Towards a Permaculture Kitchen: Culinary Techniques for Reducing Waste
With the exception of the past five years, my entire career was spent working in kitchens. I worked my way up from a beer-soaked dishwasher, to a sous chef in a celebrated bistro, to the head chef of my own market and catering company. I spent time in a tiny 8 table restaurant, a large award winning five-diamond hotel, and I spent almost a decade teaching culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, nutrition and food science, and food service management. Even today as a stay-at-home-dad and fledgling homesteader, a good portion of my day revolves around preparing food for my family of six.
Throughout the years I’ve seen it all - drunken chefs barely making it through a shift right up to a Michelin starred chef orchestrating a kitchen brigade with the finesse of a distinguished maestro. I’ve cooked through services standing in a half inch of dirty water and I’ve worked in an immaculate open kitchen where one crumb on the floor was too many. Throughout all my unique experiences with kitchen culture, there has always been one common thread: kitchens produce an amazing amount of waste. The lessons I’ve learned in professional kitchens translate well to meal planning and preparation at home and I’d like to share some of the techniques I use to create a more streamlined and less wasteful permaculture kitchen. Our time, energy, and food resources are valuable and often wasted but with a little know-how and a bit of good design, we can begin to slowly and simply reduce our waste streams.
Teaching culinary school clued me into a couple of things: my kitchen philosophy is driven by techniques and my students are predisposed to think in terms of specific recipes. In general, their mindset is so entrenched in the detail that I had to provide written recipes for everything we made together. But instilling a technique-based philosophy was important to their success.
Technique-based cooking frees us up to use what’s on hand instead of making special trips to the store to purchase specific ingredients. This saves time, fuel, and encourages us to use the food that is already in the house, minimizing food waste. It allows for improvisation and seasonal cookery - so we’re not spending valuable time searching for out-of-season vegetables and we don’t scrap the idea of a new flavor combination because one ingredient is missing. I guarantee that the bulgogi will taste just as good if it’s marinated in garlic and onion chives as it would if we used the traditional green onions. Who knows, maybe swapping out the herbs will create a magic formula that makes it truly next level!
Here are four easy techniques to start adding to your culinary repertoire: Getting away from a recipe mindset and using cooking methods to make countless dishes, cooking from the pantry, full-value cooking, and making energy multitask.
Sear seasoned chicken breast cutlets in olive oil on both sides until browned and almost cooked through. Add a tad more oil into the pan and cook minced garlic in the same pan. Deglaze the pan with white wine and chicken stock, making sure to dissolve the delicious brown bits that are stuck to the pan. Reduce the liquid until it’s almost gone and stir in cold butter little by little until a sauce forms. Add capers, lemon juice and flat leaf parsley and then season with salt and pepper.
Once we cook something like Chicken Piccata, we could think of it as adding a single recipe to our repertoire - but if we switch gears, we can think of it as a method to utilize the food we have on hand to make countless flavor combinations.
Step one - look in the fridge and see what we have on hand.
Step two, formulate a plan for specific ingredients.
Step three - cook!
Almost any piece of meat that you would consider throwing on the grill can be seared and cooked through. You can make any type of pan sauce by deglazing the pan with stock and/or wine, swirling in butter, and stirring in some herbs. Maybe next time, instead of olive oil, capers, and lemon we can use a sesame oil/grapeseed oil blend, ginger, mirin, and green onions. By switching out the ingredients we’ve made a completely different meal using the same technique. Little by little we can add techniques to our repertoire and a whole world of improvisational cooking is ours to experiment with! You can follow the same line of thinking and apply different flavors combinations to other methods of cooking such as braises, roasts, soups, sautees, and so much more.
2. Cooking From the Pantry
B. Using Whole Ingredients to Make your Own Specialty Mixes
Learning to make ingredients can help as well. For example, lots of southern biscuit makers swear by White Lily Flour because it makes an extremely tender biscuit that also stays together. Knowing a bit about flour and how it reacts to water can help us understand. Water links together the characteristically elastic gluten-forming proteins in flour and the higher the protein count, the tougher the resulting product will be. However, a bit of protein is necessary for structure. White Lily flour strikes a good balance between tender and sturdy and is about 8% protein. So if we mix half cake flour (7%) with an all-purpose flour (about 9 to 10%) we can approximate the ever important protein levels of biscuit flour. We really don’t need to know all about flour proteins to make a substitute ingredient - simply do an internet search for substitutes and we can save ourselves from stocking specialty items. Now, our AP flour and Cake flour are more multi-functional. The same could be said for things like garlic-salt (garlic powder and salt mixed in it’s own little container!?) and lemon pepper. For lemon pepper we could just mix salt, pepper, and lemon zest. It’s more wholesome than the premixed stuff which is full of citric acid, and other free flowing agents. Actually, I suggest zesting all citrus fruit. Even if we don’t plan to use the zest right away it can be frozen and used later - in pie crust, scones, soups, spice rubs (it’s great on salmon), drinks, and so much more! There is so much value in that marginal fruit “waste.”
3. Full-Value Cooking
Speaking of valuing the marginal, I’ve watched so many vegetable stems and usable parts of meat get thrown right into the trash. Whole tops of peppers, broccoli stems, asparagus stems, peach pits and skins, carrot tops - all have value. Here are a few techniques for maximizing the value of your food.
A. Using the Less Prized Portion of Vegetables
We can micro-dice pepper scraps, zucchini ends, onion tops, the tougher outer layers of brussels sprouts, etc. and sautee them for use into a wonton filling, rice pilaf, goat cheese spread, or into ricotta cheese for ravioli filling. I like to julienne and pickle broccoli and cauliflower stems for a sour note in salads. I love cooking beets in vinegar and honey and then serving them over their own stems and greens with a little cheese crumbled on top.
B. Pureeing Scraps and Adding Them To Sauces
One way to use scraps and disguise vegetables for picky eaters at the same time iis to puree and hide carrot peelings, mushrooms stems, etc. and mix it into pasta sauce. Carrot tops, beet greens, and radish greens are great in pestos and smoothies.
C. Steeping In The Flavors
Peach pits and skin can be steeped into cream for a delicious ice cream or custard base as can coffee grounds - espresso creme brulee with churros anyone? This technique is never ending - chive stems steeped in milk and added to mashed potatoes, roasted Hatch Chile skins steeped in cream and used to make green chile queso, and on and on.
D. Using Less Valued Meat Scraps
One of the most tragic waste streams is usable meat scraps. These animals gave their lives for our sustenance so the least we can do is utilize them wisely. Of course we can use chicken bones, beef bones, as well as shrimp, crab and lobster shells for stocks and broths, which are the basis of countless soups, braises, and sauces. We can also save chicken fat to cook with or enrich rice dishes, beef fat and tough chine meat can be made into ground beef. Chicken skin tacos - enough said!
There are levels of usefulness when it comes to “waste”, so let’s starting with eating it when possible. Of course not all food waste is edible or palatable, but it typically has value anyway. We can’t eat rosemary stems but we can certainly use them to smoke fish or to skewer and grill chicken. And we can always vermicompost, compost, or feed animals with food waste.
4. Making Energy Multitask
Beyond food waste we can better use resources while we cook by making energy work for us in multiple ways - through batch cooking, by capturing escaping energy and valuing/using would-by “waste” and by making meal-prep a bonding experience.
A. Batch Cooking
By cooking in batches we can save fuel, wash water, and personal energy. It takes much less energy to cook twice or three times the amount we need for a meal, as it does to cook the same meal three separate times. Batch cooking and then freezing portions of prepared meals comes in handy and we all need a night off from cooking and washing dishes.
B. Capturing Escaping Energy
Boiling a big pot of water to make pasta uses quite a bit of electricity or gas and there is a good deal of heat energy going unused as steam escapes off of the pot. There are several ways we could we use that energy: we could steam dumplings, veggies for the week or even fish or shellfish in a bamboo steamer, right on top of the pot while the pasta cooks. We can also blanch veggies in the hot water before we cook the pasta. When the cooking is done we could use the pasta water for making stocks or simply watering plants. Similarly, potato water is great for making gravy and actually increases the volume of the yield.
There are other energies that go unused in a kitchen, such as a cooling but still warm oven. This heat can be used to proof sourdough bread for the bulk fermentation stage, or for drying herbs, breadcrumbs, and more.
C. Stacking Functions - Turning Meal Prep Into Teaching and Bonding Time
Yet another waste stream is wasted opportunity. Kids can easily be integrated into the cooking process (ginger can be peeled with a spoon - great for really young kids!). We can also invite friends and share the experience of learning from each other and bonding as we cook. From my personal experience, my children are way more likely to try new foods if they’ve had a hand in preparing them. I love seeing their pride as they present their dishes. My three year old made breakfast potatoes the other day and all his sisters liked his small batch better than the ones I cooked - success!
By using cooking methods instead of recipes, cooking from a smart pantry, changing our mindset to full-value cooking, and making energy multitask for us, we can waste less food, energy, and opportunities. What techniques do you think are important to setting yourself free from the details of recipe preparation?