Ever thought about organizing a food waste awareness dinner involving six different chefs who will prepare a dish with ingredients you glean for them in a city where driving 20 minutes is considered “around the corner”? Sounds like a logistical nightmare, right? It could’ve been. But Slow Food Houston did it, and it wasn’t. In fact, it turned out to be a dream event.
That only happened because gleaning was made easy by a ready commitment from local farmers, food and drink producers and a local Whole Foods Market; because chefs involved went truly above and beyond; and because on the night we had a hard working team getting the chefs’ gorgeous food hot and plated; a decorating team getting the table all nice and ready; a drinks team keeping the libations going; and speakers who brought some food for conversation to the table.
So, this is how things went down.
Happy to support a food movement that emerged 30 years ago in Italy, the easiest and most collaborative agreement with the Italian Cultural and Community Center landed us a beautiful dining space.
In no time, we had six chefs committing. No ifs and buts: just a “sure, I’ll cook something”.
Chef Soren was the first we approached for this event: regularly at a local farmers market he scouts around to collect ingredients, and uses everything, including items we’d consider scraps. He said he’d prepare a casserole using salmon head, making gnocchi from potato scraps, use some other kitchen scraps and herbs from his garden. Using everything is what he does. He talks about it in an article in Edible Houston, along with chef Chandler, another chef I texted about the event and who texted back right away: “sure”.
Chef Chandler resides on a farm an hour north of Houston where he works on the aquaponics system, grows micro greens, makes furniture from old wood and felled trees and forges future plans for his own food farm. The chef’s commitment to do a dish for the event almost stumbled on a couple logistical issues. First, the goat milk whey he glean from neighboring Blue Heron Farm to make ricotta lacked in fat content: Winter is the kidding season and pregnant goats produce less (and less rich) milk. The issue was quickly resolved with the decision to make polenta with the whey. Remained a larger issue: an hour away from Houston meant either one of us would have to track the distance. Twice: I had a box of gleaned roots to get to him. I offered my kitchen to the farm-based chef, he agreed to come and it resulted in an inspirational morning of cooking with the chef as the whey simmered and slowly scented up the kitchen. “Smells very goaty in here,” said Chandler with a wink.
Chef Gina knew straight away what she would bring: “How about pig’s ear tostadas?” and said she’d rather be in the kitchen helping out then sit at the table. Chef Pat was happy to create a dish with whatever we gleaned for her. Food waste doesn’t enter her vocabulary, not if she can help it anyway. She uses every scrap for something else. In fact, her commercial kitchen activities started out when she had a huge box of greens that were headed to the dumpster and instead in her crafty hands ended up as crackers.
West of Houston, among new housing developments, chef Ara has his BBQ place ready to open soon. He turned the adjacent storage space into a veritable man cave. It’s where his food truck sleeps when it’s not on the road, at a festival, watering hole or any other event. “I was about to make an Armenian coffee. You want one?” he offered. And so, very relaxed, we chatted and had a coffee. I left with a tray of slow-smoked pork belly, cut into neat square portions and only needing a quick reheat and crisp up. The smell on the way back, lunch hour striking as I drove, was tantalizing.
Renaissance Chicken — breeder of rare and hard to find breeds, and a cage free egg seller — donated “unsellable” eggs: “We always have eggs that are too small, or not shaped right, or with a wrinkled shell that we can’t sell,” he said. I reminded them the day before I’d pick them up at the market. But when I arrived, they were “still on the road” with his partner. “You know what, tell me where we can drop them off and we will,” he said. I found a tray full of eggs large and small and with wrinkled shells outside my door when I got home later that afternoon.
Those eggs, along with crusty day-old baguettes from Artisana Bread and “too close to sell-by date” dairy gleaned from Whole Foods Market would be turned into bread pudding by chef Jill Bartholome. Beekeeper Shelley promised to bring honeycomb and raw honey. Just pure, raw honey to drizzle over the bread pudding. There was absolutely no need, no reason to mess with that dessert plan.
Chefs Soren, Gina and Ara gleaned for themselves. Chef Chandler collected whey from Blue Heron Farm, picked cress and micro greens from the farm’s fields and used roots gleaned from Whole Foods Market; chef Pat we got mushrooms, onions and yellow squash gleaned from Whole Foods Market, and a whole bunch of damaged rainbow chard from Knopp Branch Farm. The Sunday before the event, we spent a working day at this farm near Edna. It was citrus season and all the trees in the entire grove were laden with orange and yellow citrus of many different varieties. Ripe for the picking were the satsumas and Meyer lemons. A week earlier, a threat of freezing prompted the farmer to cover the leaf vegetable beds. It damaged the rainbow chard, resulting in many broken stems. “We normally plant them in a raised bed but not this year. And the cover was too heavy for them,” said farmer Ernest, inviting me to glean broken and damaged rainbow chard. We left the farm with a box full of assorted citrus gleaned from the ground where it had fallen, and a big bag of colorful rainbow chard.
When sommelier and fellow Slow Food Houston board member Rachel DelRocco carried in her container of sangria, made with gleaned citrus juice “and then some”, I freaked: “Is that gonna be enough for everyone?” She smiled knowingly and said: “More than enough.” Of course she was right. Plus, there was Chicha Morada, the Peruvian purple drink that traditionally uses dried purple corn (kernels and core), the peel of pineapple as a waste-not drink with spice and fresh fruit; we tried kombucha beer and wild wine, fermented from different fruits; and we ended the evening with yaupon tea.
The long table had jars of kitchen scraps piccalilli (a British mustard-based pickle), beetroot & date chutney, toasted breads and gleaned cheeses. Food was served family style, from Chef Chandler’s goat milk whey polenta squares with beetroot orange relish and whey-cooked celeriac parsnip puree; Chef Gina’s pigs ear tostadas with fresh jalapeños, avocado and cilantro and vegetarian sweet potato chili tostadas; Chef Soren’s salmon head meat & gnocchi casserole; Chef Pat’s mushroom burgers on a bed of rainbow chard, pickled yellow squash and spicy tomato sauce; Chef Ara’s slow-smoked pork belly and creamy polenta; to Chef Jill’s bread pudding with raw honey and honeycomb.
Slow Food Houston has been slowly (;-) growing in activities. We set up “guilds” last year, one for each cultural, food artisans, drink artisans, growers and food & arts. We organize an annual working weekend at the Knopp Branch Farm, where we work hard, eat well and relax by the bonfire. Check out more at www.slowfoodhouston.com
(all images Francine Spiering & Raymond Franssen unless mentioned otherwise)