Vegan Leek Pasta

When I saw this recipe and article in The New York Times, I knew it would be a good fit for my next post.

One, it uses the whole leek–whites and greens–in one recipe. Many recipes only use the whites and light green parts. Those who are committed to maximizing the value of their ingredients and minimizing waste will hang onto the greens for making a vegetable stock. I should be one of those people. We should all strive to be that person. The bag of vegetable scraps in my freezer that was started before my son was born and probably lasted well into his third year?….that showed that I have a bit of work to do to be that person.

Two, this recipe is vegan. And in 2021, I decided to incorporate more vegan meals into my life. After years of professional development and initiation into the world of goals and objectives, I decided to set a couple of personal goals in the New Year. Based on research and recommendations, I felt it was important to pick something measurable and truly achievable–even if the achievement would be modest. In this case, I want to make sure I spent one day each month eating completely vegan. To my credit, it’s common for me to have days without meat. And I certainly aim for more vegan days/meals. But for me, it is a true challenge to spend a whole day without dairy products. I want to face head-on the discomfort I feel when I see charts of the environmental footprint of different food categories, with cheese up toward the top.

Source: Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide 2011

Two caveats: 1) While I give this recipe a 5 out of 5 for meeting my sustainability goals, it only gets a 3 out of 5 for flavor–it needs a bit added to give it any zing. 2) I found the recipe a little difficult to follow, as written, in NYT Cooking, especially with all the elements and tools needed. I organized it differently below, including a list of supplies and incorporating the useful tips I found in the comment section from other readers as well. With some proper planning and staging, the preparation can go smoothly.

Vegan Leek Pasta
Adapted from The New York Times Cooking

Cutting board
Bowl (for rinsing grit from leeks)
Zesting tool
Large pot (for boiling greens and pasta)
Measuring cup, scoop, or bowl (for reserving pasta water)
Frying pan or saucepan (one that will allow for the oil to be at a depth for frying leek whites in batches)
Slotted spoon
Plate lined with paper towels

Kosher salt and black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, and additional seasonings to taste
1 to 1.25 pounds leeks (2 to 3 medium)
1/2 Cup olive oil
1 pound bucatini (fettuccine or linguine or even pappardelle are acceptable substitutes)
1 lemon, zested
Nutritional yeast, to taste

Here’s the gist: you’re boiling the leek greens, pan frying the leek whites, and boiling the pasta. Your sauce comes from a combination of the greens, the pasta water, and the fried leek oil. You can do each step at different times and in advance, but it can be a waiting game to get it all to come together and up to temperature. I recommend frying the leek whites while the greens boil (as it takes awhile). Boil the pasta last.

1. Prepare your leeks: remove the roots off the white ends, and cut to separate the bottom light green/white part from the greens.

Slice the greens lengthwise to make it easy to separate and clean. Submerge in cold water and swish a few times to remove the grit.

For the whites, you want to end up with small, roughly 2-inch matchstick-sized slices. You can arrive at those a number of ways, starting crosswise or lengthwise. I think lengthwise was probably the easiest.

Option 1.

Option 2.

Rinse the whites until they are clean, and get them nice and dry in a dish towel.

2. Cook the greens and whites in their respective pans — at the same time if you can mange it, but either step can be done in advance or independently.

Once the pasta/greens water is boiling, add the leek greens. Cook about 8 minutes, until the greens are tender. Remove them with tongs to a blender. Leave water on high heat to boil for pasta.

Meanwhile, get your frying pan ready with oil set over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the leek strips in batches (I did 3), cooking and stirring frequently until some of the pieces start to get golden. Remove them from the pan with the slotted spoon, leaving as much oil behind has possible. Drain on paper towel-lined plate.

One thing in the instructions I appreciated was when it said that the leeks won’t cook evenly and it’s not you! The leeks continue to cook a bit longer after being removed from the pan, so you don’t need to wait until every single piece looks brown–otherwise you risk burning some.

As I continued to to each next batch, I got bolder about letting the leeks go darker (see right column above).

Season with salt. Set oil aside to cool.

3. Cook pasta. Add to the boiling water. Lower heat slightly and stir occasionally as you cook the pasta until it is not quite al dente (I went about 2 minutes less than the package instructions).

Before draining the pasta in a colander in the sink, pull out 1 Cup of pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot.

4. Prepare sauce. To the blender with the leek greens, add the leek oil, 2/3 Cup of the pasta water, a generous pinch of salt and pepper, red pepper flakes and other seasoning that fits the Italian flavor profile.

Blend ingredients together into a creamy sauce.

Pour into the pot with the pasta, stir, and taste. You may need additional pasta water and seasoning to achieve the desired texture and flavor (the toppings add a lot of flavor).

Serve in a bowl or on a plate, and top with a little lemon zest and juice, nutritional yeast, and frizzled leek.

Take pride in being that person, and enjoy.

Kale Me Maybe

Recipes in this post:

Wine Flour Dusted Kale Chips
One Pot Pasta with Sausage and Greens
Chicken Braised with Pine Nuts and Potatoes

I enjoy prepping vegetables for meals. I really do. Give me a sharp knife, a large, solid cutting board, adequate prep bowls, a compost bowl, and (ideally) sunlight streaming through the window and I will contentedly slice and chop away. I crave the activity even now, with two children, and seek to carve out the time for it at least a few days when someone else is caring for them. It’s a privilege, I know, to have access to fresh foods, resources and time to prepare healthy meals. I’m grateful. It’s another reason why I work to make the most of the ingredients and leftovers in my home.

As someone who prides herself on efficiency, I should get myself in the habit of doing bulk prep—processing produce for a series of recipes at one time. I’m disappointed in myself for falling short there. So last week, I buckled down, focused, and made a plan. I incorporated several languishing ingredients from my ample stock in a few various recipes. 

The plan centered around my bunch of red kale from my farm share. It was one of the more perishable ingredients remaining in my vegetable drawer (other than the herbs), though at the same time, I remembered I needed to jump on cooking the beet greens. So those were planned for the one pot pasta – along with the can of tomato sauce I sent tumbling and denting on the garage floor.

Exhibit B – dented tomato sauce can. Used for One Pot Pasta with Sausage and Greens. Replace cayenne with red pepper flakes.

Some of the kale was used in a complex chicken dish (recipe below) that also used farm share potatoes. It was a welcome change in starch after over a week of rice dishes (which my husband never tired of). 

Side note: here’s a tip (that any good chef and kitchen manager knows) — label your prep! Because I skipped this step, I ended up mixing up one of the kale containers and beet green containers and swapped the two in the aforementioned recipes. (Fortunately, it wasn’t a critical mistake in this case. Nor was the barbecue sauce I poured over my salad last night, instead of balsamic dressing — I imagined it was a southwestern salad and it was entirely edible! No food waste…)

The last of the kale became kale chips, inspired by a recipe sent along with “wine flour” a friend sent as a gift. He knew well my penchant for delicious, upcycled ingredients. In the past, spent grain flour from RISE worked wonderfully in a chocolate bread. I’m a fan of Toast Ale and White Mustache Yogurt Probiotic Whey Ice Pops, to name a few. I hadn’t yet heard of Finger Lakes Wine flour. It’s made using the byproduct of wine-making. I was given a bag of Riesling wine flour.

Riesling Flour Dusted Kale Chips
Recipe provided by Finger Lakes Wine Flour

6 Cups (packed) Torn Kale
2.5 Tablespoons Wine Flour
¼ Cup Plus 1-2 Tablespoons Grapeseed, Canola, or other vegetable oil
Salt for sprinkling on top (I used Maldon flakes)

As you can see, “wine flour” is made up of leftover skins and seeds of grapes. When I opened the bag, I took a deep inhale. It reminded me of the scent of a multigrain raisin bread I recently had. Which make sense if you consider raisins are dried grapes, and the bread grains and seeds could be compared to the grape seeds!

The process for the kale chips is very straightforward:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 Fahrenheit
  2. Mix seasoning ingredients

3. Add to and massage into kale

4. Spread on baking sheets

Bake until crisp but not burnt (around 15 minutes), rotating and switching around pans in oven every 5 minutes or so.

Notice how dark these are! They weren’t burnt, but it is very hard to tell with the darkness of the wine flour.

My preschooler munched away on the kale chips, saying he liked them better than the last time I made them with a different recipe (no wine flour). Success!

One Pot Pasta with Sausage and Greens
from New York Times Cooking

1 Tablespoon olive oil
5 to 6 ounces (2-3) sweet or hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes – sauce or crushed (you don’t want a lot of texture here)
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
Kosher salt
1 pound dried pasta (penne, or other tube pasta)
About 5 ounces greens, such as beet greens, kale, or spinach
½ Cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated

  1. In a Dutch oven or other large, deep lidded skillet, heat the oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add sausage, broken apart, and let start to brown in the pan for about a minute.
  2. Continue to cook the sausage for another 5 minutes or so, taking breaks between stirring and breaking it up, until you have small, brown, crispy chunks. Drain any excess oil, leaving about 1 Tablespoon behind.
  3. Add the tomato sauce in carefully, then incorporate the cumin, red-pepper flakes and 2 cups water.
    Add a generous pinch of salt and turn up the temperature to bring liquid to a boil.
  4. Add the pasta, and mix in to coat with the sauce. Lower the heat to a simmer (I moved my pot to a different burner), cover, and cook until al dente (check a minute or two before the package instructions say). Be sure to open very few minutes to stir so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. You may need to add in a few tablespoons of warm water.
  5. Reduce the heat further, and season to taste with salt. Add your greens a little at a time and cook until wilted.
    Here’s the kale strips added; it was no less delicious as it would have been with beet greens!
  6. Serve in bowls, topped with cheese.
In my house, bread for sopping up sauce is also a must.

Chicken Braised with Pine Nuts and Potatoes
from New York Times Cooking

3 Tablespoons olive oil
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (I only had 4 and it was not enough!)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 medium (or 5 small!) onions, sliced
1 fennel bulb, chopped (this replaced celery in the original recipe. Another CSA share item I had to use up!)
8 whole garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
⅔ Cup dry white wine
3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar, plus more if needed
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
4 dried bay leaves
4 whole cloves
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1 pound baby potatoes, washed and halved
About 1.5 Cups chicken stock, broth, or water (I used a combination of leftover chicken glace and water
~3 ounces greens (such as kale or beet greens), stemmed and thinly sliced
1-2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (depends on the richness of your chicken broth or stock)
¼ Cup Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped, plus more for serving

A note on this recipe: it was very helpful to have most of the ingredients prepared ahead of time. In terms of chopping, I really only reserved the parsley and potatoes for dinner time, since herbs should be as fresh as possible, and uncooked potatoes turn black if left cut (though they can be submerged in water.)

While I was working on the kale, fennel, onions and garlic in advance, my older son came over and, completely unprompted, picked up an onion and started to help me peel. My heart was warmed with pride and happiness!

Still, the recipe takes much longer than I prefer. It is a braise after all. It was challenging to monitor and taste and execute especially on a night when our 4-month-old decided to stay up until 10pm.

At least he’s cute.

But I do recommend it as a special occasion meal or preparation for dinner guests (if we ever have those again).

  1. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper.
  2. Add oil to a Dutch oven or other large, deep skillet that will fit all of the chicken pieces in one layer. Heat over high heat until shimmering so that the chicken pieces (skin-side down) will sizzle once added. Turn heat down if/when there is popping or burning. Brown skin until it pulls away from pan easily, about 10 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside.

3. Add onions, fennel and garlic to the oil and fat in the pot, along with salt. Stir until softened, about 5 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and vinegar.

4. Stir in 1/2 cup water or chicken broth, pine nuts, bay leaves, cloves and saffron.

5. Add potatoes and as much water or stock it takes to come up to the sides of the potatoes. Place the chicken pieces back in the pan, skin-side up, and nestle them into the liquid among the potatoes.

Cover tightly and let cook with very low heat, checking after about 45 minutes to test the doneness of the potatoes. It might take 20 more minutes.

6. At this point, you can hold the dish until ready to serve; rewarm gently. Taste the liquid to determine how much salt, pepper, and vinegar is needed. I needed to add salt, and a splash more vinegar to balance the richness of the glace.

7. Stir in the greens (beet greens in this case) and cook through.

8. Add in butter and parsley and serve.

That’s a wrap!

3 Things We Can Learn from the Swedes

Last month, I attended the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce of New York’s (SACC New York) annual sustainability summit. In its 10th year, this year’s theme was “Mad About Food.” The presenters in this fast-paced event were progressive thinkers from business, academia, and technology. Many were from Sweden, of course, and I learned some of the reasons why “Swedishness” and sustainability go hand and hand, and what Americans can learn.

1. Aim high

This year, Sweden signed a law that requires the country to reach net-zero emissions by the year 2045. They went beyond what they pledged under the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, setting their target date 5 years earlier than originally planned.

Nina Ekelund of The Haga Institute shared some of the impacts of Sweden’s earlier commitments. After the Paris Agreement, the portion of companies measuring their climate impact increased from 1 out of 4 from 3 out of 4– without any regulations. Their approach – including a high carbon tax – has been good for business. Since 1990, there was a 25% reduction in emissions alongside a 69% increase in GDP.

At Space10, an Innovation Center in Sweden, Guillaume Charny-Brunet’s team was considering the development of shower technology that managed water flow and use. The switched gears when they thought about what would save the most water: reducing meat consumption. The water required for 1 beef burger is the equivalent of 1.5 months in the shower. So they started experimenting with alternative agriculture, and set up an aquaponics system that grew enough vegetables for a building. The vision is to go well beyond that.

2. Start with the Individual

Michael La Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Food Services explained IKEA Food’s mission: Honest food for people and the planet. What do they see as the most important KPI? They serve 650 million people a year. They have 194,000 coworkers throughout the world, and counting, which gives them great opportunity and great responsibility.

The winner of SACC New York-Deloitte Green award was Sweden-based Whywaste: “Reduce food waste through data driven workflows.” Whywaste currently focuses on supermarkets in Sweden, using data to keep better attention to expiration date and control purchasing decisions. Like my employer, LeanPath, they empower employees to keep food waste at a minimum through knowledge.

3. Embrace Change, Keep an Open Mind

“Swedes are change-minded to the absurd.” Johan Jörgensen, founder of Sweden FoodTech. They run after new tech, Johan says, which is one of the reasons why he sees Sweden as leading sustainability efforts in food.

One of the trending concepts is the idea of individualized nutrition. Professor Robert Brummer from Orebro University explained the gut-brain interaction. He presented the idea that we need to be more proactive about designing for a healthy life versus reactive to problems — he called it a shift from an illness paradigm to a wellness paradigm.

Following that was a presentation by Eatit, a Swedish company that acts as digital doctor, dietician and chef by using a blood test and artificial intelligence to provide individualized food recommendations for improving health.

It’s no secret that a healthy diet is the ultimate form of prevention for many diseases. The idea of what is “healthy” is becoming more and more personal. This runs directly in parallel with the food waste in two ways: 1) the fact that of all food waste reduction strategies, prevention has the biggest impact and 2) different people have different ways of defining what is “waste.”

People are always looking for help making the best decisions when it comes to health and waste. I learned about Tellspec, a spectroscopy-based food sensor that aims to solve food fraud, food adulteration, food safety, and food waste, by taking some of the subjectivity out and looking at the chemical structure of food, an intriguing idea.

This summit reminded me that we can’t predict where technology is going, and there may be capabilities far beyond what we can imagine. In my afternoon workshop, Nina Ekelund gave the example of smart phones. How many of us could have known the capacity of these portable computing devices? I believe more of us in the US-based sustainability community can take a page out of Sweden’s book and keep an open mind about the options we have to tackle food waste.

K-Cup Crusade

Have you heard about the crusade against K-Cups? In the unlikely case you need a refresher, “K-Cups” is the abbreviated term for those little vacuum sealed pods of ground coffee used with a Keurig machine to produce a single serving of coffee with the push of a button and less than a minute. A few years ago, Keurig machines were the it product, the must-buy at holidays or for weddings or housewarming. The crusade itself is even old news now. Way back toward the beginning of 2015, one of the founders declared his regrets for inventing a product that in a single year (2014), produced enough waste to circle the globe more than 10 times. The Internet rallied. First of all, what a novel thought, that there exists an entrepreneur who thinks about more than his net worth, who admitted he wished he did something differently. Secondly, how could he have been so thoughtless? We, millions of followers, succumbed to the promotions and temptations of technology and then were FORCED to buy billions of pods that could not be recycled. What a calamity! Oh have we learned our lesson.

The reactions I came across were fairly unanimous in their abject hate toward K-Cups. There was little controversy over the suggestion to eliminate K-Cups from your diet for the betterment of the world and your taste buds. I stood by, a little irked. Why such consensus about K-cups? Couldn’t we all unite over something more significant?

I was reluctant to take another side in the crusade, until now. A little more recently, I read a Thrillist post shaming K-Cup users that was so terribly done it made me angry. Now I will have my piece. No, I won’t heap praise on the product, but I would like to point out why this topic seems overblown.

#1 Which is worse?
How many people have used Keurig machines in their offices? In my opinion, adding Keurig machines can have a positive impact. Yes, with businesses subsidizing cups for their workers, some people may have had cups they

Don't even get me started about how ineffective Starbucks cup lids are against leaks.

Don’t even get me started about how ineffective Starbucks cup lids are against leaks.

wouldn’t otherwise. However, in some of those places, before the machine arrived, do you know what those regular drinkers would do? They would go elsewhere, purchase a brewed cup that came in a paper or styrofoam cup with a plastic lid, bring it back to their office, and then toss it in the bags headed for a landfill. How many times around the world would those go?

#2 Convenience Factor
In one of my recent jobs, we placed a Keurig machine on top of a tiny table next to a tiny fridge in the hallway outside our various shared offices. Now, you might say (or as Thrillist is pretentiously exhorting), put a coffee maker there and use fresh grounds! I say, are you kidding? What a mess. Do you know how rarely this area was cleaned? To get to the closest sink, you had to walk down the hall, through one set of doors, across an atrium and through another door…and that was for a bathroom sink. Washing a pot and filter and any other components was unlikely to happen.

#3 Simplicity
Let’s acknowledge that since many of us require caffeine to function effectively, coffee is probably here to stay for awhile. If you clicked on the Thrillist link, you’ll see that the #1 listed reason to quit K-Cups is “You shouldn’t make coffee like a monkey.” Really, this is your argument? “Our ability to use complex tools is what separates us from other primates.” I guess the author is a fan of those fancy corporate espresso machines that are so complex that they can impossible to figure out.
My thought is if K-Cups provide a quick source of caffeine to get someone’s brain functioning in order to use other complex tools to solve critical world problems, then it’s OK that they didn’t have to use much of their brain to make that cup!

#4 Bigger Picture
What frustrates me the most is that the Atlantic interview that got everyone riled up was actually somewhat balanced. The reporter pointed out significant facts about how other home coffee machines use more electricity, brew inefficiently and result in plenty of wasted water [update: I came across a study that was externally-reviewed (yet, of course, commissioned by a biased source) that found single-serve coffee capsules have a lower overall environmental impact)], how non-renewable resources are used to transport coffee to places like Starbucks and for the customers to drive themselves there, and how coffee itself is a water-intensive crop. “Thinking about all of this has been almost enough to make me feel like every coffee method is so far from perfect that I should just give up entirely,” Hamblin said.

When other media outlets picked up the story, did they include these facts? Not so much. Not Business Insider, not CNN, not The Washington Post, to name a few.
It goes to show, take any news story about your grains of coffee with a grain of salt.

Championing Food Waste Reduction

Have you noticed the flurry of activity and media coverage about food waste? At some point during this recent lull in my blog, it felt like everywhere I turned I encountered an article or conference or event related to individuals, companies and governments making efforts to use what is normally tossed.

A few highlights:

  • At the Blue Hill WastED pop-up in March, I dined on fried fish cartilage, salad made from discarded fruit and vegetable peels, and a vegetable burger that was a total mashup of scraps — from the vegetable pulp to the bread trimmings that made the bun. Nearly every regional media outlet reported on the restaurant.

    Chefs across the world are following suit — this past June, a Barcelona restaurant served an inspired four-course “Gastro-Rescue Dinner” that took advantage of tomato squeezings, misshapen eggplant, and the meat scraped from skeletons of filleted salmon, to name a few.
  • “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is the theme of Expo Milano 2015, the Universal Exposition which runs from May 1 – October 31, 2015 in Milan, Italy and expects to have more than 20 million visitors. For three months, some of the Expo leftovers are being served to needy people in an abandoned nearby theatre, in partnership with the local Catholic charity. 40 prominent chefs will pitch in for one of the months, creating gourmet meals out of the leftovers.
  • Chef Dan Barber is being recognized further for his book, The Third Plate, now a James Beard Foundation Book Award winner. From reading it, I learned how complicated it can be to fish, farm, cook, serve, and eat responsibly, and how deeply connected our menu preferences are to the earth’s ecological system.
  • Kangaroo tail, anyone? Chef Curtis Stone is a champion for maximizing ingredients, which he showcases at his James Beard Nominated LA restaurant, Maude, also a James Beard Foundation Award Nominee.
  • Governments are taking action to reduce food waste! France’s legislative body passed a measure that bans supermarkets from destroying or tossing edible unsold food. When foods were nearing “sell by dates,” supermarkets found them difficult to sell and therefore threw them away–and sometimes went to extreme measures to keep foragers out of the bins. The law requires the stores to donate food to charities or for animal feed; otherwise they face fines and jail time. Here in the U.S., Massachusetts’ commercial food waste ban went into effect on October 1, 2014. The regulations require institutions and businesses disposing more than one ton of organic waste per week to donate or reuse the edible food and compost the rest. (One ton still seems like a lot, does it not?)
  • Blue Apron continues to expand its following. It announced $135 million in new funding this June. According to Eater’s published analysis of its prominence, “Blue Apron built its empire on the idea of reducing food waste.” Not only does it help customers be more efficient, it also supports sustainable farming practices among its farmers.
  • I’m encouraged to think that public awareness is increasing. The issues aren’t brand new, of course, and have been in the news for many years. Last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) released the results of its 2014 research on U.S. Consumers’ perception of food waste. In terms of knowledge and awareness, 42% of respondents said they saw or heard information about wasted food in the previous year. 16% looked for information about reducing food waste. 24% of respondents characterized themselves as “very knowledgeable” about ways to reduce their personal levels of food waste, and 38% say they are “fairly knowledgeable.” Do more people know more in 2015?

    It can get lonely to sit at my computer and read and write about food waste concerns and my personal quests. I’m thrilled to reach any one person with my blog, and to encourage any friend or acquaintance in person. But do enough people really care? What else can I be doing?

    I’ve been fortunate to meet and discover a growing community of regular people who are creatively and smartly making things happen. They keep me inspired:

  • Finally, a grocery store chain in the United States (out in California of course) and a start-up venture called Imperfect Produce plan to sell less-than-perfect produce at a discounted rate. This adds value to the perfectly edible product farmers sometimes find easier and cheaper to throw away (Via NPR)
  • Others are creating a marketplace for surplus food; through a website or app, they connect those with excess food with organizations poised to use it. In Massachusetts, there’s Spoiler Alert. In Northern California, there’s CropMobster.
  • What about all that packaging we waste? A pair of entrepreneurial designers created a product called Loliware, which are flavored, edible, biodegradable cups that serve as an alternative to single-use cups that get tossed into a landfill.
  • These are the champions! I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Easy Answers

It’s the middle of summer, when happiness should be at its peak, and I’ve been feeling a little discouraged. I keep running into people who, when faced with complex options, opt to take no action. I have started doubting my own activities.

Hearing the slew of news about our deteriorating environment, diminishing resources and deep piles of refuse can get pretty depressing. There are those who are convinced that any negative consequences of human activity can be offset. They are happy to address the problems down the road. Others latch on to new, “greener” ways of life with passionate fervor. My guess is that the majority of people are somewhere in between. The truth is, there aren’t too many easy answers to questions about how we should live our lives day-to-day. We all would love a Twitter-sized 140-characters-or-less answer to the question, “What is the antidote?” It’s rarely available. We live in a large world, disconnected from each other in many ways, and connected in many ways we may not want (thanks, Google). Every action, even every inaction, has consequences. A proposed solution to a problem may lead to another problem.

Sometimes we are confronted with choosing the lesser of two evils. Take my blog project, for example. Driven by the global statistics of 30-40% of food sent to landfills, I try to keep as much as possible out of the trash. I don’t need the produce I choose to be perfect. I’m part of a CSA which provides centralized, weekly deliveries of fresh, nutritious organically-grown vegetables, helping me avoid ad hoc car trips to come up with meals, thus saving on fossil fuels. I also live in a suburban area, so I don’t need to go far to get something I’m missing. Even the choice to cook fresh ingredients at home involves tradeoffs. I use a significant amount of fresh water, a limited resource for many, to clean and cook my ingredients and to wash all those dishes. There’s natural gas and electricity used to run appliances and lights in my kitchen. And I’m usually cooking for only one or two people, verses in a cafeteria or restaurant, where energy consumption per diner is often reduced due to economies of scale.

People need to be reminded of the tradeoffs. Last week, July 3 marked International Bag Free Day, promoted by several organizations that want the elimination of single-use shopping bags. I got to thinking about the fact that plastic bags have been a contentious issue for years. I remember, back in high school, I selected the topic “paper or plastic?” for a research paper, having grown up with the phrase ringing in my ear after every trip to the grocery store. I hoped to find a straight-forward answer about which type of bag I should use–which type of bag is the “greener” choice. I assumed that paper, being recyclable, would win out. Instead, I learned that the process for recycling paper bags demands huge amounts of water and electricity and transporting them generates greater CO2 emissions. Single-use plastic bags are, of course, a big problem because they are made of petroleum, a finite resource, and they take more than a lifetime to break down. They have contributed significantly to the litter in our oceans and can be toxic and harmful to the marine environment. Knowing these tradeoffs, I tried to skip bags or reuse them as much as possible.

Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of single-use bags and commit to reusable bags? In the United States, California is leading the charge to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags; according to a February 2014 article in The New York Times, state lawmakers are moving to establish a statewide ban. The bags are already banned in nearly 100 municipalities there, with paper bags usually available for a fee. The article was fairly light and fluffy, smattered with quotes from consumers who were making do and those who see the ban as unfair and unhelpful. The online comment section, however, went on for days. People felt strongly for and against the ban. Guess what? Making an impact by switching to reusable bags isn’t easy either. One commenter directed readers to review this study from the U.K. Environmental Agency, which showed that certain multi-use bags needed to be reused many times (173 times for a cloth one) to have a definitively lower “global warming potential” than a lightweight plastic shopping bag that was reused as a garbage bin liner. More than one commenter pointed out the fact that reusable bags can be dangerous, because they harbor bacteria. (That made me stop and think. I even laundered my cloth grocery bags and disinfected some of my vinyl ones.)

The opinion in Europe must be polarized as well, preventing their proposed government ban from going through.

While it can be tempting to throw in the towel and join the inactive, I am reminded that there are plenty of people out there dedicated to steering others in the direction of lesser evils. Witnessing these successful efforts to chip away at the consciousness of our consumer culture makes me hopeful. Through creative marketing and ingenious products, complex choices have become simplified. It becomes possible to envision our citizens changing behavior on a larger scale. Just when I needed encouragement, I learned (thanks to Edible Manhattan and Leanpath) about French supermarket chain Intermarché’s launch of an “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign to promote the sale of less-than-perfectly shaped produce. If you have read through my blog, you saw the Eat Ugly Food post, in which I wish for something like that here in the United States. The video about their campaign is truly inspiring; you should watch it.

How could we make the elimination of plastic bags a no-brainer? Companies, like Ikea, have charged customers for single-use plastic bags. In fact, after reporting that “92% of their customers said no more plastic bags!” Ikea discontinued offering them altogether. But what did this do to those responsible citizens of the earth, who would have reused those single-use bags in their homes as trash bags or for other perfectly reasonable uses? Perhaps, instead of implementing a polarizing policy and running the risk of ticking off some of their best customers, Ikea could have tried a BYOB (bag) discount. Would 100% of deal-loving Americans stop and think, “we don’t need plastic bags”? Would they consistently remember to bring their reusable bag if they could save a buck?

What about you? Could you survive a ban on the single-use plastic bags, or should the focus be on getting you to stop using them on your own? What creative initiatives have convinced you to take action?

Going Green with Soylent Green

Today, I am excited to feature a guest post by my friend, Crystal. Crystal is an actual friend, not simply an acquaintance or networking contact. We go way back, to the line for having one’s caricature drawn during a college freshman orientation event (where did that drawing go, anyway?). I guarantee there was free food involved. Crystal and I have a lot in common; we both love preparing and eating food as well as efficient time and energy management. She happens to be a stellar writer. Crystal is much braver than me in a lot of ways, including this latest adventure. I know I have acknowledged before how a dedication to planning interesting meals and the desire for efficiency can contradict. I have noted that one can see an entire evening disappear while preparing food, perhaps while other tasks or pleasures loom. I will admit that my cooking doesn’t always come cheap. Crystal faced the facts–she is on a mission to cut it all back. Read on for part one!


All natural Soylent mix

Last month, the New Yorker published a piece on Soylent, a shelf-stable powder that can be mixed with water to become a meal replacement. “The End of Food,” the headline screamed, “Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals?” Unlike Slim Fast and similar products, Soylent claims to be nutritionally complete, the only thing you’ll need to eat (er, drink) for the rest of your life (which hopefully will not be shortened due to diet). Also, it was invented by a bunch of young engineers who subsequently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to manufacture Soylent for the masses. $755,000 later, we are that much closer to a humanity that doesn’t have to think about food ever again. This despite a name that was intentionally chosen for dark humor.

My gut reaction upon hearing the Soylent story was that it was a ludicrous idea. Why would anyone want to replace all of their meals with this shake? That would take all the fun and pleasure out of eating! The more I thought about it though, the more I started to see the appeal. As someone who loves food, cooking and works in the food industry on several levels, it’s hard for me to step away from my “Good food will bring world peace and cure cancer!” bubble. But I know for many people, food is a means, not a way of living, and it requires time, expertise and effort to craft meals three times a day. If you are cramming for finals and would otherwise drink soda and grab two dollar-slices of pizza, is Soylent such a bad alternative?

So, I went to the Soylent website and looked at the ingredients. It read like the elements of the periodic table: choline bitartrate, manganese sulfate, chromium chloride, and on and on. As someone who cares about understanding what goes into my body, this was not reassuring. (Yes, I realize that when I eat “real” food, these chemicals are also going into my body, but I would rather they come from recognizable foods than be artificially produced in a factory.)

Also, it was expensive. A week’s supply (21 meals) was $85. That is actually much higher than the amount I usually spend on groceries each week ($20-30). I suppose if you factored in the cost of my pantry ingredients plus the amount I spend eating out at restaurants, I spend more than $85/week on food, but even so, this seemed like a large amount to spend on a product that was widely acknowledged to taste mediocre.

But what if I could make Soylent on my own? It turns out that there is a burgeoning DIY Soylent movement, with a rich variety of recipes designed for various needs (building muscle, losing weight, women’s health, etc). So, I set out to see if I could make Soylent on my own. And lo and behold, there was a recipe online for “All Natural Soylent.” I figured that if I could source all of the ingredients from the venerable Park Slope Food Coop, then it would indicate the quality and relative “naturalness” of my finished Soylent. It would also mean significant cost savings for me compared to buying Soylent directly.

Starting tomorrow (Mon 6/16), I am going to embark on a Soylent-only diet for one week. That means no solid foods, no alcohol, no cheating (I hope). I’ve never tried restricting my diet before in any manner, so clearly going cold-turkey on Soylent for a week will be a cakewalk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Natural Soylent Ingredients

What’s in this “all-natural” Soylent?

Milk, nuts, cocoa powder, dried spices, and other odds and ends, but primarily ingredients that you would know and recognize. Part of the appeal of using this mix was that any leftover ingredients I had at the end of the week could be used in regular cooking, whereas most Soylent recipes call for things like “GNC Mega Men Sport.” I ended up substituting a packet of Emergen-C for camu camu powder, since the Food Coop didn’t carry it, but since the recipe only includes 1 g of this, I don’t feel too bad about the compromise. Here’s the full recipe for a one day/3 serving batch, designed to give you 2,000 calories/day:

  • 5 cups 1% milk, Vitamin D-fortified
  • 55 g coconut sugar (potassium)
  • 45 g cocoa powder
  • 30 g chia seeds (fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids)
  • 75 g sunflower seeds (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and folate)
  • 50 g hazelnuts
  • 25 g peanuts (niacin)
  • 10 g dried spearmint (vitamin K)
  • 5 g dried basil (vitamin K)
  • 10 g soy lecithin (choline)
  • 3 g iodized salt
  • 1 g Emergen-C powder (vitamin C)
  • 1 g paprika (vitamin A)

What’s it taste like?

Honestly, it tastes all right. The dominant flavors are chocolate and mint, so it basically tastes like minty chocolate milk, which would be really appealing if I only liked chocolate more. The texture is a little gritty but tolerable. If I work on my blender technique and experiment with blending the liquids and solids in smaller batches, I think I’ll be able to get a totally smooth shake. Or, if anyone wants to lend me a Vitamix blender, I’m all ears.

No really, why are you doing this? Why are you kicking puppies and taking all the fun out of food?

Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE to eat. Moreover, I cook frequently and do it well. So I don’t think there’s any question that I’m lacking the skills or motivation to make my own meals. However, I also REALLY love efficiency and good time management. Right now, I spend a good chunk of my time planning meals, assessing my kitchen inventory, grocery shopping, prepping and cooking food. If I freed up that time, what could I do with an extra 5-10 hours each week? That idea excites me immensely. Can you imagine what you could accomplish with that block of time?

I’m also doing this as a social and psychological experiment. What’s it like to eat the same thing every day? I certainly don’t lack for options in NYC, but there are people in developing countries who can’t afford a diverse diet. How do I explain what I’m doing to my friends, family and coworkers? I tried to block off a relatively quiet week for my Soylent diet, so that I could avoid missing out on parties, work events, etc. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and I’ll definitely be forced to drink my Soylent while at public gatherings. But that’s fine, I’m happy to share my story, even if I come off as a bit of a kook. More importantly, I hope my experiment will inspire some radical conversations about why we eat what we eat, and why the idea of Soylent feels so repulsive and icky to people…or not.

Wait, I heard Soylent makes you burp/fart/[unmentionable effects on your gastrointestinal system] a lot?

Prolific flatulence does seem to be one of the most “dangerous” side effects of the Soylent diet. This is probably because most Americans (97%) don’t eat enough fiber. So when you suddenly start eating the proper amounts of fiber, your system may have some trouble adjusting.

I’m not too concerned about this (though maybe my coworkers should be) because I already eat tons of leafy greens and whole grains, but there’s only way to find out what happens when I’m hitting the minimum recommended fiber level…

Will Soylent be healthier than what I normally eat?

Here’s a one-week snapshot of what I usually eat. In red, I’ve marked the meals which were from restaurants or that I otherwise didn’t make and don’t truly know what went into the food. I am a firm believer that homecooked meals, where you can control exactly what goes into your food, are better for you than food made in commercial settings. (Though I also recognize that some homecooked meals, including my own, can be just as unhealthy/even tastier than restaurant meals.)

Diet Diary

As you can see, much to my chagrin there is a lot of red. This was a week where I attended several events after work, and also had leftovers from Szechuan Gourmet from when I treated my mom and aunt to dinner. So I didn’t do a ton of cooking for myself that week. Weekend mornings are also tough because I’m working as a line cook, which means I end up cramming leftover food scraps into my mouth while I work, then eat at the end of my shift around 4:30 pm.

Without running a full nutritional analysis, I have no way of knowing how healthy my normal diet is, but it’s probably a bit high in fat and not nutritionally complete.

Will I save money by drinking Soylent?

I mentioned above that I felt buying Soylent was expensive, so how does making Soylent compare in terms of cost? I ran the calculations for my version of Soylent, and it comes out to $2.01/meal, which is definitely cheaper, about half the cost of buying official Soylent. If you bought all of the ingredients on Amazon, it would be just a bit more, about $2.75/meal.

Soylent Cost

So that’s that for now. I will be posting throughout the week with updates on the Soylent experiment, whether it’s worth the time savings, cost savings or health benefits, and any other unexpected effects. Stay tuned!

Crystal Cun is a writer, cook and oystermonger in Brooklyn who loves sharp cheeses, knives and ideas. You can read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter at @LadyParmalade.

A Memorable Eat-venture

Here was my reaction to the first gelato I tasted in Italy:

Old Bridge Gelateria in Rome, Italy

Old Bridge Gelateria in Rome, Italy

That was my first dessert, which had been preceded by a fantastic freshly-made sandwich at Duecentogradi.

I spent the next several days absorbing as much art, history, food and drink as I could. I can’t wait to go back.

In my last post, I shared some photo highlights from Italy, but I didn’t show you the feasting we did in France. Here’s a photo summary:

My first piano

Remember the start of the New Year? Remember how I made a resolution? Sigh. I had resolved to stop procrastinating as much. Specifically, I resolved to spend a little time here and there to cross out items on my task list. I would try not to exaggerate the importance of certain minor to dos. Eight weeks in, it’s not looking great.

I wish I could report otherwise. I did eventually follow up on the process available through to reduce my junk mail. I sent a series of emails to those charitable organizations that continued to send me unwanted mail. Strike a line through that one!

Something that has been on my list for at least a year, if not two, is to find a piano for the house. There was a piano at home my entire childhood, because my mom had played since she was young. I took piano lessons regularly starting at age 7 and continuing through early high school, at which point sports and after-school activities crowded out practicing time. I was no virtuoso, but I could handle playing occasionally at church, and I even assisted in accompanying/teaching my high school choir for several weeks my senior year. My piano knowledge made it easier for me to learn mallet percussion to play in elementary, middle and high school band. I played bells in the high school marching band for six years, followed by four years of college. College marching band was where I met my wonderful husband, Matt (who celebrates his birthday this week–HAPPY BIRTHDAY!) You can see how the piano connects to significant parts of my life and history.
I digress. The point is, I want to maintain my ability to play piano. I haven’t sustained any sort of practice routine with pianos outside the house; it may be as rare as once per year at my parents’ house. I believe there’s a much better chance in my own house. Also, pianos can be wonderful additions to the home (the racket is welcome some times more than others).

In June 2012, I read this article in The New York Times about the increasing numbers of piano sent to the dump rather than transferred to new owners. There are so many people who have a piano so old or so undesirable that they would rather toss it than give it to a family member. For some, disposal is the less expensive choice, as fees for tuning, repair, and moving stack up-this I am learning for sure! As for prospective buyers, like me, it is a gamble to take on an old piano that may have serious tuning issues, when there may be fairly inexpensive pianos available new (from China). Used pianos have much in common with used cars, in that respect. When I told Matt that grand pianos can run $30-$40,000, at least, he noted that one could choose to buy a luxury sports vehicle, or one could buy a piano.

The New York Times article informed me about the Piano Adoption website. I checked the site periodically in the following months, but it didn’t seem to be kept up to date, and I never received responses to the inquiries I did make.

Craigslist must keep tons of goods out of the landfill. People who are tired of their “stuff” get connected with people who are willing to make a trip and exert some effort to get a good deal. I’m happy that a few horror stories haven’t caused the demise of Craigslist. It can be a great resource for finding furniture, specifically. My friends over at There’s Treasure Everywhere made some amazing transformations with Craigslist merchandise. Previously, I bought some nearly-new furniture items, and also sold a small dining room set through Craigslist. I was happy with how it all went.

Last week, I made the decision to reach out to some sellers of pianos on Craigslist. The first one I ended up seeing was housed fairly locally, making it convenient. It was Baldwin brand, but the smaller, spinet size or upright, which reduces the richness of the tone. It was out of tune, but certainly functional, and felt comfortable under my fingers. And unlike many of the pianos I saw photographed, the color and finish of this one was nicely preserved. I made an offer, arranged for piano movers, and welcomed the piano to my home last week!
I discussed my piano purchasing venture with the music director at my current church. Once I shared that it was in hand, he congratulated me on my “first piano.” I had to stop for a moment at that statement, because I thought, wait, but I had a piano for years in my parents’ house, so this isn’t my first! But of course, that was my parents’ piano. This piano is mine, and therefore special. It is like your “first car” for which you make your own car payments, or your “first child,” even you have played with other people’s kids before.

Now I wait for the piano to “settle”, and pray that it will hold its tune. After that, I’ll be able to contribute to soundtrack of our happy home! (Yes, I realize how cheesy that sounds).

One of the most beautiful songs written for a Disney movie. Who knows which movie?

One of the most beautiful songs written for a Disney movie. Who knows which movie?

Holidays and Hunger

I’ve let myself go. It has been more than three shameful weeks since a new post on this blog, and I am disappointed in myself. Of course, I could use the excuse of the hectic holiday season–and I will. Whenever I sat down in front of a computer for recreational purposes, I almost always got sucked into online gift shopping.

The reason for the start of the hiatus was my being sick. I apologize for the weakness. I had the standard range of cold symptoms. It wasn’t the kind of thing that kept me from cooking completely, but instead of stopping every few minutes to grab my camera and take a photo or pick up a pen and make some notes, I stopped every few minutes to cough or sneeze and then wash my hands. Boy was my skin dry. The foods ranged from roasted sweet potato wedges and farro with mushrooms and greens to macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food.

Starting in the first week of December, the clock seemed to run at double time after 5pm each weeknight. My holiday baking started so late that some people received packages after Christmas. Sigh. In case you are wondering, some of the treats I prepared were Smitten Kitchen’s sugared pretzel cookies, cornmeal jam thumbprints, hazelnut cherry chocolate bark, fudge-y brownies, peanut butter/chocolate chip cookies, and the standard frosted cut-out sugar cookies.

Time crunch aside, I have plenty to be grateful for this holiday season. That includes the wonderful fresh food I have available to eat each week.
A place at the table image
This would be a good time talk about a movie screening I attended last month, facilitated by Island Harvest, the local hunger relief organization on Long Island. In partnership with a cinema, they screened the film A Place at the Table, a documentary focused on hunger in America. It happens to be produced in part by Tom Colicchio and his wife, and Tom Colicchio attended and participated in panel at the end of the screening, which I will admit was a draw. While we sat and watched the film, I felt saddened, infuriated, and enlightened all at once. Any description I try to make will not do it justice, so I strongly recommend you buy it and/or watch it, and tell everyone you know to see it. Like I said before, I am grateful to be among Americans who can afford a home, health care, and all the food I need. IMG_0060Having a substantial grocery budget is a luxury, and such resources are not available for millions of people–for millions of Americans. In fact, millions of American suffer from food insecurity, which means they are unsure about where there next meal will come from. They are thinking about food all the time, and not in a fun way.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) directly benefits those who are struggling to afford food, and it continues to be cut amidst battles over the Farm bill. I, along with those involved with the film, think this is tragic. Of course it is possible to find points of contention, especially when it comes to something political. Plenty of coverage is focused on people’s concern about abuse of the system (why isn’t there more coverage of corporate executives jumping through loopholes?). I believe it should be noncontroversial to provide children with nutritious food every day. If we don’t, we are putting our poorer citizens at an greater disadvantage, and wasting their potential. Once people stop worrying as much about having enough to eat, they can better focus on the things we Americans place so much value on: working hard, absorbing knowledge, and taking care of oneself. Here’s hoping that politicians do their part to restore SNAP funding in 2014.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, and hunger-free New Year.