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


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.

At Origen, Leighton and co-owner Daniel Clayton boil fruit cores and peels into syrups to use in sodas and cocktails. Ditto fennel fronds. Bumpy Brussels-sprout ends, spinach stems and other typically discarded produce parts are boiled into stock, puréed into mousses, diced and sautéed and served au gratin.

"When they're cooked, when they break down, they've got just as much flavor" as the more favored parts of produce. "They just aren't as pretty," Leighton says.

Rather than composting bruised and overripe fruit, she uses it in sauces and spicy-sweet Southeast Asian sambals. Too-soft fuyu persimmons recently went into a butter-tequila-lime sauce, served over striped bass. Mushy tomatoes become house-made ketchup. Squash seeds go into nutty-tasting moles and pipiáns.

"I've been striving to use every little bit of everything for so long that at this point I can hardly even remember how much gets thrown away every day in other commercial kitchens. But say they cut a lime in half. They'll squeeze the juice out of half and toss the rest." By contrast, "we use the juice, the zest and even the pith for pectin."

As a foster child housed with Asian foster families, Leighton was exposed early in life to culinary traditions far less wasteful than Western ones. She learned to cut fish and meat close to the bone and use fishtails, fins and bones in broth. As for eyeballs, "I grew up knowing that people eat those, too. Western society is very rich in many ways, but with very limited resources. Yet most people still act as if our resources are unlimited. We need to wake up. We need to always be asking ourselves: How can I be creative? How can I use this and this and this?"

Sean Baker agrees. Some ideas come to him in the kitchen, others on the farm. But he's always picturing new possibilities.

"The idea is to get your brain really moving so that you can think: This is something that would have ended up in the trash or the compost pile, but now it's a sauce or a salsa or a soup."

About to toss that orange peel? Not so fast, pal.

"I have a huge problem," Baker says, "with people who don't walk the walk."

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