Second life for faded food: reducing food waste with chef Abra Berens
Americans waste about 40 percent of all the food we produce. While our country’s food system plays a major role in that statistic, the fact is that people throwing out food at home is also a huge factor. In search of new ways that we can lighten our food waste load, we turned to Abra Berens. Berens grew up in rural Michigan, was a farmer, and is now a chef on a farm, and the author of the beautiful new cookbook called Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. She was nice enough to stop by Francis Lam’s home kitchen so he could learn from her and see how to know what’s still fresh, how to salvage the so-so stuff, and how to know when it’s time to just move on…and not feel bad about it. She also shared with us her recipe for Carrots with Spicy Apricot Jam, Mint, and Almonds, which is a great way to use up that last bit of jam that has been kicking around the back of your fridge for way too long.
Francis Lam: When I talk to a lot of chefs about minimizing food waste, this is a thing that a lot of chefs are really into, which is great. And then the next part of the conversation is, okay, so you would just take like the pulp from the carrot juice and the lacto ferment it and then you dehydrate it. And after that you pulverize it and then you re-hydrate it again and make a tuile out of it. It's delicious!
Abra Berens: Yeah. It's sooo easy. [both laughing]
FL: But you don't come at it like that.
AB: My emphasis on food waste comes from two different angles. One is having worked at farmer's markets for so long and hearing people’s surprise at seeing how much of the vegetables they can use. The first time you buy beets and you see the greens or the same with turnips or rutabaga. People being excited about that and wanting to utilize it. So, it's realizing there's a bunch of food that you didn't realize was already a part of this plant.
Also from both being a farmer and seeing how long it takes to grow that food is not wanting to miss out on any of that. But, then also working in restaurants where the margins are tight. And so you have to, it's no surprise to any chef that you're using fish bellies to make a tartar or a little amuse-bouche boost or something like that because you already bought it. I do think that there's benefit in those conversations with some of the higher-minded food and how some of those ideas can trickle down.
I also think the danger in it is that if you feel like that's the only way to mitigate waste it can be an insurmountable hurdle for people in their homes. I tend to think about it a little bit more like what can you do to avoid the waste from the get-go? If that means buying in smaller quantities and more frequently, or buying a mixture of things that some are going to go bad sooner. Like really delicate, beautiful microgreens and baby greens, then having kale and then cabbage, which have different shelf lives. Trying to have a good product mix in your own fridge.
Also reading the landscape of the food, so you can see if something is starting to turn that little bit of a color where it's still good but it needs to happen in the next couple of days. And really have kind of the things on hand to be able to turn those into meals quickly so that you can catch that window before it, well, expires is a funny word because expiration dates are a whole other can of worms, but I think that's another element of mitigating waste is relying on your senses to tell you what you're looking at.
FL: Rather than a date stamp on the package.
AB: Right. Because there are also many variables in that. And also you have to think about it from the person who stamping that day on the package, their primary thing is that nobody gets something that's not fresh, but it also doesn't mean that it's an indicator of going bad. When I used to work at the produce market they would never sell milk that was within a week of the expiration, but milk lasts for weeks past the expiration. So, a lot of times the cafe could absorb that, turn it into ricotta, and use it up until that day and then it wouldn't go to waste.
AB: I think in a home kitchen, where you don't have some of those same scale and infrastructure issues, it's still important to utilize your senses because really we all understand when food has gone bad, we might just have to reacquaint ourselves with some of those hallmarks. There are significantly worse things in the world than having some sour milk in your mouth. So, taste your milk and if it tastes bad spit it out, and you’ll know it’s bad. Until then, you'll start to realize this does last and you don't have to be beholden to somebody who has decided for you.
FL: Right. And again, that's pretty basic. If the bread is green, okay, it's probably done.
AB: Right. Or if you're my father, he would say to just cut that bread, cut the mold off, and the inside is fine. [laughs] Maybe that's why I'm not scared of rotten food, because my entire childhood involved it. I distinctly remember the bread story because my dad was like, “That bread’s fine.” I was like, “Dad, there's mold on that bread.” He was like, “Yeah, just cut it off.” And so I cut the mold off the outside and I ate it. It tasted terrible. And he was like, “Well, you got to toast it.” [laughs]
FL: So, if it tastes right, great. If it doesn't, okay, fine, we can go out to dinner. [laughs]
AB: Now, let's look through your fridge!
FL: This is super fun. I had a full fridge prepared for you. I had a compost bucket. We're going to go through it. You're going to tell me, “You can actually cook the cauliflower leaves, which is just like any other green.” And then, my wife Christine.
AB: Wonderful woman.
FL: Amazing woman. It is not her job to clean the kitchen or the fridge; it's my job. She decided two days ago that she wanted to clean the kitchen and the fridge.
AB: [laughs] It's like an O. Henry story. Or like Gifts of the Magi.
FL: The Magi is going to come take all of the wrinkly mangoes away.
AB: This is a blessing in disguise because I think so many times people get fixated on, again, this idea of, how do I turn this like drippy bag of like swamp greens into something delicious? And well, you don't really. But there are lots of things that are maybe on the edge or even just thinking about what we always call vegetable triage at our house – or fridge triage. What things need to have some attention paid right away and which ones can to sit in the back? So, I think Christine has given us a leg up on the conversation.
FL: Let's open it up.
AB: All right. So, let's see. This is so fun and also sort of voyeuristic. Half the time when I'm catering and people's homes there's this moment of like, let's see how they organize things. First of all, it's a very well organized fridge, Francis.
FL: Why, thank you.
AB: Lots of good Tupperware choices that are all squares, so easy to stack. What is this? Is this oatmeal?
FL: That’s my daughters oatmeal; don't drink that. She didn't eat a lot this morning.
AB: I'm going through the veggie things. You’ve got one scallion.
FL: This scallion is not the color god intended. Its pale green, but it's not quite yellow-brown.
AB: Here are more scallions.
FL: I got fresh scallions because of this sad single scallion.
AB: I'm going to shut the fridge door for energy efficiency’s sake.
Let's look at what we've got here. You've got two things of scallions and I think you're right on to identify the difference between them. We've got two different batches. What you can see is the ones that are fresh are straighter and they have a crisper greens. There's no signs of denting or along the root. The roots are still really nice and firm. So, these guys I would not think that much about. Whereas on the guy that's a little bit older in the fridge, it has gone from that bright green to more of a gray. That's kind of how you can tell what you're looking at.
One of the people I was fortunate enough to cook for always said food will tell you what it's trying to tell you. If it doesn't look like you're excited about eating it, that probably means that it's on its way out. Vegetables especially, but all food are agricultural products and they are alive in a lot of ways – without making it too like philosophical. They should look enticing and bright and alive. When it starts to move away from that, it's a good indicator that we need to get it going a little bit.
FL: Get on using it.
AB: What I would do with this one that's a little bit older is pull off some of the older ends. Because, you know, that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” is a true saying. If you pull that off, you can trim it up a little bit, and then that'll hold on to it. I would also probably just add this to your herb salsa because you already have a jar of some herbs that are chopped up in probably I would guess it was like --
FL: Olive oil and vinegar.
AB: That way you know that it's going to get used up and you don't have to go through that process again.
FL: Just replenish or add it to something you already have instead of making a new thing with it.
AB: Totally. A lot of that is also restaurant stuffing, going through your containers, taking something that's in a really big container and putting it into a smaller one. What things can you combine, like items together, stuff like that. So, that's what I would do with these guys.
FL: I love that.
AB: Here are the other things I pulled out. One apple that is feeling really good, feels nice and firm, there's no obvious signs of blemishes or marks. Again, sometimes I like to think about it like what is the plant trying to do? And so when you have a like a blemish in a piece of fruit, it's trying to heal that wound because it knows that's an entrance point for either bacteria or pest or something like that. The more perfect a fruit is the longer it's going to last. And so that's why I then use them in the inverse order. If you have some apples that you notice have a couple of marks – but are still totally good, and there's a ton of food there – use them first.
I find it really helpful to have a few handful of recipes for things that can use up a lot of those things. With fruit that can be like a roasted fruit compote. You can even freeze them too. We would do that at one of the restaurants where I worked where we had fruit salad in the cafe. Whatever fruit salad came back after, you know, two or three hours because the fruit at some point starts to look a little weird, then we will either freeze it or just start those batches of compote. And that was a really fun one.
FL: Literally just throw it in the oven?
AB: Throw in the oven or on the stove top. The one that I love doing with apples specifically, or cranberries in the fall, is make a caramel – a pretty dark smoking caramel – and then add the fruit to it. But you can do it with regular sugar, too, and just let it cook down until it's thick and soft and then cool it and pop it in your fridge or in your freezer. That can be a really fast way to do dessert. Or for lunches on the go, you can spoon a little bit of fruit compote over yogurt or over pancakes. You can use it in anything. That's what I would say about fruit.
The other thing I pulled out is these carrots. One of the things I'd think a lot about, like we were talking about, is the carrot pulp. There are sort of two ways to look at some of the root crops. The more recently that they've been pulled out of the ground, they're going to have their greens on them still. And a lot of times at stores you can get roots that have the greens and that don't. I don't have any sort of value association difference with them, it's just a different characteristics. Your carrots have been pulled from the ground for a little while, but they're still nice and firm, and that's what you're looking for.
FL: It’s a mature carrot. A grown-up carrot.
AB: It has some stories to tell. [laughs] The greens will also respirate moisture from the roots more quickly because they have more surface area and that's how the plant functions. So, if you have a root that still has the greens attached and you're going to store them, like if you're not going to use them in the next couple of days, take the greens off, and you can store them separately if you want to use them. There's a lot to do about carrot tops, pesto and things like that. Sometimes I think it's reasonable, especially in a home kitchen, to just cut your losses and if you know that you're not going to make carrot top pesto, which I often don't, I don't usually buy carrots with the tops on. I know they're really beautiful, but you know, that's the choice that you can make. And I think that's the nice thing. There is no right or wrong. You just have to honestly assess your situation and decide what you want to do.
The only thing I would say about these carrots is that you're getting a little bit of root development, which means that it's trying to root. Carrots, and all of your crops, store all of this energy in their roots in order to send up a new sprout. If you have carrots that go into cold storage and then they go into a warmer place in your kitchen, you'll get all of these little tiny hairy roots coming out because it's like, “Oh, it's spring. I should be like sending up my flower shoot.”
FL: Oh, that's what’s happening.
AB: Isn't that wild? Plants are so cool. That's also why carrots get sweeter after the frost, because they've put all this energy into their tap root and they're converting that starch into sugar to feed that shoot when it comes up. And then the increase of sugar also means that they won't freeze as easily.
AB: Isn't it amazing? I just love it. So, with root crops, the general rule of thumb is store them separate from the greens, and only buy the greens if you think you're going to use them. And then what you're looking for is any sign of regrowth. And also to remember, like there's this one spot on this carrot that's like probably had like a little divot, it probably got a gash when it was being forked from harvest. There’s a little bit that downy mole that happens just from being in plastic and refrigeration. But 98 percent of this carrot is totally great. Just cut that little bit off and think about how much food is still there –and there's plenty. But also, because it's not soft, it's not like wiggly or any of those things, there's not a ton of urgency around that.
FL: You don't have to cook it tonight.
AB: Exactly. But if you were to find a slippery one in there, get that one out of there. Give it a rinse, give it a smell. If they're starting to feel soft then I would get them into a pan.
FL: Should we talk about some of the things you like to do when you have just like bits and bobs or whatever in the fridge. Talk about what you would do if you were in your fridge and you had like half a cup of cauliflower left.
AB: I make a lot of frittatas, mostly because we always have a ton of eggs in our house. It’s, again, that kind of vegetable triage that if you've got the raw ingredient and then you make a bunch of roasted stuff so you can have it on hand for the week, then it comes to be Friday night or Saturday morning and you've got all of these random one-off things, then it can make this new thing, which is the frittata. I generally make a big batch at once. I'll use a dozen eggs, crack them into a container and top it up with either milk or cream to until you get to about a quart total volume. Add a bunch of salt. Heat up a frying pan and add all of the random vegetables. That can be everything from the rest of the cauliflower, the bits of eggplant. It’s a really great way to use up greens if you've got some greens that are kind of on the edge like spinach or kale; I'd probably not use the lettuces, although you could try and see what happens. Chard, beet tops, all of that sort of stuff. Then just pour the eggs over the top. I usually keep it on the burner until that bottom part is set and then I'll finish it in the oven. It's a nice egg bake that you have for breakfast for however long.
The other thing I really love is I do a lot of shaved vegetable salads or just random vegetables salads where I'll take all of those random ends. Take your carrot and shave it with a vegetable peeler or a knife. This is another thing I love; we call it trashy ranch in our house. [laughs] It’s equal parts pickle juice from the jar as after you've eaten all the pickles and mayonnaise. Shake it up into a really nice dressing. It's like Super Tangy. You can do it with sauerkraut juice. You could do a Kimchi juice. Anything that's like really acidic in that way.
FL: That sounds incredible.
AB: I'll take all of those vegetable, dress it in trashy ranch, maybe add some herbs to it if you have them, and serve that with anything.
FL: You have a whole thing in your book about stocking in your pantry to have things on hand so you can make quick salads, can toss something with a dressing and that makes a meal. What are some of your favorite things?
AB: The things that I go most to make those fast dinners out of what we have are pantry staples like a can of chickpeas. Or I love oil-packed tuna; it feels like it makes a meal very quickly. The reason I like it and the oil is because then if you have like tuna-flavored oil that you can use in your dressing – so you're not discarding the water. I have yet to find a really nice outlet for tuna water.
FL: Tuna water vinaigrette.
AB: Yeah, totally. Don't put it past me, but maybe someday. [both laughing] When it's packed in the oil then you already have a base for a dressing for it. I also always have chili oil on hand. I make a very simple version where you toast fry the chilies – just like the ones you get at a pizza place, like the crushed red pepper. I fry those up in maybe a half inch or so of neutral oil, because I'm sort of cheap and I don't always want to use nice olive oil when it's just going to be spicy. I'll use a neutral oil, deep fry them in that, and then take it off the heat and add the cold oil to stop the cooking. And then it steeps and becomes a bright red, really beautiful. We spoon that over so many things.
Another sort of food waste and on both ends is a cherry tomatoes, like roasted cherry tomatoes. We do that a lot at the farm because everybody wants tomatoes until after Labor Day and then suddenly we have gluts of them. I love tomatoes so much and they’re such a pain to grow that I feel like it's my job to be sure that we don't lose any of them. We'll do this in giant batches, but you can do it in small batches at home, is take all of these cherry tomatoes, toss them in a little bit of oil, salt, maybe some pepper, maybe some chili flakes if you want to. And then put them in the oven at 350 and roast them until they get nappe, which is where the liquid will burst and then it'll reduce slowly to where when you can drag a wooden spoon or a spatula across the bottom and the liquid doesn't rush in on itself. Then I freeze that. You could probably can it, but I never have because I never like get the whole canning rigmarole out.
FL: You grew up in the country, you don't want to be country any more.
AB: Yeah. We bought a freezer. But that's the thing. I don't want to be dismissive of it because for a lot of people they're reconnecting with those things and that's valuable. And if you have the time and the interest to do it, great. But as soon as you feel beholden to it or it becomes an impediment to enjoying your food, that feels like a real bummer.
I also think that about food waste. For me, it's really important to honor the work and resources that went into producing this food. But, if you've got a really crazy week and you have to throw something out, it's okay.
FL: Don't stress yourself out over it.
AB: Yeah. Don't beat yourself up over it. But, I do think the side benefit of people thinking about food waste is when you care about something, it's often because we value it. And so I think that our society will only improve the more we care about the food that we consume, how it's produced, the people who are doing that production. I think the simplest way to show that you care is by not throwing it out.
FL: When you don't have to.
AB: Right. When you don't have to. Just think about it that way.