This Cookbook Helped Me Stop Wasting Food in My Fridge Like a Loser

This Cookbook Helped Me Stop Wasting Food in My Fridge Like a Loser

I hate to say it, but I throw a lot of food away. When I get home from the farmers market, unpack my CSA, or am shuffling things around in my fridge looking for a precarious ledge on which to store my leftover Indian food, I often vow to get better at keeping my fridge clean, promising myself that I’m going to finally do a deep and satisfying purge and restart my fridge as a fresh food utopia where nothing is expired and everything is clean and sparkling (I know you know what I’m talking about). In my defense, sometimes I do clean out the fridge and get everything in shape; but it’s hard to maintain. I cook daily, but the only times I really push myself to get ultra creative with “borderline” produce is when I’m drunkenly combining possibly expired veggies into a hackneyed pasta or a mutant tartine. Whether you’re like me—aka somebody with a constant, daily flow of fresh foods in and out—or somebody like my mother (sorry, Mom!), whose fridge basically consists of an entire wall of years-expired condiments, some apples, and five containers of soy and cashew milk, we could all do better.

Luckily, all of us doing better is the starting point of Perfectly Good Food, an amazing new sustainability manifesto from Margaret and Irene Li, Boston-based authors of Double Awesome Chinese Food and co-founders of popular dumpling and sandwich shop Mei Mei. They also started Food Waste Feast, a project to educate cooks about food waste and sustainability. Here, the Li sisters open with some pretty startling numbers, claiming (with footnotes!) that the average four-person American home wastes around $30 of food a week, which ultimately comes down to about $4 billion of wasted food per year in the U.S. alone. (The amount of waste I witnessed just at the Wh*le Foods I worked at a decade ago was, to put it mildly, absolutely shocking.) It would follow, then, that we should overcome capitalism learn to be more conscious and sustainable in how we handle the food we buy, and put more energy into achieving socialism personal accountability in our kitchens.

W. W. Norton & Company

Perfectly Good Food

$28$25.20 at Amazon

The Li sisters point out in Perfectly Good Food that when we waste food, we aren’t just throwing away our own money and the food we bought, but all the water, production, and labor involved in making it as well. There are some deeper, more structural conversations to be had here, to be sure, but Perfectly Good Food is more concerned with how we live and should strive to live our lives at home. I love that this book, while ultimately dealing with one of today’s critical issues, doesn’t take itself too seriously, instead opting to present its research, engaging writing, and abundance of great culinary ideas in a colorful 90s vibe, joining the ranks of modern books whose presentation reminds me of another literary masterpiece, Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life (I mean this sincerely).

You almost have to present this massive variety of information that way. Perfectly Good Food includes not only recipes, but storage tips, food waste philosophy, and even intel to help you determine whether food’s safe to eat. On that note, there’s a conversation about expiration dates that few people are willing to have today, even though expiration dates are basically just made up and not regulated at all (this is something one of my friends who works at a major food distributor reminds me of often). In any case, the authors are down to “go there,” which makes this book refreshing. 

Perfectly Good Food is an invigorating change from typical cookbooks because it’s (fittingly) not really concerned with perfect, beautiful, farm-to-fridge food; rather, it’s about getting down and dirty with the stuff you already have. You aren’t going to get a Martha Stewart-style manifesto here about how you need the most gorgeous, succulent strawberries to showcase on a pristine layered cake. Instead, you’re getting smart recipes for “scrap chili oil,” which relies on scraps of garlic skins, onion peels, and scallion ends, or “Anything-in-the-Kitchen Pasta,” which demands two cups of basically any greens and veggies and three quarters of a cup of Parmesan or another hard cheese. The “Make-It-Your-Own Stir-Fry” gives a pretty fun diagram for planning a perfect stir-fry based on what you’ve got around, i.e., choosing your preferred acid (like black vinegar) and sweet component (sugar); some neutral oil; however much garlic you like; four cups of any leafy green (or a pound of crispy veggies); and optional add-ins like oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, or black bean sauce. There are similar moments for galettes, noodle soups, muffins, salads, and a lot more. Granted, there are also a ton of straightforward recipes with exact ingredients that you can go out of your way to pick up. There’s really something here for everyone, and it should be very fun to use this book as a road map for making the most of what’s in your fridge. 

More than recipes, though, Perfectly Good Food will inspire you to reconsider the way you think about and handle food (and I don’t mean ordering smarter at Taco Bell, which we could all stand to do). For me, the overarching takeaway was that most things can be repurposed instead of thrown away. Duh, I already knew that. Everyone knows that, you might be thinking. Yeah, but do you actually do anything about it, or just tacitly think about it when you toss your sad, mushy bananas in the compost (if you even compost, which this book says you should)? To that end, this book has some easy tips for staying on top of groceries, like putting stuff that could go bad first at eye level in the fridge, or even instituting an “Eat-Me-First Box”; from there, you’d start visualizing apples as “future applesauce,” and tomatoes would shuffle out of BLT stardom to live a second life as marinara-sauce heroes. This book also wants to empower you to make stock, freeze your food, and learn to store your food properly. Stone fruit, for example, “should be stored unwashed on the counter, out of the direct sun, until ripe … then moved to the refrigerator.” Did you know that? I didn’t! 

Like Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life, Perfectly Good Food has so much content that it’s really hard to process in a single read; it’s one of those volumes that should live on your shelf so that you can go to it when you need it and always find what you’re looking for. Open to almost any page, and you’ll learn something amazing about how to think about your produce. Thus, this is an important book for everyone who buys groceries, really—it’ll make you think about what you’re doing with your beloved fruits and veggies, and will make it fun to reconceptualize your kitchen into a mean, green, food waste-fighting machine.

Buy ‘Perfectly Good Food’ on Amazon.

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