Nothing New: Zero Waste Storage for Fresh Herbs

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

One of the best ways to go zero waste is training an eagle eye on food waste. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that prior to last year, food waste wasn’t something I thought very much about, believing the compost bin absolved me of any food-waste-related-sins. Of course, that’s not the case. Even local foods require work and effort and energy: food has to be planted, watered, weeded, harvested, stored, packed, shipped, stored again. Reducing waste in the kitchen is not just about plastic wrap and paper towels; it’s about eating what we buy, too.

Wasting less food is one strategy that lends itself nicely to making do with the tools we already have on hand; it can be done with nothing more than a grocery list and a daily peek into each corner of the refrigerator. During my own refrigerator peeks last summer, I noticed that the foods that we most consistently allowed to go bad prior to eating were fresh herbs, and resolved to do better.

There are a few strategies that have helped us reduce the number of slimy parsley stems (etc.) that find their way to the compost. The most efficacious has been growing a few of our herbs ourselves: right now we have thyme, oregano, and mint still alive despite the paltry winter sunlight, and this summer I hope to add other favorites like parsley and cilantro to the mix. Because we pick only what we need for that meal, we never have to store the herbs we grow and they never go bad.

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Of course, that leaves many other herbs we don’t grow ourselves, which we instead buy and store. My experience has been that herbs can last for weeks or can go bad in what feels like seconds, and taking time to store them properly means the difference between the two. Here’s what I’ve learned:

-Remove bad herbs immediately: Whether you notice a few right when you get home from the grocery or later as you pull them out to cook, each time you see a yellowing or blackening leaf, pull it out and discard it. Sorting through a pile of some-slimy and some-fresh herbs is no fun; removing offenders immediately makes them less likely to adversely affect the others.

-Storing parsley and cilantro: These like to live in the refrigerator with a little, but not too much, moisture. We pick the leaves off the stems (laborious, but worth it - the stems are chopped and added to soups or beans), then layer them in a glass container with a piece of dry paper towel on the very bottom and a piece of slightly damp paper towel on the top. (We still have some paper towels leftover from older days since we basically only use them for this, but when we run out I’ll probably designate a few small cloths specifically for the purpose). The slight humidity keeps them from wilting. We also sometimes store parsley upright in a glass of water on the counter, which makes for a pretty tableau. If you do the same, change the water daily and make sure that no leaves are below the water line.

-Storing chives, sage, thyme, and rosemary: Unlike parsley and cilantro, these do best stored dry, wrapped in a dry cloth or paper towel in an airtight container in the fridge.

-When in doubt: Decide whether the herb is “soft” or “hard” and store accordingly. Soft: parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, and basil. Hard: chives, sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.

-Extra credit: Washing (and drying) herbs prior to storing them helps them last even longer. I’d like to say our lack of a salad spinner is what’s preventing us from doing this, but I think it’s more likely that sometimes even just getting them in their proper container seems like almost too much to manage on a weeknight evening. 

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Perhaps the best way to store herbs is not to at all: to use them in everything until they’re gone. When we have some big bundles around, I make a concerted effort to use them at every possible turn. If I bought parsley for one recipe, there’s no reason it can’t go in another, or a salad, or a pasta sauce. Simply remembering they’re there is helpful. (And in an herb explosion, there’s always pesto or chimichurri).

Lastly, herbs that are fast escaping your ability to use them can be air-dried and stored in a jar or container for later use.

I’d love to hear: what storage techniques work best for you? Other tips for using bunches up?

More posts on how to go zero waste without buying a thing, here. More ideas for curbing food waste, here.

DIY Tea Blends

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I’m not, by nature, someone who loves winter (resignation just about sums up my attitude). But even I can admit there are redeeming factors: less to do outside allows for more time cozy inside, dark nights mean lighting candles while cooking dinner, and a craving for homemade polenta or pizza warms the apartment pleasantly, instead of turning it into a nuclear furnace like it would have in the summer. And, of course, there are the many, many cups of tea, which help too.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

This winter, my partner experimented with making his own tea blends, some for holiday gifts and some to keep at home for us to use. It was a genius idea, and I wanted to share some of the ingredients we now keep on hand, and how to think through blending them.

It’s good to start with a couple of the plain loose-leaf teas you like best, perhaps purchased in jars in your local bulk foods aisle. If you always have a cup of black tea, that might serve as your base. I prefer herbal teas, so we bought rooibos (my favorite), chamomile, hibiscus leaves, and dried lavender.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

To the store-bought teas, you can then add your own flavors. We dried lemon peels, orange peels, and ginger as additions, but other foods would be work too: sage or mint from indoor herb plants, turmeric shavings from a leftover root wilting in your crisper, or lemongrass cuttings from the recipe that didn’t quite use it all. Drying the peels and ginger proved to be much easier than I’d imagined: for the peels, simply remove the pith from organic citrus peels, chop them into thin squares or strips, and dry them, stirring occasionally, in a low oven (275 degrees). For ginger, same thing: to make it easier to shave into strips, we froze whole roots, allowed them to thaw slightly, and then used a peeler to peel them into wide, thin pieces that we slid into the same low oven.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Once you have a few different ingredients at the ready, blend away. We chose combinations like rooibos + ginger + lemon or lavender + chamomile + ginger. You could make a homemade chai, a blend for mornings and a different blend for evenings, a soothing recipe for a friend in need of comfort, or simply a homemade version of your favorite blend that you usually purchase pre-made. I find myself reaching for a pinch of dried ginger for tea most mornings, and it’s nice to have it on hand in a jar that’s easy to grab, rather than tucked deep in the freezer where using it is more laborious.

So far I’ve only made blends based on taste and common sense, but there are more formulaic and scientific ways to think through tea blends, too. Friends of mine who had the same idea last holiday season introduced me to this chart, which explains how to choose a base and several top notes that work well together.

I noted recently on Instagram that DIY projects are not necessarily more sustainable than their ready-made counterparts, but that they do give us the opportunity to choose materials carefully and thoughtfully, with an eye toward the sustainability of each. With this project, I think, that’s very much true. Making my own teas from separate components allows me to choose a base that’s bulk and fair trade and to cut down on food waste by throwing extra food into the oven and then a tea blend. It turns citrus peels from scraps to food, extra ginger or herbs from a nuisance to a delight, one jar of plain rooibos tea into ten different possibilities. 

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Have you ever made your own tea? Or other blend suggestions to share, or things to dry?

(Photos of me by Liliana Coehlo for Litterless).

Five-Minute Dried Herbs in Late Summer

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

I can’t force summer to stick around, but come late August, I always try. Evenings that are dark this early are never long enough for all of the walks and bike rides and outdoor dinners I want to cram in, but cram I do, regardless.

August is also a time to take in the bounty of late summer. We only have a small balcony garden, but nightly walks past our nearest community garden remind me of the riches that plants offer up this time of year. And so, a balance: preserving what food we can while also preserving precious evening hours for time spent outdoors, activities more enjoyable than spending an hour indoors stringing up herbs to dry for the winter.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

Enter my new favorite method: lazy herb drying. It’s as easy as washing what you pick, laying the sprigs out to dry on a towel, and then setting the towel – or moving them to a bowl – somewhere they can rest for a couple of days. I turn the leaves every day or so to make sure each surface has a chance to dry, and then I transfer them to a glass jar when they seem as dry and brittle as they're going to get (this seems to only take about a few days to a week).

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

No stringing things up, tying bundles, being fussy. Better yet, it keeps drying herbs from feeling like a capital-P Project and more like a five-minute task you can slot in between dinner and a bike ride. Though the time saved may only be ten minutes, getting over the need to find ten extra minutes sometimes means the difference between a project done and a project wished-for.

In my experience, this works best with herbs that are structured enough to hold themselves up a bit. Place a handful of basil leaves in a bowl, and they’ll slowly meld together into a wilty mass. Do the same with thyme or rosemary, though, and their sturdier stems will hold them in place well enough to allow air to circulate between the leaves.

Currently drying at our place, some lavender buds on a towel and some thyme in a bowl. Before we head out of town this weekend, I also want to snip and start some of the oregano and mint currently outgrowing their pots on the porch.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

More involved herb drying, here and here. (Writing about this appears to have become somewhat of a late summer tradition).

What are you preserving this time of year?

(Our bowl is a gift from East Fork.)

Strategies for Wasting Less Food

Strategies for wasting less food | Litterless

Like flossing and other habits, wasting less food is something I have to constantly re-commit to. Though it has gotten easier over time, sending fewer scraps to the compost bin is still a matter of making the daily choice to scout the contents of the fridge, to finagle a spot for those extra beans in a dish, to buy less at the farmers' market, no matter how tempting that stone fruit looks.

We’re not perfect, in food waste or in anything. But then again, we don’t have to be. Here are some of the strategies we’ve found helpful in the everlasting quest to waste less food:

-Keeping a loose meal plan. We’ve experimented with several types of meal planning over time. What seems to work for us is picking a few recipes at the start of each week, but not assigning them any particular day. If we choose recipes right before grocery shopping, when the fridge is nearing empty, we can make sure the recipes incorporate any last bits and pieces of produce lying about. We write down the list of recipe suggestions for the week and use that to make a shopping list.

Keeping our meal plan loose and flexible means that if we over- or under-estimate how much we’ll eat, we don’t have to shift an entire plan around; we just pull another recipe from the list sooner, or later, than we might have otherwise. I’d never been a meal planner until lately, so it’s strange to be operating on this system and stranger still to be in the position of recommending meal planning. (Everyone recommends meal planning. How tiresome. But it’s with good reason that this is oft-mentioned in regards to food waste and life organization and everything else).

-Shopping for food more often. Maybe this means the farmers’ market on Saturday, followed by a bike ride to the co-op on Wednesday night. Or, like a recent weekend, a trip to the farmers’ market Saturday morning and a bike ride to the co-op Saturday afternoon. However it happens, we’ve had more success buying food for roughly half a week than trying to buy food for a whole week and stressing out about being able to finish it up in time. And since we can’t always know what the week will bring – an unexpectedly large amount of leftovers, dinner out with a friend – it’s helpful to have less food around, not more.

Strategies for wasting less food | Litterless

-Using clear food containers. If we can see it, we can cook it. Plus, this saves shuffling around a tippy stack of opaque containers to peer into the back of the fridge, peeling off lids exploratorily only to find the wrong item, and so on. Ours are mostly plain old glass jars or glass food containers bought secondhand. (More on simple food storage solutions, here).

-Creatively repurposing ingredients. A few weeks ago, we made a batch of refrigerator strawberry jam. The homemade variety doesn’t keep as well as something shelf-stable, and we wanted to make sure to use it before it went off. So, we made an oat-y topping and turned the jam into strawberry crumble. Ditto the kabocha squashes sitting on our countertop: reasoning that any squash is basically a pumpkin by another name, into pumpkin bread they went.

When we have cooked red beans and a recipe calls for black beans, we use the red beans already in our fridge. Ditto grains, ditto different types of onion, ditto – as previously mentioned – different types of squash. For us, flexibility is key to using ingredients up. Recipes might be most delicious when you use the exact thing called for, but that’s how the fridge end can end up with, to take the example to an extreme, two yellowing green onions, half a withering shallot, a few dried-out slices of red onion, and a molding white onion on the countertop.

A note: this one requires a little bit of kitchen confidence. I got mine from this book and then years of practice. The years of practice can’t be faked, of course, but the book is still a good place to start.

Strategies for wasting less food | Litterless

-Loving our neighbors. (Or, giving food away). Thank goodness for friends who are appreciative, not surprised, when you thrust an onion / sweet potato / garlic head / squash into their hands on their way out your door / at the end of dinner at a restaurant / when you get to their house. I joked in this article that 80% of my friends have received an extra onion from me at some point, and if you add limes, radishes, sweet potatoes, and garlic into the mix, that number probably rockets up to 95%. Part of wasting less food is getting it eaten – and if you can accept that it might not be by you, but that giving it to someone else is much better than feeding your compost or the landfill, you’ll start proffering onions, too.

If you’re left with produce or food you know you won’t have time to eat, offer it to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers. You can swap it, like the neighbor and friend who brought me two of her beets recently in exchange for an extra squash of ours. You can just leave it out in the kitchen at work with a “Free! Take me!” sign. You can bring a few things as a mini host gift when going to dinner at a friend’s house, or invite someone to cook a use-it-up-meal together. Regardless: if you’re lucky enough to have a small community on a similar mission, sharing food both makes good use of that community and serves to build it up even further.

-Maintaining a watchful eye. This applies to food in the fridge and on the countertop, sure. It’s self-evident that checking on your produce and leftovers every day or so will help get things used up before they go bad. But more broadly, keeping a close eye on habits is helpful, too. The places that slip you up are probably different than the places that slip me up. Attentiveness to pitfalls and habits can teach you where to exercise particular caution. And, when food waste happens, as it will, making a mental note about what caused it can turn the moldy leftovers into a learning experience rather than just, um, a waste.

Other tips you'd share?

More resources on food waste, here.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Decanting Bulk Foods

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

This is a story about how I own three funnels and need them all.

Let’s back up.

Circa 2015, I was working towards zero waste (still am) and trying not to buy anything I didn’t need. That included funnels.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Also at the time, the closest store where I bought bulk foods didn't allow me to bring glass jars to fill up; instead, I washed and reused the plastic containers they provided. Every grocery run ended with decanting a cloth produce bag or a plastic container of dry goods into their eventual home in a glass jar. Without a funnel, beans bounced, quinoa jumped, herb leaves fluttered. Inevitably, some things would make their way from plastic container to countertop to floor. In an effort not to buy a funnel, I was wasting food.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

So I bought some. First a narrow-mouth funnel for decanting liquids and (I thought) dry goods. When even fine flours got stuck in its neck, I added a wide-mouth funnel for pouring beans and grains and really anything larger than a liquid. When the mouth of my narrow-neck funnel didn't fit into a few of my smaller jars, like the one I've saved for storing bulk vanilla extract, I kept an eye out for an even smaller version and finally snagged one at Muji in London in April. A set of three is just right for anything I may need to pour, decant, or re-home.

How to decant bulk foods into glass jars, for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Much as I hate to suggest that we might need new things when going zero waste (more on that here), I found I really needed these. Wasting food, even a few beans at a time, is something I'm trying to halt entirely, and these help. This recent article on food waste in The Washington Post outlines some of the reasons why zero food waste is such an important thing to work toward.

You may not need funnels: maybe you can fill your jars directly with bulk foods at the store, maybe you don't have access to bulk foods at all, or maybe you've mastered the knack of pouring, not spilling. Regardless: this is my current set-up, and it's exactly what I needed. 

Other resources:

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased).

-Big, medium, and small funnels. (Or a set).
-Learning how to buy just the right amount.
-Any jar will do. (For liquids, too).

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Use-It-Up Supper Club

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

I buy too many beans. Mint green flageolets, tiger-eyed Rancho Gordos from a trip to California, locally grown pinto beans at the farmers market, unidentified white beans from who-knows-where, dried pigeon peas bought in bulk simply because they were on sale.

It’s certainly fine to choose beans for their beauty and weirdness alone, but here’s the rub: I have to then eat those beans. And week after week I reach instead for black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, and lentils. At the grocery store I like to think I’m adventurous, but at dinnertime, routine wins the day and my specialty beans languish.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

It’s good to have a friend who shares your penchant for buying too many bulk pantry goods. My friend Sarah is a chef and knows the best place to get bread in Chicago, what to do with your last five farmers’ market strawberries that have gone slightly mushy, and, luckily, what to make with extra beans.

With my move hanging over me and too many dry goods cluttering up both of our cabinets, we started mraaking a point to cook our extra food, together. The premise is simple enough: we cook dinner at her house or mine, using a few ingredients each that we’d like to use up. My sushi rice and nori plus her dried shiitakes and wasabi paste. My yellow eye beans plus her tomato sauce made from last year’s frozen heirloom beauties.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

You don’t need a friend for using up languishing pantry goods, but you do need a plan. With a friend, reaching into the back of my cabinet and digging out ingredients for a meal becomes a celebration, an experiment, a reason to think more thoughtfully about how best to use each ingredient.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

Monday night I took the train to her house, a tin of still-warm-just-cooked beans in my bag, my contribution to the meal. When I left after dinner, hours later, the same tin was full of leftovers to eat tomorrow. We’d made a pact to meet up again soon to trade my extra French press for her extra cookbook, and to make dinner again soon if we could find a time. And I left with a personal pact to make this recipe from Rachel Roddy again and again.

PS. Find more ideas for reducing food waste, here.

How to Use Up Citrus Peels

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

It's that time of year: citrus finds its way onto the table for every meal, my fingernails acquire a bright scent and orange tint from digging into satsumas, lemon juice stings small cuts on my hands. Citrus peels pile up in a bowl on the counter waiting to be used themselves as the slices get eaten. Winter is a good time for experimenting with using the peels after I've used the juicy centers. It's satisfying work to play with using as much of something as possible, especially in the kitchen, and citrus lends itself well to experimenting with cast-offs.

Here, a few uses I've tried, and some I haven't, for using up those peels before adding them to the compost:

-Tuck zest in the freezer. There are only so many ways to use lemon zest the day you make it, but if you have an abundance of lemons (or limes, or oranges), the zest will keep when frozen. Spread it in a thin layer on a baking sheet or small plate to freeze, then transfer to a jar or container to keep for a few months.

-Steep your own limoncello, et al. Limoncello is, at its heart, just vodka in which citrus peels have been left to sit, then removed and replaced with simple syrup. It's an easy thing to make and nice to be able to control the potency of both lemon and sugar. This recipe is a good place to start.

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

-Add dried orange and lemon to tea blends. A friend of mine made the above tea for me for a holiday present, based on this loose-leaf chai recipe. She cut orange peels into thin strips and dried them in her oven to add a blend of spices and rooibos. You could also dry strips of a different type of citrus, or dry citrus zest to add to any type of tea you fancy. I think a small pinch of lemon zest in a mint or floral tea would be lovely.

-Make citrus salt. I've never made a fancy salt, but I'm very into the idea. Adding citrus zest or long strips of peel to a jar of salt and letting it sit will infuse the salt with tangy brightness. Choose a fruit, find a recipe, and put it to the test.

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

-Clean with citrus-scented vinegar. Find my original post on the subject, including instructions for making it, here. As a bonus, an in-progress jar like the one above looks sunny and festive in winter months (it looks like California in a jar to me!).

-Candy the peels. Whether as candied peels, chocolate-dipped orangettes, or marmalade, sugar cuts the bitter waxiness of the peel and makes eating it a pleasure.

Notes:

-Peels from organic citrus pieces are like gold to me, and they're the ones I store up to use again. But whether you're using conventional or organic, be sure to give the fruit a very good scrub if you're planning to use the peels again, to remove dirt and get as much food-grade wax off as possible. This is easiest to do while the fruit is still whole.

-Most of these recipes work with any type of citrus you can think of: lemons, limes, grapefruits, cara cara oranges, blood oranges. As you experiment, take note of what you like and what you don't like. For example, I don't love the thought of adding grapefruit peels to tea, but there's nothing like a mouth-puckering grapefruit marmalade in the dead of winter. 

-Additionally, some types of citrus have thinner peels (think clementines versus navel oranges), and so will naturally yield different results when put to the test. Try and try again, I say, or find a recipe to follow when in doubt.

Other ideas? Which is your favorite type of citrus to put to which purpose? I'd love to hear.

Previously in Food Waste: A use for veggie scraps, and my favorite places to find inspiration.