17 | Nov | 11

Richard Johnson

Waste Not, Want Not

This Friday, London’s street food sellers take on a challenge of Biblical proportions. They are feeding the 5,000 — in Trafalgar Square. And they’re hoping Nigella will lend the event her support. The domestic goddess did the catering for her own wedding, but when she left for honeymoon, she couldn’t help herself. She took leftovers. There she was, a rich wife with a rich husband, but she took on a chiller bag of scraps as hand luggage. Waste not want not.

We can see it in her television series. At the close of a show, after the credits have rolled, we see Nigella sneaking down to the fridge to wolf down the leftovers. It’s not just put on for the cameras. “To tell the truth,” she says, “I’m happy to eat them standing, leaning on the still-open refrigerator door, for my finger-picked breakfast. But I also love the culinary fiddling to which they can lend themselves with great satisfaction.”

If there aren’t any leftovers after dinner, Lawson actually gets a bit miffed. “From my point of view” she says “it wouldn’t mean that lunch had been so delicious that not a morsel remained but, rather, that you hadn’t provided enough to start with. Plenty is the very minimum you can think of producing, I think, though, this is a tempremental thing: some people fear extravagance, others meanness; in my own case, I just have a neurotic need for too much, too much everything.”

Bowls of leftover creamy mashed potatoes? Tomorrow’s fishcakes. Or a pan of bubble and squeak. “This dish” she says, “which consists of fried mashed potatoes and cabbage, has an unexpected buttery and nutty resonance when made with Brussels sprouts.” And to add a touch of elegance to it, if “elegance” is the right word for bubble and squeak, try topping it with a fried or poached egg. “And maybe some crumbled crispy bacon.”

Nigella is a big fan of the nursery food canon – toad-in-the-hole, for instance. “Toad-in-the-hole started off life, as many of these sorts of dishes do, as a kind of British version of cucina povera,” she says. “A way of making meat go farther. Scrapings of meat, the odd scrawny cutlet or anything left over from the Sunday roast would be tossed in batter to provide sustenance and energy.” For a woman of money, Lawson is very firmly grounded.

But then Nigella used leftover trampoline parts for her greenhouse – make-do and mend is clearly in her genetic make-up. She knows how to get the most out of every ingredient; coming up with ingenious ways to serve leftovers, and finding new recipes to use up a glut of fruit or veg. Could those carrots be pureed with almonds to make soup? Or could that loaf be turned into crutons? ‘Waste not, want not’ isn’t some dreary, outdated mantra. It’s a principle that can help all of us eat wisely and well.

And it’s very timely. The fact is that one third of the food we buy in this country ends up in the bin. That includes old tea bags and dirty vegetable peelings – but 15% of it includes perfectly edible food. Work out the sums. It’s quite possible we throw away £30 every time we do a supermarket shop. That’s £120 a month, or £1,440 a year – a lot of money. It’s also a lot of food: as a nation, we throw away 6.7m tons per year. Talk about a throwaway society. And, right now, we just can’t afford it.

Nigella will use leftover chicken in a pie – or goose in a cassoulet. As with bouillabaisse, there is no general rule as to exactly what goes into a cassoulet. It’s just a catch-all for anything edible that a chef decides to toss into a pan. In the olden days, when kitchen fire was kept constantly stoked, cassoulets would claim a twenty-year life span. Just don’t ask for the recipe. As any self-respecting chef will tell you, there IS no recipe. It just accumulates!”

It was Nigella that got us all saving carcasses. Every time you roast a chicken, simply pop the leftover carcass into a plastic bag and throw it into the freezer. When you’ve got three or four carcasses, put them into a stock pot with enough cold water to cover, and simmer for three hours. Maybe throw in some herbs, and a whole onion for the last hour. The broth – once it’s been skimmed and sieved – will be the backbone for many a dish.

Leftovers are obviously better put away in the freezer if the alternative destination is several days lingering in the fridge and then in the bin. “On the other hand,” says Nigella, “beware against using the freezer as a less guilt-inducing way of binning food you know you don’t want. If no one, including you, liked the soup the first time round (and that’s why you’ve got so much left over) there is no point in freezing it for some hopeful future date when, miraculously, it will taste delicious.”

But bagging leftovers – say stews – in single portions can be useful for those evenings when you’re eating alone. “Take the little packet out of the deep freeze before you go to work in the morning and heat it up for supper when you get back at night” says Nigella. “Immensely cheering.” Or knock up a really big batch and freeze the surplus for days when you can’t face cooking. Don’t be prissy about it. Pretty much anything can be used to make soup.

One of Lawson’s favourites is ochazuke – a simple rice soup. Put your leftover rice with a few flavour additions such as spinach, a bit of courgette, fish (tinned or otherwise), bean sprouts, tofu, broccoli, Japanese pickles, whatever’s around. Leftover stirfry would be nice. Make green tea or open an ochazuke sachet (which seems to contain seaweed, vegetable flakes and sesame seeds as well as the green tea), and pour it over the rice. Season, if you like, with soya sauce and sesame oil. Eat.

It’s all about understanding food, and the way it works. It’s about picking food up – and interacting with it. Licking it off the end of your finger while you look at camera two. Like all chefs, Lawson understands food. She won’t abuse a ‘use by’ date, but will treat a ‘best before’ and a ‘sell by’ date as little more than a guideline. The supermarkets only put them on packaging because they’re catering for a public that are very poorly educated about food – and prone to sue at the drop of a hat.

The message from the government is, when you get in the kitchen, exercise some basic portion control. According to WRAP, the government department behind the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, getting the portions wrong is one of the main reasons we end up wasting food. So www.lovefoodhatewaste.com has a portion planner. But Nigella won’t be interested. Like she says, “I don’t feel a house is a home until there are leftovers in the fridge.”