Monday, May 31, 2010

More (or less) plastic free cooking, and musings on solo living

(Photo: Smitten Kitchen)

This weekend I'm sticking close to home, doing a couple of things: finishing 'moving in' to my apartment and making pizzas.

I've been in my apartment since March, with a roommate. One of the two rooms does not have a closet, so the place can function as a 2 bedroom with one person using a hall closet for storage, or a lovely and roomy 1 bedroom with a living room/office. My roommate (we originally met two apartments ago) invited me to move in to take over his lease when he relocated. He moved this weekend and I've decided to keep the place to myself, at least for a while. It is the first time in my life that I've had my own place where everything is mine (including the messes! and the plastic!), and I have full control over my home environment.

Though I haven't finished unpacking the last of my boxes, I have to say it feels really nice. All my years in NYC have been spent in shared apartments, with most of my worldly possessions piled in my bedroom. You can understand an obsession with storage solutions and fascination with de-cluttering, even while feeling a complete failure at it. Now, with my things spread out over a 2 room apartment, I see that I really don't have so much stuff. There is room to breathe, and it feels lovely. The downside to having my own place is that I've met some amazingly wonderful people in my roommates, and having never lived alone wonder how I'll like it after a while. We shall see!

Now, the pizzas. I was inspired by two things seen on the internet- Oliver Strand's article in the NY Times last week advocating aging the dough overnight for a better crust, and Smitten Kitchen's Shaved Asparagus Pizza (pictured above). Making pizza doesn't seem like the best thing to do on the first warm weekend of summer, but I'm having fun with it. It is a great way to use up leftovers and try new cooking techniques. The leftovers are mostly from The Art of Eating (related post below), and things my roommate left behind.

New techniques include aging pizza dough overnight- actually, I'm re-acquainting myself with pizza dough, period; I haven't made pizza since high school! And Smitten Kitchen's idea of shaving asparagus is sheer genius. The first pizza (made using Smitten Kitchen's dough recipe and not aging it) came out really well and used up all of the leftover asparagus. I still consider myself a fairly unwilling veggie eater, so having a half pound of asparagus go down in a flash on top of a pizza is pretty amazing. For cheese, I just used fresh grated Parmesan- which came wrapped in plastic. Cheese is an ongoing plastic issue. I'd like to learn to make it but don't see giving up fine cheeses such as aged Parmesan, not completely. The best I can do is to be choosy with it. For now I bring a one pound hunk of parm home, remove the plastic and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator- which is made of re-usable #5 plastic- and it lasts me at least a couple months.

For today's pizza I'm trying the dough aging technique and using parm cheese as well as a hodgepodge of leftovers from the fridge: jarred pasta sauce, a bit of pesto, a tomato, oven roasted first to bring out flavor, and most of a shallot, caramelized. Roasting the tomato and caramelizing the shallot are also new techniques for me, and it is a good thing I do have the apartment to myself since I smoked up the place pretty good with the shallot. Roasting a shallot in a dry skillet for 20 minutes before adding oil? Really, Mark Bittman, really?? In the end the shallot came out OK, but that was a LOT of smoke.

The dough isn't right- I screwed up the flour measurement and had to add a lot more in the kneading process, which I know doesn't do good things- you aren't supposed to knead pizza dough much. And plastic avoidance played a part here. The recipes say to cover the dough with plastic wrap while it is rising. Instead, for the first pizza I coated the dough with a bit of olive oil (which the recipe calls for anyway), then flipped it over a couple times in the rising process to prevent a hard skin from forming on the exposed dough. For the second pizza dough, aged overnight, I covered the dough with a tea towel. That must be what cooks did before the invention of plastic wrap, right? It didn't work. Maybe I should have dampened the towel from the start (I dampened it half way through), or maybe there is a better plastic free technique out there-- anyone? The dough formed a skin, which sort of worked itself back in while forming the pizza, but not really.

But here's the thing- pizza is very forgiving. It might not be as gorgeous as the pictures from Smitten Kitchen and the NY Times, but it still tastes pretty darned good.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cooking with less plastic-- for the stage!

This weekend, New York Metro Vocal Arts Ensemble (NYMVAE) will present "NYMVAE à la Carte", a food-themed double bill of J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata and The Art of Eating, a new opera by Jeffrey Lependorf. I have been involved with the company for a few years and am not singing in this production, but am helping out on the 'back stage' side- specifically with rounding up props.

Both one acts involve food and drink that are consumed on stage, which can be tricky to get right. Further, The Art of Eating is based on an essay by M.F.K. Fisher, a prolific and well-respected food writer who was active from the 1930s until her death in 1992. I had never heard of M.F.K. Fisher until now, but my foodie friends tell me I must read at least a few of her essays. She was the Ur-female food writer: before Julia Child and Ruth Reichl, there was M.F.K. Fisher, blazing a trail. Food essays and recipes from a time before single-use-plastics existed? Yes I do think I should read her essays!

The Art of Eating
takes place in a tiny French restaurant in 1950, and involves four food dishes that are served- and partially consumed- on stage. I'm responsible for two of those dishes. Gulp! My dishes are braised endive and asparagus with shallots and lentils. I am modifying the linked recipes a bit- for example, I'm not going to attempt a poached egg which is hard enough to get right at home, let alone getting it to the theater!

Wish me luck. I'm an OK home cook but no gourmet, and I've never made prop food before. It is my first time preparing puy lentils and endive. This stuff has to look like it was made by a French chef and two sopranos (the show is double cast) have to eat a few bites of it on stage! And of course, I'm doing this while avoiding single use plastics. Here is how I did on that score:

- fresh produce (Belgian endive and asparagus) purchased using cloth bags. The asparagus had rubber bands and and a plastic tag.
- shallots and herbs purchased using cloth bags
- Puy lentils purchased from the bulk section using a cloth bag
- White wine vinegar came with a plastic cap and seal
- pepper corns came in a plastic tub (I've had the same huge tub for over a year)
- olive oil came in a metal gallon canister with a plastic spout and cap- I now know a couple places where I can get olive oil using my own glass bottle.
- salt, sugar and butter came in paper and cardboard

If you are in New York City, I hope you will attend a performance! We have amazing performers, a completely charming production, and you can see how my prop food came out. The shows are May 20-23 at Baruch College's Performing Arts Center Bernie West Theater. Tickets are available here

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brita filter and #5 recycling update, NYC edition

Fourteen months ago, Brita USA joined a program called Gimme 5 to recycle its filters, thanks in part to a grassroots campaign led by Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish. This is a take-back program for spent Brita filters as well as #5 plastics -such as yogurt cups and take-out containers- sponsored by Brita (naturally), Stoneyfield Organic and Tom's of Maine, in partnership with Preserve, the company that recycles the plastic and turns it into new products. One other company is a big partner: Whole Foods. You can either mail your used filters to Preserve, or drop them off at participating Whole Foods stores.

I am so glad the program was started. To me it is a sign companies are starting to take responsibility for the products they manufacture, instead of leaving it all to the consumer and local governments. I'm rooting for Gimme 5's success, and wish more people knew about it. I haven't purchased a Brita filter for a while (since I drink mostly tap)- is Gimme 5 featured prominently on the package? Have you seen posters or advertising for Gimme 5? I haven't- and that worries me.

Additionally, a friend contacted me a couple weeks ago and asked if the program was in trouble- she tried to drop off a filter at a New York City Whole Foods and was told by an employee that they 'don't take them anymore'. Alarming! Thankfully, this is not the case. I reached out to every Whole Foods store in NYC and heard back: Gimme 5 is still going. Going strong? That I don't know- I hope so! Here is what I got back from NYC Whole Foods store managers:

Columbus Circle: "We do participate in the Gimme 5 program, and also we recycle the Brita filters in the Gimme 5 bins. The bin is located by our Whole Body department. Any questions please ask."

Tribeca: "We are extremely happy to say we accept #5 plastics!!! We have TWO collection bins located in our wonderful Tribeca store, one by our Local registers on the far right and one in the café upstairs by the elevator. We love this program and we are very happy to promote it. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask. Thank you and have a wonderful day."

Bowery: "I'm happy to share with you that our store does in fact participate in this wonderful program. All you need to do is bring in your #5 plastics to the Customer Service booth and our Team Members will put the items in the Gimme 5 bin, which we keep behind the booth. We do this to avoid co mingling and to ensure that only #5 plastics are getting into this bin, so it can properly be sent out. And to further answer your question, you can bring in Brita filters as well. ANY #5 plastic!"

Union Square: "Thanks for your inquiry, we absolutely do recycle your spent filter just wrap it up in a plastic a plastic bag ( that Preserve will recycle). Thanks for the compliment we definitely do take pride in being the only Company that has this program."

Chelsea: "Our Gimme 5 recycling receptacle can be found at customer service. We accept anything that is #5 and Brita Filters in the Gimme 5 program."

I'm stoked that so many Whole Foods stores are taking part! Especially since right now, this is one of the only ways for New Yorkers to recycle #5 plastics, including Brita filters. I'll have a filter of my own to recycle in a month or so. I drink mostly tap, but a few weeks ago there was a water main break in my neighborhood resulting in rusty water coming out of our faucets for the better part of a day. I started using my roommate's Brita pitcher. The water is back to normal now, but still-- I'm glad we have the filter.

Have YOU recycled with Gimme 5? How was your experience?

Thursday, May 6, 2010


One big change the comes with avoiding single use plastics is in the area of snacking. Think about it- pretty much anything that's crispy, crunchy, salty or sweet or both, and designed to be ripped open and placed directly into your pie-hole, is going to come with some plastic. See, it's that ripping open part.

I'm not ready to trade potato chips for apple slices and a handful of bulk bin trail mix. Not entirely, anyway. Here are some strategies and alternatives I use to get my fix while avoiding plastic:

- enjoying french fries and potato crisps at restaurants and pubs. (Yeah, this is a cheat as lots of places are likely dumping fries into the fryer out of a plastic bag, but not all of them...)

- nuts and dried fruits from the bulk section- I always have walnuts and raisins on hand; dried cranberries and almonds are another favorite combo.

- Kale Chips! Crispy, savory, and gone in a millisecond. If you haven't tried them yet, DO. Here is a recipe.

- Popcorn. I eat a lot of it. Buy from the bulk bins, prepare on the stove with olive oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot. If I want something salty/sweet, I go for kettle corn. (Beware- kettle corn is extremely addictive.)

- Whole fruit. Apples, oranges, pears, you get the idea.

- Hummus. My favorite recipe is Crunchy Chicken's, using chickpeas from the bulk section. I found the trick is to cook the bejesus out of the beans (skim off the little skins that float to the surface), and don't be stingy with the olive oil. Great with crudite- carrots, celery, broccoli etc.

- Other bulk bin bean dips- black bean, white bean. Eat with crudite veggies or bits of bread.

- Avocado. I'd say guacamole, but I love avocado so much that I don't have the patience to make it, so I just eat it.

- I tried Mark Bittman's flatbread recipe. It was OK. Perhaps better with practice and a hotter oven.

- Oatmeal cookies, using oatmeal, chopped walnuts, raisins and chocolate chips from the bulk section. And real butter, thank you very much. I can't make these often because I'll eat them until I get a stomach ache. Every. Time.

What are your favorite plastic free snacks? Let me know!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Things I hate: Plastic as an economic indicator

Last week, American Public Media's show Marketplace stated
If you want to see signs the economy is bouncing back, look no farther than plastic.
My stomach took a nosedive when I heard that. The story goes that Dow Chemical's stated earnings surged a whopping 2,300 percent, and this is a good thing because it means that people are buying more stuff. And as we all know, stuff is either made of plastic, comes wrapped in plastic, or both. Further, Bill Wood of Mountain Top Economics and Research says that in a recovering economy, plastic packaging will always recover first as consumers go back to old habits:
BILL Wood: You could buy a head of lettuce, or you could buy prepackaged salad. You could buy a block of cheese, or you could buy pre-grated cheese. But as the economy recovers, consumers tend to purchase more of the preprocessed, packaged stuff.
So if Dow Chemical's profits are up, that means we are BACK, America! USA! USA!


Here is a nice visual to go along with the story. It is a time lapse video of 24 hours at a Walmart. I wonder, of all the stuff and packaging purchased that day, how much of it ended in a landfill in the following 24 hours?

Stephen Wilkes - Time-Lapse: A Day at A Walmart Store. from BERNSTEIN & ANDRIULLI on Vimeo.

PlasticLess Celebrity Spotting

Have you noticed in the past couple of weeks that Stephen Colbert has traded out single use plastic water bottles on his show for a metal re-usable water bottle? Way to go, Mr. Colbert!

I often wonder when being spotted with a plastic water bottle or beverage in a single use plastic container will become a no-go for celebrities...and the rest of us. What will it take to pry the plastic iced coffee cups from the hands of the Olsen Twins? That day is coming, be sure. It is just a matter of when.

Have you spotted a celebrity going PlasticLess? Let me know!