It’s the time of year that our gardens are winding down their abundant production: zucchini by the bushel, tomatoes by the crate, and enough lettuce to feed a farm full of rabbits. We all do our best to use as much as we can but often find ourselves with leftovers and scraps beyond our uses. Carrot and apple peels, fish bones and heads, milk that’s gone past its expiration date. These are things that we all see in our kitchens. Some of us compost, others throw them out, or pour them down a drain.
But there is another way.
What if I told you that you can turn your overlooked scraps into wonderfully scrumptious delicacies? Those apple peels and cores can be easily turned into a delicious homemade vinegar and the milk transformed into yogurt. Think of the smiles when your friends and family enjoy the craft vinegar you give them as a holiday gift or the fish sauce that becomes your secret ingredient umami bomb in your coveted meatloaf recipe.
Let’s get started.
The fruits and vegetables that we peel before using—carrots, pineapple, turnips, and apples—make wonderful vinegars. Roasted carrots dressed with fresh herbs and homemade carrot vinegar will be a showstopper at your Thanksgiving meal.
How to do it?
Take your peels and put them into a 1 quart mason jar so that they fill it just under 3/4 of the way. Add 2 teaspoons of sugar and then fill the jar with water. Cover the jar with cheesecloth and be sure to keep the scrap submerged in the water and to add more water as needed. In about 2 months you’ll have a delicious vinegar!
If you want to speed up the process then cut the amount of water in half and replace it with your favorite wine, cider, or beer. Be sure to choose an alcohol that will pair well with the flavor of the ingredient you use. Cider for apple peels, rosè wine for carrot peels, a wheat ale for citrus pulp.
How does this work?
Fruits and vegetables naturally have yeasts on them that produce alcohol when they consume the sugars found in them. By putting the scraps in sugar water you are creating an optimal environment for this to happen. After enough alcohol has been produced, a type of bacteria called acetobacter starts to grow in the liquid. This bacteria consumes alcohol and turns it into vinegar. Acetobacter are naturally occurring, they can be found everywhere. You’ll notice a jelly like substance growing on the top of your vinegar. This is the colony of acetobacter and is called a Mother. Use this Mother to start your next batch of vinegar. There are some vinegar mothers that have been used over and over for centuries. Talk about a family heirloom!
Most of us associate this ingredient with the cuisines of South-Eastern Asia, but did you know a fish sauce called garum has been used in Mediterranean cuisines since the Romans ruled? We often overlook the ubiquitous British pantry staple Worcestershire Sauce, which is fish sauce that’s been fortified with molasses, tamarind, herbs, and spices.
How to do it?
To make an amazing fish sauce at home all you need is fish or other seafood scraps and salt. Liberally layer the scraps with salt, about 1 ounce of salt for every 8 ounces of scraps, in a mason jar, cover it, and leave it be for a while. The longer you let the fish sauce brew the better it will be. I let mine brew at room temperature for a minimum of 12 months. Don’t worry about the fish spoiling, there’s enough salt to prevent that from happening. Then strain out the scraps and bottle the sauce. To turn it into Worcestershire sauce add molasses, tamarind, salt, sugar, vinegar, onions, and garlic. Let this brew for an additional 30 days and strain again.
The amount of fish sauce that you’ll use in any given recipe will be minimal. A few drops go a long way, so one quart of of this sauce could easily last you a year or longer. You’ll also notice a big difference in the quality of your home brew versus the store bought sauce. The store bought sauce is stabilized with preservatives and colored with caramel because they don’t use much fish in the brew.
How to use it?
I love adding a few drops of this to a citrusy dressing to garnish grilled fish. It’s also great added to a lemon butter sauce to toss with pasta or as a savory umami booster in your meatloaf recipe.
I was once among those that thought that at the stroke of midnight on the date printed on my carton of milk that it would be spoiled. Many times I poured it down the drain. Well, this myth should no longer be falsely perpetuated. Unless directly contaminated or abused by extreme temperature swings, milk won’t spoil; it transforms. The forgotten, almost expired milk in your fridge has simply become cultured. This culture will typically manifest as either yogurt when young, or cheese when older.
Sometimes you’ll notice that what was once milk looks like curds floating in whey. Well what you have is curds in whey, also known as cottage cheese. Simply pour this through a strainer and mix in a pinch or two of salt. Once it’s is drained you have homemade cottage cheese. This cottage cheese will be drier than the mass produced stuff you’re used to. Don’t be dismayed by this difference; your accidental homemade version is fresher, tastier, and frankly, better. If you want it to be wetter then add a tablespoon or two of heavy cream.
When heavy cream goes through the same transformation you can end up with what I consider to be one of the finest dairy products in existence, cultured butter. Four ounces of cultured ‘European style’ butter can easily set you back $5 at the store so accidentally making it is always a real treat.
Simply take the heavy cream and whip it, either by hand or with a stand mixer, until the fat separates and clumps together. Drain off the liquid, precious in its own right and aptly named buttermilk, and bundle the fat, now butter, in cheesecloth or a kitchen towel. Use your hands to squeeze out any additional liquid and let the bundled butter continue to drain over a bowl in your fridge overnight.
Traditionally cultured butter is used as a ‘table cheese’ to spread on bread or crackers due to its rich flavor. You can cook with it if you like but the special nuances of its taste and flavor will be lost.
I hope these DIY projects spark a new understanding about the food in your fridge and compost pail. Just because we think that something has no gastronomic value doesn’t mean that we can’t assign one to it. Have fun exploring all that your food can be!
—Jeremy Umansky is the resident Forager & Larder Master for Trentina and The Greenhouse Tavern. You might also see him in the Cuyahoga Valley, collecting species of wild plants and fungi for use in the restaurants. Outside of the restaurants, Jeremy cooks at home for his wife and baby daughter, experiments with fermentation, and writes about culinary preservation, foraging and the natural environment.
Photos provided by Jeremy Umansky.