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.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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