Got a fruit tree in your backyard that’s buckling under the weight of its own plentiful produce?
That’s a great problem to have if you ask pickling enthusiast Alex Elliott-Howery, one part of the husband-and-wife team behind the sustainable Sydney café, cooking school and picklery Cornersmith, who grew interested in the art of conserving and pickling as a way of mopping up excess fruit and vegetables to stop them going to waste.
It all started when her husband James Grant grew too many zucchinis one year. The pair ran short of ways to use them but couldn’t bear the thought of the homegrown produce going to waste. Alex had the idea of pickling the zucchinis, which is a way of preserving vegetables via fermentation by putting them in brine or vinegar.
With a bit of experimentation, the couple had delicious, salty-sour zucchinis to use all year round!
Alex didn’t stop there. She dove headfirst into the ancient culinary tradition of pickling and fermenting, which has been used by almost every culture on earth to extend the shelf life of produce. Beyond the standard pickled cucumbers most people are familiar with, there’s also the pickled ginger of Japan, the fermented cabbage known as sauerkraut that’s favoured by Eastern Europeans and a spicier variety of fermented cabbage, called kimchi, which is eaten in Korea.
Before long, Alex was knocking on the doors of her neighbours who had fruit-laden trees and taking home boxes of produce to experiment with. In return, she’d always be sure to drop back a jar of something tasty.
This trading arrangement is still going on at café and picklery, now situated in Annandale in Sydney’s inner west, where locals drop off their surplus produce in return for a free coffee or two.
Low waste cooking doesn’t need to be hard
Alex says the produce trading is at the heart of the café’s goal of championing a sustainable, low waste way of cooking and eating that fits in with our busy modern lifestyles.
This includes the café’s commercial kitchen. Alex says the chefs are asked to extract as much flavour out of each ingredient before putting what remains in the compost.
“For example, if they are using the fennel bulbs, they must find a home for the tops and fronds, and if making a pineapple cake, they must find a home for the skins.”
These lessons have fed into Cornersmith’s latest in a series of cookbooks called “Use It All”. Written by Alex and the cooking school co-ordinator Jaimee Edwards, Alex says the book was inspired by the way they run their home kitchens as working parents.
“We wanted to make it really manageable.”
The goal was not to make people feel guilty about buying a packet of mint slices or other convenient foods but rather to help them squeeze as much nutritional goodness out of their supermarket shopping as possible.
The book is arranged around eight different seasonal shopping baskets, which are filled mainly with fruit and vegetables as well as a star protein, such as a whole chicken or can of chickpeas.
From there, with the help of pantry staples, the goal is to inspire home cooks to use every last bit of those ingredients. For example, after roasting a chicken, people are encouraged to use the chicken bones to make stock.
“It’s about getting people to learn about the seasons, and understanding that you don’t need too much in the house at once. And it’s about having some skills to know how to manage the ingredients, and use everything that you’ve bought.”
Learn more about Cornersmith!