Cooking Green: Reducing your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

2006 was the year Al Gore forced us to hear an inconvenient truth about global climate change and Michael Pollan pegged us as omnivores facing the dilemma of an ailing industrial food chain. Since then, the conversations about climate crisis and our food system have intertwined. Many omnivores, seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and take charge of their food supply, have become locavores. Two new books, both released this spring, strive to educate consumers about how their choices in the kitchen impact global warming, Cooking Green: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen The New Green Basics Way by Kate Heyhoe (Perseus Books, $17.95, 272 pages, paperback) and Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming by Laura Stec with Eugene Cordero, Ph.D. (Gibbs Smith, $24.99, 244 pages, paperback with flaps). Today Heavy Table will review Cooking Green. Look for our review of Cool Cuisine next week.

Once I heard that Kate Heyhoe, who has authored eight books, including James Beard Award finalist Great Bar Food at Home, included a recipe for crock-pot cake in her latest book, Cooking Green, I knew I had to have a copy of her book. Cake! From a crock-pot!

If Heyhoe has her way, locavores will evolve to become “ecovores.” “An ‘ecovore’ eats foods that are raised and grown in harmony with the environment, currently and for the foreseeable future, locally and globally,” writes Heyhoe. “The ‘locovore’ [sic] hundred-mile diet is not a realistic lifestyle for today’s consumers. We thrive on flavors from around the globe, seasonal or not. Certainly, the long-term solution to a healthy and diversified diet (for both the people and the planet) starts with organic practices, but it also depends on reducing transportation emissions, and preserving food freshness and nutrition without ozone-depleting gases. With a global infrastructure based on carbon-free transportation, we could feed the world, sustain all the farms, preserve natural environments, support biodiversity, and support healthy economies.”

In Cooking Green, Heyhoe says that “12 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (or 14,160 pounds of carbon dioxide per household) result from just growing, preparing and shipping our food” and that “appliances account for 30 percent of our household energy use, and the biggest guzzlers are in the kitchen.” How we cook is as important as what we cook. Heyhoe, therefore, devotes the bulk of her book to discussing cooking appliances and methods, rather than to just recipes.  

The author identifies which appliances consume the most energy (“refrigerators eat up 11 percent of the entire home’s electricity”) and are the most inefficient  (“ovens are completely ridiculous when it comes to energy efficiency”), then offers practical (and some far-out) solutions for saving energy, such as cooking with small appliances (toaster ovens and slow cookers and the like) and employing passive cooking techniques — for both the oven and cooktop — where “you turn off the fuel early and let the accumulated heat finish cooking the food.” Heyhoe walks us through cookware choices, from selecting a skillet or purchasing a pressure cooker, to purchasing or making a haybox cooker.

Heyhoe then offers “The Ecovore’s Checklist” to help guide our choices at the grocery store, encouraging us to ask questions such as, “Is It Grass Fed or Pasture Fed?” and “Is it Seasonal?” She devotes a chapter to ingredients that are energy efficient, “ingredients that naturally cook with less fuel, or less water, or both… from no-cook pastas to nuts” and another to reducing waste.

Though many of Heyhoe’s strategies make a lot of sense, such as running the dishwasher only when you have a full load, others seem like overkill for minimal benefit, such as saving the “squandered water” that runs in the sink while waiting for the hot water to reach the faucet for other uses. Some of the information in the book is overwhelmingly detailed: Instead of “25 Green Tips for Blue Ovens and Broilers,” a short list of the highest-impact tips would have been easier to remember and actually put to use.

The book culminates in 50 recipes that “make it easier for cooks to start putting fuel- and water-saving methods into practice.” Each recipe comes with a “green meter” that identifies the areas in which that recipe registers on the low-impact scale. The Mediterranean Rice-Paper Rolls, for instance, are “No-cook; shelf-stable wrapper conserves fuel,” while the “French Lentil and Bulgur ‘Tabbouli,'” cooked in one pot and employing passive cooking, saves fuel and water and is also meat free. Another advantage to the fuel-conserving recipes is that they won’t heat up your kitchen in summer.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

I tried three recipes, with varying degrees of success. The Soba Noodles with Toasted Nut Oil, which employs Heyhoe’s passive cooking method, was a complete bust. Heyhoe has you boil water or tea (I tried tea), add the noodles, stir to separate, then cover and turn off the heat and let the noodles sit for two to four minutes until they reach “al dente tenderness.” I was skeptical about soaking noodles for only four minutes when the instructions on the back of the package of the Eden Selected 100% Whole Buckwheat Pasta called for eight minutes, simmering. My skepticism was warranted. Per Heyhoe’s instructions, I checked the noodles after two minutes, and again after four, the maximum cooking time according to the recipe. The noodles were nowhere near tender. I continued to check, at one minute intervals. I gave up at seven minutes, figuring I’d let too much heat escape to bother. I rinsed the noodles, some of which were clumpy and all of which were short of al dente, and continued with the recipe. In the end, I found the three tablespoons of soy sauce for 6-1/2 ounces of noodles to be too salty. Steeping the noodles in Lapsang souchong tea, instead of water, yielded an appealing a smoky element, but unless you’re pairing the noodles with Heyhoe’s Tea-Infused Eggplant Salad as she suggests, the added step of boiling water for the tea before cooking the noodles seems a wasteful use of fuel. If you’re not willing to expend the fuel to simmer the noodles, why expend the fuel to boil water for tea? (Earlier in the book, Heyhoe gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to electric tea kettles, so, perhaps that is a possible greener approach.)

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Heyhoe’s Herbed Salmon Gravlax (recipe appears at the bottom of this article) — which requires no cooking at all, but 48 hours curing time — calls for two whole fresh salmon fillets with skin, about five pounds total. At Coastal Seafoods (which will take the bones out for you, if you wish) in either Minneapolis or St. Paul, five pounds of wild Alaskan salmon will set you back about sixty bucks. This is a huge amount of fish if you’re cooking for a small household, so, I followed Heyhoe’s instructions “to halve the recipe using 2-3 pounds salmon, cut a single whole salmon fillet across the middle, and lay one half over the other, thick ends over thin ends.”

In a series of steps, she has you place the fillet halves with a mixture of coarse salt, sugar, and fresh chopped herbs underneath, between, and on top, with the first fillet skin side down and the second fillet, flesh side down, on top of the first. Heyhoe probably expects you to cut the fish lengthwise down the middle, but even with the “thick ends over thin ends” tip, this was unclear. I cut the fish widthwise, because the fillets fit perfectly in my casserole dish that way. Unfortunately, different thicknesses cure at different rates, so the texture of my cured salmon was uneven, with thin parts too chewy and thick parts too fleshy. The instruction to turn the fish twice a day was confusing: I was unsure whether to flip each fillet individually so that sometimes the skin sides met or to turn the fillets as a combined unit over (Heyhoe intended the latter). My results were okay, but with $30 or $60 dollars of precious seafood on the line, I wish the instructions had been more clear.

(As an aside, if you were of fan of the dear, departed Minneapolis outpost of Aquavit, here’s Chef Marcus Samuelsson’gravlax recipe.)

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

The Greek Citrus-Honey [Crock-Pot] Cake , which “bakes in slow cooker using almost no fuel,” is the recipe that haunts me. After all, this is the recipe that made me want to get the book. Heyhoe calls for a 5-quart slow-cooker. I own four crock-pots; none of which is a 5-quart. I asked around my pot-luck loving office, but no one owned a 5-quart. I considered purchasing a 5-quart crock-pot, but that violates common sense, as well as Heyhoe’s “first rule,” which is “make do with what you’ve got.” So, I borrowed a co-worker’s 4-1/2 quart crock-pot, even though it was less than ideal.

Heyhoe has you brush the crock with olive oil, then line it with parchment paper. Combine the dry ingredients and, separately, the wet ingredients. Then pour the wet ingredients with the dry. Because the olive oil is listed first (because it is used for greasing), before the dry ingredients, I forgot to add the required 1/2 cup of olive oil to the wet ingredients, which I realized only after the crock-pot had been quietly baking away for about 15 minutes. I removed the lid, then the kitchen towel Heyhoe has you drape over the crock, whisked in the olive oil, returned the towel, then the lid, and resumed cooking. This attempt took an additional two hours of cooking beyond the two hours and 15 minutes that the recipe required. But, except for a small undone patch in the middle, the result was fantastic: more like quick bread than birthday cake, it was dense and moist and fragrant with the scents of honey and orange. As you can see from the photo, this cake won’t be winning any beauty pageants.

My co-workers loved the cake, so I tried the recipe again, this time taking care to add the olive oil to the wet ingredients. The cake still required an additional two hours, with me checking at 1/2 hour intervals. There was still a small, sticky, undone patch in the middle, but I didn’t want to risk burning the edges. My co-workers loved this second attempt, though one preferred the texture of the first, saying it was more saturated with honey. Another asked for my recipe.

Cooking Green is an excellent resource if you wrestle with practical questions about going green in the kitchen, such as, how earth-unfriendly is it to run the garbage disposal (pretty unfriendly, as it turns out) or which packaging is best (aseptic paperboard), and on that basis, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. But, as a cookbook, it falls a smidge short. If your expectation is fabulous results, every time, including your first attempt, and using kitchen equipment you already own, this may not be the book for you. However, if, in order to become a better ecovore, you are willing to experiment a little, risking small failures with precious ingredients, in order to adapt Heyhoe’s recipes to your own kitchen and equipment, then the recipes might serve you, and the planet, well.

As for me, I’m debating seriously whether I should buy a 5-quart crock-pot just to bake that glorious Greek Citrus-Honey Cake, for real.

Question to The Heavy Table’s readers: Do you own a five-quart crock-pot?  If so, and you are curious about this Greek Citrus-Honey Cake recipe, we would love to read your “comments” on your results.

RECIPES:

The below recipes were excerpted from Cooking Green, with permission.

Herbed Salmon Gravlax
Makes 20 small servings; may be halved

Servings: To halve the recipe using 2-3 lbs salmon, cut a single whole salmon fillet across the middle, and lay one half over the other (thick ends over thin ends). Cut the ingredients in half, but don’t cut the curing time — you’ll still need 48 hours.

2 whole fresh salmon fillets with skin, about 5 lbs total
3/4 c kosher or coarse salt
3/4 c sugar
1 large bunch fresh herbs, such as dill, basil, or cilantro, or a mix (2 to 3 c when chopped)

1. Run your fingers down the fillets and feel for small rigid bones. Using needle-nosed pliers or tweezers, pull these pin bones from the salmon. Mix together the salt and sugar in a small bowl. Coarsely chop the herbs.

2. In a large glass baking dish or other nonreactive container, distribute one-fourth of the salt-sugar mixture in an area just the size of the fillet. Place one fillet skin-side down on the mixture. Sprinkle two-thirds of the remaining mixture evenly on top of the fillet, along with all of the chopped herbs. Place the second fillet flesh-side down on top of the herbs and curing mixture. Sprinkle the remaining curing mixture on the skin side of the second fillet.

3. Weight the fillets: set a plate, pan, or small cutting board on top of the fillets (it should be large enough to cover them but small enough to fit within the dish). Add something heavy for weight: a cast-iron pan or a pot filled with water, or wrap some bricks in foil.

4. Refrigerate 2 to 3 days, turning the fish twice a day. The salmon releases juices as it cures, so be careful when moving the pan. (Pour off accumulated juices if the pan gets too full.) Scrape away excess cure. To serve, thinly slice the fish at an angle. Gravlax will keep a week or more refrigerated.

From the book Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Greek Citrus-Honey Cake
Serves 12

1/2 c olive oil (mild, or mix of mild and fruity), plus extra for greasing
1-3/4 c sugar
1-1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 c cornmeal
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder (double-acting)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz (1 c) plain yogurt (regular or low-fat)
2 tsp orange oil or 1 tbsp orange extract
6 large eggs
1/2 c slivered almonds, or pine nuts

Syrup:
1/4 c honey
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1. Grease the bottom and sides of a 5-quart slow-cooker insert (crock) with a small amount of olive oil. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom. Set in the paper and grease it.

2. In a mixing bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Separately combine the yogurt, olive oil, orange oil or extract, and eggs, beating with a wire whisk. Pour the yogurt mixture into the bowl holding the dry mixture and combine until uniformly mixed. Stir in the nuts. Pour the batter into the crockery insert.

3. Lay a folded dishtowel across the top of the crock (covering the batter without touching it), cover with the lid, and cook on high 2 hours and 15 minutes, or until the edges turn brown and pull away slightly from the insert, and a wooden skewer poked in the center comes out clean. Lift the insert (using potholders) out of the cooker and let it rest, uncovered, 15 minutes. Loosen the sides of the cake with a knife or spatula. Place a plate over the top and, holding it securely (it’s hot: use potholders), flip the crock over so the cake falls onto the plate. Remove the parchment. Let the cake cool slightly.

4. Stir the honey and lemon juice together until completely combined. While the cake is warm, poke holes in the top with a fork, about 20 times. Spoon the glaze over the top and sides, letting the glaze seep in slowly before adding more. Serve in thin slices.

From the book Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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  1. Know your salmon! If you go to your fish market and ask for “wild” salmon you may have 4 or more options (species) – with a wide range of price and quality! And none of them will be your best option for gravlax. To avoid parasites, wild salmon must first be frozen. And that softens the texture of the fish considerably. The best salmon for gravlax is Atlantic (firm texture, high oil content, low risk of parasites) and good luck getting your hands on wild Atlantic salmon because it is not commercially fished. Coastal Seafoods has a nice organically-raised option. Just like livestock farming, there are different aquaculture methods – some more “green” than others. And if you think you’re avoiding all controversy by choosing “wild” salmon? Most pacific salmon that is harvested was stocked from a hatchery.

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