Monday, February 13, 2012

On Waste, Reincarnation, and a Pesto Manifesto

There is a certain phenomenon I've observed in my years of grocery shopping for one: The amount of food you want to buy is always significantly less than the amount of food that's packaged and available. For me, it's always when I decide to make oven fries that I end up standing in the condiment aisle, trying to rationalize buying a "Family Size" bottle of ketchup (oh how it mocks my singledom) when there are none smaller. I dare the ketchup to present me with inspiration for its usefulness beyond my craving for salty crisp potatoes. (Clearly, I'm not one of those ketchup-on-everything types of gals).

In the past, I've gotten around the more-ingredient-than-I-need hurdle by going to shops that sell spices in bulk ("Why yes, I would like to purchase only two teaspoons of dried tarragon, thank you") and by charming the young cheese-monger into cutting off the thinnest possible slice of brittle parmesan from its giant wheel. Still, there are certain food items and meal ingredients that are not so easy to buy in customizable small quantities. See: bottles of ketchup.

My ketchup conundrum is indicative of the larger problem of waste, endemic to all kitchens. There's only so much we can immediately eat before things start separating, funkifying, brown-mushifying, etc. The specter of waste is always nearby, threatening to spoil our efforts at self-sustenance with the taunt, "See! You are only one person! Why bother cooking when there's only so much you can consume!" Waste is what tells us that our kitchen efforts are uneconomical and futile, especially so for the single home cook. Why buy ingredients to cook for ourselves, when so much of them run the risk of either going bad or getting thrown away?

Vegetable scraps are the most common of these lost opportunities. Even though my onion peels and carrot ends get thrown in the compost bin, I still can't help but feel a little excluded from their reincarnated usefulness. I paid in weight for those apple cores, damnit, so shouldn't I get the immediate satisfaction of them nourishing my own belly first, and some garden soil last?

When you repurpose what is otherwise food waste, you begin to feel like many free secret meals suddenly open themselves up to you. One meal's ingredients silently give birth to the ingredients for another, no trip the the grocery store needed.

Making stock out of boiled vegetable scraps, or chicken carcasses, or dried beans is an easy application for magically transforming old food into new. As is breadcrumbs and croutons from stale bread, and pasta frittatas out of your day-old noodley leftovers, to name a few.

One of the more immediately satisfying food reincarnations I've tried recently is greens stem pesto. Who knew that the tough stems from kale, collards, and broccoli could be reborn into something so versatile and delicious? Mixed with white beans, it makes great fodder for a green salad or crostini (fancy word for stuff-on-toast). And when added to some veg stock, plus a few glugs each of olive oil and dry sherry, this pesto makes an excellent braising liquid for your white-colored protein of choice: I browned some slices of tofu in my cast-iron skillet, then added the braising liquid and popped the whole thing into the oven until most of the liquid had reduced, leaving behind a bubbly, olive-oily, vegetal delight. I imagine this would work really well with chicken or fish (sustainably raised, natch) as well.

GREENS STEM PESTO (Inspired by Tamar Adler's recipe)

Once you've collected the stems from a couple of bunches of kale, collard greens, broccoli or cauliflower, chop these up into small pieces. There should be about 4-6 cups worth. Throw them into a pot with half as much water, let it come up to a boil and then let it simmer for half an hour or so until everything is nice and mushy. Drain whatever water is left in the pot (or save it for vegetable stock!), and then add the stems to a food processor or blender with at least 2 cloves of garlic, a large pinch of salt, a few generous glugs of olive oil, a small handful of toasted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds), and whatever fresh herbs you have on hand (I used chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano). Some parmesan cheese would be good in this too, however I opted for adding extra salt instead. Blend/process it all together until it resembles a pesto. If it's too thick or chunky, mix in some additional liquid such as more olive oil, veg stock, water, or even a little lemon juice. This is also more of a highly-forgiving pesto technique rather than a recipe, so feel free to add or subtract ingredients as you go along.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Presenting... Presentation!

One of the biggest problems to befall the act of eating alone is that it all too often serves one purpose: to quiet the rumblings stirring and roiling about in our bellies. When we eat alone we have the freedom to eat whatever, whenever, and however - none of this catering to the hunger and culinary whims of someone else's stomach or tastebuds. Yet, when eating is such a self-centered act, it risks becoming solely a means to filling an empty belly and neglects our soul, and dare I say it, our aesthetic desires.

I'll be the first to admit that many meals in my past have been eaten in the following circumstances: some mixture of grain, legume, and vegetable shoveled out of a bowl, me curled up on the couch, crossword puzzle at my fingertips or television show streaming from my nearby computer. And although I have picked a fork as my primary utensil, I still think how much easier a spoon would be for the act of shoveling food from bowl to mouth. Or better yet, a trowel. It's a slippery slope, folks, a slippery slope!

Imagine the alternative: a plate (a plate!) of purposely composed food. Composed not for maximum shoveling, but for the sensual appeal of presentation. I had taken the two extra minutes in transferring food from pot to table to actually "plate" my food. Perhaps I have fanned out slices of tempeh along the eastern edge of the plate. Their fanned-out triangles encircle a purposeful mess of collards, which are, in turn, flanked by a straight row of mashed sweet potato. This bright orange mound has been lightly dressed with a smattering of chopped toasted pecans. The visual appeal of greens sidling up to bright orange sweet potato cannot be underestimated here. Once this plate has made it to the table (a table!), it is eaten slowly with knife and fork, no computer screen in sight (although it is certainly still allowed in the room so that the likes of Bill Callahan or Joanna Newsom can score my dinner with their folksy melodies).

Taking time for food presentation is thus essential to creating joy in eating alone. It makes food intentional, not shovelled. Tamar Adler in "An Everlasting Meal" extols the value of parsley to make any meal intentional. A scattering of chopped parsley adds instant color and freshness to anything. Once fresh herbs are involved, you can place your plate on the table and confidently state, "voila!" Other favorite (functional and delicious!) garnishes of mine are chopped nuts and seeds, a small handful of thinly sliced apples or pears, and drizzles of fats such as olive oil and thinned out plain yogurt.

If you prefer the main components of your meal to be intentionally simple and lacking of extra flourishes, do at least take the time to make a purposefully composed plate. Pay attention to color and texture. Don't just pile your grains and veg onto your plate, but line the up in narrow rows or concentric arcs. Or, borrow the presentation skills of fancy restaurant chefs and layer each element on top of each other in a precariously delicious "stack". When cooking for myself, I prefer to think of presentation not as fussy, but fun.

Lastly, there are certain health benefits to plating your meals with an eye for presentation. For one, this approach comes with built-in portion control, as you start seeing each plate as a filling entity in itself, making you less likely to go for seconds or thirds. Also, with an eye for visual appeal, more vegetables make their way into your diet because they are, often, the most attractive of foods. Is there nothing sexier than an earthy and sweet beet, with its bright red juices threatening to stain hands and clothing?

What follows is a description of last night's dinner. I strongly suggest you pay attention to the way you plate this meal, especially the play on colors as I've mentioned above. Eat slowly and savor this colorful, healthy, homemade, and fucking fantastic meal you just made yourself.


If you've never tried tempeh before, I strongly suggest a 3-step technique for cooking it: marinade, brown, then glaze. In this case, marinade thinly sliced triangles of tempeh (if you buy the frozen kind, make sure to steam it first) in equal parts soy sauce, maple syrup, and olive oil, twice as much vegetable broth, half as much smoked spanish paprika, and two smashed garlic cloves. Once the tempeh has soaked up this savory juice for at least 30 minutes, heat up a pan (cast iron is best!) with a teaspoon or so of olive oil, and once the pan is hot, remove the tempeh from the marinade and let it sizzle and brown in the pan.* Once your tempeh triangles have achieved the desired degree of browning, turn the heat down slightly, and add half of the marinade to the pan. (You'll be saving the other half for the collards). Let the marinade glaze the tempeh until it's cooked down and there's no liquid left.

*For best results in the delicious tempeh browned crust department, don't move it around in its pan too much or turn it too frequently. It needs that uninterrupted contact with the surface of the pan to really get nice and crisp.

For the collards: Removing the thick stems,** give the collards a quick rough chop. Quickly saute 2 minced cloves of garlic in some olive soil. Add the greens to the pan, shake them around til they're slightly wilted, and then add the remaining tempeh marinade. Let the greens cook until thoroughly wilted, and add salt and pepper to taste.

** Apparently you can use the tough stems from greens such as kale and collards to make a pesto. I'll be trying this soon, so throw your stems into the freezer to save them!

Lastly, the mashed sweet potatoes: Take a cooked sweet potato (I had baked mine a few days before in a big batch of oven-veg-roasting, but nuking one in the microwave is fine in a pinch), smash it with a fork or some other more specialized mashing device, and stir in a big pinch of ground cumin, another big pinch of ground coriander, and a small pinch of cinnamon. If you have some, garnish with toasted pecans or sunflower seeds, however it's still delicious without.