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Compost Cuisine: Amazing Ways to Make Delicious Food Out of Garbage

Chefs are taking sustainability to new heights by gazing into the depths: that is, at what would otherwise be deemed not fit to eat.

Think you're living the anti-waste life? OK then. Pop quiz:

When you eat dates, do you also eat the pits?

Trace Leighton does. As the co-owner of Origen, a "farm-to-fork" restaurant in Berkeley, California, Leighton saves date seeds, then dries them and grinds them into a paste that subtly flavors trifle and honeycake.

"They're high in protein," she says.

She also halves nectarine pits and extracts their kernels, grinding these into pastes or boiling them into delicately flavored syrups.

If milk sours in her kitchen, she bakes with it rather than pour it down the drain. Coffee left over in coffeepots at day's end? Freeze it in ice-cube trays: These babies won't dilute tomorrow's iced-coffee drinks.

Such waste-not ingenuity is part of a new movement among chefs who are taking sustainability to new heights by gazing into the depths: that is, at what would otherwise be deemed not fit to eat. While we've heard of snout-to-tail, "whole-animal" restaurateurship, the practice of creating fabulous dishes from stems, seeds, skins and other usually discarded plant parts gives "bottom of the food chain" a whole new meaning.

Sean Baker, who spearheads this movement, calls it "compost cuisine."

"When you have high respect for how things are raised and produced, you're not going to throw any parts of them away if you can help it," says Baker, who was named Esquire magazine's 2010 Chef of the Year and is the executive chef at Gather restaurant -- also in Berkeley. "If we're using the whole animal, then why not use cauliflower leaves, carrot peels, corncobs and cornsilk?"

At Gather, he turns carrot parings and lemon peel to ash in a hot oven, then uses the ash to flavor sauces and vinaigrettes. Grilled and charred cobs and tough tomato ends become highly concentrated microstock. Deep-fried cornsilk becomes a lacy, spun-sugarish garnish. Squash stems are suvéed and stuffed, canneloni-style. Baker uses watermelon in at least eight different ways -- including pickling its rind and juicing and gelling its peel.

While the many-fingered citron known as a Buddha's hand is typically used only as a decoration or for its zest, Baker pressure-cooks then purées the whole fruit to make a sauce for Dungeness crab, or flavored with pork skin, for pizza.

"It takes extra work to think and cook sustainably. It's tough, because sometimes you aren't able to use it all. I can't save every single beet top," Baker says with a sigh, "although I wish I could."

Gather's popular kale salad "blows through a hundred pounds of kale a week." Because the salad uses only leaves, "I sat down with a notepad trying to think of how to use kale stems."

Solution: Pressure-cook these tough, fibrous rods, braise them in puttanesca broth with anchovies and tomatoes, then serve them with melted burrata on toast.

"They come out almost like noodles."

At the organic farm in Ben Lomond where he buys fresh produce, "sometimes we'll be looking at something and the farmer says, 'Oh, I'm gonna compost that' -- and I say, 'No, I'm gonna cook that.'"

One day, Baker noticed that the farm's Little Gem lettuces were brilliantly, beautifully green -- but bolted. (When leafy vegetables reach the end of their growing cycle, they "bolt" up tough, tree-trunklike seed-bearing stems. Bolted lettuce is typically dismissed as too hard and bitter to eat.)

Baker surprised the farmer by buying the Little Gems.

"We marinated them, suvéed them, sliced them, then finished them on the grill. They ended up not tasting bitter at all. They looked like sushi rolls" -- and went onto Gather's vegan charcuterie plate.

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