Last summer, I went to work for an urban farm in Portland, Ore. I’d wake at six to harvest Easter egg radishes and bike home in the sherbet-pink sunset, too damn tired to care that I was wearing my helmet over my sun hat. Everything was beautiful and hard and I was always hungry.
Balancing my Olympian-athlete-in-training appetite with a tiny budget wasn’t easy and so I had to learn not to waste a thing. The bitter leaves of turnips tasted sweeter scrambled with ripe figs; oft-discarded zucchini blossoms were heaven stuffed with a vegetable pilaf and served on my favorite plate.
Later that year, I learned about Imperfect Produce, a Bay Area-based CSA that rescues “cosmetically challenged” cuties from farms and sells them for a fraction of the supermarket cost. This creative response to massive food waste reinvigorated my desire to eat cleaner. Not “clean” as in green juice — “clean” as in minimal waste.
My idea for “closed-loop” cooking (CLC) grew organically from these experiences. I wanted to winnow the distance between my values and my actions. I wanted to eat in a way that nourished my body and the earth. And I wanted a good reason to not have to take out the trash.
With that in mind, I decided to try to spend one week generating as little food waste as possible, by truly considering what gets wasted at each juncture in the route from farm to fork.
I didn’t find uses for everything: the skin of onions and ginger roots, egg shells, and acorn squash stems all went untouched. But I did get to spin a thousand lives out of a single beet and discover the perfect pizza combination. Commonplace produce no longer felt so conventional when approached through the lens of closed-loop cooking.
Give it a whirl. Let me know what you come up with. Some if it will work. Some if it won’t. What matters, really, is that you try, trust, and enjoy the process. Scroll down for my day-by-day plan or read my tips for beginning your own week (or more) of waste-light cooking.
The following three steps helped me to get into the spirit of things.
Step one: Take a tour of your trash
Inspired by several dumpster-diving friends, I checked out the contents of my kitchen trash. Eek. The recycling bin was littered with plastic containers from organic spinach and my landfill carton was proof positive that I eat way too many cheese puffs. Colorful as my compost was, there were enough kale ribs and broccoli stalks to whip up a mean green stew.
I made note of what I was throwing away — both the kinds of products and the types of packaging — and researched relevant recipes and reusable alternatives.
Step two: Assemble a “trash-light” tool kit
My daily tool kit works for both grabbing groceries to cook at home and eating out with a friend. I tossed my produce into a cloth pouch rather than a plastic bag and used Weck glass jars for shopping the bulk section and storing leftovers (be sure to “tare” — zero out — your reusable jar before loading up on goodies).
Step three: Shop small
Armed with my trash-light tool kit and a list of seasonal produce, I decided to shop the bulk section and vegetable bins at my local co-op a couple times throughout the week so that I wouldn’t lose a perfectly good rutabaga root to the gloomy depths of the vegetable crisper. I had worried before my CLC experiment that going full-on locavore would strain my budget; I discovered instead that gravitating toward the bulk bins and farmers market was an easy way to save money. Packaged and processed stuff eats away at more of my budget than I’d realized.
It isn’t always possible for many of us to shop small, local, and seasonal, particularly during the winter. If you can’t afford organic, if the farmers market near you is shuttered until summer, don’t worry one bit. The beauty of closed-loop cooking is that buzzwords aren’t as important as the process. If all you have at your disposal is an armful of conventionally grown vegetables, cook them. Closed-loop cooking is about truly working with what you have.
A quick note on “organic”: A lot of the times, many small farmers follow organic practices but can’t afford the certification. Next time you’re at the farmers market, ask “How was this grown?” rather than “Is this organic?”
What was on my list for a week of CLC?
I live in California. Finding green this time of year is pretty easy. But I’m from the East Coast, so I know the simultaneous beauty and burden of root vegetables. And so, in solidarity with my roots, I bought the sort of produce you could find homegrown most anywhere in the U.S. during the winter:
- One red cabbage
- Two bunches kale
- Two acorn squash
- One red onion
- One bunch beets
- Two parsnips
- Three yellow onions
- Four rainbow carrots
- Four potatoes
- Two sweet potatoes
- Two pieces ginger
- Two bunches broccoli
I also stocked up on the basics — garlic, olive oil, rice, flour, eggs — and a little bit of chocolate. Always good to reward yourself for trying new things.
Day by day
I actually didn’t make a meal plan in preparation for my week. It was most helpful for me to see what was leftover at the end of a meal and go from there. I did, however, take care to follow a few guiding principles: Embrace uncertainty, be playful, and picture the process.
Starting on a Sunday meant that I had a whole day to take time experimenting in the kitchen. As I surveyed my loot, I remembered a parsnip cake a farmer friend of mine had made one winter when our CSA was turning out nothing but parsnips. Her inventive approach inspired me to make a parsnip polenta cake spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. In the spirit of no waste, I stirred shredded parsnip peelings into the batter. Once baked, the softened skins infused the moist polenta cake with a sweet earthiness and pale pink color.
The pursuit of beautiful food likewise gave life to a bright beet bowl. Most of the time, I eat the beet bulb and compost the greens. Driven by a desire to work with what I had, however, I chopped the beet right through to the spindly root and conserved the discarded greens to sauté with kale, garlic, and onion. I roasted the beets with the remainder of this morning’s parsnips and mixed it all into an almond-flecked rice.
Feeling adventurous that night, I set out to use the beet and kale ribs I had leftover from lunch. Ribs can be rough, so I threw the couple I had left into a food processor just for kicks. It’s when you say why not? that closed loop cooking really gets fun. Without relevant recipes and rulebooks to guide you, you have full license to get creative in the kitchen, to truly be curious. I wouldn’t have discovered the perfect filling for empanadas if I hadn’t asked myself what would happen if I stir-fried kale ribs and beet stalks with shiitake mushrooms, red onion, and minced garlic. And what happened was good.
Still satiated from last night’s empanadas, I made myself a beet-carrot-ginger juice for day two’s breakfast. I set the beet and carrot peelings aside for dinner that night before heading out to work with my leftover beet bowl in tow.
For dinner, I made an “immunity soup” for warding off the winter blues. The beauty of soup is that you can throw most anything into a pot of boiling water and, with a little salt and an open mind, it’ll work out. I used water as stock and tossed in some beet and carrot peelings, sautéed kale, minced ginger, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and roasted sweet potato chunksbefore letting my kitchen sink stew simmer for a couple hours. And I didn’t peel a single vegetable because we’re closed-loop cooking and that means we can be lazy.
When I told my friend Alison, she suggested that next time I make my own stock next time using the vegetable odds and ends from the week before. Our conversation was an important reminder to always ask around. Closed-loop cooking is nothing new. Grandmas with victory gardens and seasoned chefs with fancy kitchens have been doing this for ages. Use this challenge, then, as an opportunity to connect with a friend or to call up your grandma. It’s pretty likely that someone you love will have a cool idea for working with what you have.
Day three of closed-loop cooking was dedicated to simple pleasures: an easy red cabbage, onion, and potato scramble for breakfast, leftover veggie empanadas for lunch. The kind of meals that remind you that closed-loop cooking doesn’t need to be a mental workout.
By dinner, however, I was excited to experiment — that, and my broccoli was yellowing. Whenever I can’t figure out what to do with a part of the plant, I think Well, what would be pretty? It was this not-so-enlightened line of thought that inspired me to turn the summer-grass green stalks from broccoli into pesto. After a quick Google search, I luckily learned that this idea was nothing new. My favorite recipe was a tweak on Alice Water’s rocket pesto from The Art of Simple Food.
As the fettuccine cooked, I prepped the No-Knead Bread dough for tomorrow’s breakfast and felt, fleetingly, like someone who is actually together enough to plan ahead.
In theory, I made my own bread to reduce waste from packaging. In truth, I made my own bread because it is delicious. And cheap. My two favorite things! Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the “bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos.” When I woke up early that morning to serve myself a slice of just-baked bread smeared with broccoli stem pesto and topped with rainbow carrots, I felt like I understood. For lunch, I had leftover soup with a dollop of pesto and a hearty slice of bread.
When I had friends over to make pizza that night, we discovered that a generous layer of leftover broccoli stalk pesto was the perfect base for tangles of caramelized onions and roasted parsnip and sweet potato.
By day five, closed-loop cooking felt like second nature. I always had leftovers on hand for breakfast or lunch, and cooking dinner was getting easier and easier. I kept things simple with a slice of last night’s pizza for breakfast and a chopped kale salad for lunch.
Quick tip for planning a meal: Start with the most perishable item in your fridge and go from there.—
J. Kenji López-Alt (@TheFoodLab) February 20, 2016
Dinner was devoted to using up everything that was going to go bad soon. I hollowed out an acorn squash and roasted both the squash and its seeds in the oven. As the squash roasted, I sautéed beet greens, beet ribs, rainbow carrots, and broccoli florets to make a stuffing for the squash. Served with shredded red cabbage, the stuffed squash was (almost) too pretty to eat.
One of my favorite recipes to make is a loaf of Winter Squash Bread adapted from Jimmy Williams’ Seed to Skillet. To keep it closed-loop, I mashed the roasted squash skins into the batter and used the seeds I had saved the night before for a granola made with oats, chocolate chips, and cinnamon.
Lunch that day was a red cabbage, onion, and potato scramble, and dinner was the last of the broccoli stem pesto, used on top of pasta.
The squash seed granola was perfect for day seven’s breakfast and made for a great little something to share with friends (as did the rest of the winter squash bread!).
My last day of closed-loop cooking was really about using up what I had left. And so I invited my friends over for a “work with what you have” party. Everyone brought their leftovers to share. There was a little bit of this and a little bit of that and big loaves of bread to sop up every inch of goodness in your bowl.
Delicious, cheap, and fun enough that I’d do it all over again.