A Place at the Table begins with an epigraph taken from John 6:12. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” In many ways this book is about lost souls finding home and so of course the words from the New Testament are fitting. But I often think of this quote when I’m cooking, as it fits well with my kitchen philosophy: “try not to throw stuff away.”
According to a piece in the Atlantic Wire, on average forty percent of the U.S. food system goes straight to the dump. I’m trying to cut that number in half when it comes to my own eating and cooking habits, and only throw out twenty percent. In other words, I’m aiming for a B-. (After all, I’m always telling my students that a B is a good grade.)
I had a fun time “gathering the fragments left over” today. I woke up around 6:30 and could not go back to sleep. At seven I decided I might as well get up and go to the Morningside Farmers’ Market, which sells organic produce and meats raised in Georgia. Naively I thought I’d have the market to myself at such an ungodly hour. But apparently lots of people are up and at ‘em at 7:30 in the morning. (Who knew?) The two most popular stalls, Crystal Organics and Woodland Gardens, each had long lines. I waited until it was my turn to pick out my carrots, beets, asparagus, strawberries, various lettuces and arugula. Then I headed over to the stand operated by Riverview, a family farm that raises pigs and cows on pasture. I bought some ground beef and some perfectly rendered lard, and listened to the woes of getting meat from a small farm approved by the USDA. (More on farm bill issues here: http://www.ewg.org/farmbill2013)
Back at home I cleaned out the fridge before unpacking my loot. The vegetable bin contained tons of old beet greens, leftover from the beet roots I’ve been obsessively roasting this spring. There was also some limp celery and an old bag of carrots from Trader Joe’s, as well as a large bag of mint on the verge of wilting. Instead of throwing this stuff out I piled it onto my kitchen counter, along with a bowl containing four egg yolks leftover from when I made meringues the other day.
I was hungering for a bright orange carrot soup with ginger—made from the carrots I had bought that day at the market. I had chicken stock in the freezer, but I thought it would be nice to make the soup 100 percent vegetarian. So I made a vegetable stock with some of the leftover beet greens, the Trader Joe’s carrots and celery, two onions, a little garlic, a bay leaf, salt and pepper. While that was simmering I made a simple syrup and flavored it with the bag of mint. (I use a recipe found in Alana Chernila’s wonderful cookbook, The Homemade Pantry). The simple syrup makes a nice soda when added to water fizzed in the “Soda Stream Soda Maker.” It also makes a nice vodka cocktail.
The last thing I prepared was vanilla custard, using the leftover egg yolks. I had a pound cake in the freezer, cut into small chunks. I toasted the chunks in the oven while I made the custard. I also cut up a quart of strawberries, added a tablespoon of sugar, and let the berries get good and juicy while the custard and toasted pound cake came together. When all three ingredients were ready I layered them, basing the concept on southern banana puddin’, but with strawberries instead. If I were British I would call it a trifle. The trifle / strawberry puddin’ is in the fridge right now, marinating. I’ll either top it with whipped cream or meringue. It is pretty much all I want to eat for dinner tonight, but I think first I’ll grill the asparagus I bought today, toss it in a vinaigrette, and top it with bacon pieces and a poached egg.
I realize it’s a little odd to be so consumed by thoughts of forthcoming meals. And it’s almost embarrassing what a thrill I get from making delicious things out of foods I might have otherwise thrown away. But it’s so satisfying! You take the dregs and the remains and the nearly rotten, and after some manipulation and some time, you create nourishment. It’s such a great metaphor—for life as well as for writing. And it saves you money, too.