Whole meal

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Tim Maddams on how a shift in mindset can not only help us waste less, but provide opportunities for culinary creativeness

At this time of year, it is all too easy to let things slip; to end up not using your precious food carefully and wisely. As the chill creeps into the air and the aroma of festivities to come fills the landscape of my food brain, the creative urge diminishes in the face of tradition. Over Christmas, a simple x = y equation runs on a loop, devoid of the rational scrutiny that my thoughtful foodie self is subjecting all other dish ideas to on a daily basis. But while it’s tricky not to lose focus, if you listen to your heart and use your head, you will find a safe course through the potential crises of food ethics that abound—and have a lovely time in the process.

There is no doubt that I will be taking my own share of yuletide cheer as the month progresses. I will probably eat a little too much, and being a very thirsty man by nature, convinced of my own hilarity after a sniff of the barmaid’s apron, no matter how many times the sepia-toned memory cinema of regret proves me wrong, I will definitely be a bit more squiffy than usual. In the spirit of the season, I won’t bang on again about not buying too much food. Nor will I berate the world at large for getting duped by ridiculous offers at the shops, designed by cynical people to make us complicit in the mirage of opulence at any cost. But I will continue to eat in a considerate way.

If I may, let me hold forth about a fundamental belief within my food conscience. It’s not another list of ideas for using up leftovers—though I have plenty of good ones, and there are many others on the Borough Market website. It’s about considering things from a different angle: eating the whole of certain ingredients that we often waste and—even bigger than that—respecting the whole food production system.

More mutton, older beef
We should eat more mutton, more older beef, and thus use these meat production systems less intensively and more sustainably for both the farmer and the environment. Offal—a huge proportion of the weight of any animal—should be consumed more and valued for what it is: meat. There are fishy examples as well: eating smaller, oily, ‘low value’ fish that are actually better for us than the more traditional white fish and flat fish will not only help take the pressure off other stocks, offer us enjoyable meals and be less impactful on the marine environment, but may also help to increase their commercial value beyond the point at which it makes sense to use them only as food for farmed salmon.

Not only does it feel right to use more of the ‘whole’—to eat more widely, to consume more veg and more of each individual veg, to re-use grains used in brewing for their residual food value and to treat our wild and farmed animal protein with greater respect—but the more we do so, the more culinary challenges will rear their heads, providing brilliant opportunities for creative cooking, or ‘tasty opportunities’ as I like to call them. This way of thinking is about the positives, not the negatives; the opportunities rather than the causes for concern; joy, rather than regret. And, it’s easy.

I have, in the past, found myself guilty of ‘auto-trimming’—the cutting off of useful parts of plants and meats. Some trimmings may well get used to flavour a sauce, stock or stew, but ultimately I am creating waste, and often without need. Take the humble leek, for example. This stalwart allium is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the kitchen. Even people who truly get leeks, who understand their many uses well, often trim off a large proportion of the green bit. This has already been truncated to make them easier to transport and to better fit both the packaging and our preconceptions of what a leek should look like. To cut yet more of it off and possibly discard it makes no sense, and yet it is routine to most of us. The fact is, the green part of the leek has its own flavour and its own texture. It has many tasty uses. It is a fine example of failing to eat the whole, of only seeing the bit we normally use. The situation is summed up nicely by the humble mince pie—once a thing of necessity, the saving of animal fat in the form of suet for midwinter, a time of meagre offering, now a talisman of the season—so far removed from its origin that it is, almost always now, vegetarian. There is no ‘need’ for mince pies, delicious as they are.

Overlooking the innards
The other thing I very often find myself doing is overlooking the innards. Now, I know some people find offal unappealing. But like so many other things, it is all about the quality of the ingredients that you start with, how you decide to handle them and the way you represent them in a dish. All you have to do is question what you are doing, apply a little thought, and learn a new skill and at the same time you will add new dishes to your kitchen repertoire—a win-win. The leaner winter months are the ideal time to give it some thought, get in the kitchen and make an effort to eat everything.

Broccoli stems, pumpkin skin and seed, chicken livers, duck hearts, pig’s liver, lamb’s kidneys, kale stems, outer cabbage leaves, cauliflower leaves, herb stems, fish bones, meat bones, potato skins— it’s all food, it’s all tasty. All you require to open this treasure trove of goodies is the ability to see them as such, rather than as something to be got rid of or avoided. Simply put, we just need to open our eyes. Turn off autopilot. Tune in and get cooking this winter and we will all reap the rewards—environmental, fiscal and flavoursome. Oh, and make sure you finish your pint...