The XX Factor

Getting Fancy With Food Waste

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Prior to moving to New York City from Austin, food waste didn’t matter much to me. I’ve never been one to let food languish in the refrigerator, going rotten and having to be thrown out, but things like carrot tops and onion skins had a simple, easy use: I threw them in the giant compost pile I maintained as the sole source of fertilizer for my garden.  Unfortunately, living in Brooklyn has meant saying good bye to things like backyards and definitely compost piles, making me keenly aware of how much trash is generated by the stuff you pull off fruit and vegetables to get to the eating part. I wish I could say that it’s because my environmentalism compels me not to add to the 27 percent of edible food that is wasted in America, but my frustration truly began with my irrational hatred of taking out the trash. I’d rather wash dishes or scrub toilets any day, and so adding mass that will shortly compel me to tie up the bag and trot it down the stairs fills me with dread.  

Which is why I read with interest this New York Times piece by Julia Moskin about home cooks who use parts of the plant that even the most ardent trash-hater would despondently release into the can. Some of the ideas, such as roasting watermelon seeds, seem like too much work for not enough space saved in the trash pile, but some of the other ideas sufficiently address the desire to dispose of food waste by having it disappear into the handy maws of human beings rather than dragged down two flights of stairs, where it can rot in the heat and add to that memorable “New York in the summer” atmosphere. Roasting fish on a bed of fennel stalks sounds useful; using a vegetable peeler to make a salad out of broccoli stems sounds even better.  

Still, there’s no reason that all use of vegetable offal has to be new or fancy or dragged out of recipes the French developed during wars when they were also eating turtles and snails out of desperation. You can always go with the simple and ever-useful. Which is why I was surprised to read this passage:

“When you mention using them for stock, that’s when people start to roll their eyes,” said Ronna Welsh, a cooking teacher in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who chronicles her adventures with chard stems and watermelon rinds on her Web site Purple Kale Kitchenworks, in a column called “Otherwise, Trash.”

I will say that gave me an idea for starting a Tumblr blog of my own, called “Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live In Park Slope (Anymore),” where I gather the up the routine mentions of that neighborhood’s vaunted denizens in the pages of New York publications, and make fun of these references for irritating me. What’s wrong with vegetable stock? That’s like hating on the Rolling Stones. Some things are just classics. Once you make the transition from following some cookbook recipe for stock that involves buying whole new vegetables towards making it out of all the stuff you cut or peeled off vegetables you ate, there’s no going back. It’s the first step towards being released from the crutch of following cookbooks closely and realizing you, too, have the power to just make it up as you go along. My summer stock that’s a hodge podge of zucchini trimmings, eggplant tops, and onion skins rivals any kind of wintery concoction made out of the more traditional potatos and carrots. I just make a pitcher of it that I put in my refrigerator and use it for everything: making soups, cooking grains, adding a little punch to stir fries. I’d probably make coffee with it, if someone suggested that was a good idea.  

Though I do recommend making it on the day you’re going to take your trash out, so you can take the thoroughly boiled and compacted trimmings, put them at the top of the trash bag, and get them out of the house before they start to make your kitchen smell a little like New York on an August afternoon.