Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Compost Chronicles: My Evening as a Garbage Picker

This post is the first in a new series documenting my quest to bring awareness to composting in Chicago.

I certainly knew that when I left my job as a big firm tax partner to start a catering company, my job description would change dramatically. At no point did this point become more apparent as I was picking through garbage at the Cultural Center last Friday evening.

My company was hired to be the main caterer for Seven Generations Ahead’s annual fundraiser, Taste of the Seasons, our first full zero waste event. As a general rule, we try hard to incorporate zero waste principles in our day-to-day business. Our mantra is to “think before you toss”. Accordingly, we have a recycling plan in place. We use almost no disposable product. We try to reuse our “waste” whenever possible (making crumbs from leftover bread and crackers, juicing trimmings from cucumber rounds, making stock from everything from chicken bones to shrimp shells to mushroom stems). Composting, however, has been our weakness.

Monogramme is the epitome of a boutique business. Because I have to balance our event schedule between Purple Asparagus, my class/ speaking schedule, and spending time with my family; we limit the events that we take on each month. One of the consequences of this choice is that the waste that we generate each month can be measured by the pound not the ton. Keeping this in mind, up until this point, we’ve tried to dispose of our compostable waste through my home composter: a challenge
that I will discuss in more detail in later posts.

Back to the SGA event, working with their “waste expert” Michelle Hickey, we established several waste stations throughout the room with recycling, composting and garbage bins. We gave our general instructions to the staff of 15 (most of whom had never even heard of zero waste) and we were on our way.

The most interesting questions arose at the bar. Are corks trash or compost? Compostable if natural cork, disposable if plastic. How about the foil that wraps the cork: recyclable. Plastic soda rings: recyclable.

Of course, the fun began when the event was over and we had to “audit” the garbage. Unfortunately, a few of the staff were operating under the common misperception that all plastic is recyclable so we had to fish out all of the plastic bags from the recyclable bins. We also had to extract the recycled paper napkins that many of our guests misjudged as garbage, not compost.

All in all, we did pretty well. We used china and flatware, so we avoided any waste in serving. Also, because it was a tasting event, there was little food waste. In fact, at the end of the event, this waste made its way to the composting facility in the car of Ken Dunn instead of the Resource Center’s truck.

For future events, Michelle Hickey will be putting together a chart that explicitly describes what goes into what bin that I’ve offered to review. My main suggestion is to allow the participating chefs who are not currently composting their food waste to bring it to the waste for disposal. It would then give a better picture of how much of that which goes into the event can be redirected from the landfill.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Family Farmed Expo

Come join Purple Asparagus at the Organic Kids Activity Corner for Family Farmed Expo this weekend at the Chicago Cultural Center. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Toast to the President-Elect

So, I know I wasn't a particularly active blogger for a while there. I wasn't away from my computer, however. I was right there in front of it too often obsessively following this year's very exciting election. To celebrate its happy conclusion, I posted the following on Just Grapes, a wine blog run by the wine shop, Just Grapes, at 560 West Washington here in Chicago.

My love of champagne began, believe it or not, when I was three years old. As the story goes, on a flight to Florida, my parents gave me a tiny plastic cup filled with the golden bubbles. Whether out of curiosity or for their own amusement, they fully expected me to wrinkle up my tiny nose and push it away. Little did they know that it would flow easily down my young throat, leading me to ask for more.

My love of champagne grew only stronger when it helped me through a dark time in my life: the death of my first marriage. I lived with a good friend during these difficult days who opportunely owned a large and varied collection of champagne. His earnest belief was that one could not be truly unhappy while drinking champagne.

It was with this theory in mind that I chilled two bottles of wine prior to leaving for the election rally in Grant Park on Tuesday. The first was a sparkling wine from Oregon – simple, clean and from a blue state. My hope was that if the evening did not go well, we couldn’t feel too hopeless while drinking something related to champagne. The second, the wine that ultimately was drunk, was the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1995, a wine whose taste lived up to its prodigious name. Rich and nutty, with big golden bubbles, full bodied – it flowed down as easily as that the first sip in the airline seat between my bemused parents. A perfect way to toast a new President and a new day in America.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cooking at the Green City Market

Thanks to all of those who joined me at Saturday's Green City Market on a a gray and chilly day. As promised, I'm posting the recipe that I prepared, Butternut Squash and Apple Soup Garnished with Sour Cream and Bacon.

A small cup of this rich soup would be a good start to a holiday meal. I also like to serve it as a one-dish supper - the bacon fat used to caramelize the squash adds a meaty flavor to the dish. If you're a vegetarian or even a vegan, you can still make the recipe, simply use canola or grapeseed oil in cooking the vegetables and substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock. Garnish, if desired, with the toasted seeds.

Winter Squash and Apple Soup
Serves 8

2 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
½ stalk celery, cut into ½-inch slices
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tart apple, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
½ cup sour cream

METHODS: Cook the bacon in a dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon and reserve for garnish. Pour the fat off into a small bowl. Return 1 tablespoon of fat to the pot and increase the heat to medium-high. Put half of the butternut squash into the pan and cook until lightly browned on all sides. When caramelized on all sides, remove the squash to a bowl. Add an additional 1 tablespoon of fat. Brown the remaining squash in the same manner. Remove the caramelized squash to the bowl with the earlier batch. Put an additional 1 tablespoon of fat in the pan, supplementing with canola oil if necessary. Add onion, carrot, celery and cook until slightly golden. Return the squash to the pan with the bay leaf and cover with stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash is almost tender, approximately 20 minutes. Add the diced apple and cook for an additional 10 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly and then puree in a food processor or a blender. If a completely smooth texture is desired, put through a fine mesh sieve. Return to pan to heat. Add sage and cook for 5 minutes. Garnish with sour cream and bacon.

DO-AHEAD NOTES: The soup can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated or up to two months ahead and frozen.

Squash Seeds with Za’atar
Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture that has some combination of oregano, thyme, sesame seeds and salt. Some varieties use sumac, fennel or cumin. The Spice House sells their own blend and you can use in on chicken, to garnish hummus or even simply sprinkled on pita bread dipped in olive oil.

Seeds from 1 butternut squash, rinsed and removed from flesh
1 tablespoon extra virgin-olive oil
1 teaspoon Za’atar

METHODS: Spread the squash seeds on a parchment or silpat lined baking pan and cook in a 200° F oven until dry approximately a ½ hour. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash seeds and cook until browned. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle Za’atar and salt on top. Let cool.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Why Feed Your Kids Local Foods?

This post was originally published on Being Savvy, Caitlin Giles excellent blog for Chicago parents.

My proudest moment as a chef/mom/food educator was relayed to me second hand. While perusing the produce aisles of the supermarket in late February, my mother asked my 4-year old son if he wanted strawberries. Declining, he said to my mother quizzically and yet emphatically, “Grandma, we can’t buy strawberries now, they’re not in season.”

When too many kids are eating far less than the recommended daily allotment of fruits or vegetables, why worry about whether the fruits and vegetables that they do eat are in season or worse locally grown? If you’re living or working in one the country’s food deserts, where the closest thing that you’ve got to a grocery store is a bodega that stocks more varieties of Cheetos than fruits, this is not likely to be your main concern.

How about the rest of us? Is it really that much of a struggle to pass by the California-grown strawberries in June or the Mexican-raised tomatoes in August? Locally grown, seasonal produce is all around us. Even Wal-Mart has even begun to source locally or at least regionally. But before I get into the where, I want to talk about the why. Here are my top three reasons for introducing locally-grown, seasonal foods into your child’s diet.

It tastes better. I started eating locally not for ideological reasons, but because it tastes better. If you’ve ever eaten a pea off of the vine or sweet baby greens picked in the morning and served on the table in the evening, you know what I mean. And strawberries, sweet Illinois strawberries. The white-hearted California berries bred for shipping have nothing on our tiny, ruby-like orbs that soar with flavor. If you want your child to have a lasting love for fruits and vegetables, give him ones that are full of flavor. Seriously, who could love starchy peas or wilted salad greens?

It’s better for the environment. A small caveat on this statement, even taking into account food miles (i.e. the distance your food travels from farm to fork), just because food is grown within a certain distance from your home does not intrinsically make it better for the environment. However, most local farmers who sell to consumers are small family farmers who tend their soil in a responsible manner often using organic methods even when they are not USDA certified as such (the little “o” versus the big “O”). How do you know the difference? The best way is to talk with the farmer and ask about their pest management systems and how they fertilize their soil. If, however, you don’t have the time or the inclination to do so, at the end of this post, I list markets and retailers that focus on locally grown, seasonal and sustainable produce that do the vetting for you.

It can forge a lasting connection between your child and the earth. I believe that connecting your child with the people who grow the food and the growing cycle creates a deeper respect for the food that they eat and for the earth. It was recently reported that America throws out 30% of the food raised in this country, a despicable fact given the rise in malnutrition and hunger on the planet. I have found that children who understand where their food comes from are less likely to waste it. My son knows that his apples come from Farmer Pete and his carrots from Miss Beth. He says “cheese please” to the cheese guys and knows that the good milk comes from the market in glass bottles. And the growing cycle, well, suffice to say, he’s pretty excited when June’s strawberries arrive.

Locally-grown, seasonal and sustainable produce is available from May through October at the City of Chicago’s farmers markets and year round at Green City Market (check the website for days and times), Green Grocer Chicago and Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks. Many of the Whole Foods in Chicago carry locally-produced items as well.

A final note, I’m actually not throwing my mother under the bus. My son and she were in Florida at the time of their conversation in the produce section where the strawberries in question were in fact in season.