by April Thompson
Food scraps are no longer relegated to just making soup, stock and sauces that hide their true nature. Creative chefs are reawakening to the possibilities of skins, cores, rinds and other parts we’ve needlessly been throwing away, with startling results.
“Cooking with scraps is good for the planet and good for the pocketbook. Forty percent of food produced goes uneaten, unnecessarily filling the landfill with hundreds of billions of dollars of food,” says Lindsay-Jean Hard, a chef in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the author of Cooking With Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, and Stems into Delicious Meals.
Yet the real driving force behind Hard’s unusual, scrap-based recipes is the joy of creativity and innovation. “It’s fun to challenge yourself to create something delicious out of something no one would think edible, like my banana peel cake,” says Hard.
Mads Refslund, a Danish chef living in New York City, seeks nature in food by cooking and serving it on the plate. “In nature, there is no ugly, no trash, just cycles of change. Using all the parts is a way of respecting the plant, the fish, the animal and its life,” says the co-author of Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty.
Tama Matsuoka Wong, forager and co-author of Scraps, Wilt & Weeds, points to the cultural relativism of cooking, noting that our ancestors or other cultures may think that modern Americans are throwing away the best parts of our food. “Some of the best flavor and nutrients can be found in vegetable, fruit and fish skins that often get discarded,” says Matsuoka Wong.
Both Scraps, Wilt & Weeds and Cooking with Scraps are intended as reference guides to provide inspiration to home chefs, rather than rigid cookbooks to be followed with precision. Matsuoka Wong suggests trying to work with the ingredients at hand, using substitutions as needed, instead of buying an ingredient just to follow a recipe.
Cooking from scraps requires a shift in mindset about our food and a new mindfulness about our habits in the kitchen, says Matsuoka Wong. “Before automatically throwing something away or composting, pause and think, what might I do with this?” she says.
Hard suggests choosing one new ingredient at a time to work with, old bread being an easy one to start with. “Stale bread can easily be transformed into breadcrumbs and croutons that can add nice texture to a lot of dishes,” says Hard.
“Nail a couple things you can make out of anything, like fried rice or frittatas, which are both very accepting of most any ingredient you add,” says Matsuoka Wong. Hard agrees that simple, hearty dishes like layered casseroles or tasty tempura can be great ways to clean out the odds and ends in the crisper.
Sometimes the toughest ingredients can yield the tastiest meal. Hard admits to having been stumped by what to do with the non-fleshy part of artichoke leaves, which can be tough and bitter, until she developed a recipe for artichoke leaf nachos.
Edible weeds, leaves, stalks and stems of all kinds, including celery, asparagus ends and carrot tops, make for great pesto, which is itself a versatile ingredient—great for sandwiches, dips, pastas and more—and it freezes well, Hard says. Fish scales can be fried and eaten like potato chips; they are a crunchy bar snack in Japan, notes Matsuoka Wong. Fish carcasses or shrimp shells can also be boiled down into stock for risotto or seafood chowder, suggests Hard.
Fruit cores can be boiled into sweet syrup for cocktails or non-alcoholic refreshments, or distilled down into vinegars. Fruit peels can be crisped up into a healthy snack or boiled into a tea. Hard likes to infuse tequila with beet peels for a dramatic look and a little extra flavor. Fruit or vegetable tops such as pineapples, strawberries, cucumbers and leftover herbs can be used to infuse water or vinegar. Water from canned beans, known as aquafaba, is a great stand-in for egg whites to make everything from homemade vegan mayo to fudgy brownies.
“Cooking with scraps shouldn’t be intimidating or overwhelming or feel like a chore: They’re just ingredients,” says Hard. “The more you cook using these recipes, the more familiar the concepts will become, and you’ll realize how easy it is to adapt them to make them your own.”
April Thompson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.