Doomed Dolmades. 

Have you had dolmades? Tasty little packages of lamb mince and rice wrapped up in tender salty vine leaves? Even the canned ones are nice. Fiddly to make at home but worth the effort. Well, so I thought!

Earlier this month I wrote about my love of cooking and humble-bragged about being a half-decent cook. I just got my comeuppance and I have thrown nearly four hours worth of cooking in the green lidded bin (the one destined for council composting). 

Not light green enough! Those browning tips should have been a warning!

It all started with the neighbour’s grapevine.

I think the neighbour’s house is an AirBnB or holiday home. From my careful observations, I have determined that it is mostly unoccupied, although sometimes there are groups of people there on the weekends. Someone comes in and cuts the grass every now and then. Again after careful observation, I noticed that the grapevine on my neighbour’s front fence had fat bunches of small red grapes. A-ah, I thought! An opportunity to forage! The neighbours certainly didn’t seem to be using them. The grapes, unfortunately, were well past ripe and riddled with bugs and spider webs. I tried one of the better-looking ones and my face took a full two minutes to unpucker. 

Sour!!!! 

Oh well, I lamented, such a waste. I guess if they stay there a bit longer they may well turn into raisins. Then I spied the other forage-able resource. Vine leaves! I can make dolmades. The lawn people just happened to be there and I asked if they thought it would be OK if I picked a few of the leaves. They agreed that the owner wouldn’t even notice.

Preparing the leaves

I did some “research”, that is I looked up a few cooking websites and they said it was easy to use fresh leaves. Just make sure you pick the fresh, young ones. In early summer.  Not too big and make sure they are light green. Otherwise, they warned, the leaves will be too tough and stringy. It’s late summer here but there were a few light green leaves on the vine.  I duly picked 60 of the brightest, softest greenest ones.  

Lamb Dolmades without the Lamb

I brought the leaves inside, washed them carefully, checked for bugs and trimmed the stems. I blanched them gently in boiling salted water, for the recommended two minutes. Then I laid them aside while I made the filling. 

I have made dolmades several times before with packaged leaves. I’ve used lamb mince and they have always turned out super-tasty. Since I am trying to cut down on my meat consumption, both for my own health and the health of the planet, I decided to make a vegetarian option. I made a rich tomato and rice filling with vegan mince. It had a great consistency and while it certainly lacked the unctuous umami richness I  would get from real meat, it wasn’t that bad. Nothing a bit of salt couldn’t fix.

Next came the wrapping. After some trial and error, I got the wrapping down pat, and soon I had neat rows of little olive green parcels sitting in the leaf-lined baking dish. I popped it in the oven for 40 minutes after splashing it with olive oil and half filling the tray with water as directed.  Once out of the oven, I left them to cool. (Are you adding up the time and labour here??) 

You were warned!

In the back of my mind I was thinking that the blanching and baking would tenderise the leaves. I was wrong. While they tasted OK (and here I mean only just OK) the leaves were in fact tough and chewy just like the recipes had warned.  Even after some very diligent mastication, I was left with a wad of green fibres rolling around in my mouth. Ewww. The lack of umami meatiness didn’t help and it was all tragic disaster! (Albeit a first world disaster.)

No recovery!

I decided to let them cool even further and tried them again the next day.  I tried!  I did! I really tried! Extra salt, extra oil, extra lemon juice but nope those leaves stayed tough and stringy and the filling remained pretty darned tasteless.

There was no magical recovery for these time-wasters! I made the brutal decision to bin them immediately rather than let them fester in the back of the fridge for two weeks while I tried to convince myself to be a good citizen and eat them. With the axiom “if food waste were a country” ringing in my ears I tipped them in the bin.

Time, effort, money and high hopes dashed! 

Lessons learned.

  1. Some things are really, really seasonal. Pick the leaves early in the season, not in late summer. In this case, age counts more than colour.
  2. Some things just aren’t meant to be vegetarian. Buy the lamb! The nice tasty umami lamb! Ethically raised and locally sourced of course!

Cooking for One.

An article landed in my inbox this week. It was from the ABC or SBS. I’m not sure which, and now I can’t find it. The gist of the story was the difficulty some people have in cooking for one. That is, for themself. The author spoke about her newly single status and how she went through a stage of not wanting to go to the effort of cooking if she was the only one eating. She then went on to say how she pulled herself out of the doldrums and now is happy to make solo meals. 

The article made me stop and think about my own approach to cooking for myself and how it has changed. I have written before about my wine and (potato) wedges phase. In the early days of my single journey, I was lucky if I actually bothered to throw the frozen chips in the oven. Sometimes the wine and wedges became wine and a packet of chips (crisps). Nutrition goals met?…not! 

In the kitchen all day?

Thankfully, I’m over that and now I have the opposite approach. I spend a lot of time in my kitchen; on purpose and loving it. Today, for instance, I whipped up the following: 

  • A kilo of granola, 
  • picked 2 kilograms of blackberries from the empty block next door, 
  • made jam with said blackberries and then made 

Blackberries, a rare treat to find them in the “wild” these days. They are usually sprayed as they are a noxious weed.

Lentils in abundance!

I love cooking! I love cooking complex recipes. Sometimes I regret not having an audience to share my culinary prowess with, but I certainly eat well! I tend to spend 3 – 4 days in a cooking frenzy and then live on the leftovers for the next two weeks. My freezer fills up and my Tupperware cupboard empties.  My maths brain can’t help but chuckle about the inverse relationship between freezer volume and storage container availability.

Batch cooking – here mushroom cannelloni.

This love of cooking became very clear to me when I was unpacking my stuff in my new house. My sister and her kids come to help me. I felt a bit awkward when they began to unpack jar after jar of lentils 

“How many types do you have?” my niece asked.

Turns out it’s at least seven. Then at least four different types of oil, a bunch of different kinds of vinegar and so many spices I did not have room for them. 

The near ancient Kenwood.

I am not a kitchen gadget person and usually make do with basic tools but I do have a Kenwood stand mixer and a BIG food processor. The stand mixer is at least 40 years old. I bought it at a garage sale when my child was a small baby. I remember paying $30 for it and balancing it on the canopy of the stroller as I wheeled it home.  It weighs a tonne and is still going strong. It was old then and that baby is now 31! (currently touching all the wood!!!)

As time has progressed and my budget has allowed, I have realised it’s worth spending good money on better knives and heavy saucepans. It’s equally important to have a good knife sharpener. Adapting recipes became second nature. I would now consider myself an accomplished cook but certainly no Michelin-rated chef.

I know some people find cooking a chore, but for me, it’s a creative outlet.

Eco-hacks – Episode 4: Meal Planning

Meal planning saves money and resources.

You well may ask, how is meal planning an eco-hack? Meal planning reduces your global environmental footprint AND saves you money because if you do it properly, it will reduce food waste.

If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest emitter after the US and China.

FAO 2013

It is an oft-quoted stat that Australian families waste approximately 20% of the food they buy. Put another way, one in every five bags of groceries you lug into the house could end up in the bin!

It’s not just a waste of money (the average family wastes $1036 p.a!!!)  but also a waste of valuable resources. Apart from the food itself, there is wasted energy in materials in the growing, processing (even lightly processed foods), transportation through the various stages. Next, you have to get to the shops and back,  cart the food home, store it and cook it.

The BIG issue apart from the economic waste, is the contribution that rotting food adds to greenhouse emissions. Unless you live in a place where you can compost ALL your food scraps, or are lucky enough to live in a council area that does FOGO, it’s likely your food waste will end up fermenting away underground in a landfill site. This anaerobic fermentation leads to the production of methane gas which is right up there in terms of greenhouse gases. You can calculate how many kilograms of methane gas you are contributing from food waste at this site.

It makes good economic and ecological sense to reduce food waste.

This graphic from the Sustainable Table gives some facts about food waste. Lack of planning is the most significant cause of food waste.

Why I plan my meals.

Meal planning is one of my happy places! Sad, I know, but apart from the joy I get from being organised and being able to draw up lovely lists, it genuinely makes my life easier. I like cooking, I love trying complicated recipes, and I am very committed to eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet.

While I have always planned my meals in some shape or form, I have upped my game considerably over the last two or three years.  The fact that it contributes to reducing waste is a bonus.

I  was originally spurred on to be more proactive about meal planning for four reasons:

  1. To reduce decision fatigue. What to cook for dinner is a vexed question even in a household of one! Coming home after a day of work and thinking what the f$%# to cook for dinner was a drag, despite my love of cooking! It also makes shopping easier. More on this later.
  2. To ensure I eat properly. After my divorce, there was a time when I survived on potato wedges and wine. (Oh and BBQ sauce!) I couldn’t be bothered cooking, and my nutrition was suffering. Meal planning helped drag me out of that hole by giving me something concrete to concentrate on. That, and the blood test result that showed my liver was starting to revolt!
  3. To save money. By planning my meals, I only buy what I need and don’t have mystery ingredients in the fridge getting slimier and slimier! I make sure I use up what I have before I buy more and I use a shopping list.
  4. To save time. These days I only cook a couple of days a week and make sure I cook at least four servings each time. One for the current meal, one to take for lunch the next day and two for the freezer. I use the frozen meals for the remainder of the week. I usually try and put a week between the time I cook it and when I eat it, so I am not eating the same thing every day. This meant that I have had to buy some more freezable food containers, but these have come from the op shop. (BTW flatter, skinnier containers freeze quicker and allow you to play better freezer-Tetrus)

How I plan my meals.

Now that I am on a money-saving kick, I have changed my planning a little. In the past, I planned the meals and then went shopping. Now, I do it the other way around. I go to the fruit market and look at what is in season and cheap and buy that. I’ll then build the week’s plan around these foods.

For instance this week, pumpkin, parsnips and beetroot were super cheap, so I bought those as well as the usual staples of tomatoes, onions, leafy greens etc. Then, I come home and use either the recipes I have stored in my head or sites like Delicious, Yummly and others to come up with recipes.

This week, the beetroot got turned into beetroot risotto and a warm beetroot and lentil salad. The parsnips will get turned into parsnip mash, some of which will be frozen and some parsnip chips and the pumpkin was turned into pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins and three meals worth of pumpkin gnocchi.

Spreadsheets, of course!

You will not be surprised to know that I have some meal planning spreadsheets! Several! Feel free to copy and adapt as you like.

  1. A general weekly guideline: this is the blueprint or skeleton from which I start. I don’t stick to it rigidly, in that I will only eat lentils on Tuesdays but rather that within the week I make sure I have at least one lentil-based meal. This is a static document. Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.56.33
  2. A weekly meal plan overview: On this sheet, I consider things like
    1. what’s already in the freezer,
    2. what food I need to use up  (Priority ingredients)
    3. if I have any social/work things on where I will be eating out.Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.55.55
  3. A blank weekly plan: The final level. Here, I write the actual meals I have decided on and what recipes I’ll be using. If there is a web-based recipe, I copy the URL and add it to a note on Google Keep, so it’s easy to re-find. Screen Shot 2020-07-16 at 08.55.41
  4. I use an app called My Shopping List on my phone. I am sure there are plenty of others, but this one works for me.

It takes me about half an hour to plan out the meals, and I think it’s 30 minutes well spent with a cup of tea and my iPad!

From a logistics point of view, I think a larger freezer is a must for successful meal planning and reducing food waste. However, be careful it does not become a morgue full of forgotten food! Label your items with the contents and date.

Thankfully, my Council has just announced that it is introducing FOGO from November. Even with a concerted effort not to waste food I still generate more peelings etc than my worm farm can cope with.

My contribution to reducing climate crisis may not be much, but every little bit counts!