The frugal cook: look to your grandmother

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and editor Malou Herkes on how we can reduce food waste by following the example of previous generations

Portrait: Regula Ysewijn

It probably comes as no surprise to you that food waste is a bit of a problem. In recent years, damning headlines about overflowing supermarket bins, fields of discarded wonky veg and our own wasteful habits at home have pushed the issue into the mainstream. And about time too! It’s not uncommon these days to see famous chefs creating menus using would-be waste, new initiatives intercepting food surplus and feeding the hungry and mobile apps helping neighbours share leftovers. Supermarkets, meanwhile, are under more scrutiny than ever. It’s wonderful that for the first time, we—the public—are taking an interest, and corporations are being held to account.

The amount of food we waste—one-third of all food produced—is symptomatic of deeper issues in our food system at large, issues that relate directly to our own disconnect with food and where it comes from. Nowadays, we expect food to land in our shops whatever the season and with little idea of the effort it took to get there. Food has become cheaper, more abundant and more accessible than ever before—and in many ways that’s a good thing. But it comes at a larger cost than we realise as producers’ profit margins are squeezed and production methods streamlined and intensified. To keep up with demand, more food is churned out of ever-larger factories and at ever-cheaper prices. As food has lost its once precious value, we no longer worry about wasting it. Worse, we no longer know how to save it.

Born of necessity
Rewind a bit and you’ll find a very different state of affairs. Our ancestors, out of pure necessity, were ingenious in their uses of stale bread and sour milk, of lemon rinds and offal. Peasant cooking, or any cooking born of necessity, has informed how we’ve eaten for centuries. Food that is valued is used to its full potential (both in terms of flavour and nutrition) and, in turn, has led to some of the world’s most delicious, iconic dishes. Think about your favourite stew, the jam you spread on your toast, that hungover sausage bap. They all arose from the need to think cleverly about our ingredients, whether it was to use up leftovers or animal offcuts, to preserve a surplus, or to simply make the most of what was available and in season. This frugal creativity is something we need to recapture if we want to eat in a way that is affordable for both our own bank balances and the planet’s too. And more to the point, it tastes good.

Last month I spoke about finding treasure in those forgotten back-of-fridge items, but this is about stretching our ingredients right from the get-go. The best example I can think of is my French grandmother’s ‘poule au riz’: essentially, poached chicken with rice.

A week of meals
Cooking a whole bird in a pot of water will supply you with a week’s worth of meals. Not only will you get juicy, tender meat, but also a deliciously flavoured stock, both of which provide the springboard for the week’s meals ahead—think noodle broths and warming soups, risottos and stews. Just a couple of generations ago, cooking the whole bird was just a given. This was before the days you could buy a bargain pack of chicken breasts for a couple of quid. An affordable way of eating quality, well-reared meat, it’s a method that pops up in traditional recipes everywhere from France to China.

Of course, just because our grandmothers were doing it right doesn’t mean we have to revert to eating old-school pies and traditional stews. We can use the lessons they teach us to bring our own frugal spin on how we eat. Doug McMaster of the wonderful zero-waste restaurant, Silo, in Brighton says, “waste is a failure of the imagination”, and it couldn’t be truer. Here are a few ways to start thinking creatively about ‘waste’:

— Don’t be put off by aquafaba. The liquid from a tin of chickpeas can form the basis of a last-minute soup. The same rule applies to any liquid leftover from cooking dried beans. Season it well, throw in any chopped greens you might have, crack in an egg and eat with gratings of cheese.

— Keep squeezed citrus rinds to make a citrusy sugar syrup (great for summer cocktails). Add the rinds to a jar, cover with a generous amount of sugar, then set aside and let time work its magic.  

— The bones or carcass from your Sunday roast can be reused to make a flavourful broth. The same goes for fish heads and skeletons.

— Stalks and stems, including broccoli stubs, green leaf stems and herbs stalks, are often overlooked. Finely chop and throw them into stir-fries, soups and stews. Save herb stalks in a bag (along with any other veggie offcuts) in the freezer and use them to flavour stock at a later date.

— Save up parmesan rinds in the freezer, too. Once you have a good amount, make a parmesan broth out of them. Or next time you think of it, throw one or two into a simmering soup or stew for lovely umami depth.