Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not

It’s hard to believe, but despite all the articles in the media and awareness campaigns, we are still throwing away literally tons of food in the United Kingdom, North America and other prosperous countries worldwide. In fact, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign estimates that households in the United Kingdom alone throw away over eight tons of food every year. This is costing individual UK households upwards of £400 per year as we literally throw money in the garbage. But even more shocking than these statistics is the fact is that most of the food we throw away could probably be eaten.

Up until very recently, we have been encouraged by politicians and supermarkets to believe that vegetables and fruit need to be shiny and perfect to be edible. In fact, it is not that long ago that it was actually illegal to sell “irregularly shaped vegetables” in the European Union. That’s right, crooked cucumbers were not allowed! While the generation before us existed on wartime rations and would never have turned down a bruised banana, we grew up believing that nearly all apples were the same size and that beauty really was only skin deep.

An added complication is that the pace of life has changed radically over the last forty or so years. In these busy post-modern days, schedules are erratic, shopping is done in a rush and most people barely have time to cook food at home, let alone make menu plans. We overbuy “just in case”, get confused by use-by and sell-by dates, don’t realize that it is okay to use things that don’t look perfect anymore and lack the knowledge and the time to do things with them.

I have an vegetable box delivered once a week by Abel & Cole, an organic food delivery company, and their accompanying weekly leaflets are always interesting. Last week the leaflet detailed an event some of the staff from Abel & Cole attended hosted by a young group called This is Rubbish. The event included a supper called “Down to Earth Dining” which Abel & Cole reported included “a delicious gazpacho, roast carrot and cumin pate, a hearty hot pot and a refreshing fruit salad, all made with food destined for the bin.” This is not the first time This is Rubbish have done something similar. Last December they held an event in Trafalgar Square in London where they fed people with food that would otherwise have been thrown away. In the end, they fed five thousand people that day. Seriously.

Your food does not have to look perfect to be delicious, and except in the case of things like meat, dairy products, fish and other very perishable items, best before dates are just a guide. Bread is okay for toasting until it develops mould, and if you catch it in time, bread that is a little dry cut in cubes and toasted in the oven makes great croutons. Bruised bananas can be used in cakes and smoothies (and can even be frozen for use in baking and drinks at a later date), and there is no such thing as an out of date apple. Slightly soft peppers, courgettes (zucchini) and onions taste lovely roasted (as do their fresher counterparts!) and you can make soup from almost anything. Most Fridays, before my organic vegetable box arrives, I can be found making soup from any vegetables that are left over from the week before.

There are plenty of things you can do with fruit and vegetables that are slightly past their best. Here are two recipes just to get you started. The first is my soup recipe - great for using up slightly soft carrots and wilty cauliflower - and the second is a wonderful recipe for courgette pesto created by Rachel de Thample at Abel & Cole. It goes without saying that if the courgettes are a little soft, they are still okay!

The 21st Century Housewife’s Bottom of the Fridge Soup

2 tablespoons oil or butter
1 or 2 onions, finely chopped
about 3 to 4 cups of leftover vegetables, peeled and chopped
(carrots, parsnips, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower – whatever you’ve got)
about 2 to 3 litres (that’s about 4 or 5 pints) vegetable stock
(made from a cube is absolutely fine)
fresh or dried herbs and spices
(Try oregano, thyme, marjoram, basil, coriander and/or parsley depending on the vegetables you are using. I also like to add curry powder to some vegetable soups, especially those with parsnips and root vegetables in them.)
salt and pepper to taste
(If you have used stock cubes you may find you don’t need any more salt.)
milk or cream (optional)

Heat the oil or melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes until it has begun to soften. Stir in the vegetables. Lower the heat as much as you can, pop a lid on, and let the vegetables sweat for ten minutes. (Keep checking and stirring to make sure they do not burn or stick.)

Remove the lid, increase the heat back to medium and add the stock, herbs and seasoning. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for at least twenty minutes or up to forty minutes, stirring occasionally. At this point the vegetables should be very soft.

Remove the pan from the heat and cool a little bit. Puree the soup with a blender (liquidizer), hand blender or food processor until smooth. At this point the soup can be cooled completely and refrigerated for a couple of days or frozen for up to two months. (Thaw before reheating.)

To serve, thoroughly reheat the soup over medium heat and add a bit of milk or cream if you like. If the soup is really too thick, you can add some boiling water as well as or instead of all milk/cream.

Here’s Rachel’s easy to make and absolutely delicious 'Hey Presto, Courgette Pesto'.

Pasta (penne works well here)
Garlic, peeled and finely chopped
A courgette or two
A lemon
Fresh mint leaves (or any soft, green herb like bail, chives, chervil or a combo)
Toasted pinenuts
A smallish red chilli (or you could use chilli flakes, a splash of Tabasco or even chilli powder)
Olive oil
Frehly grated parmesan or a soft crumbly goat’s cheese
Sea salt and black pepper

Cook up a batch of pasta. Drain. Add a splash of olive oil, garlic, the juice and zest from the lemon. Season with sea salt and a good bit of black pepper.

Coarsely grate the courgette into the pasta. Add the chili punch (finely chopped red chili or an alternative – this wakes the courgette up a bit). Fold it all through.

Pile onto plates. Drizzle a touch more olive oil over the top. Then, top with the cheese and tart it up with some mint or other herby leaves and toasted pinenuts. Dive in!

And there you have it. These recipes prove that there is no reason to be afraid to use up past their best fruit and vegetables. Not only will you be giving your taste buds a treat, you will be helping the environment and your budget!

Rachel de Thample’s recipe used with permission.
Abel & Cole deliver organic fruit, vegetables, meat and more throughout selected areas of England.

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