After a couple of days off, I came into work one morning and began my usual routine of putting away the stack of recipes left out by harried cooks as they grilled, seared, and braised their way through a busy weekend. Working under fluorescent light, I stood at our butcher-block table in a quiet kitchen that wouldn’t be hit by chaos for hours and sorted recipes by category — antipasti, sauces, meat, and so on.
I don’t mind doing this. At the restaurant where I work, we write a new menu every day, based on what animal we’ve just had butchered and what fruits and vegetables local farmers, markets, and produce companies have provided. Looking through recipes others have turned to gives me ideas for how I might shape our large and ever-changing inventory into a menu.
One recipe, for a white-bean-and-dried-bread soup, sounded so simple as to be plain, as many Italian dishes appear at first glance.
Intrigued, I asked our bread baker (who knows a lot about the goings-on in our workplace, even though she starts work at 4 a.m.) if she knew anything about it. She said that the freezers were full of unsold bread and that a co-worker, who is Italian-American and loathe to waste food, had been cooking with bread all weekend in response to the surplus. Besides the usual crostini and bread crumbs, she’d turned day-old bread into a zucchini-bread lasagna and, also, this monochromatic soup.
I followed her lead and put cannellini beans on the stove to simmer with olive oil, garlic, and sage, then went upstairs to get some of the stale bread.
What I saw — big bags full of leftover ciabatta, a traditional Italian bread that our wood-burning oven had colored a dark caramelly brown — made me sigh.
After working in professional kitchens for so many years, I was resigned to such deflating sights. When you aren’t sure how many diners you’ll serve or what they’ll choose from the menu, leftover food is unavoidable.
Still, I felt guilty that I didn’t feel more guilty. Let’s just say that my career up to this point had focused on the experience of the diner, and that meant quality usually trumped economy.
This bean-and-bread soup, however, was all about economy of labor. With so few ingredients and almost no chopping required, it was as if I’d received a pass to sprint ahead in my prep list.
After I trimmed off the crust, I cut the bread into big chunks, which I toasted in the oven to a deep golden brown. I parboiled escarole, reserving the cooking water, and sautéed lots of garlic in a soup pot with olive oil and chili flakes.
Once the beans were tender, I poured their broth into the soup pot to simmer with the garlicky oil. I added the beans, the toasted bread, and some of the escarole’s blanching water. This all simmered briefly, just until the bread absorbed the liquids. I didn’t stir it much.
I added the escarole and set the soup aside. I would give it a final taste when it cooled.
In Italy, it is said that for every crumb of bread you waste, you will spend a year in Purgatory collecting crumbs with your eyelashes. It is no wonder the Italians have produced such a catalog of toppings for crostini and bruschetta.
But I am a secular American. While I am mindful of the hunger Italians have suffered historically, particularly during World War II, threats of purgatory just don’t motivate me.
What does affect me is demoralized exhaustion and the desire to avoid it. On a workaday basis, I see food waste from the perspective of a cook in a scratch kitchen.
Almost all food is slow food in a restaurant that hews to Italian tradition. When I say slow food, I’m not referring to the organization founded in Italy. I’m talking about the tedious labor that cooking from scratch requires. Gutting anchovies, scooping out the body cavities of squid, and transforming mountains of produce into dinner — for us, that’s a long day, but not an unusual one.
To waste food that has been so carefully prepared broadcasts a cosmic pooh pooh to cooks in kitchens everywhere. To do so risks, perhaps, a special kind of restaurant purgatory, one where you are never finished chopping the onions.
No one who has gone to the trouble to peel, seed, and chop a case of tomatoes wants to see tomato sauce forgotten at the back of the walk-in refrigerator.
And then there is bread. Cured meats such as salami and prosciutto notwithstanding, few staples of Italian cuisine take as long to bring to the table as its long-rise breads.
Traditional Italian breads are mixed and shaped in drawn-out rituals that resemble the rhythms of the tides. Some are based on sourdough starters kept alive for years with daily feedings. Bread and pizza doughs ferment, or rise, as long as overnight, a process that leaves their skins uniquely stretched and looking like the surface of the moon.
After a while, I went back to taste the soup. A distinctive bread flavor came through. So did the ciabatta’s unique lacy texture, which had softened considerably but was still detectable and silky. The bread tasted fresh again, and it had mixed with the creamy beans, broth, and green olive oil into a thick soup that felt luscious and soothing to eat.
I knew that it was the baker who had done all the work in this success story.
I’d had it backwards all along. Finding a use for yesterday’s bread is not an obligation that you either bow to or ignore. It’s about being wise enough to take advantage of an ingredient that, at its best, makes you look like a better cook than you are.
Ideally, it seems, the lengthy preparation scratch food demands should be eclipsed by the pleasure it brings to those who cook and eat it. Long-rise bread lives up to this expectation.
Its character has had time to develop. Maybe that’s why it shines throughout the metamorphoses a cook will put it through. First bread, then soup. First bread, then sweet pudding. Or cheese-and-wild-mushroom strata, or spaghetti coated in toasted crumbs.
I found myself paging through cookbooks over the next few days, looking for more recipes based on bread. I read with anticipation and excitement, as if cooking with leftover bread was a new idea on this earth.
There is a saying in restaurants that all your profit goes out in the trash. A certain amount of waste is inevitable. But when we dismiss food that’s day-old or boring in its abundance, we lose more than time and money. In failing to find uses for all the food in our possession — whether it’s stale loaves, very ripe fruit, or too much kale — we miss the chance to force ourselves to cook in a new way.
With luck, when we transform a familiar ingredient into a new recipe or a new dish, our minds open once again to what’s possible in the kitchen, and we feel the freshness of surprise.
Kelly Myers is a freelance writer and chef who lives in Portland, Oregon. She has cooked for restaurants, caterers, and a retirement community.