Waste not want not

Too good for refuse … Ronni Kahn and Richard Fox urge others to use food before it's thrown away.
Too good for refuse … Ronni Kahn and Richard Fox urge others to use food before it's thrown away.

Most people know when they shouldn't eat an egg. It lets them know with a smell that makes many people retch. Yet English food-waste campaigner Richard Fox is always shocked to see eggs thrown out because the carton's use-by date has passed.

''My test? Crack it open. You'll know whether it's off or OK. You don't need a date for that,'' says Fox, a chef, beer-brewing guru and television presenter who's visiting Australia for the Crave Sydney International Food Festival as an ambassador for OzHarvest, the food rescue group.

The founder of OzHarvest, Ronni Kahn, met Fox at a food festival in Adelaide this year and was struck by the similarities of their aims and messages. Next month, OzHarvest releases a cookbook using leftovers in recipes from some of Australia's finest chefs, including Neil Perry, Matt Moran and Maggie Beer.

''Richard Fox is a champion of using leftovers, so we wanted him to come and share his knowledge, passion and creativity to inspire Australian families,'' Kahn says.

One of Fox's big bugbears is use-by dates. ''Best-before dates must be one of the major causes of food waste around the world,'' he says.

In Australia, packaged foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a use-by or best-before date stamped on them. It's a benchmark of quality rather than an indication they have spoilt, and manufacturers tend to be cautious. Fresh food can last beyond its use-by date, too, but it's illegal to sell it past that date.

Fox says we've become overcautious. ''Our grandparents had no such things as best-before [or] use-by dates. People are no longer encouraged to use their senses. We live in an oversanitised environment and common sense doesn't prevail any more. If you buy food at a market, it doesn't come with a date. It's completely nonsensical and encourages people to throw food away before they need to.'' Part of the problem, he says, is ''the fact that we live in a disposable society''.

As co-star of the TV series Men Brewing Badly, one statistic really upsets him: ''Every day in the UK, 3000 unopened bottles and cans of beer are thrown away, probably because they are past the expiry date.'' (If you don't want to drink old beer, Australian thrift expert Shannon Lush says it can be used to wash your hair, as a meat tenderiser, fertiliser for ferns and mosses or slug bait.)

Fox's growing outrage about the amount of still-edible food wasted - Britain wastes 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink from homes annually, at a cost of £12 billion ($18.7 billion) - turned him into a champion for leftovers for Britain's Love Food Hate Waste campaign. ''That figure doesn't include the environmental cost of food waste, including landfill,'' he says.

In Australia, where more than 3.2 million tonnes of food goes to landfill annually, an estimated 47 per cent of municipal waste is food and green waste. As a result, food waste in landfill is the country's second-largest source of the greenhouse gas methane.

Fox's latest book, How to Be an Everyday Kitchen Magician - Fabulous Food for Almost Free, is all about using ingredients at the back of the fridge or cupboard. He turns a cold leftover sausage, cheddar crust, bendy zucchini and withered mushrooms into risotto in 20 minutes.

''I was as guilty as anyone else of wasting food at home, despite 20 years as a professional chef, where we're trained not to waste anything,'' he says. ''Now I find myself being much more imaginative.''

Concerns about food waste led former restaurateur Kahn to start OzHarvest in Sydney almost eight years ago. Since then, volunteers have rescued 5100 tonnes of food from restaurants, supermarkets and caterers, redistributing it to frontline agencies feeding those in need.

A 2005 report by The Australia Institute, Wasteful Consumption in Australia, identifies food as the nation's biggest area of waste. An estimated $5.3 billion worth of food was thrown away in 2004, more than half of it fresh food. Since then, it has climbed to $7.8 billion.

A 2009 study for the NSW government's Love Food Hate Waste program estimated the state's annual figure was $2.5 billion, costing households a little more than $1000 each, or $19.90 a week.

Last week, Anglicare released a report, When There's Not Enough to Eat, looking at the social cost of food insecurity, to coincide with World Food Day. The research estimates 45,000 households using Anglicare emergency services don't have enough money to feed their families adequately, and most weeks, adults in 22,000 households go without food for a whole day. Almost one in 10 households report that children regularly do not eat for a whole day. Parents avoid sending their children to school because they can't provide lunch for them.

Kahn has seen it, too. ''In February this year, we had 14 agencies call us and ask for help with breakfast because children are going to school without it,'' she says. ''Last year, I didn't even have two needing help.''

The founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, observed during his 2009 visit to Australia, ''The refrigerator was invented to preserve food; now it is just a step on the way to the rubbish bin.'' He labelled it a tomb where food was buried, rather than preserved.

Kahn gives stark examples. ''Last week we collected 270 lamb legs. Meanwhile, an orange producer called to say the market price was so low he'd lose money picking the fruit. Rather than letting it rot, he offered them to us. Volunteers picked 3.2 tonnes, which we sent to people who needed it. We have the capacity to go and save that fruit. If producers face similar difficulties, please call us, because we love rising to that challenge.''

But Kahn adds that OzHarvest retrieves produce from commercial premises only. ''We're not touching what individual households waste, so it's up to us all to change our habits at home.''

If Fox has one tip for people grappling with their leftovers, it's ''cook, chill, freeze and reheat - it's a simple concept taken for granted in the food industry, but not really utilised at home''. He says, ''If something's about to go off, cook it and freeze it to use later on.

''There are plenty of ways to preserve food without refrigeration, such as old-fashioned pickling.''

Fox says throwing out food is like finding coins down the back of the lounge and putting them straight in the bin.

''Would anyone do that? Then why throw out food you've paid for? People do it without even thinking about it. We need to start thinking about food as money.''

The OzHarvest Cookbook, $59.95, is available from mid-November directly from ozharvest.org, or from selected David Jones and Dymocks stores nationally.

Garage sale pasta (Lyndey Milan)

When my kids were in high school, we decided to have a clean-out and hold a garage sale. Trouble was, I'd spent so much time organising the sale that I'd had no time to think about lunch. This is what I made with what I found.

500g pasta
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 finger eggplants, sliced
4 small field mushrooms (or large button), sliced
1 chorizo, sliced
750ml spicy tomato pasta sauce
2 handfuls baby English spinach
Parmesan shavings, to serve
crusty bread, to serve

1. Bring plenty of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the packet directions until al dente.

2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for a minute or two until beginning to soften. (I just let them cook while I prepare the other vegetables.) Add the garlic and the eggplant. Cook, turning the eggplant so it browns evenly, then add the mushrooms and stir well.

3. Move the vegetables to the side of the pan and add the chorizo. Fry until lightly browned.

4. Stir in the tomato pasta sauce and bring to the boil. Stir in the spinach.Drain the pasta, toss into the sauce and mix well. Season if you must, but I find it really doesn't need it. Serve in warm bowls with parmesan and fresh crusty bread.

Serves 6-8 for lunch

Garlic custards with smoked ham juices and peas (Peter Gilmore)

This will be the most luscious pea, ham and garlic custard soup you have ever tried. I urge you to give it a go.

1 leftover smoked ham bone
1 tablespoon plain flour
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1.5 litres (six cups) good-quality chicken stock
500g shelled fresh peas, or frozen baby peas

Garlic custards:
20g butter
3 garlic cloves, sliced
800ml milk
2 eggs
6 egg yolks

1. Dust the ham bone with the flour. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the ham bone and fry over medium heat until golden brown all over. Add the garlic and onion and saute for one minute.

2. Add the chicken stock and stir well. Simmer over medium heat for 1½ hours, or until the stock has reduced by half and slightly thickened. Strain and remove any fat from the surface with a ladle. Set aside.

3. Meanwhile, to make the custard, melt the butter in a saucepan and gently saute the garlic for one minute, being careful not to let it colour. Pour in the milk and bring close to boiling point. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.

4. Strain the milk and discard the garlic. Add a couple of pinches of sea salt, to taste.

5. In a bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks together and slowly pour into the infused milk while continuing to whisk. Pour the custard into eight Chinese rice bowls. Cover each bowl with plastic wrap and steam in a large bamboo steamer for about eight minutes over gently simmering water, or until the custard has set.

6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil and blanch peas for one minute. Reheat the smoked ham stock. Strain the peas and add to the stock.

7. Uncover the bowls of custard and divide the peas and ham stock between them.

Serves 8

Note You will have egg whites left over here. Pop them in an airtight container and freeze until you have enough to make a pavlova.

This story Waste not want not first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.