Ask the Expert: A Sustainability-Minded Chef

I have been lucky enough to spend time with a professional chef whose appreciation of nature and the simple, beautiful things in life show through in her cooking. In the following interview, Sabra answers a few questions designed to capture some of her sustainable, creative energy to guide us not-so-professional cooks at home. Thanks to Sabra for the inspiration and tips to cook more sustainably!

How does thinking about environmental impact influence the way or what you cook?
I believe that cooking seasonally and locally are some of the most basic ways to reduce environmental impact and that definitely informs what ingredients are available to me at any given time. After a lifetime of living in the city, I am now living in the country and it’s such a joy to buy most of my produce, meat, and dairy from the surrounding farms. My body is happier when I cook using the produce that is growing at the moment because it feels more aligned with nature. Heavier, more starchy crops keep me warm in the Fall and Winter and more delicate greens and acidic veggies cool me off and load me up with water in the Spring and Summer.

I try to shop at markets that I trust and pay attention to where an item comes from. It’s really worth it to spend an extra dollar or two to buy meat and eggs from dependable sources, instead of supporting companies that are causing harm to animals or the environment. That said I feel it’s important not to get rigid about where my food comes from. If we’re talking about sustainability, stress takes a huge toll on the human nervous system and we are a part of the health of this earth. If an avocado or plantains are what is called for, I will go buy them.

I think cooking simply really helps a lot too. It reduces a lot of waste. Being able to taste the essential flavor of a vegetable helps me keep in mind that it came from the ground. There is more of an ongoing relationship with the earth. Daily reminders of gratitude towards the earth help me take daily actions to care for it.

We all know eating vegetables is more environmentally-friendly than eating meat. Do you have any simple, go-to veggie recipes to make at home?
With the days getting longer and the promise of Spring in the air, my recipe for Green Quinoa comes to mind. It’s quinoa tossed in a mixed herb pesto and a variety of toppings go great on it.

Green Quinoa with Spiced Chick Peas and Roasted Vegetables
2 cups quinoa
1/2 bunch parsley
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch basil
2-3 cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
1/2 lemon

Spiced Chick Peas
1 cup chick peas
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp brown sugar
Olive oil

Soak chick peas overnight. Rinse and cook at a low boil until tender. You can also use canned chickpeas. Preheat oven to 325. Drain chickpeas and toss in spices, oil, sugar, salt, and pepper. Roast for 1.5-3 hrs, mixing occasionally, until crunchy.
Cook quinoa. Pick herbs and rough chop. Rough chop garlic. Blend herbs, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon using an immersion blender or a robocoup. Toss the quinoa in the pesto getting it evenly distributed. Best if the quinoa is not piping hot so that the color of the pesto stays bright. I like to eat this dish room temperature. You will probably have to adjust the seasoning of the grain after tossing, adding a bit more salt, pepper, and oil.
Roast your choice of vegetable in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Serve quinoa topped with the veg, chickpeas, and feta.

What three spices do you think every chef should have and go a long way?

  1. Cumin- I think cumin is the spice I use most. I often use it paired with coriander so I won’t put coriander on my list. It’s versatile; at home in Mexican, Indian, Asian and American food. I use it in soups, stews, on roasted vegetables, in baked goods, toss grains with it…I usually use it in savory food but it even makes its way into desserts sometimes.
  2. Zatar- A new favorite. Zatar is actually a Middle Eastern spice blend. It is a mixture of sumac, thyme, oregano, marjoram, salt and sesame seeds. It’s super versatile, used on pita, meat, veggies, and grains. I love mixing it into yogurt for a sauce or dip, sprinkling it on salads, or seasoning eggs with it.
  3. Paprika- Paprika has made a comeback in my life. I used to think its only purpose was to season poultry and thought it was kind of a boring flavor. Both untrue. There is a lot of poor quality paprika on the market and ground paprika goes stale quickly, so I think I just wasn’t exposed to it in all its glory. A good quality paprika will make all the difference. There are many different varieties as well; sweet, hot, smokey….When freshly ground, it is a bright red that makes for a beautiful garnish. I have recently fallen in love with it as a flavor base and striking coloring in soups. It’s amazing in tortilla soup or a sauerkraut and sausage soup, especially with a dollop of sour cream swirled in.

What are common foods that people throw away, but are great used/reused into another dish?
All kinds of vegetable scraps can be used for soup stocks, adding great depth of flavor. Carrot tops or peels, onion skins, herb stems, mushroom stems, the stalks or leaves of cauliflower or broccoli…The list is endless. As long as you’re straining the stock it can go in there. You do want to make sure it matches the flavor profile of the soup you’re making, though. Parmesan or other dry salty cheese rinds also add great flavor to stocks. Meat or fish bones as well. These can be stuck in your freezer and pulled out at a later time.
Kale and collard stems are great for juicing. They are packed with nutrients, produce quite a bit of juice, and make for a beautiful green color.
When I owed Skytown and we had a lot of small amounts of vegetable leftovers, I would make either Shepherds Pie or Beef Stew, and throw them all in. Winter squash, red cabbage, kale, cauliflower, mushrooms and stems, zucchini are all great additions.

Do you have any other tips for individuals trying to cook more sustainably?
Composting makes a huge difference. Either finding a farm or garden near you that will accept your compost or getting a compost maker for your own backyard. We compost at my current job and I can see that about 60-70% of what would have gone into the garbage at my past jobs can be composted. This reduces what ends up in landfills and is given back to the earth, either feeding pigs like ours does, or making soil nutrient rich.

CSAs are great. It’s a wonderful way to support local farms and to eat more seasonally. It’s a fun adventure to get introduced to produce you aren’t familiar with and to figure out ways to use it.

Pickling, canning, and jarring. I live in the country and this year there was a bumper crop of apples. We made apple everything. Pies, crumbles, apple sauce, apple cider, apple chutney, apple butter…Instead of all of those buckets of apples going to waste, we found ways to transform it and save it for later. If you can’t eat it now, instead of wasting it, preserve it.

Interview via Laurèn DeMates

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