In The Kitchen Ecosystem (Clarkson Potter, Sept.), Eugenia Bone outlines a philosophy behind creating delicious food that boils down to eating (and preserving) what’s in season, swapping commercial products for homemade ones, and taking full advantage of the peels, cores, bones, and scraps that might otherwise get tossed in the trash. PW spoke with Bone about why this seemingly parsimonious approach to cooking is actually the key to richer, fuller flavors.
This sounds almost like a utopian vision of cooking—do you think of at all in those terms?
No, on the contrary, I think of it not as pie-in-the-sky but pie-in-the-oven. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. The idea of an ecosystem is really to recognize who you are as a cook and as an eater. This is my ethnicity, my ethics. Am I vegan? Am I diabetic? What’s my financial situation? What’s my daily work life like? How many people am I cooking for? Is it a staff of cowboys or two kids who are problematic and picky? And finally where do I live? Those are all things that are very grounding. It’s not utopian in that it’s something we strive for. It’s more the articulation of an observation of what happens in kitchens all the time.
What led you to start thinking this way, that many ingredients could easily be used three ways—fresh, preserved, and in a way that takes advantage of what we might just toss in the trash or compost?
Part of it was just this really basic feeling of guilt and disgust in throwing things away.
Yeah, as I was reading the book, I started to feel really bad about tossing those two corncobs the other day.
I know, there’s flavor in there! I do Italian cooking, so my vernacular is relatively narrow, but my willingness to eat anything is pretty open. The idea of using this waste stream didn’t turn me off at all. It satisfied this ethical hole or gap that I was feeling, it turned out. I learned from my dad as a cook, and my grandmother was Italian. In their cooking, they reused out of need. They didn’t waste resources, because resources were precious. I came at it more, one, because there’s something wrong with throwing these things away, and, two, because I am a flavor junkie. I am constantly trying to bump up the flavor of the food I eat. In many ways virtuousness equals flavor.
Do you think attitudes toward what we use or toss when cooking reflect a larger cultural attitude regarding disposability?
I think it’s just a disconnect. I don’t want to condemn a culture. Yeah, we throw too much stuff out. I think folks just don’t know a lot of this stuff, but it’s been done all along. Post World War II when industrial foods really took off, and women started working and leaving the house then there was a disconnect. It’s almost like the home cook lost his or her grasp on the kind of cornucopia that can be derived from byproducts and secondary ingredients. That was the challenge, and still is the challenge that a lot of cooks face to pursue cooking with this sort of depth. What I’ve done is try to fold these things into my routine so I’m not cooking all day. If you’re running a farm, then someone is in charge of cooking. That’s the job. But that is not what most of my readers are doing.
How do [people] get the most flavor and do this sort of virtuous cooking on their own in their suburban kitchens? By folding it into their routines. For instance, after I make ricotta, maybe I’ll make a pasta with ricotta, tomato, and fresh basil. The whey I’ll save, and the next day I’ll brown a little pork and poach it in there. While I was making a tomato and watermelon salad, I took one pint of crushed tomatoes, put them in the asparagus steamer, and boiled them. So while I was finishing dinner, I had one more thing done. That’s how I pursue it—it’s just folding it into your lifestyle. It’s doable if you know how much you eat and what you like to eat.
Ask yourself, do I buy canned tomatoes once a week? Maybe I should try to start canning them. Do I use a lot of mayonnaise? Whip up a batch of that. These tasks become really easy with experience.
My jaw may have dropped when I saw that you’ll take carrots out of the pot after making stock with them, and then turn them into carrot soufflés.
They’re so great, right? They’re all mushed, and they have all of that chicken flavor. I don’t save the desiccated onions, but the stuff that’s still good, I save.
Speaking of specific ingredients, can we talk about fennel? It feels like something you end up tossing 60% of. What should we be doing with those stems and fronds?
First of all, you can eat the whole thing in any fennel dish. The core, anything—it’s all edible. It’s just a matter of cooking times. With the fronds, sometimes when I have the really big ones, I’ll use them to cure halibut or gravlax, or I’ll freeze them in a bag. I love fennel fronds thrown into various vegetable dishes or meat braises. I have bags full of these hairy tops of things in the freezer. You know celery leaves, from when you buy it at the farmers market? They’re like an herb, pure flavor. It doesn’t matter if the texture is all beat up [from the freezer]. It’s going to go into a soup or stew, so who cares?
What have been some of the more surprising things you’ve discovered as you’ve explored this way of cooking?
There’s lot of them. There’s a lot of stuff in the bottom of the jar when it’s finished that I’m using constantly. The vinegar at the bottom of the pickle jar? When I make salad dressing, that’s what I use now. The syrup at the bottom of the can of preserved apricots or peaches? I flavor teas with that—iced tea in the summer, hot tea in the winter. It’s kind of great—you’re reusing the sugar.
I was pleasantly surprised about the joys of reinforcing waters. When I blanch rhubarb, I’ll put it in the fridge and later blanch more rhubarb in that same water. I’ll do that over and over again, and when I’m done with it, I have this really strong-flavored rhubarb water. I’ll make a granita with it, make soda with it, or heat it up and drink it with honey.
Carrots, too. Carrots were originally cultivated for their greens. I hated throwing away those carrot tops. They make a fabulous vegetable pesto. You have to blanch them first, like you do with ramps, because if you don’t it’s too grassy. That is fantastic with meat, though not so much with fish, because of that really heavy vegetable quality. The same goes with radish greens—I was surprised at how delicious they were. When I was canning tomatoes yesterday, I got so much tomato water off the canning process. For a pint of tomatoes, I’ll get half a cup of tomato water or more, which I threw into some bean soup instead of putting in an extra cup of water.
Your previous book, Well-Preserved, was all about small-batch canning and preserving, and in this book you talk about making nanobatches of stock and such—are those key ideas both for cooking in tiny city kitchens but also for not letting this way of cooking take over your whole day?
Well-Preserved is true to where I stand philosophically. I was interested in doing not just small-batch, but in the idea that you preserve foods to use them, which is what’s been missing. Historically, you preserved foods when they were in because you won’t have them later. I observed people preserving, they would give some away, which is great, but they weren’t really using them. They weren’t using that activity, that work, to solve cooking problems later in the season. My inclination is to think of preserving as step one of making dinner in December. That’s not new, that’s what it is, but that perspective is easy to veer away from.
Do you feel like a home cook can still embrace the spirit of the idea of kitchen ecosystems without embracing full-on water bath canning?
Or pressure canning. Everyone has a kitchen ecosystem. I have this friend Kitty, who’s a fashion model. In her kitchen she had some takeout, some cigarettes in the fridge, lots of bottles of vino, and that was it. That was her kitchen ecosystem. She was also really thin, so it worked for her. My friend Fabio, who has a restaurant in D.C., is from Le Marche, where my dad is from. His kitchen ecosystem is like an old grocer’s pantry. Yours is yours. What you cook, what you eat, what you buy, that’s the series of interlocking sets that define your eating. If you go into your kitchen and look, you’ll start to really see who you are and what your tendencies are. It’s better to look at what you do cook and start replacing the commercial with homemade.
Do you feel like there’s been an uptick in interest in and attention to canning and preserving?
Oh my god, yes. I love it. It feels like a revolution. I am sorry so many people are scared of pressure canning. When I make four pints of stock it takes twenty minutes to pressure can. I’ll often make just one pint of stock and put it in the fridge. I’ll use a stockpot like a compost—I’ll just toss stuff in the stockpot when I’m cooking dinner. I mix up chicken, meats, mushrooms, vegetables—I’m really loose about it.
I think that [an increase in] pressure canning is on the horizon. The pressure canners now, they’re not like your grandmother’s that was going to blow the roof off the house. They’re very safe. Like anything that involves heat, you just have to pay attention.
This time of year, when the markets are overflowing with produce, what are you cooking and preserving?
I’m in Colorado right now. The other day I got a bunch of peaches, so I made three things. No, I made four things! I made peach ice cream, I made a tomato and peach salad with sliced onions, and some peach jam—just two little half pints. And I put up one pint of peaches with simple syrup and a little white wine in there and some thyme from outside. That was over the course of two days—I didn’t do all that in one day. But I did two things related to actually eating right away and two related to preserving.
Last night, we had people over for dinner—my friend Nathalie, who owns Global Table [in New York City] and her husband. There’s a lot of good meats out here, so we had bollito misto with chimichurri my husband made. I made way too much meat—I was just really excited that they were here. There were ribs, and I used smoked pork chops from some local people here and smoked chicken thighs. The stock we didn’t get to last night, so this morning I drained it off and put in the fridge. And the stock I’ll cook pasta in. Have you done that? You don’t need to do anything but cook pasta in stock and garnish it with herbs. Boom.
I also put beans to soak overnight, and with the leftover meat I’ll make cassoulet. I’ll cook beans in some stock with the torn-up meat from last night and homemade breadcrumbs, and that’s dinner. And the leftover stock I’ll can.
The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals by Eugenia Bone. Clarkson Potter, Sept. ISBN 978-0-385-34512-5