The Conservationist’s Kitchen

By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow and Writer in Residence

A little while back, Carl Safina wrote a post about what he eats and why and it got me thinking about how I approach this increasingly difficult and sensitive subject. But since Carl put things so eloquently on the “what” and “why” question, I thought I could add to the conversation by talking a little bit about the “how.” For, the more I find myself thinking about diet and the health of the planet the more I realize we have to question our essential methodologies in the kitchen even before we pick up a knife and a cutting board.

Over the last ten years I’ve been actively trying to reduce my food waste. This, in large part because something like 50% of all food produced in America ends up in a landfill. True, much of this happens at a farm level where bruised fruit or irregular vegetables never even get on a produce truck. But I do believe there are some basic rules families can follow to lessen their footprint on the planet. Agriculture is, after all, one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gasses on the planet and the more we can lessen its impact the better.

Compost on the cheap. ©Paul Greenberg

So I’ll start at the beginning with shopping. An obvious no brainer is to choose unpackaged or minimally packaged foods. Whole vegetables, whole fish, whole chickens are also more economical. It takes a little more work to break down a whole chicken, but I find that for our family of three I can usually get three full meals out of a single bird. The legs and wings are broiled, the breasts grilled and spritzed with lemon, the liver and heart go into Marcella Hazan’s fantastic chicken liver pasta sauce, and the back meat goes in tacos and quesadillas. The skin is rendered in a toaster oven into “crackling” that can be eaten as a snack or sprinkled over salad and the fat that comes off the skin is a delicious addition to refried beans. Bones of course make great stock and so a 4th meal of a hearty soup is even possible. A similar treatment can be done with a whole fish as I told the Washington Post a few years back. With vegetables, I have found that one really has to ignore the tendency to peel and discard (as so many recipes instruct). Unpeeled, a carrot is just as delicious and even more nutritious. The nesting leaves of a head of cauliflower make a perfectly fine substitute for celery. Even the skin of an onion, while perhaps not directly consumable is a great addition to that soup stock.

Bread making is another area where you can lighten the load on the landfill. A homemade loaf of bread ends up with minimal packaging (the paper for the flour, the bottle for the yeast) and by my calculation the cost runs about half of a bought loaf. If you’ve got a crust-eschewing child (as I do) those crusts can be dried out and stored for later use–for croutons, stuffing or as the base of things like meatballs and meatloaf.

Some of the 500 loaves of bread I’ve baked over the last 12 years. ©Paul Greenberg

Once back at home with my groceries I try as much as possible to diversify the processes that get a shot at all I’ve purchased. What I mean by this is that most shoppers have a simple binary ecology going on at home. They buy, they eat, they discard. But there are so many complementary systems out there that can economically address your food waste. The aforementioned stock is a good one, where bones, skins and a variety of wastes are rendered down into something delicious. But one should also turn to things like fermentation and decomposition. In my home I always maintain a vinegar pot, usually a quart sized yogurt container. Into this go all of my fruit discards — apple cores, strawberry tops, peach pits, etc. A spoonful of yeast and a half spoon of sugar and water about halfway up quickly starts bubbling. You can leave this covered so that it doesn’t become too odiferous. In a week or two you’ll have vinegar. Boil it once to sterilize and you’re good to go.

The conservationist kitchen needn’t stop at the stock and the vinegar. All of that pulp left over after fermentation and boiling makes great compost. I’d advise trying to maintain a small vegetable garden if you’ve got the room. But if you don’t most municipalities have compost drops. For me, though, a garden is where I see the circle get closed and waste more or less eliminated. I maintain two compost bins (garbage cans with many aerating holes actually). The primary bin receives all the waste from the kitchen. I turn that waste over into the secondary bin after about six months. In another six months I have usable compost. To speed things up at the beginning of the fishing season I always buy a couple dozen night crawlers and put them in the primary bin. Not only do I get the advantage of faster compost making, worms are quick to reproduce so in the end I only have to buy bait once a year. Often times the worms make it through the winter sparing me another trip to the bait shop.

A garden is key to closing the waste cycle. ©Paul Greenberg

Beyond compost there are even more savings to be had. I put both of my compost bins up on cinderblocks, high enough so that I can slip in a bowl underneath. Into this bowl drips the precious “compost tea”–the liquor that comes through all that organic matter when it rains. This is an excellent fertilizer, which produces vigorous vegetable growth.

The last process that I think is worth amending on a hotter dryer planet is to clean up after the meal. And here, again, some advance planning and careful thought is worthwhile. I try to limit my use of pots and pans and whenever I know that part of meal prep involves boiling water, I make sure to use that boiling water more than once. When making pasta, for example, I drain over a bowl with the green beans, peas or other vegetables I plan to prepare. The hot pasta water parboils most vegetables so that a second burner isn’t required. In addition, as any backwoods camper knows, boiling water is also a cleanser. So, I try to plan out what needs to be cleaned as I’m draining whatever it is I’m boiling.

I realize that all of this sounds like a lot to a busy person just trying to make it through the day and feed the family. But all of these ideas don’t have to be employed at once. Rather, one can start simply by changing one’s initial premises. If you go into the kitchen with the idea that “waste” is an outdated concept you will, more and more, leave your dinner table with a sense of balance. We of course have a long way to go before we achieve true balance with our natural environment but if we can’t start at home where can we start?

Paul Greenberg is author of is the author of the James Beard Award-winning, New York Times bestseller Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and his newest release, American Catch, both about fishing and food consumption. His coming book The Omega Principle: A Journey to the Bottom of the Marine Food Web is soon slated for publication and includes details from his recent PBS Frontline documentary, The Fish on My Plate.

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