Let’s Talk About Waste: Restaurants

Everyone hates to throw away food in their fridge. Wilted, nearly slimy lettuce or leftovers that have been in that Tupperware container on the back of bottom shelf longer than you would like to admit. It’s stressful to watch hard earned dollars go down the drain.

Waste in the food industry is rampant. You’d be hard pressed to find an eatery where the loss level is next to zero, even considering excess products as donations to shelters. And if you do find one, I’d like to meet the person who runs that kitchen! Food cost and waste reduction are top focus areas for staff. But do you know how much product also gets chucked in grocery stores because the shelf life is about to be fading? And what about products that the farmers deem unsellable because of minor cosmetic defects? A huge amount (approximately 40%) of produce is declared waste because it doesn’t match the average consumer’s ideal or it isn’t even harvested to begin with. This does not mean it is not edible. But as a general rule, when you shop at the market, you are basically conditioned to look for the prettiest peach, are you not? I’m going to let you in on a not-so-secret secret: No establishment in the restaurant industry would allow a less than rotting piece of produce go to waste without a fight. Find a use for everything. If there is in fact, say a crate of peaches that has the potential to spoil in the immediate future, a special will be made revolving around peaches, to be sure. This doesn’t mean that featured dishes are made from rotten ingredients. This means the chef is being conscientious about budget and ethics.

Many forward thinking chefs are doing what they can to maintain sustainable kitchens. The most basic way they do this is by sourcing locally grown organic ingredients. Some go as far as maintaining their own gardens, even if it is only a small rooftop planting of herbs. This endeavor is truly phenomenal because it also utilizes compost produced by the kitchen. The impact of ventures like these operations has the potential to conjure a staggering change. Buying from the regional community not only supports the local economy, it reduces unnecessary packaging (boxes, tape, styrofoam, plastic liners, et cetera) and shipping fuels, emissions, and time. And if you don’t care about any of those things, consider the money they cost. Who doesn’t want to save a dollar these days?

Other popular advances towards green business in the food industry include in-house water filtration for both still and sparkling waters. Even for a 100 seat venue, this is a vast amount of potential glass and plastic waste reduction. Yes, recycling is great, but eliminating the need for it is better. Solar panels are increasingly popular as well because they eventually offset many operating costs from lighting to heating and air conditioning -people going in and out all day makes temperature control very inefficient. Not to mention behind the scenes energy required for refrigeration, cooking, and hot water.

Restaurants may not market themselves specifically as green kitchens, but if you keep an eye on the industry in your area, you can discern small details about the level of dedication to sustainable practice held by the establishment. For instance, a fine dining restaurant foregoing tablecloths is likely more eco friendly than one which uses linens that require a bleach and starch to appear upscale. There is a lot of work that goes under the radar. You may or may not be able to tell if furniture was locally produced or has been refurbished versus mass fabrication. Likewise, it is sometimes not possible to tell if dishes and glassware have been sourced from local artisans. Ocassionally, management personnel even go so far as to aim to hire people who live in the neighborhood to strive towards lower levels of congestion, fuel usage, and transit time. These are things that are also valuable quality of life perks for staff.

So, when you enjoy a meal at a business like this, you are not only consuming great food, you are supporting a certain kind of standard for the future. You can leave with a full stomach and a full heart. If that isn’t a great dining experience, I don’t know what is.

Pecan Macarons

Pecan french macaron with chocolate filling

Traditionally, macarons are made with almond flour. I did not have almond flour. Or almonds. So. I subbed in some pecans. Now I want to macarons try with all kinds of nuts. It will be an experiment, I guess. These came out perfectly chewy and delicious.

Shells

  • 5 oz pecans
  • 4 oz 10x
  • 2 egg whites
  • Pinch of cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Filling

  • 8 oz  butter
  • 8 oz 10x
  • 2 oz cocoa powder
  • 1-2 tablespoons espresso
  • 3 tablespoons whipping cream

 

To Make the Shells:

  1. Set up your sheet trays with parchment paper or non-stick baking mats. 2 trays should be sufficient. If you want to be exact, use a sharpie attached to a compass to draw 3/4″ circles one inch apart on each sheet of parchment and then flip the sheets over.
  2. Whip the egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar until nice satin-like, stiff peaks form.
  3. Meanwhile, put the pecans and the 10x in the food processor and pulse until you have what resembles whole wheat flour in appearance.
  4. Sift the dry mixture onto a piece of parchment paper. You may have some bits of pecans about the size of nonpereil sprinkles that don’t go through and that’s okay. Dump them on top. The idea is just to make sure that you don’t have any sugar lumps or chunks of nut.
  5. When your egg whites are sufficiently whipped, switch to the paddle attachment and stir in the dry mixture on low speed until incorporated.
  6. Use a spatula to fold the mixture by hand for about a minute until it flows slowly like lava.
  7. Scoop your mixture into a pastry bag and pipe 3/4″ rounds from about a half inch tall at a distance of one inch apart. When the tray is full, smack it firmly on the counter 2 or 3 times to release air.
  8. Let your trays set for 15 minutes at room temperature while you are preheating your oven to 375 degrees. It seems arbitrary, but don’t skip this step. They need time to develop their skin.
  9. Turn oven down to 325 degrees and bake for 10 minutes, turning halfway through.
  10. Let them cool for a couple minutes and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. If you are having trouble peeling them from the tray, try sliding an offset spatula underneath.

To Make the Filling:

Any kind of buttercream or icing consistency ganache, caramel, or other confection will work to fill macarons. When I made the ones in the photo, I was aiming to reduce waste and used a basic chocolate american buttercream with a pinch of espresso added for some kick, because I already had some on hand. You only need about a quarter of a cup of filling for this amount of shells, but you can store leftovers in the fridge for your next project. Just let it come to temperature before you try to whip it up again, otherwise condensation will give your anxiety a kick in the gut.

  1. Whip up the softened butter.
  2. Sift together the 10x and cocoa powder and add the mixture to the butter bowl with the cream.
  3. Mix on low speed until incorporated. Whip on high speed until fluffy.
  4. Scoop into pastry bag.

To Assemble:

When the shells are cooled, match them up in same sized pairs. If you did the reverse side template that I suggested, they should all go together pretty well. If not, this may be a fun game, depending how adept you are with pastry bags. 😉

Pipe the filling into the center of one side of the macaron. Do not let it go completely to the edge or it will gush out and look sloppy when you put the top on and take a bite.

pecan french macarons with pastry bag of buttercream

Ideally, macarons will sit filled for 24 hours before serving so that the shells can absorb moisture from the filling and get all nice and perfectly chewy. These were spot on in my opinion.

You can keep them at room temperature for several days or up to a week in the fridge. They can also be frozen. Just the shells or the assembled macarons last frozen for up to six months in an airtight container. Let them defrost in fridge then bring to room temperature.

 

 

 

The Food Culture

I’d like to consider this a space to express my (however unofficially educated) perspective on the vast and multifaceted conversation about food and culinary culture. Of course, that includes recipes as well as topics related to economics and industry.

To that end, I began thinking about cooking and our relationship with eating. This may be too broad of a subject to address at one time, so I will be brief.

Relatively recently, there have been waves promoting the raw food movement. I don’t know really know much about it offhand (save from the fact that clearly no food gets cooked), but I find the idea very interesting considering the grand history of cooking. What I mean to say is, I regard cooking as one of the things that really helps define what it is to be human. While no historian seems to be certain of how cooking came to be, they speculate that it began shortly after the discovery of fire. The revelation may have occurred spontaneously with an animal falling into the flames or it may have been a deliberate experiment with nuts resulting from creative thinking. In any case, heating food must have contributed positively to our ancestors’ quality of life, because they continued to do so. And look where we are now.

We are sharing specific written instructions detailing exactly how to achieve a distinct flavor and texture that someone -potentially on the other side of the world- made for dinner yesterday. Or a hundred years ago. What we eat has the power to connect us to a time and place, whether it is historic or personal. Food is often the center of social functions such as family gatherings and celebrations; it has roots in our traditions. Every culture has characteristic flavors and dishes that are largely defined by their geographic regions. Global travel and trade have allowed us to experience authentic cuisine from every corner of the planet.

But at what point does this commercial machine actually begin to damage the overall value of this exchange? Most people would likely agree that that point is when mass production comes into play. Be it bread, beets, or burgers, local is better for the future (personal health included). I’m not going to come at you from a snobby vegetarian standpoint, because I definitely do not eat local one hundred percent of the time. Household budgets are a thing that you can’t ignore and sometimes you just have to buy the big box of spinach at Sam’s Club to make it through the week. I get it. It’s hard to actually be that model citizen who cares more about the world and the future than anything else, every minute of every day. Contemporary demands get fulfilled in the most economic way on an individual basis as well. Doing what you can to encourage awareness and change is really about buying power -money talks. Where we spend our hard earned paychecks, and what we spend them on, makes a statement to the farmer, the baker, the independent grocer, and the big corporations.

I understand not everyone is interested in making absolutely all or even a portion of their own sustenance from scratch. And that’s okay. There is always someone out there who does want to make fresh food for you, your family, and your community. And as a current general rule, they don’t do it to get rich or enjoy regular benefits, however hard the next generation of chefs is working to reshape that standard.

And let’s not forget the impact of “foodies” who post photos on social media, promoting their various avenues of indulgence. Everything from clean eating to desserts to fine dining to brunch to a guilty weakness for Chipotle has a place in the fast-paced feeds on every smartphone. These images have a fleeting split second to arrest the viewers’ attention and our primal instincts render us very receptive. Foodies are an especially valuable group in the future of modern cuisine because they are drawing unedited surveillance of what we eat. #Foodporn is popular culture’s primary uncensored visual collection of what we presently consume. Nobody is sitting at a desk to dismiss pitches. We are making our own archives.

I sit here writing about what food and cooking means to me while also thinking about what to make my little family for dinner. It has probably never been easier to conjure up appealing ideas for refreshing twists on any old dish no matter what your kitchen holds. If you spend any time at all looking at food online, you have an abundance of inspiration already. And when you feel like your creativity is running dry, there are websites like SuperCook that give recipe suggestions based on ingredients in your pantry or fridge.

What we eat and how we eat has a heavy hand in shaping the next generation. I want my son to have a healthy life and a healthy place to live it. To me that partly means reducing chemical footprints as much as possible; I try to steer my food choices in that direction. I’ll be damned if you ever see me put a fast food burger in my mouth, but I can’t single-handedly correct the (lack of) ethics in that area of the industry. We have to do that as a community.