On my kitchen shelf is a bottle filled with red wine darkening to the colour of old blood; three jars of fermenting sauerkraut, a litre of ‘apple scrap’ vinegar and a glass of water into which is suspended, on toothpicks, the rooty butt-end of a leek.
I grew up a child of the 70s and 80s, in a world where processed and packaged food was novelty enough to be preferred over homemade; ‘artisan’ producers were hippies brewing mead in backyard sheds, and throwing rubbish out the car window didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
As a young adult in the in the late 80s and 90s, I spent my wages dining out. On a Friday night, my friends and I would squeeze into a taxi and make our way across town, over the river, even into other cities, in search of the newest and fanciest; chasing chefs who’d moved venues, or following a rumour of the best duck a l’orange in town. Meals were long and extravagant – empty bottles of oaky Chardonnay whisked away and replaced by fresh ones with a mere head incline, baskets re-filled with warm bread with a ramekin of perfect whipped and paddled butter. Menus featured lobster, venison, foie gras and fillet steak. Excess wasn’t an occasional experience, it was de rigeur, and ‘perfection at all costs’ restaurants’ catch-cry. Diners expected (and got) outsized white plates polished to a high shine, proteins precision-cut, vegetable turned just so, jus glossy enough to reflect the ceiling. Meanwhile, out the back, staff on their break sat on upturned milk crates, puffing on Winfield Reds, in alleyways putrid with rot and funk - industrial bins spewing meat and vegetable off-cuts, ‘blemished’ herbs, a graveyard’s worth of bones, hours-old bread.
While I have to admit a certain fondness for those ‘greed is good’ days and my own naive belief that life was a bottomless bottle of 90’ Grange, today, I find beauty and pleasure in sufficiency and a kind of frugalness (and early nights.) Lately I’ve been trying to analsye where this version of me grew from – what engenders the joy I feel as I check my ferments, tend my compost bin, transform leftovers into something new? I know it’s not money - I have no qualms in spending big on a bottle of Barolo or bunch of flowers. I’d like to say it’s concern for the environment and there’s certainly an element of that, but the plain truth is, that in part, it’s pure spite that motivates me. - I love giving a metaphoric middle finger to certain producers, supermarkets and wealthy “wellness warriors,” who have hijacked our food system, obfuscating with pseudo-science in order to convince us their over-packaged, over-hyped and over-priced produce is worth shelling out for. And in doing so, increasing the disconnect of an entire generation who are fast losing confidence in their ability to cook. So, I wanted to share some of my tips for reducing waste, repurposing food without too much effort or hardship and DIYing it in the kitchen. I’d love to know what your personal motivation is for wanting to do likewise. And if you have your own kitchen hacks I haven’t covered, I’d love to hear them too. Kitchen Kit A fancy kitchen and expensive equipment is not a must, (I once lived in a tiny studio flat where my kitchen sink was a bathroom hand basin!) but if I was going to invest in any pieces of kit, to help with waste-reduction and general efficiency, it would be these three. 1. A thermomix, (I got mine as a gift - I probably couldn’t have borne to spend that much myself, but I love it!) or good blender 2. A dehydrator (a cheap one is absolutely fine) 3. Fermenting jars (‘Easy Fermenter’ jars are the best brand for beginners)
Recommended Reading Thrifty Cooking – The Country Women’s Association of Victoria Low Tox Life Food- Alexx Stuart Ferment for Good- Sharon Flynn The Noma Guide to Fermentation - Rene Redzepi & David Zilber I also recommend you browse the shelves at your local second hand store for some old-time gems.
Websites & Groups Once you go down the rabbit-hole, there is no end to the niche groups you’ll find. I belong to 3 fermenting or preserving groups, as well as food exchange groups, free produce cart groups, farmers excess produce sales groups, foraging and plant ID groups and more. Facebook groups are also a great place to find kombucha scobies or kefir grains, often just for the price of postage. Plus, lots of great (and sometimes not- so-great) advice. Podcasts Like sexual proclivities, there’s a podcast to suit your specific interest, whether it’s sourdough or saving money. My own Podcast ExtraVirgin Food & Travel has featured episodes on: “How to shop, cook, swap, save and eat for a healthier planet” (Ep 77) “Home fermenting demystified” (Ep 59) “Creating a zero waste kitchen” (Ep 38) “Healing in the Kitchen” (Ep 41). Re-grow from scraps In my enthusiasm, I once grew abundant carrot greens, thinking I could grow carrots from the top bit of a carrot. Yeah. Nah, you can’t. But here are just a few things you can re-grow - I usually just pop things straight into soil in my little veggie box - if they don’t grow, they become compost. Celery, organic garlic (non-organic has often been treated with chemicals to stop it sprouting) ginger, leek, lettuce (with roots) lemongrass, potatoes/sweet potatoes, spinach/silverbeet, spring onions, pineapple (I can confirm these take years, turmeric) Don’t forget to squeeze out into the soil the seeds of too-far-gone tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, passionfruit seeds etc. and if you can, buy herbs with roots and replant.
Ferment, preserve, pickle I really believe learning how to fermenting (it’s ridiculously easy) is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Not only are you doing your gut a huge favour, introducing all those good probiotics, but the cost makes a mockery of store-bought prices. Just note, though, pickling is different to fermenting. As soon as you introduce an acid like vinegar you kill off the growth of good as well as bad bacteria. Drinks Kombucha may the most well-known, but in my opinion, water kefir is the easiest fermented drink to make. You’ll need to be given or buy kefir ‘grains’ – small blobs of glutinous culture/yeast. In days you can make bottles of your own naturally carbonated gut-friendly ‘soft drink’ in flavours of your choice, for the cost of a tablespoon of sugar and a couple of excess pieces of fruit or a tablespoon of juice. You can also make alcoholic drinks, but I’ll save that for another day! Sauerkraut Once you’ve tasted your own home-fermented sauerkraut, you’ll never buy it again (often store-bought isn’t really fermented, it just has vinegar added to sour it.) Here’s how to do it. 1kg cabbage (any variety is fine, but I just usually a standard white one) 25g of non-iodised salt Flavourings of choice Roughly shred your cabbage (except for one or two outer tough leaves) and put into a large bowl with salt. Massage salt in, cover and leave for an hour or so (this draws the juices out.) Massage some more (I actually bash it with a pestle.. or is it a ‘mortar?’) really squeezing and getting into it until it’s juicy and dripping when you pick it up. Next add your flavourings. I like caraway or dill, garlic or turmeric, or a combo. Then pack into a jar, pushing down firmly as you go. Leave about 4cm headroom at the top. Cover with one of the outer cabbage leaves, then add a weight. The idea is to keep everything under the liquid. If you don’t have a weight, you can fill a Ziploc bag with salt water and use that. Put the lid on tightly (air is the enemy) and leave for a month or more, unrefrigerated. Once open, keep in the fridge. Pickling I don’t do as much pickling, because fermenting is my preference, both for taste and health. But if you want to give it a go with excess, there are plenty of recipes around. Try the classic cucumbers, beetroots, (which I will make into more of a relish) cauliflower or onions. Drying I love my dehydrator! I recently upgraded from a real cheapie to a bigger one as I use it so often (a Bio-chef). Dehydrators are excellent for preserving excess. For example, I only ever want a little bit of celery, but have to buy a whole bunch, so I’ll dehydrate the rest and mix it with salt. Or the time my chilli bush went nuts – I dehydrated them all and whizzed them into a powder. Dried apple slices are a minimal cost compared to bought, (and don’t contain sulphites) ditto for fruit ‘straps.’ I’ve dehydrated mulberries I was given, raspberries when they were cheap, to make a gorgeous powder and even pandan leaves. This piece of kit has paid for itself over and over.
Make bread I remember the first time I read how to make a sourdough starter. I couldn’t believe it was that easy! It’s water, flour and time to ferment. That’s it. Look it up and have a go. Foccacia is easy too, and you know those flatbreads you buy at the supermarket that never seem to go stale? (preservatives!) You can make those easily for a handful of pennies.
Wait… don’t throw that out.. Excess red wine isn’t a common occurrence in our house, but if it is, I’ll add a tiny bit of live apple cider vinegar to it, and leave it exposed but covered (cheesecloth & rubber band or Chux cloth) for a couple of months to make red wine vinegar. (Don’t panic when it smells like nail polish remover –that’s the acetic acid- just let it keep going!). If you have excess apples, peel and core (saving peels and cores) and cook and turn into puree for pies, crumble or fruit straps. Use the peels and core to make apple scrap vinegar (there are plenty of recipes online). Or juice them and use the juice to make apple cider or apple cider vinegar. Ginger. I once met a ginger farmer and he told me there’s a lot of wasted ginger because people just snap off the bit they want when they buy it. So now I take the whole rhizome. Try to find a piece with lots of ‘bumpy’ bits. Cut a couple off and plant. Put half your ginger in the fridge for cooking with and peel the other half (use a teaspoon to peel.) Slice thinly and pickle in a sweet sugar syrup and keep in fridge. This is great with sushi or sashimi. With the peelings and little scrappy bits, start a ginger bug to make your own ginger beer. (Sooo much better than store-bought). At week’s end, I usually make a stock with any of the left-over vege and herbs in my fridge. Cool and put in Ziploc bags lying down in the freezer to save space. You can also throw in parmesan rinds of for added flavour. Citrus fruit or just the peel can be dehydrated for cocktails or baking. Just slice really finely if using whole and put in the dehydrator. Store in an airtight jar. There are multiple things to do with leftover bread – but I like to whizz it up with some herbs like sage, and garlic, then spread on baking sheet and toast. Cool and keep in freezer. This is great with a pasta with anchovies, and broccoli.
I’m not going to get into the dairy v non-dairy thing here. Why not just consider nut-milks another interesting beverage? If you buy almond milk from the supermarket, not only does it contain only around 2-5% almonds but it’s expensive. It’s stupidly easy to make your own (ditto cashew milk) much tastier and really cheap. You can use freeze the leftover nut meal and use in cakes/biscuits.
And finally… compost. You’ve got one right? With inventions like Bokashi buckets, you can even have small (non-stinky!) one in your kitchen, creating beautiful rich, living compost for your garden for free.
There’s so much more I could share, but I’m aware this “newsletter” has turned into a mega-essay with some evangelical and frankly, bossy overtones. Apologies, from a born-again excessive. If you'd like to sign up to get these monthly posts directly into your email box, go here. (I won't share your info with anyone else)
Until next time readers, Natascha
PS. I don’t get any kickbacks from links!