The statistics would make anyone's grandmother cringe in shame. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans jammed 35 million tons of food waste into landfills in 2013. Food waste leads to more greenhouse gases, which in turn contributes to climate change. Wasted food represents wasted resources and calories that hungry people could be eating. Another less significant but no less valid concern for serious cooks: It's tons of wasted flavor.
Though the EPA has been pushing the idea that Americans should generate less waste at home through videos like "Feed People Not Landfills," new ideas about how restaurants, food-service providers, and stores can do the same are coming to the forefront.
In Dorchester, Mass., a former Trader Joe's executive recently opened Daily Table, a nonprofit restaurant and store that uses donated and discounted food - "unattractive" produce and ingredients that are safe to eat but past their sell-by date - and makes it very affordable for consumers.
Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute, and National Restaurant Association banded together to found the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which offers tools and support to retailers, manufacturers, and restaurants that want to leave less behind.
In an era when people are considering the limits of all of our resources, saving peels and bones and odd little castoff bits, whether in a restaurant or at home, just makes good sense.
"It's the way I was trained as a chef, and it's a way of thinking that has become very natural to our kitchen," says Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink off Rittenhouse Square.
As older cooking techniques have come back into fashion - pickling, nose-to-tail cooking, the use of formerly undesirable cuts - many restaurants and home kitchens have by default improved sustainability and efficiency. But without a dedicated plan, it can be challenging to minimize waste in any significant way.
At Vernick, the campaign to maximize resources has largely been driven by business concerns.
"We realized early on that we wanted to use expensive ingredients but not have to charge people fine-dining prices, so that meant finding ways to utilize products," he says.
Reducing kitchen waste could include practices such as composting, but it also entails thinking through the ways ingredients can be repurposed before they ever land in the bin. Examples for Vernick include a green-tomato relish that employs the awkward ends of the fruit, a shellfish roast made with fish from the skinnier fillets served in a broth made from leftover bones, and herb and chili vinegars that have become a tabletop staple.
Thinking of the whole animal when planning meals can help stretch an expensive and ecologically burdensome commodity further. Savona's Michael Kirk will turn a whole duck into crispy duck breast with a duck leg stuffed with duck paté, also served with duck liver mousse and l'orange sauce made from bones and blood. "We do this to maintain or lower costs by showing 100 percent use in our yield. It's also a way to teach technique to other chefs and to make a beautiful farm-friendly meal," Kirk says. An at-home version with chicken might include roasted breast, confit chicken leg, and a savory bread pudding using the innards and jus.
At the Mainland Inn in Harleysville, Brett Romberg makes chicken heart ravioli. "When people buy a chicken from the store, they normally throw the little packet of offal in the trash," he says. This way, he avoids wasting one of the most flavorful parts of the animal. At the restaurant, the dish is served simply, northern Italian style with butter and sage.
And, of course, bones can always be used for stock, Vernick says. "A lot of home cooks don't make stock because they think it's something fussy and you need to follow a recipe. I thought that way, too, until I went to Italy and saw how a restaurant made brodo: They kept the pot boiling on the stove all day long and threw in whatever trim they made."
That pot welcomes bones - even a mix from different animals such as chicken, pork, and lamb - not to mention peels and leaves. The result is all the richer for the layering of flavors, and the stock can then be used for soups, sauces, and poaching.
Reducing waste can be an infinitely creative pursuit, limited only by a chef's imagination.
"We take a special pride in the efficiency with which we plan each menu, and we have always tried to find ways to utilize all parts of the ingredients that we bring in," says Andrew Kochan, co-chef/owner of Marigold Kitchen.
In the restaurant's cheese course, Camembert fondue - made with rinds - serves as the base of the dish. Rhubarb juice is turned into a gel and its remaining pulp becomes a powder that garnishes lavender minute cake.
"On the same dish, we thicken the liquid used to macerate the strawberries and use it as an additional garnish, which allows us to introduce one flavor in multiple textures and forms," Kochan says.
One need not be a molecular gastronomist, an uber-homemaker, or drive a french-fry-oil-fueled truck to put some of these principles into practice. An easy start is to leave the peels on fruits and vegetables and wash them before eating, Romberg says. "The peel is full of flavor and nutrients."
Think of the whole vegetable: Beet greens tend to be the vegetable of choice for the resourceful cook, but the tops from carrots and turnips are equally worthy of attention. Vernick sautés whatever's around, including herbs like basil, in his daily changing greens dish. It's a simple preparation with white wine and shallot, but it has become one of the most popular menu items. At Square 1682, chef Caitlin Mateo performs alchemy on mixed mushroom bits, turning them into a voluptuous paté that also uses leftover apple.
Stems and odd-shaped veggie bits can be pickled or deep-fried. Fruit on the wane can be pureed into jams or smoothies or syrups for cocktails. Herbs can be improvised into oil blends or pestos, along with leftover nuts. Leftover bread can become bread crumbs or croutons for the freezer (think stratas, bread pudding, and, of course, stuffing). More enterprising (or gadget-owning) home cooks can get out the juicer or dehydrator and put their scraps to work.
Ultimately, it's about not taking the bounty for granted, and it's a mind-set that chefs say can be very rewarding. "We look at each ingredient and try to figure out a way to use every last bit," Vernick says. "The garbage would be the very last solution."
A study published last week by a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that Americans are pretty picky about what gets to stay in their refrigerators. One of the most common excuses for tossing out food is people "want to eat only the freshest food." The other widely cited reason is a fear of food poisoning.
This sort of fussiness has become increasingly prevalent in the United States. Though it has fostered a growing appreciation of fresh produce and helped support smaller family farms, it has also increased waste: Almost 20 percent more food was tossed in 2012 than Americans threw out 2000.
The findings, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, are significant given that 31 percent to 40 percent of the American food supply goes to waste, primarily in homes, stores, and restaurants. The top foods wasted, by weight, are fruits and vegetables, due in part to their perishability and bulk. Food waste costs Americans $161.6 billion annually.
Roughly half of all food waste comes from families and other individuals (as opposed to businesses). The problem is often attributed to the unreasonable standards we have set for foods sold commercially. Several studies have pointed to this inefficiency, whereby consumers mistake cautionary labels for full-stop warnings about foods.
"Americans perceive themselves as wasting very little food, but in reality, we are wasting substantial quantities," says study leader Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program and an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Hopkins. "It happens throughout the food chain, including both a lot of waste by consumers, and a lot on our behalf, when businesses think we won't buy imperfect food. The root causes are complex."
In 2010, wasted food also was a huge drain on the environment, when approximately 30 percent of the fertilizer, 35 percent of the fresh water, and 31 percent of the cropland in the U.S. was used to grow food that was eventually wasted.
"Consumer waste of food in the U.S. represents a powerful quintuple threat; reducing it may improve food security, nutrition, budgets, environment, and public health," Neff says.
Makes 1 cup
1 tablespoon blended canola and olive oil
11/2 cups quartered cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup julienned shiitake mushrooms
1/3 cup julienned oyster mushrooms
1/3 cup diced portobello mushrooms
1 tablespoon diced Granny Smith apple
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch of minced fresh thyme
Pinch of minced fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons sherry
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons butter, cubed
1. Heat up a large pot and add oil. Set cremini mushrooms in pan cut-side down. Allow them to cook until caramelized, then turn them and leave them until cooked through and golden brown on all sides. When they're cooked through, season with salt and pepper.
2. Add remaining mushrooms and apples and cook for about 8 minutes longer. Then add garlic, shallot, thyme, and rosemary. Cook until shallots and garlic are light brown. Add sherry to deglaze pan, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom with a wooden spoon. Cook until the wine has dissolved.
3. Remove pan from heat and add lemon juice and vinegar.
4. Transfer mixture to a food processor and begin to puree it, adding butter gradually until mixture is smooth and creamy. Check seasoning and add more salt and pepper to taste if needed.
Per two-tablespoon serving: 59 calories; 1 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 5 grams fat; 8 milligrams cholesterol; 51 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 2 pints
1 pound green tomatoes, sliced thin or chopped fine
1/3 medium-size onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
3/4 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon madras curry powder
Pinch of Aleppo pepper
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fresh ginger peeled, sliced thin
Pinch of ground allspice
1. Combine green tomatoes and onion in a large bowl. Add salt and mix gently. Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours. Drain vegetables, rinse them, and drain them again.
2. In a large pot, combine vinegar, sugar, and spices. Bring mixture to a boil and add vegetables. Bring contents to a boil again, then reduce heat. Simmer vegetables gently, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, or until just heated through. Pack mixture into pint mason jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space, and close the jars with two-piece caps. Process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Store the cooled jars in a cool, dry, dark place for at least 3 weeks before eating the pickle. After opening a jar, store it in the refrigerator.
Per two-tablespoon serving: 8 calories; trace protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; no fat; no cholesterol; 110 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 2-4 servings
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 pound total mixed greens, washed well and rough-chopped, ribs removed from harder leaves (any combination of chard, chard stems, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, dandelion greens, spinach, arugula, and/or basil and top greens of carrots, beets, or turnips)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Lemon wedges, for garnish
1. Heat a large pot or sauté pan to medium and add olive oil. Add shallots and cook until translucent and lightly caramelized.
2. Add greens, placing harder greens on bottom and softer greens on top, if possible. Immediately add wine, water, and salt and allow greens to "stew down" for about 3-4 minutes without stirring. Then mix well while cooking for an additional 1-2 minutes. Taste for seasoning and texture. Continue cooking if needed and add salt to taste. When greens are tender, spoon them into a bowl, being careful to capture the residual liquid in the pan. Garnish with lemon.