In this era of nose-to-tail eating, by-catch seafood suppers and farmers markets, the discarded is becoming delicious.
SEATTLE — The nation’s first citywide composting program based largely on shame began here in January.
City sanitation workers who find garbage cans filled with aging lettuce, leftover pizza or even the box it came in are slapping on bright-red tags to inform the offending household (and, presumably, the whole neighborhood) that the city’s new composting law has been violated.
San Francisco may have been the first city to make its citizens compost food, but Seattle is the first to punish people with a fine if they don’t. In a country that loses about 31 percent of its food to waste, policies like Seattle’s are driven by environmental, social and economic pressure.
But mandated composting reflects a deeper shift in the mood of the nation’s cooks, one in which wasting food is unfashionable. Running an efficient kitchen — where bruised fruit is blended into smoothies, carrot tops are pulsed into pesto, and a juicy pork shoulder can move seamlessly from Sunday supper to Monday’s carnitas to a rich pot of broth for the freezer — is becoming as satisfying as the food itself.
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The ethos stretches from New York City’s best restaurants to the homes of people like Kathleen Whitson, 44, who cooks for her family of four in West Seattle.
Whitson, who didn’t discover fresh garlic until she was out of college, now drops vegetable trimmings in a compost bucket on the counter and keeps a list of what’s in her chest freezer on the refrigerator door. A stockpot simmers on the stove and kombucha ferments in the pantry. She cooks more like her grandmother than her mother, a woman she said raised her to believe in the magic of processed food.
“In spite of the fact that it drives me crazy sometimes, I can’t imagine cooking any other way now,” Whitson said. “It just makes me feel better. Like, I love knowing I have raspberries from our yard in the freezer.”
To be sure, the cook’s pursuit of thrift and efficiency is not new to American food culture. Sausage, home-churned butter and fermented cabbage were as much delicious foundations of farm life as they were essential to Depression-era survival.
Homemakers during World War II considered themselves soldiers of the kitchen, with conservation their battle cry. In the 1970s, ecology drove the urge to make good use of kitchen waste.
Somewhere along the line, the art of kitchen efficiency was lost amid grocery stores packed with pre-made pizza shells, bagged lettuce and fruit so perfect it needed no knife work. Dinner was almost as likely to come from the drive-thru or the new corner bistro as from the stove.
How were home cooks supposed to know what to do with a leftover chicken carcass if they didn’t know how to roast the chicken in the first place?
Now, in this era of nose-to-tail eating, by-catch seafood suppers and farmers’ markets, the discarded is becoming delicious.
“We are starting to really celebrate the curve of the vegetable,” said the Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield, “and not peeling things and showing off a little of the tap root or the green on the top of the radish to remind you of where the vegetable came from.” His new book, “Root to Leaf,” is a deep study of vegetable cookery, with instructions for making stocks from corn cobs and mushroom stems.
Wasting less in the kitchen is just smart economics, said Dana Gunders, a project scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council whose book, “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook,” comes out in May.
Eating better may cost more, she said, but an efficient cook can make up the difference. “We are so price sensitive in the store, and 10 cents will swing us one way or other,” she said. “But in the kitchen we throw out so much money without even thinking about price.”
Reducing food waste is moving so quickly into the cultural mainstream that it ranked ninth among the top 20 food trends on the National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot in 2015” list, based on a survey of almost 1,300 chefs.
Imperfect fruits and vegetables are being promoted by grocery stores and organizations like endfoodwaste.org, whose social media campaign includes a stream of misshapen produce photographs on its Twitter feed, @UglyFruitAndVeg.
In October, the organization helped create what was billed as the Woodstock of food waste in Oakland, Calif., — a meal for 5,000 people from food that would have otherwise been thrown out before it made its way to the grocery store.
Later this spring, a former Trader Joe’s executive will open Daily Table, a restaurant and grocery store in Roxbury, Mass., that is dedicated to ugly fruit and food past its sell-by date.
Even in Europe, where classic dishes like pot-au-feu or the Tuscan soup ribollita sprang from a history of kitchen efficiency, 2014 was declared the year against food waste, a move that came six years after the European Union lifted its ban on selling produce that was knobby, excessively curved or otherwise misshapen. Last year, the French grocery chain Intermarché took things one step further and started a campaign to celebrate and sell what it called “inglorious fruits and vegetables” with special pricing and ads.
Dan Barber, the chef and author, is so dedicated to ending food waste that he is turning his New York City restaurant, Blue Hill, into a pop-up in which every dish is based on waste. It’s an extreme extension of what many chefs already do.
“The best restaurants today are focusing on how to utilize what’s unknown and largely uncoveted,” Barber said. “That has turned dining on its head so fast we tend to not even recognize it.”
For his project, which begins March 13, Barber and his cooks are putting kale ribs into a pressure cooker and turning them into vegetable rice and deep-frying skate bones with fish-head sauce for dipping. He has created a burger from the vegetable pulp left over from a fresh juice company. He tops it with cheese trimmings from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont and serves it with pickles made from cucumber butts and ketchup rendered from beets rejected by plant breeders at the University of Wisconsin.
Even the food left on diners’ plates at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., feeds the restaurant’s laying hens.
Barber admits that waste is perhaps not the best selling point on a menu, but he hopes that if he can inspire his fellow high-end chefs to turn it into something delicious, using waste will trickle down to the menus at restaurants like Ruby Tuesday, and into home kitchens, too.
Some cooks are already there, particularly a generation of millennial cooks enamored with DIY projects, kitchen hacks and social causes like hunger and agricultural reform, said Brandi Henderson, an architect who became a pastry chef and blogger. She teaches about 40 cooking classes a month at the Pantry in Seattle, a city whose environmental sensibility made the composting mandate less controversial than it might be in a city like New York. Many of her students are younger and interested in everything from how to coax the best out of a handful of beans to making jams and salami. They care as much about where the ingredients come from as what’s going into the garbage.
Like other cooking teachers and authors, she has shifted her emphasis to a kind of freestyle, technique-based instruction that is untethered from recipes.
“So much home kitchen waste is from people shopping from a recipe,” she said. “Someone will use that weird curry paste once and then won’t have the confidence to think: ‘Hey, this curry paste is really good. I’m going to make some fried rice with it or sauté some shrimp.’”
So, she teaches the mechanics of a pan sauce, the science behind braising and a pie class in which pie is presented as a formula with endless variation. She recommends “The Flavor Bible,” a book by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg that features no recipes but encourages intuitive cooking using lists of ingredients and complementary flavors and techniques.
“If we leave the recipe behind and get back to technique cooking,” she said, “kitchen waste will go away.”