Reducing food waste is all the rage in restaurants these days.
From a cost-reduction standpoint, the concept is nothing new to chefs, but more are discovering the enhanced flavor and textural benefits that scraps — believe it or not — can add to dishes, along with the message sent that they care about the earth. Plus, finding creative ways to reuse things like carrot tops and coffee grinds offers yet another opportunity to flex those creative muscles in the kitchen while working toward the greater good. Especially as research shows that the restaurant industry generates about 11.4 million tons of food waste for a cost of about $25 billion a year, according to ReFED, a non-profit collaboration.
Here’s a look at some of the most frequently wasted foods and a look at how some up-and-coming chefs and cocktail artists are working them into dishes and drinks.
Those carrot tops and beet greens might have gone in the trash in the past, but now chefs are finding ways to use them in everyday creations. When used like herbs in a pesto or pistou, braised with garlic or stuffed into dumplings, this “trash” can be your new treasure when it comes to adding color, flavor and even nutrition.
Clayton Rollison of Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar in Hilton Head uses the greens of all sorts of vegetables, including even sweet potatoes harvested straight from the ground. “We’ll use them in stocks, for chimichurris, or char them and use them in a salad,” he says.
At Café Robey in Chicago, Kevin McAllister takes fluffy, often tossed fennel fronds to make a flavorful oil when combined with extra fennel seeds and blended for several minutes so the oil slightly warms. “We then let the mixture sit at room temperature and drain through a coffee filter to create a bright and fragrant oil for garnishing,” says McAllister, who will swirl the oil in a cauliflower soup to add color and flavor as well as atop beet salads and in a broth for mussels to release an intoxicating scent when the covered pot’s opened tableside.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much product is produced from an actual plant and how much waste can come about if we don’t try to use it all,” he says. McAllister also leverages his brunch menu to feature a lot of this scrap cooking, like sautéed beet greens alongside biscuits and gravy and pureeing blanched pea pods for what will become soups or sauces.
To peel or not to peel? That is the question among chefs lately as they also question age-old culinary methods in an attempt to cut waste. Some have skipped peeling veg for stocks and soups, but as they can add a bitter taste when used raw, try frying, pickling or powdering them instead.
Chefs/Co-owners Irene and Margaret Li of Mei Mei in Boston top their salads with sliced, fried butternut squash peels that would otherwise never make it to the table. And in Chicago, Chef/Owner Joe Frillman of Daisies turns celery root peels and scraps into powder by dehydrating and pulverizing them. He then adds the powder to dough when making pasta or even adds it to a Bloody Mary at brunch to add an extra unctuous, umami flavor. Frillman’s known to do the same with pea pod shells.
“We figure peels and other trim can amount to 20 percent of the weight of our produce that would otherwise go into the garbage if not used in some way,” Frillman says. “That can add up to a loss of a dollar or two per vegetable, which really adds up over time. Using scraps not only shows respect for everything grown and for the farmer, it also adds a bonus flavor or texture when layering.”
It’s easy to slough off a bunch of cilantro, leaving the stems behind, or to toss those woodsy, often bitter kale stems, but consider some alternatives.
Chef Mark Ford of Anoosh Bistro in Louisville, Ky., saves all kinds of vegetable trim for a veggie-only stock used in vegan dishes, but he’s also known to pickle swiss chard stems as a garnish. “They add a lot of acidity and extra crunch to brighten featured specials,” he says.
Frillman of Daisies juices kale, parsley and other stems for use in both dishes and drinks, including a parsley stem cocktail the bar manager once made that also included tomato powder and a good gin.
As collagen-rich bone broth continues to remain popular in nutrition circles, chefs are more apt to save every last bone they can to create better bases for dishes or even straight-up sipping purposes for interested diners.
For example, Rollison uses leftover fish bones and heads after filleting to make a rich stock that’s made into a sauce for croquettes stuffed with fish collar meat.
Some say the current “root to stem” trend got its legs from nose-to-tail cooking as more chefs are opting to buy whole or primal cuts and butcher their own meat in-house to cut costs and show respect for animals and farmers.
McAllister of Café Robey collects leftover bacon ends and trim for a bacon relish that’s made by rendering the meat and cooking it until soft with onions and figs.
Executive Chef Thomas Connell of The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach takes this approach, taking leftover trim from a tenderloin or other favored cuts and using it for house- ground hamburger meat and meatballs. He also cuts tips and ends into smaller cubes that can be used for brochettes and other appetizers.
“This is just a way to have more control over your product and costs,” says Connell, who eschews buying pre-fab meat because he doesn’t always know the quality and freshness of it.
Resist tossing those mushy berries or over-ripened pears. Virtually all types of fruit can easily be used in pastry, or pureed or juiced for various purposes.
Connell takes any fruit that’s softened (and without mold, of course) and sends it to the pastry chef to be made into gelato or sorbet.
Anoosh Bistro’s Ford is known to collect strawberry tops (without the leaves) for a sweet- sour vinegar he makes by steeping the tops in red and white vinegar over time. “The fun thing about the infusion is that it holds indefinitely in a refrigerator and you can just keep adding tops and vinegar to cover and it just keeps getting better,” he says. “I’ll strain the vinegar every week and start adding fresh tops back to it to continue to intensify the flavor. The strawberries start to break down and create a weird consistency of liquid if it’s not strained weekly.”
Bars are notorious for having leftover citrus peels and pulp, especially as more bartenders use fresh-squeezed juices, but more chefs and cocktail artists are breaking down age-old silos and finding ways to share their scraps.
Continuing his obsession with anything pickled or preserved, Frillman turns leftover lemon and citrus juice, even wine from opened bottles, into vinegars.
At Sunday in Brooklyn in New York, head bartender Brian Evans makes his “Redeemed Fruit” cordial using chopped ends, leftover pulp and citrus shells from daily juicing and blending that with sugar, citric acid, and fruit juices that are past their prime. In the kitchen, Chef Jamie Young collects leftover limes from the bar, dehydrates them — peels and all — for a powder that’s added to various dishes, including a black lentil dip for extra brightness.
As more chefs work directly with local, small and sustainable farms, or even buy up or run their own, often extra that can’t be sold. And when it comes to that “ugly” produce, don’t be afraid to ask your farmers to give you all of it; there’s plenty to work with doesn’t have to meet the eye.
Frillman again turns to fermentation to work with any abundance of produce from his brother’s local farm. When there were extra peppers once, he fermented them and turned them into a salad of sorts that sits atop a “chicken-fried” rutabaga (with or without the red eye gravy pork sausage) on the brunch menu.
He’s also fermented extra apples from another local farm for a house-made cider vinegar that he serves straight up on tap for sipping or that can be used in dishes, dressings, cocktails and sodas. And, he offers a house-made kombucha (for sipping and in a granita atop desserts) made with his housemade vinegar, verjus and any and all “ugly” produce he collects from farmers—do this by adding a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and fruit) to the fruit and filtered water or brewed tea and leaving it sit out for about a week or two until “it has a nice balance between sour and acidity without being too harsh,” he says. That initial stage can be “pushed to vinegar” once set in the cooler and left to acidify further.
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