Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Waste Nothing

I’ve never been a big fan of conspicuous consumption. I drive vehicles until they fall apart, shop at thrift stores and salvage building materials. My house and barn are 145 years old. When it comes to food, nothing goes to waste.

Thrift is practically non-existent in the American kitchen. We buy ingredients that can easily be made with things which routinely hit the trash—bread crumbs, salad dressing and my all-time pet peeve…stock.

Even before I read Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, I was firm believer in bone broth. As I cooked my way through college, each mentor stressed the importance of taste that comes from real stocks. But the memory that sticks out most in my mind is that of when I inadvertently tossed vegetable scraps in the garbage can at Grandma Smiths’.

Louise was a tough ol’ bird who grew up on a homestead in the Texas panhandle during the Great Depression. The family joke was if Grandma ever had it, she probably still does. Unlike the packrats chronicled on today’s reality shows, Louise’s belongings were neatly stored in an organized manner and she knew where everything was.

But the day I put the ends and peels from the onions, carrots and celery in the trash, that sweet septuagenarian lost her cool.

“No! No! No! Never throw out food,” she screeched while digging through the garbage can for every scrap I had shamefully tossed out. “Always keep all of your vegetable scraps and bones and then make broth when you get enough.” A plastic container labeled, “stuff for stock” was set out for me to fill with everything trimmed from the vegetables that went into the turkey stuffing. “Put it all in here,” she commanded.

The next day, it was my sister-in-law’s turn to reap the wrath of Louise when she put the turkey bones in the trash. Once again, Grandma Smith picked through the garbage can separating leg and wing bones from used napkins and empty roll packages. “You girls would starve to death if there were ever another Depression,” she told us.

All of the raw vegetable scraps and turkey carcass went into a big pot of water and simmered away until the next morning when it was strained and divided into quart jars. Louise sent one home with each of us. “Just warm it up in a coffee cup and drink it. It will keep you strong.”

From then on out, I strove to perfect stock-making. At the restaurant at Wheeler Hot Springs, I learned how to roast the bones and caramelize the vegetables prior to simmering. As the companion of a commercial fisherman, I found out what seafood produced the richest bouillabaisse. The Thai shipping and receiving clerk at the software company taught me that turkey and chicken feet make incredible pho. Not only that, turkey foot broth makes the best gravy in the world.

The stock is done when the toenails fall off.

But it wasn’t until I began raising veal calves that I truly learned what bone broth was all about.

“Got any veal bones?” became a constant request when I entered the world of farmers markets. Bones? These people want bones? The breathiness in their voices when they asked for them made me begin to wonder what it was about veal bones that had them so excited so the next time I to a calf to my butcher, I asked them to bag the bones.

“How many pounds to a bag?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Five?” When I worked with bones for stock at the restaurant, we always worked in twenty pound batches. Later, I learned that places like the Greenbrier go through a hundred pounds a week.

What made veal bones so special?

Veal & goat bones ready for roasting.

My answer came the first time I made a batch. When it cooled, it had the consistency of Jell-O. Veal bones are high in natural gelatin, a protein produced by partial hydrolysis of collagen extracted from the boiled bones and connective tissues. Customers would salivate at the sight of joint capsules in the bags, oohing and aahing over the broth that soon would be simmering in their kitchen. Even more coveted were the neatly cut disks of bone and marrow that resembled checkers.

Silky veal stock rich in natural gelatin

While culinary perfection is the target of most bone buyers, after a knee injury, I discovered another reason to consume rich, home-made stock on a regular basis. It turns out the stuff contains all the natural vitamins, minerals and nutrients for healing connective tissue injuries and inflammation.

“Why would you pay for cartilage extract pills or joint supplements when you produce some of the most incredible healing foods right on your farm?” was the response from my osteopath when I inquired about natural healing products. From that day forward, there has always been a two-quart jar of bone broth in my fridge.

Dealing with the ethnic communities, I’ve learned that everything (except for the sludge in the intestinal tract) is edible, despite what the USDA says. When I take an animal to a USDA processor, I only get back the approved items—no lungs, no pancreas, no feet and they certainly are not going to stamp a goat carcass on which the hide has been left on, hair singed and then scraped.

“Where is the skin?” questioned my customer from Côte d'Ivoire who wanted goat heads for traditional African pepper soup. “That is the best part.” When I called my processor to inquire about leaving on the skin, they replied in a rather disgusted tone the inspectors would not approve such a thing.

Later that year, I singed and scraped a goat to roast for my annual Labor Day picnic. The head with skin intact, along with offal the USDA deemed an inedible, went to my African customer and friend who made pepper soup to share at the picnic. Despite legal edicts from the government that what we were eating wasn’t legal to sell for consumption, the food was delicious, no one got sick and no one died (except the goat).

Similarly, the feet are a much requested item, especially calves’ feet for chefs. However, for them to be sold for public consumption, the USDA processor must have specialized equipment (read: expensive) to deliver legally inspected feet. For goats and lamb, cleaning feet involves burning the external hoof until the thick keratin covering can be popped off exposing the soft, rubbery tissue that produces copious amounts of natural gelatin when cooked.

A few days after Eid last year, one of my customers brought over some lamb stew he made from the legs and feet of his holy day sacrifice. “I did it in the pressure cooker so you can even eat the bones,” he said. At first, I was skeptical, but he was right and so I at the spicy stew—bones and all. The experience got me thinking, why take a processed pill when calcium could be consumed in raw form?

Sustainability has become the paradigm of the new millennium. Paleo diets, nose-to-tail dinners and small scale producers selling at farmers markets have become chic, but in my experiences within all of these communities, it’s still a cafeteria-style adherence based upon convenience and fortitude.

Nothing irks me more that going to a farmers market and finding someone selling New York Strips or Fillet Mignon. “Do you have any bones?” I’ll ask when I find these wasteful cuts offered. Sadly, the majority of the time the answer is “no”. Wake up, people! Bones equal flavor and nutrients. And for those who actually farm for a living…bone-in cuts and soup bones themselves increase the overall profitability of an animal.

Farmers striving for sustainability are learning how to use what was once considered a by-product to create either additional revenue streams or save money—the dairy farmer who raises their bull calves for veal, the cheesemaker who feeds whey to pigs, the produce farmers composting unsold product to spread back on to their fields. This new era of thrift needs to trickle down into our daily living when it comes to food. Not only will it save you some money, it just might make you healthier, too.

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