Food Scraps to Treasure
At the end of the week, the saddest place in your home is inside your fridge.
Once-crunchy carrot is limp, parsley has wilted, and that onion half you optimistically saved from mid-week has given up and is ready to spend the rest of its days wearing a tracksuit on the couch, alone.
There's no nice way to say it. For most of us, these fridge dregs are headed straight for the bin.
Figures suggest that 35 per cent of the average Australian household rubbish bin is food waste.
If that doesn't sound like much, consider that over a year, we collectively total 5 million tonnes of thrown-away food, roughly enough to fill 9,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In simple terms: That's a lot.
Alex Elliott-Howery is one woman looking to lower these figures.
Alongside her partner, James Grant, she owns two popular inner-west Sydney cafes and a picklery, runs cooking workshops and has authored two books designed to educate their local community to eat sustainably and reduce food waste.
How to make quick pickles
Three jars of pickled carrots, cucumber and beetroot with 'Quick Pickles' title in white block font.
A simple, fast and delicious way to use up fresh veggies and reduce food waste.
Alex became interested in minimising food waste in her own kitchen more than a decade ago, when at home with her young children.
"I felt there was a real disconnect with the food I was buying in the supermarket and what I did with it in my house," she says.
"I was interested in why I was throwing so much food away. What I came to is that we don't value food.
"It's actually quite cheap. We are taught if we are not using something to just chuck it in the bin and go to the shops again."
This revelation pushed Alex to research ways she could improve habits in her own kitchen, and led to what she describes as massive changes to the way she cooks at home.
She started buying seasonal produce and growing vegetables in her garden, which sparked an interest in pickling and preserving.
"I didn't learn it from my grandma, I learnt it out of necessity," she says.
"We were growing small amounts in our garden and even then we had so much stuff we couldn't get through. I was trying to reduce waste and wanted to know how to stop food from going off and make it last longer — preserving was the number one way to do this."
This conscientious change at home combined with the couple's background in hospitality led to opening their first cafe in 2012.
"I felt like there was something in this that was bigger than just my household," Alex says.
"We thought it would be a small family business, just the two of us with one employee. But it exploded."
Experimenting with new ways to extract flavour from foods is how Alex and James's commercial kitchen reduces its food waste.
"We're constantly pickling and dehydrating things and even keeping brines to add to stocks, dressings or sauces," she says.
Alex believes small improvements, even in domestic kitchens, can lead to big changes on the food waste front.
"Our number-one rule is extracting as much flavour and making the most of the ingredient before it goes in the compost or bin," Alex says.
"Our chefs use everything from leftover corn husks to kimchi brine."
"We all have a tendency to buy way too much food because the majority of us can actually afford it," she says.
"I think buying less is the key because then you don't have as much to throw away."
Making a loose meal plan before going grocery shopping can help us stay focused instead of loading up the trolley with you-never-know-I-might-actually-cook-an-artichoke-this-week impulse-buy ingredients.
"Making sure your food is well looked after is putting value on it," Alex says.
"It's saying, I bought this delicious bunch of silverbeet and I know I'm not going to get to it in five days, so how can I keep it fresh?"
Taking the time to understand where your food belongs will offer more opportunity to eat it before it's ready to turf.
She also encourages us to change some of our long-serving cooking habits in our effort to reduce food waste.
"We're taught to cook in a way where we chop the tops off and the bottoms off things and put them directly in the bin," she says.
"I think we really need to look at how to get the maximum flavour out of things including stems, stalks and leaves."
But what about the wrinkly cucumber at the back of the fridge that makes us question our own fleeting mortality?
Obviously, anything mouldy should go straight in the compost. But Alex says there can be a lot of life in past-their-prime veggies.
"Don't be afraid of things that are ugly or wrinkly and have been sitting in the fridge for a while. There are tricks you can do to revive vegetables or turn them into something more delicious, even if they're past their prime."
Alex's foodscraps-to-treasure winners
Two-step herb stem chimichurri
"I eat this with fish, meat, pasta or as a salad dressing, and even as a chicken marinade or whipped through a potato salad. It's a good way to use herbs past their prime, and their stalks."
Take your tired-looking soft herbs and their stems (whatever you have: parsley, coriander, dill, etc.) and whizz in a food processor with 1-2 cloves of garlic, a splash of apple cider vinegar, and coriander or cumin seeds (Alex says be guided by your own flavour preference).
Pour a generous amount olive oil into the processor as it mixes until you have a coarse-looking green sauce. Store it in a jar and top with more olive oil before putting it in the fridge for a quick go-to sauce that will last 1-2 weeks.
Fridge clean-up stock
"This one is a good waste warriors recipe. I make it a lot in my house when I'm cleaning the fridge on a Sunday afternoon before my next shop."
Collect vegetable scraps during the week that would usually go into a stock (that onion half, celery tops, limp carrots, leftover leeks, shallots) and add garlic and whatever soft herbs on hand until you have about 500g worth.
Combine with 100g of salt in the food processor. This will make a thick bouillon-style vegetable paste that can be stored in a sterilised jar in the fridge for up to three months.
"If I don't have stock or I've made an average soup, I just add a teaspoon of this and it lifts the flavour."
Black banana jam
"After making my kids so much banana bread they vowed to never eat it again, I came up with this recipe to use ripe bananas," Alex says.
"It's so quick and easy, and tastes especially good with French toast or on a charcuterie board with cheese."
Mash 3-4 ripe bananas and put into a saucepan with juice and zest of lemon or orange.
Add 1/3 cup of brown sugar, 100ml of water (or apple or orange juice if you have fridge leftovers) and warm spices of your choice (cinnamon, nutmeg or star anise).
Stir and cook on low heat until sugar dissolves, then turn heat to medium and cook for a further 10-15 minutes until the jam is thick and glossy. Store in a sterilised jar in the fridge.
"This will last up to three weeks, but trust me it is a crowd pleaser and will finish well before then," Alex says.
This article was originally published on ABC Life, photo by Maurizio Di Iorio.