If my Facebook news feed is any indication, food waste is a hot topic these days. Everyone’s talking about it, from John Oliver to NPR to the Washington Post. I first heard about it from Barbara Kingsolver in her excellent book that I would super-highly recommend to any human being who eats food: “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” (Thanks, Lauren!) Basically, the story goes that in the United States, we waste between 30 and 40% of the food we produce. We trash 20 pounds of food per month per person. I imagine that’s more than a typical African eats! For sure, industrialized countries as a whole throw away almost as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. So your Mom was sort of right when she used logic such as “You’d better eat everything on your plate; there are starving kids in Africa” on you when you were a kid.
One of the biggest reasons for this food waste is that something like 25% of our fruits and veggies never make it to market, and for one simple reason: they’re slightly blemished, or their shape is “imperfect.” Consumers have pretty high expectations, I guess! I can attest after living here for awhile that when we go home for a visit, the grocery stores are so full of such perfect produce that it comes as a shock. Look at the apples, we whisper to each other – each one is shiny and perfect, no blemishes to be seen anywhere. It strikes us as high-maintenance, and artificial. Too good to be true.
It is too good to be true, in fact. Grocery stores go to great lengths to keep their shelves full full full and of only the prettiest things. Seriously, there’s consumer-psychology studies showing that people won’t buy fresh produce if the shelves look skimpy. They assume something’s wrong with it if it’s all lonely. So most of that fresh produce is only there to help fill out the shelves, even though it’s way more than anyone wants or will possibly buy. As a result, the dumpsters out back are full of perfectly salvageable stuff, as a whole new breed of dumpster divers called “skippers” in the UK or “freegans” in the US can confirm.
And finally, what us customers do end up buying and taking home gets thrown in our own trash cans because many of us can’t stomach eating something we’ve had sitting around for awhile. We also have a shop-infrequently and buy-in-bulk mentality, versus for example the Europeans who shop at fresh markets whenever they need to, thus buying only what they plan to use immediately.
I’m not here trying to preach to you – in fact, I can totally relate to these wasteful habits, because I was certainly guilty of them, too. I was one who threw out my leftovers, because ewww, who wants to eat leftovers?? Fruit especially was a big problem for me. I’d buy it because it looked pretty and I knew it was good for me, but often it would just sit in my fridge, uneaten, while I went out to a restaurant or something. Once a few days went by, I’d be scared to bite into it, afraid of an unpleasant sourness or overripeness. Anybody else relate to this? Can I get an Amen?
Well, today, I’m here to tell you friends, I’m totally healed of this affliction! Praise hallelujah! Today I readily buy the ugliest fruits and vegetables you’ve probably never ever seen, and then I consider it a sport to see how long I can make it stretch. In fact I have a new mantra around here: Rotten fruit or veg is rarely rotten all the way through, and I refuse to throw it out until I’ve checked for sure.
Yum! Let’s continue, shall we?
My stories today might very well land me on the USDA’s watchlist, as well as garner lots of polite “sorry, we’re busy”s to future dinner invites at my place, but I’m going to share them with you anyway. Because I’ve had the benefit of a few years of shock therapy, living here in Congo, and not everyone can be so lucky! Let me share the wealth!
Shock Therapy #1: Blackened Mangoes. We missed mango season while we were cavorting around North America over Christmas, so when I saw some less-than-desirable ones for sale at the local market, all pock-marked with black spots, I grabbed them anyway. I brought them home and washed them up, but because I had other food priorities and was missing half my yogurt-making kit at the time, they sat on the counter for half a week, where their little black spots grew bigger and bigger and soon started attracting fruit flies. My husband, as anyone else half-sane who had seen them would have done, suggested I throw them out. Instead, I threw them in the fridge. By the time I got to them a week later, the black spots had grown to cover about 80% of the fruit. They were soft and oozing. But I cut into them anyway. The insides were half mango, half black matter. A smell and taste test of the still mango-looking parts confirmed they were still actually mangoes. I’m not sure anyone else would have gone to these lengths, but I just carved around the black stuff, chucked the good stuff into the blender along with some homemade yogurt and spices, and the next day my husband (none the wiser) and I were drinking raw mango-yogurt lassis. Guess what? It was just fine. Delicious even.
Now eating these babies raw was a leap of faith, even for me. Normally I would eliminate any doubt by cooking them – say, in a mango chutney. But their overripe texture was best in a purée, so I gave it a whirl. Glad I did.
Shock Therapy #2: Wrinkly Grapes. We get grapes so infrequently here, and I love grapes so much, and when we do get them they are in such sorry shape… that my cutoff for buying them is if more than 50% of them have gone bad. The last bunch I bought had mold creeping along the vine. But that’s ok; that’s not the part I’m eating! I just clean them well, throw out the truly rotten ones, and keep snacking. The ones that fall off the vine or get all wrinkled up over time… I save those for cooking.
Yes, cooking! Trust me, the saddest, limpest, palest grapes will shape right up with a little heat. They get their color back and plump up like a balloon. It’s like adding water to a dried-up sponge. Here’s one of my favorite recipes using red grapes, and I’ll put a green grape recipe below in the comments.
Shock Therapy #3: Wilted Greens. We get lettuce suitable for salads even less frequently than we get grapes. Our best bet for lettuce is to grow it ourselves, actually. But when we do get hold of green leafy stuff, it can be pretty aged and pretty picked through. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that after sitting in a cold-water-and-bleach bath (purely to kill any unfriendly bacteria that may have been present, and worms), my pathetic greens came right back to life. We’re talking they went from good-for-the-dustbin to oh-boy-we’re-having-a-salad-tonight in 30 minutes. Ooh, and another surprisingly tasty thing you can do with lettuce? Especially if you have loads of it and it doesn’t appeal to you raw? Make lettuce soup!
Yesssss. I can hear you doubting me just now, so let me tell you a little story about two good-old Arizona boys who liked their meat and potatoes with a side of green chile, and that was about it. Vegetables were, according to them, “not their thing.” One of these Arizona boys lived next door to us for a little while, and had a huge garden that was overrun with lettuce instead of jalapeños due to a little error in translation with his house help. “Help me, I’m drowning in lettuce!” he asked me. “And I don’t like salads!” he added. So I helped myself to a few armfuls, went home and whipped up my friend Anna’s lettuce soup, which to me resembles my favorite cream of broccoli soup. (Proof, perhaps, that you can add cream to anything, and it’ll taste good.) I gave some of this soup to my lettuce-laden neighbor in a container for him to take to the office. He eyed it suspiciously and made me promise I wouldn’t be offended if he didn’t even try it. But he must have gotten hungry. He tried it with a coworker, the second good-old Arizona boy, and both of them came home raving about it. Tales of this soup drifted back to me for weeks, from strangers even; passersby who had heard of its goodness. It’s now legendary.
Shock Therapy #4: Dried Beans and Rocks and Things. Do any non-hippies ever cook beans from their dried state anymore? I had to learn how to do it here; at times it was all we could get our hands on. Luckily they sell dried beans at the local market here, baskets and baskets of them. Unluckily they look like this:
But never fear! All it takes is some discipline and a strong back, and a couple hours later you’ve got your beans sorted.
Then it’s just a matter of rinsing them well and scraping off the brownish-gray foam that will rise to the top during cooking. (And that’s after all my sorting and rinsing. We had a vegetarian coworker who used to live here a long time ago, who, after hearing me complain about the back-breaking sorting step, said, “You know, Jen, I just buy a bucket of beans at the market and chuck everything into a pot of water. The rocks sort of sink; it’s all good.” Wow. I’ve come a long way, but I haven’t come that far.)
Shock Therapy #5: Dirty Mushrooms. Really Dirty Mushrooms. Most (maybe all) recipe writers and cooks advise “Do NOT wash your mushrooms! Just gently wipe them off with a paper towel.” Ha! I say to them. My mushrooms get a bleach soak and two rinses just like anything else I buy from the local market.
Once upon a time I wouldn’t have bothered with these. Too risky! Too much work! Even Viviane avoids them. Do you remember the other kind, the huge mushrooms I wrote about once before? When I got those guys home and rinsed them off, a bunch of maggots came to life and started wriggling about.
But I kept hearing about the deliciousness of both these kinds of mushrooms from other people who had more luck. I bought the big ones again, didn’t see maggots that time, and cooked them up. Super tasty! Today, I’ll buy local mushrooms anytime I see them. The big ones are great but the local chanterelles might be even better. Our Basque friends told us (and an internet query confirms) they’re considered a delicacy in Europe and can be quite expensive. My pile cost me 50 cents. One of the benefits of rainy season here!
Shock Therapy #6: Corked or Accidentally High-Temperature Treated or otherwise Really Cheap Wine. We have tasted some mighty nasty bottles of wine here. We have thrown very few away. Turns out, after a couple of sips, you can get used to anything.
The list goes on. The tomatoes and onions we buy locally are literally thrown around, and as a result can become very bruised from the inside out. Sometimes they implode. I’m constantly cutting bad spots out of tomatoes, and sniff-testing what’s left. Onions can have entire rotten layers on the inside – very stinky when you cut into them, but once you remove the rotten layer and rinse what’s left (and get rid of the flies that have gathered in your kitchen), it’s as good as new. I’ve also learned that eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, and if little weevils start crawling around in my flour, I can just freeze or bake the raw flour, then sift. (After that little lesson I now freeze my flour proactively.) Weevils might just be extra protein, but hey. I do have my limits.
Speaking of limits, there are plenty of local delicacies I have not tried yet.
I’ve also had trouble stomaching the local honey. My friends have enjoyed it, but I can’t get over its smell, even after filtering and cooking with it. I found that even a tiny bit overwhelmed a dish. Maybe I just can’t get mind over matter, knowing how it’s harvested…
I gave it a good try, but my local honey ended up going home with Viviane. A shame, because they say that eating honey native to a place is the best way to combat seasonal allergies also native to that place.
All in all, I think I’ve done pretty well embracing the food that’s available locally and wasting as little as possible, but since working on this article the past week or so, I see how many scraps I still do throw away. So the next challenge for me: composting!
Anybody have more stories to add for how you stretch your “imperfect” produce? I would love to hear from you!
Anna’s Legendary Lettuce Soup!
Melt 2 Tbsp butter in a soup pan. Add 1 medium onion, chopped and 4-5 (or more) garlic cloves, chopped and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add 4 potatoes, diced and cook for 3 minutes. Add 1 liter bouillon and cook until the potatoes are fully cooked. Add 3 double handfuls of lettuce, chopped and cook 4 minutes from the moment it starts to boil. Add a pinch of nutmeg and salt & pepper to taste. Cream the soup in a blender. Before serving add some sour cream or heavy cream to lighten the color.
Cointreau Chicken with Carrots & Grapes
From Cooking for Two, by Lucy Cole*
Preheat oven to 200F, gratin dish (12″ long) inside. In a ¾-quart saucepan, bring 1½ cups water to a boil over high heat. Add ½ tsp salt and 2 small carrots (⅓ lb total), peeled & sliced diagonally ⅓” thick. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until carrots are tender, 10-15 minutes. Drain. Mix 1½ Tbsp flour with ½ tsp salt and ⅛ tsp ground white pepper in a medium-size plastic bag. Cut ⅔ lb skinned & boned chicken breasts into thin strips. Dry with paper towels and shake in bag with seasonings. In a 10″ nonstick skillet, heat 2 Tbsp unsalted butter over medium-high heat. Brown chicken in butter until cooked through. Pour ¼ cup Cointreau over chicken. Turn strips to glaze them. Arrange in warm gratin dish and keep warm in oven. Add ¼ cup canned, condensed chicken broth and ½ tsp grated orange peel to juices remaining in skillet. When hot and starting to boil, add 2 Tbsp unsalted butter. Reduce heat to medium. Add carrots and heat 1 minute. Add 1 cup seedless green grapes and heat through, 1 minute more. Spoon carrots and grapes around the chicken, and drizzle remaining sauce over chicken.
*Normally I wouldn’t want to share recipes from a print cookbook because of copyright issues, but this one is from the 80s and is out of print. You can still buy used copies from Amazon – I did recently – which I recommend highly! I love this book, some of my all-time favorites have come from it. Even better, the book is organized by complete menu (appetizer, main, side, dessert), is sized for two people, and is perfectly timed to take less than an hour for all the dishes in the menu. Amazing!
I am honored you mentioned my lettuce soup! I still remember the one I made from the lettuce in Fungurume; it was the best one. No wonder “the boys” liked it so much.
I have to say you’ve really come a long way, Jen. I still remember when you were suspicious at everything in our Bravo store. You needed the cooler to transport your meat on the bus for 20 minutes😃. I definitely think it is a life lesson what we learn in Congo. And please, try the composting! You will never have that guilty feeling after throwing organic waste to waste. Hugs!
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Haha, that is so true! I think of that cooler story often, yet forgot to mention it here. Now I’m the one rolling my eyes at the newbies! 😉
suspicious of…I knew something was wrong😉
I also think the local produce taste so much better, the tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, not like some fake tomato they mass produce. The avocado’s from around base camp in Fungurume are the best I have every eaten, they are hugh, creamy, yummy tasteing and are free, not like the small $3.00 each tasteless ones in most of the larger food chains here in Oz….
Totally agree! The local produce may be uglier than what we’re used to back home, but usually tastier because they’re all natural!! That might be why I’m willing to cut rotten spots out to get to the good stuff 🙂
Great story about local produce and other delicacies! Don’t know about the local honey but I would love to sample either the mushrooms or dried caterpillars or both!
Are you serious about the caterpillars? I find them scary yet intriguing at the same time. Maybe if someone cooked them up for me, and took the first bite…
Great story! I agree that we are wasteful as a nation. But I’ve learned over the years to only buy what we need for the week and always clean up the leftovers, even if it means eating the same dish for two or three days in a row. Helps with the budget also!
I’m really proud of the things you are learning; you are so much braver than I would ever be!
There’s a new documentary out called Just Eat It, let’s check it out next time I’m home!
Well, buying not so fresh looking foods on a local market where you might even know where the food was produced is a bit different compared to buying it in a supermarket in Europe or the US where you do not now where the food comes from or what has been done to it. That is the sad part when large supermarkets are replacing the local markets. 😦
Very true. Good thing locavore is becoming a thing these days. Have you read Michael Pollan? Good stuff.