What the cookbook is/does well: An organic tale of making trash into culinary treasures.
What the cookbook is not: A deep dive into ingredients or a singular, simple solution to food waste.
Who this book is best suited for: The conscientious, somewhat experienced, home cook.
Three words to sum it up: Lifestyle-altering and original.
The Review: Scraps, Wilt and Weeds
I’m someone who reuses Ziploc bags, re-purposes old shirts for rags, and has about 100 cloth napkins, all in an attempt to reduce kitchen waste. When it comes to food, I have a ‘Stock Bag’ (also a reused Ziploc) of bones and veggie scraps in my freezer. As for my fridge’s content, I go by the sense test. Millions of years of evolution has gifted me a keen eye and a decent sniffer to tell whether something is okay to eat. Knock on wood, neither have steered me wrong yet.
Thinking I was somewhat ahead of the food-waste curve, I was eager to get Mads Rufslund’s and Tama Matsuoka Wong’s cookbook, Scraps, Wilt and Weeds as an affirmation of what I’m doing right and to shed light on the opportunities to do better. As soon as I opened the book, I realized there was a world of opportunity in what Mads affectionately calls ‘trash cooking’. The vivid photographs of plated food are stunning. So are the photographs of ordinarily overlooked by-product like blood on a butcher’s hands, overripe fruit, and mounds of food scraps and coffee grounds.
Mads states in his introduction, ” ‘Civilized cultures’ decide what is luxury and what is rubbish.” As I read about food not making it to market because it’s deemed unworthy for its wrinkles, blemishes, or size, I couldn’t help but think about how these standards define beauty in America, not just in food.
Challenging that standard and perception is precisely what this cookbook does. You don’t need me to remind you that only one generation separates our time from one that relied heavily on using ‘the whole’ out of necessity, and that many cultures do still. So largely, this book sets out to change the way we Westerners see food, and to some extent how we live and eat, by taking us back to our roots. But in this case, roots are shriveled and then turned into chimchurri or dehydrated, ground into a powder and mixed into baked goods.
Mads mentions that the cycles of nature inspire him the most. Having grown up in Denmark, he says “We celebrate the beauty of food from nature…We can’t grow food for many months of the year, so we are forced to rely on [fermentation, brining, drying, and curing] to survive well through the dark times.” A small section about foraging and recipes for Pickled Wild Rose Petals and the Fallen Fruit Dessert are two of the many that pay homage to his homeland.
Not surprisingly, food waste facts introduce nearly every chapter. Though not preachy, the authors’ voices tend to be formal and factual which doesn’t particularly make for easy reading.
Most recipes have ten ingredients or less with easy-to-follow steps. At the center of these recipes are ‘imperfect’ ingredients, whether they be wilted greens, wrinkled root veggies, or fish heads. This is a bold move in a culture of perfection, but Mads manages to make the product beautiful. Each of the 4 chapters is divided into sections by ingredients. Some sections are meager with one or two cooking suggestions or recipes and some recipes have ingredients that may not be accessible in your neck of the woods (like kombu and pickled plum paste).
A note of admiration: Throughout the book, the authors encourage using substitutes and inexact amounts to relieve the reader of the excuse to buy a pound more when she’s an ounce short, which only perpetuates the waste cycle because so often the fifteen remaining ounces go unused.
I tested the Seared Romaine Lettuce Bottoms with Wilted Romaine Cream Sauce and Thyme Scraps Oil and it was truly a test of substitutes. I didn’t have heavy cream for the sauce (I used a combination of half-and-half and butter) nor did I have fresh thyme (only dried) for the Thyme Scraps Oil. So I improvised. And the dish was well-balance and delicious. The seared romaine wasn’t anything to write home about because it tasted like any other heated/grilled romaine.
But the cream sauce, oh my word. I ate it from the blender with a spoon. It had a creamy, lightly whipped quality to it and the romaine and lemon juice gave it the perfect fresh pop. The recipe made a lot; I’ve already got plans to use what’s leftover as sauce on a pizza.
As a whole, Scraps, Wilts, and Weeds does what it sets out to do. I know this because after sitting down and getting to know it, I found myself storing scraps, that I’d otherwise toss in the trash or compost pile, in reused Ziploc bags and working those scraps into my cooking. I don’t know that it will be a cookbook I revisit time after time, but the concept within I undoubtedly will.
Disclosure: I received a copy in advance of the official release date for the purposes of an honest review.
Encore: An Interview with the Authors
I got the opportunity to ask Mads and Tama a few questions about Scraps, Wilt and Weeds (out on March 14th) and their food philosophies. Let’s get to know them a little better!
Mads Refslund was born in Denmark, attended culinary school, and is one of the founders of Noma, which has repeatedly been named the greatest restaurant in the world. Mads left to run his own Michelin-starred restaurant in Denmark, MR, then moved to New York City where he created the menu at ACME NYC. The New York Times awarded it two stars for successfully integrating Nordic philosophy with North American seasonal ingredients. He is opening a new seasonal restaurant in New York.
Tama Matsuoka Wong is a renowned forager for chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Marc Forgione, Claus Meyer, and others. She is also author of Foraged Flavor.
Mads and Tama, hello!
Thank you for taking the time to answer a handful of questions I have about Scraps, Wilt, and Weeds. I look forward to featuring both your book and our interview on my food blog.
I was struck immediately by your introduction, Mads. I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for years, and your description of “celebrating the beauty of food from nature” and “surviving well in the dark times” resonated so much with my own experience in the North and especially that of Alaska Native subsistence, which is still very much a way of life.
In the American world of prepackaged, processed, and sterile foods, even the term ‘all natural’ gets skewed. However, it seems the movement you two are working towards and your practice emphasizes what is all natural – blood, tails, skins, roots, and all. It’s inspiring and beautiful.
THAT IS WONDERFUL and so glad the book and experiences resonate with you!
How do you write a cookbook that is also making a case for people to change the way they live, eat, and see food?
Hopefully to see it through our own lens and how it is a great way to live and also a little fun!
In writing this, what did you want to emphasize the most: the recipes, the concept, consumer awareness, or none of the above?
Everything has to flow together. You can just talk “blah blah blah” about the problems of food or just write another “recipes from a successful restaurant” type book…we both have a passion for the topic as something we live and things have to flow from that authenticity.
Most of your recipes have a short list of ingredients, which – by default – showcase the ‘imperfect’ ingredient(s). Did you find the recipe development inspiring or challenging?
Both. We tried to start with every day foods that people use a lot and we spoke to scientists and experts about what are the most commonly wasted foods so that we didn’t miss something obvious. So, for example, we needed to include bananas: and in the middle of Mads’ marathon of creating overripe banana dishes, Tama is researching the banana, the tree, the plant parts and says: did you know banana peels are edible in India? This set off a whole new avenue of cooking exploration (and PS banana peels taste good chopped and cooked but NOT raw).
Where I grew up, going ‘whole hog’ meant using everything from a pig (intestines, eyeballs, pig’s feet, organ meat, etc.) which you speak to in your book. The fact that we don’t anymore feels like we’ve lost tradition. Are you going back to tradition or are you rediscovering traditional cooking when creating these recipes?
It starts with rediscovery because this book starts with humility for the traditions where people used everything, just as you remembered. But then, you can add to it, using some new techniques (we DO like dehydrators and they are very easy to buy cheaply now), and making things a little more practical for the way people live today (less time, large refrigerators with too much food).
You’re writing this to help home cooks develop a taste and excitement for trash cooking. How would you promote the same shift for restaurateurs and chefs? Do you think that’s important?
It’s incredibly important for restaurateurs and chefs because throwing food away is $$ when you are in the business of selling food. Plus, making 5 dishes out of a single plant or fish, or meat, because you start with the WHOLE instead of throwing away some parts, is innovative and exciting.
Humans used to forage and now we don’t. Where’s a good place for someone to start if they’re interested in bringing back this very human activity? Any tips for people who live in urban areas?
Start with what is around you. That is how it started in Denmark, because as you know, there wasn’t a long season for cultivated crops so we had to look at the forest. If you have a back yard you can look at the Norway spruce trees there or wild herbs crowding out your garden.
What is your top tip for home cooks who want to stop wasting food?
Before you throw food out, just stop for a minute and consider whether it really needs to be thrown away. And (top tip two) move things around out from the back of your refrigerator once a week.