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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.
Related recipe: Zuppa Bastarda (Bastard Soup)
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