Intentionally burning food was my first sign of true adulthood

food

A timid child, I cried at damn near everything. Couldn’t get the combination in dance class? I cried. Someone made a harmless joke? I cried. I was frustrated easily and fragile beyond help. I was insecure and sheepish for years. That girl is long gone now, but the lingering effects held on in one facet of my life: my cooking. I loved cooking and baking, but I yearned for perfection every time. There were never burnt edges or crispy bits on any of my baked goods or meals, but that resulted in undercooking nearly everything. Setting timers for the minimum cooking time and being the most pesky oven checker were my culinary downfalls. I craved perfection so tenaciously that my efforts had the opposite effect entirely.

Early in my college career my love for food manifested itself into my academics. In my journalism classes I squeezed food into every assignment I could, from political assignments to longform creative pieces. I attempted to become that modern urban farmgirl who cooked squash and overnight oats and blogged about it. I was passionate about local honey and became evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. I had ancient grains coming out of my ears. I needed to have my quirky side and excel at something niche. I snagged an internship with a local food publication and became a published food writer. And yet, each time I roasted a vegetable I couldn’t keep my hands off the oven handle. I hauled squash from the farmers market to class only to bring it home and woefully under season or undercook it for the sake of not making a mistake. I was the girl watching the pot boil. I would peek into the door and feel the warm dry heat on my face, look at the slight color on whatever was cooking, and take it out prematurely. I would take food out of the oven, plate the dish and realize it was undercooked after slicing into it, after which I would throw it in the microwave and nuke the crap out of it, making up for lost time.

My desire to achieve perfection overshadowed my research and knowledge. The hours I spent reading Bon Appetit and Food52 were wasted because my internal monologue inserted itself into the narrative. I knew that color equaled flavor. I knew that salt was essential to all recipes and despite knowing those facts and more, my food was timid and colorless. I was a people pleaser down to my core, and while then I would never admit it, now I see how desperate I was to be an image of perfection through and through. I can definitely attribute that (and probably any aforementioned insecurities) to some form of anxiety. I would bring baked goods to family gatherings and sit anxiously as everyone cut into my acceptably cooked and seasoned pie, knowing that I could have cooked the crust longer or added spices other than cinnamon to the filling. I was obsessed with following a recipe and not deviating from that, fearing that a freestyle move might cost me my reputation. I made beautiful looking olive oil cakes that could have used extra time in the oven, or more lemon zest than the recipe required. While everyone loves the gooey, undercooked section of the brownie pan, everyone also likes the crispy edges. My insecurities revealed themselves in my inability to deliver both.

In any communal living situation and even when I would cook with my boyfriend, my sheepishness returned. Too nervous to make a mistake, I would either wait until the coast was clear and the kitchen was empty, or ask him (or whoever else I was cooking with) to do many of the things I knew I could do but just felt unsure about in the moment. Everyone’s a critic and for some reason, despite being the most amateur of amateurs, I was afraid my knife skills, or some other trivial aspect of my cooking, would insight mocks and giggles.

I’m now 22 and living alone. In my castle (this one bedroom apartment), I am the queen and I’m cooking for me and only me. It’s now that I’m getting dare I say edgy about cooking. I’m taking risks with flavors because who but me am I aiming to please? In the most cynical of ways, I didn’t care about disappointing myself. And yet, that’s how I achieved perfection, or what tasted like it. I love cooking onions until they stick to the pan and take on caramel sweetness. I love hearing sausages sizzle in the pan and take on crispy brown sides. I like seeing the edges of my fried egg become crispy and lacy from the heat. I season haphazardly knowing that no one around me can tell me something is too spicy. I don’t measure my spices with a spoon, but I feel the granules leave my palm as I just toss. I’m the queen of the kitchen sink, sometimes throwing whatever I have in my fridge together and wishing for the best while I let it simmer, bubble, or bake.

Taking control of my kitchen and eating food that I enjoyed unapologetically was a sign of adulthood. I realized that I actually like kale, provided it was smothered in olive oil and roasted into crisps. Deciding what to eat, when to eat it, and most importantly how to eat it seems menial but the creativity thrills me. You know you’re a real adult when dinner’s uncertain outcome becomes exciting. Cooking for myself, I feel shameless in my choices. I can eat spicy potatoes whenever I want, or breakfast for dinner on a Tuesday.

And mistakes? I don’t know her. In the words of Bob Ross, “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” Rarely does a silly mistake warrant an unsalvageable meal. Sometimes you just need to think it over and find a way to repurpose or rectify without retrograding and crying over a burnt pan sauce.

In this journey through burnt edges and sloppy sautés I’ve learned more about my heart than I’ve learned about cooking: there’s more to life than perfection, and if you’re a people pleaser make sure you don’t leave yourself out of the equation.

Cook Your Dang Fruit

food

Last weekend was a blur of eating greasy meals and understanding that I certainly can’t drink like I did in college. I desperately needed to eat a vegetable so on Sunday I bought kale, carrots, peppers and squash. When I came home I realized I still had some fruit in my crisper. I thought, “oh shoot, I have to eat this.” When I reached in the crisper the plums felt fine. The apples mostly were okay, except for one squishy, mealy monster. If I wasn’t in my current mindset, I would think to just throw it away. But that would be insane. This post should really be called “eat your dang fruit” but that would be too easy. No, when your fruits sit in your fridge for just a little too long think to cook them instead of throw them away.

I chopped up the apple and threw it into my new (spiffy) little red pot with just a little water so the sugars don’t burn to the bottom of the pot. I added cloves, cinnamon and honey and let it just simmer and spatter until the apples transformed into gooey goodness.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to cook fruit. It’s truly smart, especially when you clearly abandon your fruit for lack of interest. Cooked fruit tastes delightful in oatmeal or over greek yogurt and creates the illusion that you’re eating something new. It tastes special, like dessert. And what’s better than dessert on a weeknight?

Waste Not, waste-free snacking

food

I tend to graze throughout the day: a little bit of food throughout the day rather than big meals. I love a good snack, but snacks are not always the most waste-free foods on the planet. Packaging is a huge problem when it comes to cookies, chips and candy. Oreos? A delicious packaging nightmare with plastic trays and wrapping. Chips either come in family sized bags that are too large for one person to consume and smaller bag either provoke the mindset of “I can eat the whole thing” (uh, you shouldn’t) or “I can buy a million of these little snack size bags” producing excessive garbage. Watching chips turn stale hurts me, it does. What is a gal to do? May I introduce you to popcorn.

Popcorn? Popcorn! So, I don’t have a microwave. I don’t know how I do it, but I don’t have a microwave. Thankfully I’m a vintage kind of gal, and popping kernels on the stovetop is exactly my jam. One 32oz bag of kernels costs $2.50 at Shop Rite, which is super cheap considering I’ve made popcorn 3 times and have hardly made a dent in the bag! Popcorn kernels allow better portion control so you’re not always popping enough kernels for either a baby or a family of 4. While the bag recommends instructions for 2 servings, it’s easy to find half measurements online and doubling is simple. Plus, one bag means one piece of garbage! Not ideal, but definitely better considering the amount of food per piece of garbage. If popcorn kernels are available in bulk bins opt for that and reduce your waste completely. Additionally, flavor options are endless depending on spices, oils and sweets on hand. I’ve been making popcorn with salt and cracked black pepper. Sometimes I’ll feel fancy and drizzle a little white truffle oil on top. And chocolate on popcorn? Dare I say, yeet.

As far as snacks go, you could definitely be eating worse food. While popcorn isn’t exactly health food, it won’t be necessary to cut back excessively considering it’s corn. And I can’t stress this enough, it is not health food but it’s better than a bag of potato chips or cheetos. While I miss those two things, I’m getting the most for my money with popcorn.

Last, and honestly probably least, the bag is smaller than air-filled chip bags and takes up less space in my tiny kitchen. In fact, sometimes I leave it on the sliver of counter space that I have because I forget to put it up in my cabinet. I mean perks are endless.

Next time you’re at the store and you’re craving something to munch on, try some popcorn. It’s food waste-free and delicious.

Waste Not and what I’ve learned

food

I’m going on my third full week of this challenge and I think it’s important to reflect on a few things I’ve learned thus far:

  1. Eating with little to no food waste is possible with some resources and knowledge of yourself and your own habits. If you know that bulk meal prepping works or does not work for you, then keep it up. I learned that bulk meal prepping really isn’t my jam and if I have an excessive amount of leftovers then those are more at risk to be wasted than perhaps leftovers that could provide two solid meals. I like making enough extra food to provide dinner, lunch and dinner again. That all being said, don’t be afraid of the freezer, but take a peek in there every so often and actually eat the things you have stored. Check once at night before bed and take one thing out to thaw for dinner tomorrow.
  2. Shopping for food is okay! I obviously ate perishable items first so as to not throw away any fruits or vegetables, but I could not maintain a healthy diet with only carbs, frozen meat and beans on hand. When shopping for food thing of needs versus wants. Go back to your inventory and see what you ate and what you threw out. Re-purchase what you ate in its entirety and skip anything that became waste on your behalf. When it comes to take-out or eating at a restaurant save the plastic reusable containers and don’t order more than you need. I like to eat take-out max. twice after the initial meal. Don’t get crazy with your order.
  3. If fresh vegetables or fruits are either not accessible or are sold in quantities too large for you or your family to consume consider canned or frozen fruits and vegetables as viable substitutes. These options can be cheap, convenient and nutritious alternatives to the pricy produce section. Canned tomatoes, canned beans and either rice or pasta as a full meal can be filling, delicious, waste-free and inexpensive. It’s a shame that people like me can buy and often throw away fresh vegetables while a large population can’t afford them to begin with. Less than 10% of Americans can actually afford to eat a balanced diet, according to this article. Everyone can benefit from canned or frozen options. Lets be smarter shoppers so as to not throw away another person’s meal.

At the start of this new week, my fridge is full of fruits and vegetables courtesy of my mom who stopped by while I worked day 8 of my crazy 13 day work week (vlogs to follow). I have leftovers from her in the fridge, which makes for less waste on her part and easier meals for me.

Sharing leftovers…good concept to work in this blog.

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.