The No Recipe Man

Posted by in July's Magazine

Regular readers of this column – admittedly a species so rare that David Attenborough is reputedly heading up a campaign to save it – may have noticed that food waste has become something of a recurring theme. And without wishing to offer any unwelcome spoilers, it’ll remain that way until we get our collective arse in gear and stop throwing out quite so much good food.

For less regular readers, here’s a quick recap. Seventy years ago, as my grandparents raised their family during post-war rationing, the pressing issue wasn’t food waste so much as food availability. If you had it, you used it; and in the more likely event you didn’t, you made do with something else. Few would wish for a return to rationing – or war, ideally – but those circumstances undoubtedly led people to cook with imagination as well as thrift.


Over subsequent generations, ingredients became plentiful; it was the skills that began to be rationed. Why bother to create meals from bones and scraps when you can afford to buy the good stuff and chuck what you don’t need? (Well, for all sorts of good reasons, actually – but that’s a topic for another day.) Fast-forward to the present, and things have moved on again. We’ve belatedly realised that we can’t afford, economically or ecologically, to throw out almost half the food we buy and produce. The problem is that we don’t seem quite sure what the hell to do about it.

In defence of my generation, there are mitigating factors here. Most home cooks, myself included, learned their skills via TV chefs and recipe books rather than parental supervision and home economics lessons. We construct our meals around oh-so-precise weights and measures but where our grandparents would visit the butcher or greengrocer to buy as much as they needed and no more, most of our ingredients arrive shrink-wrapped in predetermined quantities. Rarely do these quantities bear much relation to the stipulations of the recipe. So if we lack the capability or confidence to substitute, adapt and omit, we’re almost bound to end up with spare food that we simply don’t know what to do with.

Granted, we can now call on the collective wisdom of The Internet, which will instantly furnish us with ideas for using up all manner of bits and bobs; but unfortunately, 98% of these ideas involve flinging everything into an enormous and potentially revolting omelette. You certainly could make this – but you probably won’t. And here lies the crux of this particular first world problem. Food might be getting more expensive – and this is a trend that’s unlikely to reverse anytime soon – but at the moment, at least for the fortunate many, it’s still bloody cheap. And when it’s both affordable and convenient to buy something else rather than use up slightly tired-looking leftovers, it’s no wonder we find ourselves succumbing to the temptation of the new and the fresh, then discreetly scraping the offending remnants into the bin. So if we’re to tackle food waste in any meaningful way, it’s going to take will as well as skill.

To that end, here’s a straightforward idea for giving leftover food some much-needed lustre – and like so many aspects of cooking, it has as much to do with psychology as technique. Take this familiar scenario: you’ve bought an industrial quantity of one ingredient – chicken, let’s say – courtesy of an offer that seemed too good to turn down. Full of good intentions, you resolve to make a massive pot of chicken curry that will keep you fed for the better part of a week. It’s delicious; but 24 hours later, you really have to force yourself to eat the same thing again. The day after that, you don’t even manage to force yourself. You’re craving salad, pasta, Findus Crispy Pancakes – anything other than chicken sodding curry. Another couple of days pass, and you’ve barely made a dent in it. Well, it’s probably on the turn by now anyway. And eventually, inevitably, out it goes.

So let’s rewind to day one. This time, you still cook all the chicken – but only one meal’s worth finds its way into the curry. The rest can stay in the fridge – it’ll keep for just as long as it would in its curried state – but now it’s full of versatile potential. A pie one day, a stir-fry the next, and so on. You’ll still be eating chicken for the foreseeable, but that’s okay – it’s the repetition of flavours, not foodstuffs, that tends to bore us.

If my gran were still around, I suspect she’d read this and suggest, rather sharply, that we all wind our over-entitled necks in. And it’d be tough to argue with her – come to think of it, it always was. But if we really have been spoilt by years of peace and prosperity, I’d prefer to address the symptom rather than the cause. Anything that persuades us into less wasteful habits is dragging us a little way in the right direction. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll just have to see if I can dig out Gran’s old ration book.



One response to “The No Recipe Man”

  1. jovem says:

    man, my sister comment with me about this in my instagram, i loved!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *