vegan bread with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and sage.

In our new apartment, I want to have a “Zero Waste Kitchen”, but that means I have to use up as much as possible in the current apartment before we move. The idea is to start with a clean slate. To do that we need to make sure we do not bring bad habits with us. Today, I made bread, and in the process used up the last of our sun dried tomatoes, blue corn flour, extra jar of white four, and baking powder – as well as some almond milk. What I got, had the texture of a nice country loaf.

And it was 100% vegan.

Why Stone Soup Bread? Because, like Jean-Francois’s idea for stone soup, this recipe is so flexible that practically anything can go into it, and it complements salad or soup, and makes a nice sandwich. You could even use stone soup broth in the mixture. Best of all, I doubt I will ever miss traditional breads ever again.

I cannot take credit for the idea. I found the source recipes on the internet when searching for ways to use flour without eggs and yeast. I have Tish’s recipe at Food.com, Veggie Bon Vivant’s adaptation of Mark Bittman’s (How to Cook Everything), and a half day of looking at nearly empty jars and wondering what would work together.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Preheat over to 400F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 3 cups of a variety of flours (blue corn, unbleached, corn meal, and whole wheat) with 1 tablespoon baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt.
  3. Chop 4 withering green onions and about 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes (in oil) and add them to the flour mixture. NOTE: I chopped the tomatoes on a wooden chopping board and left the oil on the board to use later when shaping the bread dough.
  4. Add 2 teaspoons dried sage to the flour mixture. Any herb would work, be creative.
  5. In a 2 cup measuring cup, combine 1/4 cup olive oil and 1-1/2 cups almond milk.
  6. Add liquids to flour mixture and mix until flour is moist but not very sticky.
  7. Turn dough on to wooden board (the one with the tomato oil). Flip a few times to shape into a ball.
  8. Drop ball onto baking sheet.
  9. Cook for 45 minutes.
Just out of the oven, not the blue colour from the blue corn flour.

Just out of the oven, note the blue colour from the blue corn flour.

And voila, two veggies saved from compost, three jars empty and ready to be packed, and a nice hearty snack to get me through the afternoon. I suspect this bread will toast up nicely and make heavenly croutons, too.

Is it still edible?

Found a nice resource from Eat By Date that answers that question for many of the foods we buy.

In our house, “Best Before” and “Eat by” dates are taken with a grain of salt. For foods we are less familiar with, they provide guidelines, but they are not hard and fast rules. But, we rarely base on judgements on anything scientific, preferring to tempt fate by relying on our senses of smell and taste.

Others live by these dates, thinking that science has already answered that question for them. The end result: a lot of good food ends up in the bin. This online resource attempts to save Jean-Francois and me from ourselves and a great deal of food from the bin at the same time.

Eat By Date’s mission is to answer one question: How long does food really last. And with what they have learnt, they have created a useful resource that goes beyond the date. Along the way, they give us more insight into common foods and help us be smarter consumers.

Take their entry on Lettuce, for example. Not only do they provide a table showing the leafy veg’s shelf life in the fridge, but they also share tips for longer storage (like rinsing and drying lettuce before it even goes in the refrigerator) and give insight on how lettuce fairs in a prepared dish (like that take-away Chinese you ordered three days ago).

Screenshot from website showing shelf life of lettuce

Screenshot from website showing shelf life of lettuce

The site is clean, easy to use, and informative. If more people refer to this resource or others, I am sure less food would make it into the bin.

How Long Does Food Last? Shelf Life & Expiration Date Guide.

Weekend food waste roundup – 16 March 2013

Recent articles on food waste.

The tone of news stories about food waste shifted a week or so ago. For nearly a month, news outlets and bloggers seemed so overwhelmed with the size of the problem, that few bothered to dig deeper. But, those rehashed stories on the amount of food wasted in developed nations are now becoming more nuanced.

According to the USDA, the annual cost of food waste for an average family of four in the United States is $2,275.

My interested in waste management was piqued by an investigation onthe life cycle of our food waste once it has been collected. This story focuses on a community that already requires food waste to be separated from other waste. For those who need to see the magnitude of food waste we generate each week, call your local waste management centre. Many waste and water treatment plants offer tours for the public.

Another report claims that LED lighting might slow food decay in grocery stores and save about 300,000 tonnes of food waste, simply because LED light do not burn as hot as incandescent lights. (Of course, the study was funded by Sedna LED, so more research is needed, but it may be a way to work with local grocery stores to help find new ways to reduce their costs and reduce food waste.)

Massachusetts is leading the way in the United States, with two approaches to reduce the amount of food that ends up in land fills. The state now requires businesses in the food industry to compost their organic waste, the goal is to expand this requirement to every home in the state.

But there is a more interesting approach to managing food waste that might be even more efficient. A province in Korea has implemented a mandatory “pay-as-you-throw” system charges households for throwing food in the bin. What appeals to me about this approach is that economic cost of wasting food becomes more transparent and big wasters pay more for being wasteful than those who are frugal.

And, finally, it looks like the plastics industry is jumping into the food waste debate and looking for ways to help reduce food waste with better packaging. This report has me wondering about other landfill issues, but we work hard to reduce packaging waste  at home too, so I may be a bit biased.

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.

So, we tried to cook the Christmas tree…

It was the morning of Epiphany, and as we lifted the ornaments off the branches, it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. Why not cook the Christmas tree? Surely, that was far better aligned with our values than simply getting the thing mulched.

In retrospect, it was probably the guilt getting the better of me. The decision to get a tree had not been reached easily, as the whole idea seemed to be at odds with our approach to sustainability. What’s more, trees have never really been a tradition for us. In Japan, getting a tree simply wasn’t an option – and even before that, we had rarely spent Christmases at home. It wasn’t a choice we were 100% comfortable with. So we had hemmed. Then we had hawed. And, after careful deliberation, we had decided to indulge, just this once. A tree would allow us to hang ornaments that have sat largely unused for years, act as a festive backdrop to our Epiphany Eve party, and (perhaps most importantly) provide the cats with hours of entertainment.

Now that all that was in the past, all I saw was a tree that had been chopped down for no justifiable reason. It didn’t help that the cats, who go insane when a single flower enters the house, and who took great joy in beating up our little paper tree in Japan, had doggedly ignored the eight foot giant covered in shiny baubles from the day it had been put up. That had been a particularly cruel twist of the knife.

Obligatory family Xmas portrait

Cooking the tree would make all this right.

Yes, guilt was definitely a factor, as was the knowledge that such guilt lingers. The 1993 tree still haunts me … it haunts both of us. This was the only other real Christmas tree we’d ever bought. Our then nascent concern for the planet had compelled us to get a living tree for Christmas that year, one that would stay with us for years to come. Even before New Year’s came around, though, it was clear that we had managed to kill the thing. We didn’t have the gardening skills to even keep an evergreen green. As stewards of the planet, we were batting 0.

It’s also probably important to point out that I’d had a few drinks the night before, and that was definitely affecting my judgement – though not because there was still alcohol coursing through my veins. What I’d drunk the night before were some Dark ‘n Stormy’s, made with our homemade ginger beer. The ginger beer was dry, exploding with ginger, and had been a hit with the guests. I felt some lingering pride over the brew … and somehow that pride convinced me that I could do wonders with tree.

Dark 'n stormy night ahead

Pride and guilt alone, however, were not solely responsible for my new plans for the tree – nostalgia also played a role. Christmas trees and ornaments come with thoughts of childhood, and with those thoughts a memory of something I hadn’t thought of in years emerged: bierre d’épinette, a.k.a. spruce beer. This was a drink of childhood – a very regional one – and I the last time I’d had any was a home-brewed version at a little greasy spoon in Montreal, over 20 years ago. I can still taste it.

So, once Bonnie Lee was on board, we pruned off a few branches, boiled them for a while, then added some sugar and yeast and waited for the magic to happen, happy in the knowledge that we’d have a new recipe to share soon – one that would not only turn Christmas trees into food, but also cure scurvy.

Cooking the tree

It’s really hard to describe what a good bierre d’épinette tastes like. It has a pleasant complexity, and like many great local foods, the ability to repulse anyone who was not raised with it. Our version lacked some of that complexity, and, with it’s distinct pine freshener tones, lacked the charm to win over even the most diehard spruce beer aficionado.

Someday, if we move back to the land of pine trees, I will try this again – and if I make a good batch, I’ll share the recipe here. In the meantime, I’ll just leave you with my recipe for homemade ginger beer.

Ginger beer (8 cups)

Ingredients

  • 8 cups water
  • 1.5 lbs ginger, unpeeled, chopped coarsely
  • ½ cup brown sugar (or to taste)
  • 4 limes, unpeeled and coarsely chopped

Directions

  • Toss everything in a blender, and blend at highest speed for 2 or 3 minutes.
  • Strain through cheese cloth – and make sure you squeeze all the gingery goodness out of the pulp.
  • You’ll note that I don’t ferment my ginger beer, so technically, it’s not beer. If you want a little fizz, you can leave the ginger beer out for a few hours. Depending on how sweet the ginger beer is, the temperature, and how much yeast was hanging out on your ginger to begin with, you may get some small bubbles. If you want something more like a commercial soft drink, you’ll need to approach this differently than I do.

Dark ‘n Stormy

  • Pour about 3 ounces of ginger beer over ice.
  • Add 1 ounce of dark spiced rum.
  • Squeeze the juice of ¼ lime over top, and drop the lime wedge in.
Fun facts
2L Coca Cola 2L of our ginger beer
Carbon footprint 500 g 350 g*
Sugar 240 g 100 g
Plastic waste 1 bottle 0 bottles
Gingery goodness (on scale of 0 to 10) 0 10

* Used published value for brown sugar, and calculated results from Food Carbon Emissions Calculator for other ingredients (using conservative assumptions and reasonable substitutes).

Weekend food waste roundup – 19 January 2013

19 January 2013Food waste a new opportunity for entrepreneurs | CNN.com — Its great to see more businesses built around tackling food waste (I’m a particularly big fan of Rubies in the Rubble; such a great idea). Thanks to my friends at Stanley Cottage Garden (if you like this blog, you’ll like theirs) for sending me this link.

UNK Aims to Reduce Food Waste on Campus | KHGI-TV/KWNB-TV/KHGI-CD-Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings – Project Clean Plate is a four day program designed to help students at the university of Nebraska at Kearney become more conscious of the food they help themselves to in the cafeteria, compared with what they consume.

Countess: Put up food prices to stop waste. Lady Mar says higher costs would stop Brits throwing away half their groceries | Mail Online – A strategy to reduce food waste from the House of Lords … doubt this would be popular, but there’s no denying that countries where food cost is high relative to income have lower consumer waste.

Future of food composting trial in Washington County holds regional importance | OregonLive.com — Residents are raising a stink about a local food-scrap composting facility in North Plains.

Campaign to cut food waste in West Somerset gathers pace | This is The West Country — Local activists in West Somerset are teaching other members of their community to waste less.

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.

Weekend food waste roundup – 6 January 2012

Dumpster Diver TV: Austrians Cook Up Food Waste Reality Show | The Salt : NPR Dumpster diving goes prime time in Austria. “Although I was prepared for large amounts,” the director for the project, David Gross, says, “the amount of waste left me speechless.”

Tiffins for all: Food cart owner wants to wean Vancouverites off disposable takeout containers | The Vancouver Sun – One Naan Kebab food cart owner wants to wean everyone off of disposable containers, Gandhidham style. The motivations and logistics aren’t the same in Vancouver as in India, but he thinks there is something to be learned from tiffins and dabbawalas.

Mark Lynas, environmentalist who opposed GMOs, admits he was wrong. | Slate – A big turnaround by Mark Lynas. The full text of his speech is here, or, if you prefer to watch it, I’ve embedded it below.

07 Mark Lynas from Oxford Farming Conference on Vimeo.

Adding a little zest to the holidays

Now that the Mayan calendar’s 14th Baktun has started with no hitches, it seems that there’ll be a 2013 after all – and the really good news (assuming the Values Institute at DGWB is better at predicting things than doomsday sites) is that food waste consciousness will be the top 2013 trend (with “meatless mainstreaming” coming in at number 4). Beth Hoffman, in an article she wrote for Forbes, seems to concur, listing food waste, humane animal treatment and food labelling as three issues of great importance that have finally made it into mainstream American consciousness.

It’s about time.

So, now that we’re all on the cusp of heightened food waste consciousness, I expect a few people will want to be making New Year’s resolutions to waste less, and if you’re looking for ways to do that, this article on CNN.com is a good place to start.

One food that the CNN article doesn’t mention, is citrus peels. Peels almost inevitably get wasted, which is a shame, because a little zest can add a great accent to sweet and savoury dishes, mulled beverages, teas, chutneys, pickles, cocktails and more. So why do so many peels end up in the bin? Simple: people rarely have cause to use citrus peel on the same day that they use the fruit … and on days that they do use zest, they often end up wasting the fruit.

It’s about timing.

In 2012, we decided to do something about that in our home, and started freezing peels whenever we ate citrus fruits. That provided us with a handy supply of zest throughout the year, with a big surplus at year end – perfect for making holiday candy.

We made our candied peels with some brandy, cinnamon, star anise, and cloves. The peels last for several months, and are versatile. They can be used in baking or as garnish, eaten straight or dipped in chocolate – and make a nice seasonal gift during the holidays.

Candied citrus peels

The extra bonus was the simple syrup infused with spice and citrus that was a byproduct of the process. It came in handy when we opened a bottle of red wine that was not as tasty as we’d hoped. We heated up the wine, and added one tablespoon of brandy along with two tablespoons of our new instant Glühwein syrup (patent pending) per serving – and, just like that, bad wine was transformed into very Christmasy mulled wine. I’m guessing the syrup will also be good for making spiced tea and cider.

Candied peel (8 cups)

Ingredients

  • 8 cups of citrus peels, sliced
  • 4 cups water
  • 8 cups sugar
  • ½ cup brandy
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 slices star anise

 Directions

  • Thaw peels (if needed) and slice into various shapes. We used a combination of thawed orange, blood orange, lemon and lime peels, as well as the fresh peels of a red pummelo and an oroblanco grapefruit Bonnie Lee had just used in a savoury fruit stew. The fresh peels were very thick with pith, and ended up having a texture similar to gummy bears, with great grapefruit notes.
  • Submerge peels in water, and bring to a boil. Drain. Repeat. Repeat again. This removes some of the bitterness from the pith.
  • Mix sugar and water. Boil for 10 minutes or so, until the syrup reached the thread stage (i.e., until syrup dripped from a spoon into cold water forms thin threads).
  • Add in the brandy, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and peels, and simmer until the pith is translucent. This took about 2 hours for our batch.
  • Let peels dry on wire rack until they are no longer sticky (this can take up to a day).
  • Roll peels in sugar, if desired.
Fruit stew

The fruit stew that sparked the candy making.

Thawed peels

Thawed peels

Peels being candied

Peels being candied

Rolling peels in sugar

Rolling peels in sugar

Instant Glühwein

Instant Glühwein (patent pending)