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Kitchen waste is a lack of imagination

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

My husband paid me quite a compliment recently:

“You ought to have a cooking show and call it ‘Kathi’s Cooking With Garbage.’ ”

When he said it, he was laughing. And I was grabbing up the shells from a couple of lobster tails and the leftover corn cobs from our dinner plates to save.

Hey, lobster might be almost as cheap as dirt – well, high-end neighborhood dirt – but there still is plenty of flavor you can simmer out of the shells. And cobs are packed with corn flavor even after you take the kernels off them.

Simmer lobster shells and corn cobs with a little water for 30 minutes or so and you can make a base for chowder.

OK, maybe I need help. But it’s my favorite game: How many ways can I come up with to use what someone else would throw away?

During the too-short asparagus season, I save the ends I break off stalks and simmer them, then puree them and strain away the tough fibers. Add a little cream and you’ve got asparagus soup.

I’ve been known to dry tomato skins and grind them into little intensely flavored tomato powder. I won’t say I do it every week, but yes, I have gone there.

Is it really any different from keeping a broth bag in the freezer to catch the wing tips and backs from whole chickens? And if I sometimes toss in onion skins and carrot tops, well, who’s to know?

Don’t get me started on celery leaves, people. They make lousy pesto, but the only reason I know is that I’ve tried.

The blame for my trash-cooking ways starts with my mother. She considered kitchen waste a lack of imagination. Learning to cook came with stern lectures about trimming onions down to the root and not throwing away that nubbin left when you dice a pickle.

The real queen, though, was her mother. My grandmother fed four kids of her own and at least one stray child through the Depression. She never lost her frugal habits.

Her house in Atlanta had steep stairs down into the basement. She would rinse bread bags and aluminum foil, then hang them to dry from a clothesline that ran down the basement stairs. You never went down there without hearing the soft rustle and scrape of plastic and foil.

Yes, I used to think my grandmother was nuts. Who saves bread bags? And I hoped I would never be poor enough to reuse aluminum foil. I resisted the siren call of frugalism as long as I could.

But genes go too deep, I suppose. Like all addictions, it started slow. First I was saving egg shells and coffee grounds for compost. And then I started to pause before I tossed things into the compost bucket, to consider what I could reuse.

After I tested the recipes for this week’s story on tomatoes, I turned the trimmings from those round sandwiches into croutons. The onions that flavored the sandwiches got cooked slowly into caramelized onions. The caramelized onions went into the fish chowder I made from those corn cobs and lobster shells.

My husband calls it Kathi’s Cooking With Garbage.

I say, how sweet: He noticed.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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