Food Maximization: Recycling
by Liz Tarditi
In the preceding installments of this series on Food Maximization, we've looked at many ways in which professional chefs save money in the kitchen. The home cook can save money and improve the quality of meals by making use of food scrap, planning menus and ingredients to get the most flavor, and by knowing what's in season in order to buy food items when they are least expensive and highest in value. This last article is on Recycling unused food products so that they become even more valuable to you in your gourmet cooking.
When we talk about Recycling in this society, most people picture the big containers of aluminum cans, newspapers, plastic bottles, and glass jars that get taken away by a giant truck each week when we put out the trash. These products get melted down, processed, or shredded and come back to life as a completely new products. In our homes, we find many uses for things like old coffee cans, dryer lint, milk cartons... so in a sense, we are also "recycling" these products by using them in crafts or in ways that are completely new and different from what they were originally intended. The ways to recycle things like bread bags and twist-ties have been covered in great depth by far better writers than myself, so if you're looking for ideas on recycling the food's containers, I recommend Amy Dacyczyn's books, The Tightwad Gazette (I, II, and III). That same great common sense applies to food products. We talked about using the trim from carrots and onions to flavor stock and sauce in previous articles, now let's think about at a few items that are "leftovers" because they come in greater quantities than we can normally use at one time.
Wine and oils are examples of recycling that a lot of professional chefs do at home. It's much more economical to buy bulk quantities of each. Compare a gallon jug to a smaller bottle portion of the same wine (or oil!) - the per ounce price of the same brand is lower in the larger vessels. But many people are afraid that if they buy larger containers of wine or oils, the products will spoil before they can be fully used - and there's no saving money from waste!
First, we'll look at wine, and how it can fit into our discussion of recycling. My husband and I like to have a glass of wine with dinner - but not every night! So I keep the wine, with the cork in it, on the refrigerator door shelf to splash in recipes (I mentioned deglazing pans in Part 2). But sometimes I still don't use it all up, and a few days later, it begins to taste not-so-great. Champagnes lose their bubbles, Chardonnay isn't as buttery, Merlot gets that tannic, lifeless flavor, and sparkling cider goes flat. The wines seem to die in their bottles. If you've ever had half-finished bottles left over from a party, you know what I mean - you don't want to waste it, but you have a problem: how are you going to get rid of all of this old wine? It's still alcoholic, but the flavor is nothing like when you first opened the bottle. Everyone knows that vinegar is made from wine, and that when wine get old it tastes vinegary, but most people don't know how easy it was to just make real vinegar at home, using the wines that you don't finish.
To recycle wine into vinegars, just pour a little "starter" into separate large containers - a little red wine vinegar, a little white wine vinegar, or a little apple cider vinegar. Keep them labeled, and in a cool place like the cellar or pantry. Every time you have extra wine, toddle on down and dump it into the right container. Wash and save the leftover bottles and corks. Keep the containers closed when you're not adding to them. Taste them every week or so, and you can cheat and add a little sugar if one gets too sour. Red wine will form a disgusting blob of goo called a "sponge" - this is not a bad thing! This disgusting blob of goo is highly desirable, so always, when you take the vinegar out to bottle it, leave the sponge and a little liquid back in the container to help the next batch of wine turn to vinegar. What kind of container? you ask. I just use the larger-sized wine bottles. One chef uses a small wooden barrel. Another uses a couple of those giant green glass "urns" from Cost Plus. When you're ready to bottle the red, pour most of it into a big pot, bring it just to the boiling point, then strain it through cheesecloth and pour it into the clean dark green wine bottles. You can even get really particular and if you always drink a lot of one type of wine, like Burgundy or Merlot, you then "label" your wine vinegar and give it as gourmet gifts. Use the saved corks cut in half to reseal the bottles, and dip in wax to make them pretty.
If you notice that your vinegar container is getting a little low, go ahead and see if there's something on the sale rack of the wine store to pour in, but I don't know if this is the most frugal advice I've received. Also, don't expect to never need to buy vinegar again because you make your own - unless you throw a LOT of parties that have an unusually high quantity of half-drunk wine bottles left over! (And if you do, perhaps your guests are too polite to tell you that you may want to reconsider your selections for the next event!) If you find that the wine isn't turning fast enough - it still tastes a bit alcoholic - bring the container up to your kitchen for a few days. The warmer environment will really kick-start the vinegar process. Another one of my chefs would take a bottle of Odwalla apple juice (which comes in a plastic jug), take a cup out to drink, leave the cap off for 3-4 days, and then put the cap back on and waited until the sides of the plastic jug bulged out. Holy Shades of Botulism, Batman! but she swears that this is the most delicious cider vinegar on the planet. I haven't tried this yet - I'm ... waiting for the Odwalla to go on sale. Yeah, that's it. (I'm waiting to see if she survives her little chemistry experiment.) Once you've made your own vinegar, you can marinate more of your favorite meats, fish and poultry before you cook them, flavor the vinegar to give as gifts, or just use it to decorate your own kitchen.
Decorating! You say. Liz, who would be nutty enough to decorate with old wine bottles filled with vinegar, besides a chef? The next time you go to a big department store or a gourmet kitchen store, look at the expensive vinegars and oils they have, all in gleaming glass bottles, with carrots, olives, chili peppers or sprigs of herbs all arranged so beautifully inside. They all look so gorgeous, like little culinary jewels. They all cost almost as much as jewels: $35-$150! For vinegar, oil and vegetables! Would you pay $150 for 2 pounds of salad, that hasn't even been cut up, and a gallon of vinegar dressing? Of course not! Ridiculousness bordering on insanity! But people buy them and use them to decorate their kitchens. They never get opened, never get eaten. It's just to show what great "gourmets" the people are. Now, not to hurt anyone's feelings out there, but if you want to impress people with displays of food in your kitchen, isn't it just a tad bit rude to show guests food they're not welcome to eat? and ever-so-slightly more honest if food that's "shown off" is from recipes you have prepared yourself? Ok, off my soapbox. Let me share the secrets of how to do it...
Infused vinegars and oils are the simplest things in the world to make. White wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar and oils all work best in clear bottles, so that you can see all the pretty stuff you'll garnish it with after the infusion is finished. But you can flavor red wine vinegar just as easily. When you have saved up ten or twenty empty bottles, make your vinegars and oils in batches. You won't pour them directly into the bottles yet - they will need to be strained in three days. Each wine bottle holds 25 oz. of liquid, less if you add a lot of garnish to it. But don't limit yourself to just wine bottles, as other liquor bottles have many pretty shapes and interesting patterns. The only flavor you should NEVER make is garlic oil - there is too much risk of botulism! don't use whole fresh fruits in oils - they turn rancid. Garlic or whole fruit vinegar is just fine.
To infuse oils or vinegars with herbs: take the fresh herb, i.e.: Rosemary, and "bruise" it with the side of a knife, so that all the juices are squished up to the surface. Don't chop, squish. The herbs will be all battered and falling apart and look horrible after you're done. The amount you use depends on how intense flavor you want in your finished product. For 3 finished bottles of rosemary oil, I use about 8 stems of Rosemary, with the needles all pulled of ( I don't want the woody taste of the stems in my oil), for the infusion process. Place the oil ( I like extra virgin olive for this, but if you are doing light flavors like vanilla, or almond or a dried fruit, Canola oil is better) in a large pot, and warm it to 110-115ºF for oil, or 120-130ºF for vinegar. Then place your bruised herbs into the warm pot, and allow them to steep, like tea, for twenty minutes or so in that nice warm range on the stove. Transfer the oil and herbs (or whatever it was) to a clean, covered container (plastic milk jugs work just fine if you cram the herbs in) and let it sit 1 to 3 days (taste it and see if you want it stronger or weaker). The nicest thing about this is that if it's too strong, you pour in plain oil, and if it's too weak, throw it back on the stove with more herbs - you don't have to waste your mistakes. You can infuse herbs, nuts, spices, and seeds into oils, and pretty much anything into vinegars. The key is to make sure that the flavorings you use in oils are DRY. If you want to make lemon or orange oil, use the peels only. No pulp or juice. Try any combination of flavors.
Once you're happy with your flavor combination and intensity, strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve, and use a funnel to pour it into the bottles - leave room for the garnish. Then garnish it by tying a few new stems of rosemary together with clear new fishing line and sticking them in the bottles. (Or dried Chili peppers, or nicely cut lemon peels, or edible flowers, or slices of ginger, or whole, peeled baby carrots in the vinegar, or cinnamon sticks - just try to avoid sticking a wet, perishable thing into oil that you'll keep for a long time.) Cork the bottle, and dip it into hot paraffin wax (for giving it as a gift - it's not necessary if it's for you!) and you're done!
Many readers have e-mailed to ask me to give more details for making the foods I talk about as examples, so I've really gone in-depth about making vinegars and infusing vinegars and oils with other flavorings for this article. But don't let my limited number of examples limit your creativity when it comes to Recycling in your own kitchen! Recycling food products isn't limited to just these examples...salad croutons are made with day-old French bread; stale yellow cake is perfect for Tiramisu instead of buying ladyfingers cookies; Duchesse potatoes are made from leftover mashed potatoes, eggs and nutmeg and then piped on parchment and baked till crisp; many wonderful salads are made from chopped roast turkey, chicken or ham. I won't even get into the soup list! Let yourself think creatively about using orange, lemon and apple peels for "simmering potpourri" - in just a pot of boiling water on your stove, or saving up Earl Grey tea for one more "infusion" - your bath! (The Oil of Bergamot is used in aromatherapy for relaxing. 1/2 cup or so tied in a cheesecloth makes the whole bathroom smell like heaven! For pennies of what you'd pay at the Aveda counter.) Save vanilla beans that were used for flavoring custard and place them in a sealed jar of sugar to scent it. Once the vanilla has lost it's potency, use the old beans to decorate homemade candles. This is all part of Recycling! It's found money, gourmet quality product, and a higher standard of living from what would have been wasted. Good Luck!
Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet , a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. When not creating new culinary delights or writing about them, Chef Tarditi likes to spend time at home with her husband, Dave, and Mocha, their crazy Beagle. (c) 1999, Liz Tarditi
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