On Minginess, Environmentalism, and Lifestyle Trends

Last Wednesday’s New York Times has an article in the food section about the latest thing is to use your food and kitchen materials absolutely to the maximum so as to avoid putting scraps and unnecessary waste into landfills. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/04/dining/efficiency-in-the-kitchen-to-reduce-food-waste.html?_r=0 is the article, and it’s chockablock with good intentions, sensible advice, and sanctimony. The idea is easy to grasp: the more thoroughly and efficiently you use up things you use and produce in the kitchen, the less waste will be generated, and the less trash will go into landfills. Now, I am not someone who goes to great lengths in any particular way to do good for the Green Agenda. I don’t drive, which I feel exonerates me from the get-go. I do other things that are not Green, but, you know, Not Driving is such a big thing that I basically feel my little (size 8.5) carbon footprint is smaller than average, so it’s ok. I may be wrong about that, but I have a friend who is entirely rabid on the subject of global warming and Green Green Green everything and she has assured me more than once that I am, compared to most Americans, a paragon of environmental virtue, which is really quite comical because all I want to see in my environment is good sidewalks, little cafes and bookstores, and very little in the way of shrubbery, at least, shrubbery I have to think about or maintain at all. My dream house has a backyard that is paved in herringbone brick, with maybe an urn or two for growing rosemary bushes in. And someone else will tend those.

This Old Hausfrau does not compost, but I’ve been paying attention to how much garbage our three-person household generates, and basically, we produce about one white Hefty bag of trash per week, assuming a normal week (i.e., we don’t have anything like Passover or Thanksgiving going on, nor a birthday party for the child, or any big social event that would throw us out of our routine).

Anyhow. This article, “Starve a Landfill,” has a little photo chart called “Extending That Shelf Life,” and I read it eagerly. It shows a loaf of sliced bread, a carrot (with green tops), and a chicken carcass, and lists ways for you to make the most of these items. I read happily and then grew depressed as I realized that I already do probably 80% of the things they’re advising us to do. I do cook with scrubbed-and-not-peeled carrots, as I find the outer skin of a carrot is unfailingly awfully bitter, and that peeling is simply necessary. What’s more, since I don’t buy carrots with tops on them, I never have to think of what to do with the tops. I would never make a mayonnaise substitute out of carrots, because I am perfectly happy using mayonnaise. But I do take vegetable scraps and save them in plastic bags in the freezer for making stock. This goes for carrots, for onions, for parsley…. any vegetable I’m working with that I regard as “neutral,” the scraps get saved for stock. Corn cobs get saved in special bags all summer long, because corn stock is, truly, one of the best things in the world to keep in the freezer. (To make that, you don’t really have to add anything: you just simmer the corn cobs in water for a while. The smell is heavenly. And then you freeze the stock in little bags or ice cube trays or whathaveyou and this is stuff you can use all winter long as a base for wonderful things like Chinese-inspired velvet corn soups, or chicken corn chowders made with frozen corn kernels. Just take my word for it.)

Bread: I hoard ends of bread in the freezer and periodically take them all out, thaw them, and whizz them in the food processor to make bread crumbs. Once in a blue moon I will make croutons, because my husband and child enjoy them very much (I’m not really a fan). Bread crumbs are used regularly here: made into a panade, they are the base of my meatloaves and meatballs. They go on top of casseroles. I might dust a cake pan with them. Sometimes I make a separate bag of seasoned bread crumbs, by adding, say, a small onion and a clove of garlic and some black pepper into the food processor. As long as you label the bag (don’t use those seasoned bread crumbs for dusting a pan you’re about to make a chocolate cake in), you’re golden. (While we’re talking about crumbs and cake pans: I do, yes, have a bag of chocolate cake and cooky crumbs that I use in the pans when I’m baking chocolate cakes. This is the kind of crazy I am. So be it.)

Ms. Severson of the New York Times advises us on how to handle a chicken carcass, and, again, what she recommends is precisely what the Balabusta does. Freeze the carcass until you are ready to make the stock. Easy peasy. The one thing she suggest doing with leftover chicken meat and bones that I don’t do: I have yet to render the fat and skin to make schmaltz. But something tells me there will come a day when I break down and do this. It might be next winter; our winter seems to finally be ending, here, and I don’t expect to be inspired in this direction for quite some time. But I take her point: if I were a perfect person, I’d be utilizing the skin and fat of the bird to a greater degree.

Reading this article made me feel, at once, very thrifty, in a good way: I’ve always known that it was stupid to just throw out stale bread, and that bread crumbs were useful. But it also made me feel really…. trendy, in a stupid way. I mean, it seems to me that this kind of way of running a kitchen is merely sensible. It is, I am sure, how housewives of the 1930s would have run their kitchens, assuming they were comfortable enough to have sufficient food to begin with. I suppose I should just accept the mantle of “trendy” and get on with my life. But my readers should know: it’s not that I do this stuff merely because I am a whackjob. It is part of a circumstance that, actually, Ms. Severson writes about:

“Eating better may cost more, but an efficient cook can make up the difference.” It’s true. If I spend $15 on an organic chicken to roast for dinner, you are damned straight I want to get my $15 out of that bird. So the meat will give us two or maybe three meals, depending on what I do with it; and the stock I make with that carcass will flavor at least two or three more meals, again, depending on what I do with it. That is efficiency.
I worry about my kitchen habits and whether or not they make economic sense. Is it saving us any money at all, the fact that I bake the majority of the bread we eat? I am confident, but not sure, that the answer is “No.” On the other hand, my husband (who is far more the economist than I am) advises me that over time, yes, there would be savings. I’ve not purchased a Pullman loaf in about six months now. We used to go through a little more than a loaf a week, and it could cost anywhere from $5 to $2.50, depending on sales and coupons and so on. I’m picky about what brand I’d buy, so I got stuff as good as I could get, but frankly: the bread I bake is a lot better than the best of the grocery store brands, which, for a Pullman loaf, is (in our opinion) Pepperidge Farms. I mean, a LOT better. So if each loaf winds up costing us about $4 to bake…. and I’d be astonished if it did cost that much in terms of ingredients….  its being intrinsically of such higher quality has to count for something. It’s clear to me that if I were able to purchase a freshly made Pullman loaf made from the ingredients I use, it would cost me at least $7 in a store.

The caramel I make for the hell of it now and then, and store in the fridge in old Bonne Maman jars — it is perfect stuff. The other day, I was at a fancy teashop in Hamden, Connecticut, a nearby suburb, and saw for sale there little jars of caramel. I initially assumed it was made at the teashop, but no — it’s made by some company in Maryland. Mouth Party. A 10 oz. jar of their caramel sells for $9 online — at the teashop, I think they wanted $9.50.

It’s astonishing, then, that I could make a comparable product — and one I’d almost certainly prefer, because it has no weird ingredients. Here’s what’s in the plain Mouth Party caramel sauce: INGREDIENTS: CREAM, SUGAR, CORN SYRUP, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, BUTTER (CREAM, SALT), VANILLA EXTRACT, SALT, CARRAGEENAN, MONO-DIGLYCERIDES, CELLULOSE GUM, POLY SORBATE 80.

I don’t want mono-diglycerides or carrageenan or cellulose gum or polysorbate 80 in my caramel. Here’s what I want in my caramel: cream, sugar, butter, vanilla, and maybe some corn syrup, depending on what I’m doing. (Sometimes you do need some corn syrup in your cooking to get the texture just so.)
So it’s clearly more efficient for me to make my own caramel. I suppose that it is, given my quirks, less efficient for me to bake my own bread, but I’m able to do it, for now, and I’m good at it, and I’m mostly glad to do it.

My fear of kitchen waste, you may recall, the reason why I made a pot roast flavored with a caramel sauce I’d ruined by burning it. Maybe Kim Severson should interview me on how to make the most out of kitchen disasters. Pot roast is expensive, no matter what, but damn, that was a hell of a pot roast.

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