Operation waste not: week four

Categories: Expert guidance

As part of her mission to tackle food waste, Sybil Kapoor talks about the virtues of using old recipe books when seeking inventive ways to use up leftovers

There are unexpected pleasures in trying to prevent food waste, including feeling virtuous and becoming inspired. The latter may sound odd, but if you’re busy, it’s a luxury to take the time to rifle through old cookbooks in search of new ideas. I now scan my book shelves for the best source on how to use up the remnants of feta, or what to do with potatoes on the verge of sprouting.

Somehow, this type of cooking draws me back to books I haven’t looked at in ages, such as Moroccan Cuisine by Paula Wolfert or Simple French Food by Richard Olney. Instead of flicking through them for general ideas, I go straight to the index to look up my troublesome ingredient, be it aged oranges or a distressed-looking lettuce.

Paula Wolfert, for example, has six recipes for orange salads. I’m torn between her Shlada Bellecheen—a cos lettuce, orange and walnut salad dressed with orange flower water, cinnamon, sugar, salt and lemon juice—and her orange salad with rose water. 

Under the orange trees
The latter wins. It’s such a simple, delicious pudding: just slice the peeled oranges and sprinkle to taste with rosewater, icing sugar and cinnamon. It conjures up lunch under the orange trees in Marrakech.

Richard Olney, meanwhile, has a tempting recipe for lettuce custard, something I would never have considered. His writing takes me into his elegant world of 1970s France, where stuffed aubergines are still taken to the village baker to be cooked for lunch. Such escapism is part of the enjoyment of quietly browsing for new ideas.

Often, I find that recipes create links between books and spark further creative thoughts. Richard Olney, for example, gives a recipe for herb-stuffed bass in lettuce casing in Simple French Food. Clearly, it requires a ‘fresh’ large lettuce as the leaves are blanched and wrapped around the fish, so my floppy little gems are out of the question.

Delicate vermouth
His lettuce-wrapped bass is stuffed with spinach, sorrel, tarragon and parsley and served with a delicate vermouth, fish stock and cream sauce. It immediately reminds me of a recipe in Anthony Demetre’s Today’s Special—halibut with roast baby gem lettuce, seasoned with rosemary, lemon thyme, Noilly Prat and cream.

All of which sets me thinking about the limp lettuce in my salad drawer. Why waste the outer leaves? They would make a lovely soup with sautéed onions and garlic, a little diced potato, chicken stock and cream; or a simple sauce (without the potato) to accompany grilled chicken or fish. I could add sorrel for extra bite, thyme for fragrance or simply a hint of vermouth.

I dip into another book and my thoughts drift another way. Deh-Ta Hsiung, in his classic The Home Book of Chinese Cookery, stir-fries sliced lettuce and seasons it with salt. I’ve cooked it before and it’s delicious.

Lettuce trail
My lettuce trail leads me from book to book. There is Jane Grigson’s Good Things where sliced large lettuce leaves are simmered with peas, carrots, spring onions and parsley in butter and a few tablespoons of water, and there is Florence White’s Good English Food where bolted green lettuce stalks are blanched then preserved in sugar syrup before being flavoured with ginger and lemon peel. I immediately long for some bolted lettuce.

Time drifts by and I realise that I need to focus on the problem in hand, otherwise I will be chucking out the feta and the potatoes. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is the obvious choice for feta inspiration. He stuffs it into baked onions with grated tomatoes, parsley and bread crumbs and tosses it with watermelon, basil and red onion. 

I turn to Stephanie Alexander’s enormous The Cook’s Companion. It’s divided alphabetically by ingredient and is brimming over with Australian vim. It never fails to provoke ideas.

Baked eggs with feta
I discover a recipe for baked eggs with feta. I’m not a baked egg person, but I can see that the salty flavour of the feta would complement the egg, so I decide to drain the end of my barrel-cured feta, pat it dry on some kitchen paper and crumble it into a Spanish omelette with some sautéed onions and diced potatoes.

Under potatoes, Stephanie Alexander lists, among other recipes, potato gnocchi, cheesy potato wedges, potato flatbreads, rosti potatoes, wrinkled salty potatoes (cooked in brine) and potato-and-something-else gratin! I’m already feeling virtuous and I haven’t even cooked anything!