There now, isn’t that a cheering image? And there’s a lovely story attached. Journalist Miriam Mannak takes water saving seriously, so all her washing-up water is poured onto her pot-plants. And there were obviously some tomato seeds in that water, and next thing, she was harvesting three different varieties of home-grown tomatoes…
A few days ago, I was in a mix of despair and disgust over perhaps the most (I hate to use this word, but it fits) immoral form of waste — food waste. But Miriam’s photo reminds me that sometimes we can do the opposite of wasting — that “recycling” food and water via seeds and soil is actually one of the most basic and necessary human activities. Taking part, even if it’s just a squash plant on our compost heap or a herb in a pot, is good for us and the planet.
The trouble with our throwaway culture is that we’ve extended it to food. You do not need me to tell you that this is just plain wicked (besides, I already did). But one problem is that the middle classes are no longer taught how to stretch food, use it thriftily, and work wonders with leftovers. My parents’ generation was excellent at this, because they grew up during or right after the deprivations of World War 2. Food was sometimes scarce, often sparse, and always seasonal — people cooked what was available, and every bite counted. But this takes a little skill (and a lot of common sense), and that skill has drained away with frightening speed in the last few decades. We may be addicted to TV cooking shows, but we have no longer have any idea what to do with a glut of lemons, or how to give leftover cheese sauce new life.
When I was sixteen, a change of schools meant that I started studying Domestic Science for the first time. Our matric textbook was a template for Christian National Education (it was assumed that only women cooked, that we were all white, and that we all had domestic workers — referred to as “servants”). I remember paging through the instructions on how to make our own preserves (OK, FAIRLY useful — I’ve always made my own chutney as a result), how to cater for “ladies’ teas” and children’s parties (including tricksy stuff like eclairs and Turkish delight), and the piece de resistance — making our own wedding cakes, right down to the marzipan and royal icing. “But this is useless,” I thought. “Where’s the section on how to stretch a pound of mince and a celery stalk into supper for six?” (I had to work it out myself: oats, grated carrot and lots of onion. It took several years before I discovered Indian shops and the glory of red lentils and proper spices.)
My parents were amazing in this regard: to this day, every third or fourth lunch or supper is an inventive combination of leftovers. From them, I learned the basics: runny or soggy leftovers (sauces, gravies, curries, cooked soft veg like cabbage, spinach, gem squash, marrows, mashed potatoes, carrots) can be whizzed into soup: fry an onion, toss in all the leftovers, add stock and maybe half a tin of chopped tomatoes, lots of herbs, garlic when papa isn’t looking, and blend. A stick blender is useful, but a fork and a strong arm will do the job.
More “intact” food (bits of chicken, sausages, cooked peas, beans, corn — along with cooked butternut, pumpkin, broccoli and cauli if not too soft, in which case, see soup above) can be sliced into salads, turned into sandwich fillings or (when all else fails) eaten cold with a dollop of mayonnaise. Hint: if you roast your veggies, they make wonderful salad ingredients the next day. To keep things interesting, put at least one fresh or new thing on the table as well.
So nothing edible in our house ever went into a bin: and if there were scraps, they went into the dogs’ bowls, the compost heap (and for several heady years, the resident pig). Thirty years on a smallholding nearly an hour from a town with shops also ingrained the very sensible habit of finishing the food in the house (barring a few staples) before replenishing supplies. And the spuds and cabbage from the veg garden were stand-bys, as well as fresh and delicious.
The holy trinity, both for reinventing leftovers and livening up carbs and legumes: onion, garlic, tinned tomatoes or tomato paste. I’d add a fourth: chillies. (And a handful of fresh herbs from that windowsill pot: mint, rosemary, basil, parsley, thyme, dhanya, wild rocket, garlic chives, lovage.) Millions of families do this routinely to stretch from payday to payday.
Avoiding food waste takes planning and thought, however, along with regular investigation of the fridge, the freezer (if you have one), and the pantry. You have to think 24 hours ahead, and plan menus. We’ve all been hearing about how women are saddled with what’s known as “emotional labour” even in households where domestic chores are supposedly shared. I sometimes wonder if one of the many things causing food waste is that women are fed up being the ones who have to remember to defrost the bolognaise sauce that’s been in the freezer for two months, and then check that there’s spaghetti to go with it. Since my papa’s retirement fifteen years ago, I’ve been most impressed at how both my parents have taken responsibility for shopping, food planning, and the composition of meals known as “seek and ye shall find”.
But the real expert on how to use your leftovers and fridge contents in the most economical but deliciously epicurian ways is my friend Megan Kerr. She has worked out a system so meticulous and scientific, it should win awards. It certainly delights the Food Gods. You can find it here; plus her blog has lots of excellent leftover ideas, all of which look delicious.
I may not be able to rise to Megan’s heights, but it’s from her that I learned to keep my fridge organised. This helps prevent that infuriating but familiar experience of finding something quietly mutating into a new life-form while lurking behind a jar of olives. Just making sure that the tallest things stand at the back, with the rest of the contents ranked by height, helps. Every other day, I open all the drawers/flaps to remind myself of what needs using up.
Bits of hardening cheese are grated, then frozen. Stale bread can be whirred into breadcrumbs (good for thickening soups and sauces) or turned into croutons. Or just toast. Elderly tomatoes can be roughly chopped and gently fried with lots of garlic and basil — they turn into a chunky sauce that can be frozen just about forever.
I’m no great jam-maker (too much sugar, too much fussing over pectin and jelling), but nearly all fruit can be turned into chutney or sauces for either sweet or savoury dishes (my plum and cardamon sauce is excellent with cheese, veggie burgers and pork — and also makes great ice cream). Ripe bananas can be peeled and frozen, then whizzed straight into smoothies. Wrinkly apples: peel, core and simmer with cinnamon, ginger and a spoonful of honey or brown sugar — the resulting fruit sauce can be spooned onto cereals or stirred into yoghurt. Berries and tropical fruits like paw-paw and mangoes can be blended with yoghurt or milk, as for smoothies, and then frozen. If you whir them up again before they’ve completely defrosted, you get rather nice slushies.
Buy only small amounts of green stuff like lettuce and cucumber that go off quickly (although one can make lettuce soup), and I turn cucumber into tzatziki as fast as I can, after which it keeps for five days or more.
As with many things, Google is your friend. If you have an unusual array of leftovers or pantry items, you can run them all into the search bar, and then add “recipe” — and see what comes up. This can be quite an adventure.
What are your best tips to avoid trashing food? Let me know!