Eating in season. Eating locally. They’re not just foodie buzzwords, that’s how our ancestors ate. They had to. There was no running to the store when they were out of something, there was no DoorDash, Ubereats, or Instacart. So they had to be resourceful. They cooked using everything. Making the most of what they had and reducing food waste was their way of life.
The term is cucina povera. The rough translation is “peasant cooking”, but like seasonal and local, there’s much more to it. Cucina povera gives us the means to feed ourselves well the way our ancestors did. Considering we waste up to half our food in this country, cucina povera is an old-world tradition that deserves to go retro. Rebranding cucina povera as “conscious cookery” (because who wants to be a peasant?) offers more modern appeal, but by any name, it’s about having kitchen smarts, the basic life skills that were second nature and common sense just a few generations back.
Flash forward to today, and Americans spend less time in the kitchen and at the table than any other nation. It shows. We’re also at the bottom when it comes to sustainability, but consistently at the top of the list when it comes to obesity, costing close to $200 billion in annual health care costs.
Rather than feeling old-school, there’s something progressive about cucina povera. It provides the answer to many of the ills plaguing us today. You don’t have to be a peasant, a pioneer, a seasoned homesteader, or an alchemist to create a little something-from-nothing magic. Conscious cookery is what many people are trying to learn during the Covid-19 pandemic. Eating what’s in season and what’s available, including foods grown in your garden, is a great start. It reconnects us with some old-school wisdom, and it’s just the start of more conscious cookery techniques worth a try.
DIY Vegetable Broth
Instead of tossing or composting raw vegetable scraps, turn them into homemade vegetable broth. Save them up in a large, resealable bag, preferably a compostable one, and store the bag of vegetable bits in the freezer. Onion skins, potato peels, woody broccoli stems, carrot fronds, add whatever you have to the bag every time you prepare vegetables and herbs.
When you’ve filled the bag and have a little time, make broth. Bring a quart or two of water to boil in a large pot. Add the frozen vegetable scraps. When the pot returns to a boil, place a lid on the pot, turn off the heat, and leave the pot on the burner. Let it sit in place for 30 minutes or longer. This is called passive cooking. The heat causes the vegetables to infuse the water, creating broth for free.
Remove the heat, and allow the broth to cool, then strain through a colander (and maybe cheesecloth if you want to completely remove any veggie bits) into a waiting pot. Compost cooked and cooled scraps. Refrigerate or freeze broth until you’re ready to use it. Use it instead of water for cooking whole grains or for stews. The broth builds flavor and adds nutrients but no calories. It can also be used as a mild fertilizer for seedlings. Best of all, never buy commercial vegetable broth again.
Add Water, Reduce Waste
Soaking whole grains and dried beans in water for several hours or overnight softens them, helps them cook quicker, and increases their digestibility. When you’re ready to cook them, drain and rinse, but reserve the soaking water. Don’t let it go down the drain. Give it one last task.
The water retains trace minerals from the grains or beans and provides free irrigation and a little mild fertilization for your garden. The same’s true for the pot of water you use to cook green beans or corn or to hard-boil eggs. Save it, let it cool, and use it to give your plants a drink.
Alas, this trick doesn’t work for the bean or grain cooking water, which turns murky from cooking. When poured into the garden, it tends to attract flies and other pests. Save that water for the kitchen. You can use it to elevate cuisine for free.
The water used to cook pasta becomes starchy. Ladling in a little when tossing pasta and sauce helps the pasta and sauce bond and creates a silky finish. Beans impart a rich flavor to the water they’re cooked with. What began as plain water becomes an excellent broth to be enjoyed by itself or to add to soups and stews.
Got sad celery or faded fennel in your fridge or garden? Give veggies that are past their prime the second chance they deserve by regrowing your produce. Cut away the limp bits and add them to compost. Or save them to make broth. Slice the pale, hard base horizontally so it sits flat, then place in a shallow bowl of water in a sunny spot. Within days, sometimes hours, it’ll sprout bright green ruffles of new leaves. Refresh water daily and when it looks established, transfer to a pot or directly into your garden, covering the base with dirt but leaving the new growth exposed. Stalks may grow out scrawny but bushy with leaves which taste of the very essence of celery or fennel. Try the same conscious cookery trick to regrow bok choy.
A healthy stem of lemongrass or bunch of scallions still joined together at the root end can also be made to live again. Pare away tough outer bits, place in a glass half full of water, and set in the sun. Change the water daily and within a week, you’ll see wee roots. Keep it going for another week or two. Plant in moist soil, keep watering until it’s established, and never buy scallions or lemongrass again.
Dried beans — your best friend in the kitchen — can also be your best friend in the garden. Just as they stretch the budget and offer us extra nourishment, they provide cheap nourishment for the soil.
Beans have roots with little nodules on them which fix nitrogen in the soil. Sure, you can buy bean seeds for cover cropping, but the dried beans in your kitchen work, too. Save fancy heirloom beans for a devoted crop or kitchen use. Basic commodity dried beans, like navy beans, black beans, and pinto beans, are all you need. Think of them as free green manure.
Next time you tear open a bag for soup or stew, reserve a handful or two for between seasons, when your garden plot is fallow. When soil field temperature reaches 50 degrees or above, it’s time to plant. Got kids? Encourage them to poke shallow holes in the dirt. Plant beans with plenty of space in between. With a little sun and water, the dried beans will germinate and grow.
Till the bean plants under before fall or spring planting to keep the nutrients in the soil intact, then enjoy how they help generate a more abundant crop in the coming season — naturally.
Adding fermented foods to your diet is not only trendy, but it also creates a colony of beneficial bacteria for a happy microbiome and preserves produce. It’s a win-win for you and what you grow. Commercial kombucha and yogurts at a few bucks a pop may be the urban answer, but for homesteaders, DIY pickles give our gut what it needs while preserving produce, too. If the idea of fermenting produces anxiety, — Botulism! Exploding jars! — quick pickling lets you produce in smaller, safer batches and still mollifies your microbiome.
Also called refrigerator pickling, quick pickling looks way harder than it is and is a wonderful example of conscious cookery. Immerse fresh produce in a hot brine of vinegar and water. Enhance with any fresh herb or whole spice. Fennel and caraway seeds add balance and natural sweetness to Brussel sprouts. Turmeric adds antioxidant power and a pretty saffron color to cauliflower. Dill and mustard seeds pair naturally with green beans. Peaches love ginger and chili. The pickles keep sealed and refrigerated for about a month. But they won’t be around that long.
Run out of pickles? Save the brine. Use it to flavor vinaigrettes. Or add a splash next time you’re in the mood for a dirty martini. Cheers!
Bonus: Cucina Povera Spa Treatment
Making avo toast? Or tomato and avocado salad? Smush any extra avo flesh that clings inside the peel and on the pit onto your hands — and in your hair and on your face. For the short term, you’ll look like an extra in a zombie flick. Give it a minute or two, and then a good rinse off. You’ll see — and feel — avocado’s healthy fat that is so yummy and good for us to eat, works on the outside of us, too. It softens skin and conditions hair naturally, outperforming a good many pricy products. It comes with compostable packaging and no alarming additives. It’s a true value-add.
So is conscious cookery.
You, too, can make the most of what you have and reduce food waste. How are you practicing conscious cookery on your homestead?