Sometimes I eat out of the garbage. Case in point: One year as we cleaned up Easter dinner, I asked my sister-in-law what she did with the ham bone.
It was a good ham, we enjoyed it immensely. As I was eating it, I thought of the (even more) delicious soup I could make with the bone.
Somewhere in my formative cooking years, I heard this wise piece of advice from a chef of Italian heritage: "Don't waste good flavour." By this she meant, don't discard anything in the process of cooking one thing that might flavour something else. It's an adage of cucina povera, the frugal wholesome cooking of the poor.
That ham bone? It's the flavour in a lentil soup. Bacon drippings? Fry up some onions for chili. The rind of parmesan cheese? Toss it into a soup pot or simmering rice. Or do like Italian mothers and give it to a teething baby.
I keep a zipper bag in the freezer for carrot peels, onion skins, tomato ends, parsley stems, broccoli stalks, etc. When it's full I boil up a tasty vegetable stock. The soggy vegetable bits go into the compost, which becomes food for my garden.
Of course, the pioneers and Depression-era cooks were masters at reusing every bit of good flavour, as this example illustrates: leftover pickle juice was used to make more pickles, including watermelon pickles, which gave new life to the rinds.
It's estimated by the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) that one-third of our worldwide food supply is wasted. For instance, 30 percent of cereal crops are lost. More than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are discarded. Twenty percent of meat raised for human consumption never reaches the dinner plate.
These losses take place at five points in the food chain: farming, post-harvest storage, processing, distribution and consumption. In wealthy countries such as Canada, more than 40 percent of the loss occurs in the final stages – in retail stores and consumers' kitchens. In stores, the waste is often based on appearance. In the home, it's often due to spoilage and simply throwing it away.
I'm trying to change that, one bone at a time. Nowadays, my sister-in-law sets the ham bone aside for me, so forays into the garbage bin are well and gone. However, I am now facing competition from a new family member – a German Shepherd. While I would never take food from a baby, I have no problem taking it from a dog. After I've made my pot of soup, she can have it back. That's three meals from one bone.
A few weeks back, this column featured a recipe for a Greek appetizer called fava made with yellow split peas. Here's another use for those split peas. It's simple, delicious and the best of cucina povera and "don't waste good flavour" in a bowl.
Ham Bone Split Pea Soup
The bone often has enough meat on it for soup, but if not, add a handful of leftover ham. Since cured ham has been salted, additional salt is added at the end of cooking.
1 meaty ham bone
8 cups water
1 1/2 cups yellow split peas
1 medium onion, chopped
2 big carrots, peeled and broken in three
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
Put everything except the salt and pepper into a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer 2-3 hours, until the split peas are completely broken down and the onions have disintegrated into the broth. Cool.
Remove the bone, bay leaf and chunks of carrot. Dice the carrot and toss it back into the pot. Pick the meat from the bone and add to the pot, or add some leftover ham, shredded or chopped.
Discard the bay leaf. Which is to say, toss it into the vegetable stock zipper bag in the freezer or into the compost. As for the bone, you can now give it to Spot, who will hardly notice the difference.
Reheat the soup. If it has thickened, add water until you have a pleasing soup consistency. Season with salt and pepper as needed to your taste.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)