“Waste not, want not” is a very old proverb, but its moral is as relevant today as it was five hundred years ago. Also, this is a moderately long post, so if you want the salad recipe, just scroll to the bottom – it’s lovely. If you are in the mood for me talking about food waste, how it’s bad (lots of people go hungry), and how one can avoid it in the household, read on.
Today’s post is going to be a little heavier than the usual happy blather about food, recipes, and pretty pictures of Nordic countries, but it is in no way a change of direction for me – I had been working in the technical side of food industry since the early 2000s, in-between all the international relocations, and food waste is an issue which has been close to my heart ever since my early teens, when, due to some unfortunate circumstances, our family got a taste of living on poverty-level food budget for several months – and, as a result, I have gained both, an appreciation of how to make food go further, and a strong aversion to throwing food away. Don’t get me wrong, I do not eat things which have truly gone off or are rotten (yuck), but I do get rather upset with myself when I have to toss vegetables which are past saving because I didn’t pay enough attention to what was in my fridge and needing to be used.
Personal experiences aside for a moment, food waste around the world is a very serious problem, and, contrary to the popular belief, it’s a problem in both, developed and developing nations. The only difference between the former and the latter, is how and when/where the food goes to waste, but neither of the situations is an acceptable state of affairs considering the concurrent situation with hunger in many of the same countries where food waste occurs, and food waste occurs everywhere*. (*In all fairness, I can’t speak about North Korea with any degree of reliability regarding any of their practices.)
And while there are good efforts to combat food waste being made in Europe (I’m looking at you, France, in particular, but not only – from personal experience, Sweden, Finland, and Norway also have had initiatives such as discounting short-shelf-life items heavily in stores in place for years), still “…around 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU, with associated costs estimated at 143 billion euros (FUSIONS, 2016). About a third of all food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted – around 1.3 billion tonnes per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.” (source: European Commission)
Clearly, more can, and should, be done, and while the situation in developing countries is more a concern for governments, businesses, and supply chains, the problem in the developed countries is that the majority of food waste occurs post purchase, in household situations – and often, it is food that is not actually spoiled that gets thrown out. It is this specific issue which I would like to discuss. Having had this conversation with people many times over the years, it bears repeating – much of the food wasted is wasted due to people’s misunderstanding of ‘best before’ vs. ‘use by’ dates, and the disconnect with the actual quality of food people handle. I won’t go into reasons for the latter right now (it’s a topic for a large post or a series in its own right), but the former is a problem because people tend to read those date markings interchangeably, and so, in the much-celebrated ‘spring cleaning of pantry’ or ‘pantry purge’ that is often advocated by trendy lifestyle magazines and websites to create a ‘clean slate’ before the holidays, after the holidays, or just whenever. In essence, such articles suggest that you throw away anything you find that is past some date stamped on it somewhere, and don’t explain the distinction, nor point out that food past best-before date is likely still fine, thus further perpetuating the impression that they are websites or magazines for people with more money than brains.
Now, I am a firm believer that you should occasionally go through, and inventory your pantry, so that things can get used up before they are lost in its depths, and stock rotated – provided you keep in mind that most things you would have in your pantry (as opposed to fridge or freezer) are non-perishables. What this means is not that they’ll never go off (although best-before dates on salt, sugar, and honey always make me chuckle – those things actually do not spoil unless abused environmentally), but that they are good, if in a closed package, for years (plural) after the ‘best-before’ date, since all best-before date on a can of tomatoes means is that the supplier guarantees the tomatoes would definitely be in their peak condition before that date – not that they are immediately going to turn to germy poison after (clue: they won’t, they are canned). Now, the caveat here is that packaging must be undamaged (no rusted or bloated cans, or compromised integrity of plastic intact on pack of pasta, etc.), since if the packaging is damaged, the item may well not last even as long as best-before date, and should certainly not be used in any case of damaged or suspicious cans (because botulism, which is rare these days – but with canned food+damaged packaging, all bets are off). But, provided the packaging is intact, that can of beans is easily fine two, three, five years after its best-before date, in terms of safety. So before tossing such, open it, check the contents, and if it all looks and smells fine, it’s entirely safe to use. Our sense of smell has, after all, evolved to warn us to not eat things which would harm us. It is not infallible, but when in doubt, sniffing something works wonders (pro tip: don’t sniff sacks of rotten onions or potatoes too deeply, you’ll regret it).
Where am I going with all of this? Well, I am new to Norway (today marks the 1-year anniversary of me ever setting foot in this country, and the moving anniversary is a few weeks away yet), so I hadn’t known about all the stores and services available here, but thankfully, having made a couple of friends, I actually have people who can show me awesome things.
And one of such awesome things is a store called Holdbart (literally, ‘Non-Perishable’ – the text on the left in the photo translates as “best before – but isn’t bad after”), which sells things (mostly food but not only) that are close to, before-or-after their ‘best-before’ date that are definitely not harmed by such – canned vegetables, past ‘best-before’ date cleaning products, toothbrushes (a toothbrush doesn’t go ‘off’ after its best-before date, trust me, I’m a chemist!), bottled sauces, vinegars, dried legumes and grains, pasta, chocolates (!!!), bottles of soda, and also some meats which were deep frozen before their ‘use-by’ date (at below -18°C, frozen meats, if packaged and stored correctly, do not deteriorate much, if at all, and are great for years). And they sell it all at an awesome discount. Do you see where this is headed?
Yep. I bought 72 (pictured 48) cans of fancy Italian butter beans which are out of best-before date stated on packages. I did pick up a couple of cans to try before going back and buying this many, and upon opening, predictably learned that yes, the beans are in top shape and are as delicious as all their butter bean brethren tend to be (provided you like beans). Oh, and they were selling for 2 (two) Norwegian krone per can (about 0.20€ roughly), which is silly-cheap.
How nice were they? Indistinguishable from beans before their best-before date, which I have eaten many a time, and better quality than many I’ve had. So yes, I hauled 72 cans of them to the car (free workout!) while doing the happy dance (cardio!) after managing a heavy cart down a slippery snow-covered slope (resistance weight training!), and possibly confusing the various Norwegians in and around the store because I am not sure they’ve ever seen anyone this happy about buying so many cans of beans. But hey, for their sake I hope it was a happy befuddlement.
I hauled the beans home, dragged 2 cases into the upper basement (storage, I love you!), and loaded the other one onto my kitchen cart, because, among other things, I plan to use them a lot to add quick and easy fiber and protein to our meals, and to avoid eating junk because I didn’t think of anything quick to eat and I am busy.
But, before I get to the salads and their (rough) recipe, I will take a break in my bean-happiness to finish saying what I started about food waste, and trying to avoid it – and that is, you can reduce food waste (and save money) if you just inventory your fridge weekly, use up any sad-looking vegetables and leftovers in a pot of soup, and don’t throw out cans and bags of past-best-before date things in pantry spring cleaning without at least giving them a sniff to see if they are still good. A lot of spices only last a year or two, that is so – but others (especially whole unground spices) can last for years in airtight jars, and still retain their aromatic properties. Do not toss out the jars and bottles just because of a date printed on the label. If it’s not a perishable item such as unfrozen meat or fish, or an opened jar of condiment forgotten in the fridge for two years (oh my eww, please toss those if that’s the case!), it may be past its best-before date, but it isn’t at all bad after.
Following is the recipe, or rather, rough guidelines for using canned beans in easy, quick, gloriously delicious and tasting-of-summer, and really healthy salads.
Beans are notorious for cooking badly (from dry) if cooked in an acidic environment, but once they are cooked, are amazingly lovely with a bit of acid in the mix to perk them up. Good-quality cannellini or other canned beans also tend to have a wonderful creamy texture, which contrasts great with crunchy fresh vegetables, and is, therefore, good in any sort of Mediterranean-flavored salad.
So, here’s what I use, with some items typical and other optional: (serves 2, or one very hungry person)
- 1 x 400g can of boiled beans, rinsed and drained. I love butter beans, but use whatever non-baked-beans you like.
- 1 medium or small shallot, sliced very thinly into long diagonal half-moons (a really sharp knife is your friend).
- 1-2 tomatoes or a large handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped or halved/quartered in case of the latter
- 1 paprika (bell pepper), any color, cored, seeded, sliced into thin short strips. I don’t like green but if you do, go for it.
- 1-2 generous tablespoons of chopped sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil.
- A pinch of salt
- A teaspoon of paprika (smoked or plain), or herbes de Provence, or dried tarragon, or basil, or some snipped fresh herbs of your choosing if it’s not winter. It’s winter here so all my herbs other than Persicaria odorata (Vietnamese coriander) are asleep in the garden under the snow.
- 1 chili pepper or a generous teaspoon of chili flakes, or none if you don’t like capsaicin, or more if you really really do.
- 1 clove of garlic, pressed (also optional if you hate garlic)
- 1 tsp of balsamic or sherry vinegar, or a squeeze of lemon or even lime – if you taste it and it needs more acid, add a bit more.
- 1-2 tbsp good quality extra-virgin olive oil, or the oil the sun-dried tomatoes were packed in, or a mix of the two.
One or more of the following, in whatever combination makes you happy:
- 1 tablespoon of drained capers
- A handful of olives, pitted and chopped
- A few cloves of pickled garlic, oil drained into the salad, sliced
- Some bacon bits because bacon makes everything better, or some sausage, cut and sauteed, a sliced chicken breast, or a few flakes of good-quality tuna in oil (put down the gross packed-in-water mushy stuff and back away slowly, this is not the right thing here, no, just NO), or some sauteed shrimp, or even quick-seared squid. Or none of the above (especially if you wanted to use the water-packed tuna), because this salad is fine without added protein thanks to the beans.
- A small handful of almonds, chopped and sprinkled on top of plated salad (or mixed in).
- Drained and chopped artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, or pickled peppers (hot or sweet) if you have those and want to use them up.
- A chopped avocado (goes well with the shrimp and lime).
The procedure is fairly simple as well (it’s a salad, pile everything in and toss), but there are a couple of steps that make it nicer if they are followed:
- Rinse the beans and leave to drain. You don’t want the can-of-beans water.
- Slice and add the shallots to the salad bowl, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Drip in a little acid (vinegar, citrus juice), and stir to start them quick-pickling.
- Chop and saute all that needs chopping and sauteing, and add on top of the shallots in the bowl. Once beans are drained to your satisfaction (I like mine pretty dried so I often tip them out of the colander onto a plate lined with a paper towel to take off the damp if I am in a hurry), add the beans. Season and toss, then taste and season further to taste. Beans absorb quite a lot of flavoring.
- Pile on plates, sprinkle with extra green herbs if you have any, or the chopped almonds, or both.
Or just eat out of the bowl because you are home alone, very hungry, and don’t have to share.
I have to add that, while it has zero to do with Mediterranean cuisine as such, Persicaria odorata leaves, chopped or whole, are fantastic in this salad – provided you aren’t one of those unfortunates to whom coriander tastes like soap (Persicaria tastes the same and has the same effect). And this reminds me that I should probably write a post about it, because it deserves its own place in the culinary sun, because it tastes like spicier coriander, but is much, much easier to grow (actually reasonably possible under central heating, indoors in the winter).