Interview with Sarah Owens | Food Cycle Feature
We connected with Encinitas-local cookbook author of Sourdough, Toast and Jam and Heirloom: Time Honored Techniques, Nourishing Traditions, and Modern Recipes. Sarah is a naturally-leavened baker, professional horticulturist, and culinary instructor who believes strongly in the power of baking to foster community and social change. She is an advocate of regenerative agricultural practices to rebuild global grain sheds and believes stone milling can bring good bread back to the table.
In addition to great food, Sarah is passionate about preventing food waste and is a participant in Solana Center’s Food Cycle community compost program. We joined Sarah for a conversation where she shared a handful of great tips around preventing waste in the kitchen. Check out the interview and Sarah’s recipe for Preserved Lemons below!
Why is food waste prevention important to you?
So many of our precious natural resources are sequestered to food production. In the state of California where water is scarce and fire pressure is at a critical high, food waste prevention not only honors the environmental inputs of farming but also the people that endure heatwaves and critically dangerous air quality to put food on our tables. We live in an interconnected web and our individual decisions about how we use resources and give respect to our labor force are felt collectively in so many ways.
I believe our task begins with studying the language of nature, its intelligence, and how to envelop its prudence into our daily existence. In doing so, we not only improve the quality of our own lives but ensure the survival of the earth that sustains us. Discovering and supporting this mutuality restores the senses. It connects us to each other. It is a practice that we can welcome into our homes, feel in our bodies, and taste at our tables. Cooperating with the rhythm of the seasons and rethinking collectively about how our decisions impact others are only the first steps. By actively participating in food waste prevention, we are moving from mourning a rapidly changing climate to taking action and making change.
What are some ways you try to reduce your waste?
As with most actions, there are micro, meso, and macro approaches to reducing food waste.
- On a micro level, there are many practical steps to reducing food waste in a home kitchen.
- Making sure there is adequate storage space for fresh produce as well as processing it in a way that maximizes its lifespan once it reaches your kitchen is key. Take a few hours once you get home from the market to wash and spin dry leafy greens before wrapping them in reusable bags to maintain humidity. For parsley or cilantro, cut the ends and stick them in a small glass of water and leave them on the counter.
- Think of the edible potential of a whole fruit or vegetable: if you typically throw away the skin or the rind, consider how these could be processed and used. Learn to make vinegar (it’s easy!) from apple peels and cores. Candy organic citrus peels. Make flavored salts from excess herbs, chili peppers, or citrus peel.
- If you have excess produce that you suspect will go bad before it is cooked, consider a quick way to preserve it either through pickling, fermenting, dehydrating, or freezing. Many of these things take only a few extra moments of hands-on time and not only prevent food waste but add a lot of flavor, whimsy, and discovery to your meals!
- On a meso level, it’s important to consider the systems in which you and your household participate and the organizations (such as the Solana Center) that can help in waste reduction. I try and participate in systems of agriculture that consider the whole ecosystem and give back to the earth as much as they extract. The best way to do this is by creating relationships with producers that are transparent about their practices. Purchase from farms that do not use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides but are also actively working toward building the microbiome of their soil, especially by composting food waste. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, so much of what is produced never even makes it to market because of less than desirable size or appearance. Supporting farms that consciously divert food waste through creating value-added products, composting, or feeding their animals with #2s and #3s is a great place to start.
- The macro level asks us to get involved through understanding and shaping legislation, creating economic opportunities for diverting food waste, and studying the demographics, politics, and technology of supporting community efforts in waste reduction. Thankfully we seem to be entering a new era in opportunity for all of these.
What role does dinner planning play in food waste prevention?
Personally, the rigidity of meal planning can feel daunting, but it is a helpful approach, particularly for large families. Intentionally strategizing at the beginning of the week (or in COVID times, maybe every 2 to 3 weeks) helps with staying inspired in the kitchen and being efficient with ingredients. I have a friend that keeps an inventory spreadsheet of what’s in her pantry and freezer so that she’s not tempted to buy ingredients that collect dust, get freezer burn, or go rancid. That goes a little too far for me, but it works well for her!
On a practical level though, meal planning can not only prevent food waste by maximizing your ingredients, it can help you save time and money. Many of the following steps require only a little hands-on time but can really make a difference when you’re critically busy. At the beginning of the week, spend some time going a few things:
- Batch cook a few staple vegetables and/or grains.
Roast or steam vegetables like winter squash, carrots, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, or beets that can be dressed in salads, blended into soups, or served with a variety of main dishes throughout for the week. Sprout and steam whole grains for improved digestibility and flavor to mix with roasted vegetables. Learn to maximize a whole vegetable by steaming and serving the leafy tops of root vegetables while they’re perky and fresh and then making a shaved turnip or radish, miso, and chive salad a few nights later.
- Prepare sauces, dressings, or homemade spice seasonings for quickly making things interesting and tasty. Homemade, simple dressings like a garlic, lemon, and tahini sauce or a miso, soy, and ginger vinaigrette easily and quickly add flavor to steamed fish, sauteed vegetables, or a grain bowl. Homemade spice mixes like dukkha or gomasio can turn something basic like roasted carrots into something special.
- Use and upcycle meat and animal bones and fat.
A whole chicken has so many uses when roasted or boiled including salads, soups, crispy skin for snacking. Use the carcass for making and freezing batches of stock. If cooking meats such as pork or bacon, reserving the fat is both resourceful and adds flavor when cooking other foods.
It’s also important to be honest with ourselves and recognize our habits and natural inclinations. For example, I know when I go shopping at a really lush farmer’s market that I will be tempted to buy too much produce that might turn before I can consume it all. I go with a check list but will purchase what attracts my eye within reason. For example, if I’m really lusting after a plump bulb of fennel, I ask myself if I’ll have time to use the fronds to make a pesto. At this time of the year, it helps to focus on produce that has long storage potential like root vegetables (beets, sweet potatoes, turnips) and brassicas (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spigarello). There are some things that I buy that I like the idea of but rarely am inspired to use – it’s important to recognize that habit and resist purchasing these things because you think you should.
How do you incorporate food waste reduction in your own kitchen?
Fermentation plays a huge role in food waste reduction in my kitchen. As someone who lives alone, I can sometimes fatigue of seasonal foods or will suddenly be flush with a harvest of any one food I’m growing. Fermenting is an excellent preservation method that takes very little time, equipment, or skill and makes sure this abundance is available months (or even a year or more) later. As a bonus, fermentation is not only a preservation technique that harnesses the power of wild microbes, it develops unique flavors that enhance our health by supporting the microbiome. When incorporating fermented foods into a balanced and healthy lifestyle, the palate transitions from a standardized flavor spectrum of salty or sweet to deeply complex profiles of vibrancy. While some areas of the world have ancient histories of fermentation, much of the modern western world has dulled its senses with packaged and prepared foods high in fructose corn syrup and synthetic preservatives. Culturing our foods not only preserves seasonally fleeting ingredients but adds probiotics to our diet and notable piquancy through unlocking amino and organic acids, esters, and other aromatic compounds.
Finally, being an avid baker and recipe tester, thinking of clever ways to use up excess bread is a huge preoccupation! I’m always making breadcrumbs, croutons, sweet bread and seasonal fruit puddings, savory stratas, or dumplings with leftover bread. Resourcefulness takes practice but once you are in the habit, it takes less effort with time.
Do you have a favorite recipe that involves repurposing food or utilizing typically discarded food?
All three of my books (Sourdough, Toast and Jam, and Heirloom) are packed with fermentation recipes but the latter two focus particularly on preservation techniques. Preserved Lemons are a great gateway recipe for beginning fermentation enthusiasts. Check it out below.
How does your commitment to sustainability influence your work in the food industry?
As someone who is most recognized as a baker and fermenter, I feel a responsibility to encourage transparency in our food web, particularly around the genetic material of seeds and how they are grown, harvested, milled, and fermented into our daily bread. Grains such as corn, wheat, and rice have been so commodified that there is very little common knowledge as to how they arrive in our pantries. It’s very encouraging to see the increasing number of small farms that are working directly with stone millers but there is still a gap in knowledge as to how to use these ‘fresh’ flours. I see my dedication to and experience with these products as an opportunity to share knowledge through my books, my subscription Patreon platform for sourdough baking, and via social media. My recipes revolve around three important concepts that guarantee flavor and nutrition: chemical-free and regenerative farming, minimal processing, and natural fermentation. These are long-term investments in our personal and planetary health, but the most convincing evidence of their impact is flavor.
MAKES ONE LARGE 1-LITER JAR OR 2 PINTS
Winter is high season for Meyer lemons, my favorite citrus to use in a variety of dishes ranging from sweet to savory. Their perfumed thin skins and complex flavor can be enjoyed fresh for only a short time, making them the perfect seasonal candidates for preservation. I prefer to make one neutral jar of preserved lemons without spice and several laced with aromatic flavors that remind me of navigating the exotic souks of the medina quarter of Marrakesh.
The following recipe can be adapted using other citrus as well: try common Eureka lemons, limes, clementines, or mandarins. Just be sure to use organic citrus to avoid the cocktail of sprays that most conventional fruits endure. The thinner the skin, the more likely you will want to quarter the fruit before salting. If using thick-skinned fruits, such as common lemons, limes, or oranges, you may slice them into ½-inch-thick rounds before salting and stacking them into jars slightly larger than the width of the fruit.
800 g / 8 to 9 small Meyer lemons
240 g / 1 cup coarse sea salt
75 to 110 g / ⅓ to ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, as needed
3 whole cloves
1½ tablespoons candied ginger, coarsely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise pod
3 whole bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
Sprinkle about ¼ inch of salt in the bottom of the jar. Set aside.
Quarter the lemons three-fourths of the way down, leaving one end intact, or slice the lemons into rounds. Remove any seeds and place the fruit pieces in a large bowl. Stuff the quartered lemons with a few pinches of salt. Toss the citrus with the remaining salt and allow them to sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes.
Lightly press down on the fruit to extract the juice, then pack it into the jar, alternating layers with the spices (if using). Pour in the remaining juice from the bowl. Add enough squeezed lemon juice to completely cover the salted lemons. Position the lid to seal and place the jar in a cool, dry location, tamping it lightly to eliminate any trapped air. Leave the jar for at least 1 month to cure.
To use, simply remove the slices or wedges from their brining jar and rinse them. Screw the lid back on the jar and store the remaining lemons in a cool location or in the refrigerator for up to 1 year.
*All photos courtesy of Ngoc Minh Ngo and Roost Books. The Preserved Lemons recipe can be found in Sarah’s latest book Heirloom, courtesy of Roost Books as well.