Adventures with Aretha

food

Let’s take a break from this ‘waste not’ challenge, shall we? While this adventure turned out to be pretty waste-free, it started as a desire to make my own, delicious bread. I birthed a sourdough starter. It’s a girl. I named her Aretha.

Aretha is about a week old and she’s feisty and a little stinky, but according to various online sourdough starter troubleshoot forums this is normal. It just needs time.

Aretha is teaching me a lot, especially about fermentation. Whether you know it or not, you love fermented foods. Cheese, buttermilk, beer, bread, wine, basically all things good are fermented. Fermentation lends a funk to food. It’s like the bass line in a seventies jam. It’s funky, and you love it. It’s why tangy pancakes and crusty bread make your heart sing. It’s why you put the pickles on your burger. Trust me, it’s all in the fermentation.

She’s also teaching me about patience. In the week that I’ve had the starter I’ve had to discard a lot in order to allow the yeast to mature and reach a stable, active state. This means I can wake up to a full, bubbly jar of starter only to have to dispose or repurpose half of it. The first time I dumped some starter, I looked at the space in the jar and panicked only a little. Man, I just wanted to make bread. But Aretha told me to stick it out for a little longer. And thank goodness she did.

Now in the week I’ve been growing my baby (too weird?) I’ve made some choices about discard. While the discarded starter would not be able to produce enough rise to make a loaf of bread, the discard does add that funk to a wide range of recipes including sourdough pancakes and sourdough biscuits. Adding the discard to pancakes emulates that buttermilk flavor reminiscent of real buttermilk pancakes. The texture may not be quite the same, but the pancakes make a great canvas for layering sweet or savory flavors. I had mine with both avocado and honey and it balanced very well with the funkiness of the batter. Next were the biscuits. Oh, the biscuits. Again, the sourdough created a mock-buttermilk tang in the biscuit, and the butter created those dang perfect layers I love to peel apart. While I maybe ate too many, the biscuits needed an extra oomf to make them really sing. As a trial run the biscuits were fine, but I’d love to see how they fare with cheddar or even honey mixed in.

So why sourdough starter? Well first off, it’s my kitchen and no one can tell me to not turn my countertop into a science experiment. Second, the starter has the potential to provide yeast for years with proper storage and feeding. Harvesting yeast is a simple process at it’s core but takes dedicated thought daily. It’s meditative and introspective to watch something literally come to life in your hands. Basically, sourdough starter is a tiny reminder that magic might actually exist if you’re whimsical enough to believe.

Waste Not 6

food

It’s that time of year. The weather is wack and everyone is slowly getting sick. It was time for soup. I had all the ingredients for tomato fennel soup in my fridge and I got to work. I used the remainder of the fennel from last week’s meal and used the remainder of my peeled tomatoes from last night’s pasta. Based on last week’s meals, I learned that mass meal planning is not the most effective way to cook for myself. I get tired of the same things after a while so freezing half of my raw ingredients (if I’m working with meat) or saving some unseasoned sauce and vegetables, for example, allows me to repurpose leftovers.

The fennel and tomato soup came together very quickly, and was the first soup I ever made using a blender! It utilized the rest of my fennel, all of my tomatoes, and things I normally have on hand. It’ll taste even better tomorrow with my toasted pita!

I bought some food yesterday, I’ll admit. It’s been a rough couple of days and I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure of happy cherry gummies and a quality bag of pasta. On the bright side, neither of those went to waste! I ate leftover pasta for lunch and have some dry pasta saved. I also ate all the happy cherries while watching Harry Potter last night. I’ll have to go shopping soon. While I consumed most of my food, I officially have no more vegetables and I will succumb to sickness if I don’t eat a vegetable in a few days.

Waste Not 5

food

There’s a reason it’s called a challenge: this is harder than I anticipated. Since I “cheated” I’ve had two more meals “out” and I sought comfort in a hot coffee and brownie from the museum cafe only just this afternoon. Unfortunately I had to throw away some food due to my inability to eat at home all of this weekend (bye bye, black beans, broccoli rabe and leftover rice). I think I need to start freezing things in a more timely fashion, and meal prep more realistically. How often will I actually want to eat the same roasted pork tenderloin? While you tell yourself “yeah I’ll just heat up the rest later,” how often can you do that with the same meal? Especially when you need a little comfort food? On my next shopping trip I’ll be sure to acquire smaller portions and more variety (two smaller bunches of different veggies instead of one large bunch).

Tonight I indulged in a little waste-free dinner option. Sometimes the dump-and-go dinner reigns supreme despite having leftovers. I had tomatoes, half an avocado and jalapeños that needed to get eaten. I sautéed a small onion in olive oil and scrambled some eggs in the same pan. Today was a double cheese day so I melted in one slice of American and finished it with shredded cheddar. I put the cheesy eggs on top of the vegetable mix and topped the bowl with hot sauce. I can call this the poor woman’s huevos rancheros, or just cheesy eggs for the soul, but one thing is for sure: nothing went to waste. I even have some leftover veggies and more eggs and cheese for either dinner or breakfast tomorrow.

Another problem I’m facing, aside from the leftover problem, comes from my “no shopping” rule. I ran out of fruits and I’m running out of veggies quickly. To not buy fresh produce limits my diet to pasta, canned items and frozen meat—not quite the balanced diet I need to juggle all that I’m attempting. I also run out of certain things like eggs quickly, but I can’t not buy eggs. As someone who doesn’t eat much meat and needs quick protein most days, eggs are essential. Once it gets down to the nitty gritty and I’m left with lasts, I can’t survive on only frozen hot dogs. I’d probably get wildly sick.

So I don’t know. Is shopping for food okay when I have food in my kitchen? Is meal prepping actually effective?

Waste Not 4, what are the rules?

food

So yesterday I deemed my lunch as “cheating,” but what is cheating if I never laid down any rules? Tonight, one of my best friends reached out to get dinner. And when you haven’t seen your friend in a month, you can only say yes. So I went to dinner, and I’m now stewing over my leftovers in my second wind of this evening’s activities.

So am I supposed to deny social events to avoid wasting food? Is that an extreme? For 22-year-old me, yes that’s an extreme. Food is not just sustenance, but a vehicle for human connection. If you can’t bond with someone over food, maybe he/she is not the right one for you. If you can’t eat whatever you want in front of someone, maybe he/she isn not truly a friend. So I got home, put my Tupperware in the sink and went out to dinner to catch up with a friend over some comfort food after a long week. I don’t feel bad. I boxed up my leftovers in a paper box, and the restaurant was even nice enough to give us free drinks.

I think the ground rule here is to not throw away any edible food. Eat things before they go bad. And don’t buy groceries until you absolutely need more.

For breakfast and lunch I maintained my no-waste goals and finished up the cooked peaches in a big bowl of oatmeal. For lunch I brought some leftovers.

And now for my proudest accomplishment…

This is my bread starter. When I went to sleep last night this jar was filled half way with starter. When I woke up and removed the tea towel from the jar, it was filled to the brim with fermented goodness. Now that I’m trying to waste as little food as possible I’m faced with what to do about the discarded starter. If you, like me, are a sourdough starter novice, you learn things about maintaining a living organism that you made. That’s right, I’m basically Dr. Frankenstein. Anyway, in order to keep your monster under control, you must discard a portion before feeding it. Instead of discarding, you can use the young starter to make other recipes like pancakes and crackers.

Stay tuned for adventures in discarded sourdough. Lets turn the trash into treasure, ladies and gentlemen.

Waste Not 3, I cheated

food

That’s right. I’m a dirty cheater. I bought a sandwich. No ordinary sandwich. I bought a bobo—a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich with a hashbrown in the middle. Why? Because I didn’t eat lunch, was in the right area to get one and was clouded by lust and desire for carbs, cheese and bacon.

To be fair, I ate the whole thing and recycled the paper wrapper so really I didn’t waste anything; however, the goal for this week was to spend no money on food as long as I had perfectly good food in my house. So I’m sorry. I feel like I can do better. My total spending on food today was $4.83.

On the bright side, I’ve learned that a well stocked spice rack is the best thing to combat the monotony of eating from the same selection every day. This morning I ate some absolutely heavenly oatmeal due to some careful spice usage. Instead of flavoring my oatmeal after its cooked, I flavored the almond milk as it was heating using cardamom pods, cloves and cinnamon. I strained the milk before adding the oats and topped off the bowl with peanut butter. It was warm and vaguely chai-like, which was perfect on a chilly morning.

I’ve decided to undertake a simultaneous project as well: bread starter. I bought a big ol’ jar yesterday and my baby has been bubbling away for 12 hours now. Hopefully by tomorrow I see some real action, but for now it’s still young. I can’t wait to make bread from scratch without wasting packages or watching a fresh loaf get stale and moldy before I can eat it all.

For dinner (if I even make it) I plan to use some of my already cooked spaghetti squash and add either leftover tomato sauce or make a quick butter and sage sauce. A key to combatting food waste is also to prepare as much of your fruits/vegetables in one shot. You’re definitely more likely to eat spaghetti squash if it is already cooked. Same goes for kale, swiss chard, melons and so on. The task of preparing each food as you eat it is discouraging, especially when you’re tired. I suggest cooking whatever you have either right after you buy it, or while you’re making something else. This way, its easy to say “oh here’s some already prepared kale, dinner is almost done!”

I’m sorry I cheated, folks. I feel awful and yet still oddly satisfied by the bacon. It won’t happen again.

 

Waste Not 2

food

I’ve been reading about other chefs and laypeople who decided to go waste free. The Zero Waste Chef did something called the Use-It-Up Challenge, and it really aligned with what I was planning for my week (or however long it takes to eat the food in my house). One particular section caught my eye: the inventory. The chef took inventory of everything in their kitchen, so I did the same. I looked in every cabinet, my refrigerator and the freezer to itemize exactly what I have, and honestly I was shocked.

Here it is. The Inventory as of 9/26:

  • A big bag of yellow onions
  • 3 bulbs of garlic
  • Spices, oils and honey
  • 1 can of chickpeas
  • 1 can of white beans
  • 1 box of pasta
  • Half a bag of whole grain egg noodles
  • 3 cans of tomatoes
  • Rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Flour
  • Chicken Stock
  • Trader Joe’s squash soup
  • Peanut Butter
  • Espresso
  • Frozen Bolognese sauce (thanks, mom)
  • Frozen plantains
  • Frozen hamburgers
  • Frozen hot dogs
  • Frozen hot dog buns
  • Frozen Italian sausage (sweet and spicy)
  • Frozen chicken breast
  • A little bit of black beans
  • Yogurt
  • Half a bulb of fennel
  • Sliced cucumber
  • Cooked peaches
  • Jalepeno peppers
  • Tomatoes (from my mom’s garden. Thanks, mom)
  • Hummus
  • 1 pita
  • Shredded Cheddar
  • 1 avocado
  • Cooked rice (of unknown age)
  • 6 eggs
  • Fresh sage
  • Fresh thyme (both from my mom’s garden. Thanks, mom)
  • Grapefruit peel (for my bourbon)
  • Lemon
  • Orange
  • Assortment of hard cheeses
  • Half a container of almond milk
  • Leftover tomato sauce
  • Seltzer
  • Cooked spaghetti squash
  • Roasted spaghetti squash seeds

This is so much food, and yet my fridge looks sparse. I’m shopping for one person with a fridge the same size as the one 4 girls share in college. I have enough food.

Today was day 1 of this challenge. Here’s what I ate:

  • Espresso and yogurt with strawberries and cooked peaches
  • Lettuce-less salad of tuna fish, black beans, fennel and cucumber with balsamic and oregano-infused olive oil.
  • A teeny bag of potato chips
  • 1 pita with hummus
  • Pork chops with fennel pesto and roasted fennel stalk and onion

My portions are small since I tend to graze throughout the day. I spent $0 on food and ate everything or saved it for later (like the massive dinner I accidentally put together).

I’m proud that I ate an entire vegetable, root-to-stalk, this week. With the remaining bulb of fennel I have and the other delicious findings from my cabinets and fridge, I think I’m going to tackle Tomato and Fennel Soup, something I’ve seen on many a hipster menu this time of year. Chilly days are ahead of us, and soup seems to be the only remedy.

Waste Not 1

food

This morning I stumbled upon an article from one of my favorite bloggers and influencers, Trash is for Tossers. Lauren Singer is an activist working towards a more sustainable, waste-free future. She published this article about cooking with kitchen scraps, which not only reduces food waste, but also can help save money. Not to mention, cooking for one is more difficult than cooking for many, and if you’re anything like me you make all your meals at home. You’re often left with leftovers that sometimes you don’t want to eat, or fruit that you can’t seem to enjoy quickly enough.

In my first effort to use what I have and waste not, I decided to try out the second tip on Lauren’s list, “use greens like herbs.” When I went home, my mom graciously paid for my groceries (thanks, mom). This was on September 15, it is now September 25 and I’m still going strong on the basics I had and her contributions. She bought me this big bulb of fennel with beautiful mint green stalks. The bulb sat in my fridge untouched until now. I thought about how much the bulb cost by weight and I thought about how it would both waste money and food if I threw out the stalks and delicate dill-like leaves.

I decided to make fennel pesto. In a blender (which was not the most effective tool) I combined the leafy bits, four cloves of garlic, a hunk of pecorino and olive oil. I let it go for a bit, scraping down as necessary until it was some-what saucy. While I wouldn’t put it on pasta, I would definitely use it as a condiment or marinade, which brings me to my next point.

While at the grocery store I also bought some meat because it was on sale and it can last a long time if packaged and kept in the freezer. However, I always convince myself that I’ll freeze something and then I never unearth it from the cold for months because I just forget. Instead of buying more food and contributing more waste, I’m checking my freezer regularly to see what I have before making more unnecessary purchases. I have some pork chops that would go nicely with a fennel marinade. I recall during my Italian cooking class my professor mentioned the sweet harmony between pork and fennel. Plus, I can roast the stalks and an onion and make a very fragrant one pan meal.

While I bemoan leftovers, it makes lunch quite easy. The microwave at work makes leftovers basically only edible at work since I myself don’t have a microwave at home. Additionally, when I forget lunch it comes with a price. Lunch places nearby tend to be on the pricy side, and for good reason. They’re all delicious, but it just doesn’t make sense when I can bring food from home.

While some items definitely have to become waste (egg shells) some don’t have to be (“discarded greens”). Inedible vegetable sections can be used to flavor stock. Overripe fruit can be boiled and turned into compote. There are a million creative ways to transform “garbage.”

Additionally, I could be better about what I buy when I go shopping. From this point on I’m writing down items that I finished completely (1 loaf of bread stored in the freezer until needed, 1 bunch of radishes, 3 apples, you get the idea). This will reference the portion that I should buy instead of what I used to buy or might be tempted to buy. This opened my eyes to the wasteful ways of the grocery store: massive bags of kale and lettuce line the shelves and while the plastic bag is waste enough, one person could never eat that amount before the leaves turn.

Stay tuned for more “waste not” stories. I’ll be using articles like this to guide me so send me suggestions. I hope to document how much waste I reduce and how much money I spend on each grocery trip. Plus, maybe a recipe or two will come out.

Get Lost in the Sauce

food

There’s a maintenance man at work who always enthusiastically tells me about his tomato sauce. It started because my name, Marcella, is literally so Italian it becomes synonymous with pizza and pasta to most people. Besides that, I love that this sweet guy tells me when he makes sauce and asks for help when he needs to improve it. I’ve opened him up to simmering to thicken and adding a bay leaf to reduce acidity (you’re welcome, by the way) and he can’t believe his results. It’s very sweet.

That being said, I thought I would try to actually follow a sauce recipe for the first time in my life. As an Italian woman you’re born with an innate knowledge of how to make sauce exactly how you like it. So why a recipe? Bon Appetit’s Basically is doing 10 recipes in 10 weeks, the first one being sauce. I was going to make something else for dinner but plans change and I had all the ingredients sorta. I used passata instead of peeled tomatoes and pecorino romano instead of parm (because money) but everything else remained true. The garlic, red pepper flakes and fresh basil were pretty routine, but it was the technique at the end that transformed this from good to great. Cooking the pasta below al dente, saving some pasta water and finish cooking the spaghetti in the simmering sauce with butter really made this a home run AND that’s something you can do with any pasta.

The other thing that really made this pop was the amount of salt I added to the pasta water. Add so much salt that you feel bad about it because as Samin Nosrat says in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat most of that salt will go down the drain with the extra water, but a lot of salt is needed for the noodles to absorb flavor. Salt isn’t a spice, it’s an essential mineral that when used will enhance the flavor and texture of your dishes. Don’t oversalt, but start to build your flavors and enhance what’s there by using salt.

Really what I learned is that technique can be everything, and technique can be simple for the home cook. Sure, maybe 5 star french pastries won’t be coming out of your kitchen any time soon, but damn good pasta will be minutes away every night.

Don’t Choke

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My life is coming to a stand still and I’m struggling to cope with that. It’s been building up for the past two weeks or so, but I just read a Washington Post article about speaking to recent graduates and it kills me knowing that my generation is prone to the anxieties that come with the unknown. I feel like I’m wasting my time without a purpose, but I’m here trying to produce as much content as possible to fill the void.

Stuffing the void, if you will, like I stuffed these artichokes. They were rough around the edges, like life can be, but after all the work it took to clean them, trim them, soak them, stuff them, and simmer them, the artichokes became beautifully fragrant and delicious. I’ve never had a full artichoke, I’ve only had the delicious marinated hearts. The whole  artichoke takes time and effort to deconstruct and consume. Each green petal was scraped against my bottom teeth, getting all the earthiness out of the petals. The reward? The soft, sweet heart that, after hours of simmering, could be spread across crusty bread.

Waiting was worth it. Waiting is usually worth it, but I like to have objectives or tasks or projects while I wait. I need to always improve myself in the down time, otherwise I feel like I will get stale and no one will want me (not even for croutons). As I scroll through Indeed and watch Sex and the City (ya know, for inspiration and research purposes) I wonder: will my waiting be worth it?

Beans, my dude

food

Beans are so underrated. They transform over time and take days to make perfect, but the transformation is worth the wait.

All over Italy at those beloved outdoor markets vendors sell dried beans. I don’t know how, but they’re far superior to anything we can get in America. These dried beans are large to begin with, but after an overnight soak and another day of simmering on the stove, they become so large that they require cutting with a fork and knife just to eat. The beans soak in water first, then garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and olive oil are added before they simmer on low all day.

I think my favorite part of this (aside from the creamy beans you get after over 24 hours of preparation) is the vintage crock that these beans soak and cook in. The reddish-brown clay pot was my great grandma’s and it’s a piece of cookware that inexplicably produces the best foods. There’s something about old cookware: I’m not sure if it’s a placebo effect or if the age makes a difference, but this is not the only piece of old cookware that produces the best of the best. My dad’s mom (my nonna) makes focaccia in her old pan. It inexplicably comes out better than any bread on this earth. We think it’s the pan, but it could just be Italian nonna magic.

Whatever it is, my dudes, I guess what I’m trying to say is that nonnas know best about everything from love to beans. Fill your soul with love, that’s what food (and nonnas) are for.