Onion and garlic skins. Trimmings from carrots and celery. Apple peels and cores. Spend a day stacking up all the things you throw away in the kitchen and you would be surprised at how big that heap could be.
In her cooking classes at Purple Kale Kitchenworks in Brooklyn, New York, chef Ronna Welsh teaches sustainable and creative ways of wasting less. It's a psychological approach to cooking that's bigger than just composting.
Sally Swift: What do you think we need to understand to be more sustainable in our kitchens?
Ronna Welsh: In my opinion, we’re only going to adopt sustainable cooking habits if these habits fit into and work around the ups, the downs, the urgencies, the mishaps and the wackiness of everyday life. These are habits that are conscious of the environment, of food waste, of local economies -- things that go beyond just buying the right kind of food from the right source.
SS: What's an example of that?
RW: I think this really moves way beyond the way we typically script out our meals. We approach dinner by asking, "What’s for dinner?" That sends us down a path of figuring out what to procure in order to cook what it is we set out to eat.
But I think we need an approach that flips this whole process of meal planning -- asking what’s for dinner -- on its head. That begins with great ingredients and sharp attention to how they taste, to their texture, to their sometimes hard-to-see discrete parts. Then often using really basic cooking techniques, methodically follow their lead beyond one particular dish to possibly many different dishes or many different meals.
SS: You’re saying don’t take a recipe and go to the grocery store? You’re thinking that’s the backward approach to it?
RW: If that’s our only approach, then it fails us when life happens.
SS: You have some wonderful examples on your blog about things you can do with single ingredients. You’ve taken apart an apple for instance.
RW: I have kids, so tackling an apple means I have to peel it for them. When I peel that apple, I’m left with this beautiful flesh, but I’m also left with a pile of peels.
The obvious thing is we’re supposed to all save our scraps -- so I save them. I might put them in a low oven to dry them. If I did a really thoughtful job peeling, that is I peeled them knowing that they might have some interesting use for me and therefore I kept some of the flesh on the peel itself -- then they might be flavorful enough to serve as a basis of a slaw in combination with cabbage or something.
If I have that same kind of attention paid to how I cut the apple -- rather than lop it in half and just prick out the seeds, I might cut the flesh away from the core -- not only am I left with these nice big chunks of apple to snack on, but I have a chunky, meaty core. I could then put it in a pot and cook it down in any number of ways.
Welsh's recipe: Apple Core Bourbon
One of the ways that I documented was just cooking it with some vinegar and sugar. It makes this really astounding gastrique, which is simply a sweet and sour sauce. The sweetness comes from the apple cores themselves.
SS: Some people would consider that sloppy prep -- you’re leaving so much flesh with the peel and you’re not getting all of the flesh off the core. In reality you’re changing the whole system. It’s such a mindful way to look at the ingredient.
RW: I like to say that there’s more food in the food we eat than we typically see.
SS: It is a very optimistic approach.
RW: It is. It’s our mental state that prevents us from cooking and not our skill set. It’s not about being inspired, because the truth is inspiration never strikes between 6 and 8 p.m., when everyone is hungry and you have to eat.
SS: Those are wise words.
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.