Stale Bread, Onion Skins, and Pesto from Trash

The magic of cooking and feeding families can happen with a well-equipped modern kitchen, an ill-equipped apartment kitchen, a hotplate, or even a campfire.  All you need is a desire to feed people and a heat source!

Repost from 2016, with a few updates.

My first kitchen way back at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius was drafty, tiny, had no running hot water, an extremely temperamental gas stove. I used a camper cooler for a refrigerator. Yet I was able to produce not only most of our food from scratch, but also baked bread to barter at the local farm stand for any vegetables and supplies I did not grow.

Although many at the time were following a back-to-the land movement, for me this was the poverty of youth just starting out, and it taught me self-sufficiency and creativity; homemade bread cost about a fifth of what I paid for a loaf at the store, and I knew how to bake bread. Looking back, I scarcely noticed any inconvenience, this was simply the way it was.

Spinning gold out of straw

I am grateful for all my mother taught me about cooking and self-sufficiency; she taught me to spin gold out of straw. A child in the Depression, she grew up watching her own mother use every food scrap, every potato peel, chicken bone, and every part of the animals they butchered on their farm. It was second nature for her to save the steaming water from the carrots, the fat from the bacon, or the skins from the onions and heels from loaves of bread.

It remains a good lesson for us all, not wasting and making do, whether or not we need to financially. It is the right environmental thing to do. In the process, you learn to create even better food filled with the best possible flavor, and you live a little more gently on the planet.

A variety of stoves

My second kitchen was in an apartment that had an electric stove with only one functioning burner and a difficult oven (again), but I had a real refrigerator, although it was tiny and didn’t freeze ice cream, but at that point I didn’t care because I had ice cubes! Several other apartments along the way had stoves and appliances of various different functioning levels.

Then, we lived in an apartment over an empty bar and our makeshift kitchen had no stove at all, so I cooked on a hotplate placed on two small restaurant tables pushed together with the help of a toaster oven and a pressure cooker. It didn’t stop us from hosting dinner parties and memorable meals for our family and friends.

Kitchen in Peru, Vermont
A wood cook stove, an antique but beautifully functioning refrigerator (I had a modern one too!) and lots of coziness.

Our Homestead

When we moved to the cabin in the mountains, we set up homestead on 52 acres of forest. My husband carved out enough space for both a rose garden and a big kitchen garden which I tended for many years and grew a good proportion of our food.

 Although our modern stove was the smallest electric stove I’d ever seen (you couldn’t put a toothpick down on the stove top between the burners) we had a lovely, fully functioning wood cook stove that dominated the kitchen, and I thought I was in Heaven. Perhaps I was.

I fell madly in love the first time we fired it up.

Eight burners, a warming oven over them behind a sliding door, and a huge baking oven. The first thing I cooked on it was applesauce from the very ancient and completely unattended trees on the property. The fruits were quite imperfect, but they were delicious and the applesauce turned out wonderful!

It took lessons from my mother and a good deal of  time to understand how to regulate the oven temperature by means of propping open the door when it got too hot, or stoking the firebox if it started to cool. But once I got the hang of it, I started turning out everything imaginable, from quick stir-fries to long-cooking stews and baked everything. The problem was, of course, that in the summer the stove could not be fired up, so I was stuck with longing half of the year, my friend lost for the seasons, fleeting as they are in Vermont.

From log cabin to Victorian!

I am completely spoiled now. When we moved from the mountains to a Victorian in a village with sidewalks, opened an inn, and I fed thousands of people! The inn’s kitchen features a gas-fired Aga, which is almost as good as a wood stove, but you can run it all year round. It has four ovens, all at a certain temperature range. I also had a tiny gas stove with two small ovens, one convection, so I had no excuse not to bake! Oh, let’s not forget the microwave that comes in handy when thawing something I forgot to take out of the freezer, or for melting butter for popcorn.

Even in my modern kitchen, my Hoosier is an important cornerstone! It holds everything!

Recipes through all the generations

Some of my recipes, I’ve cooked on all the stoves of my life, and quite a few campfires as well! They are the constant threads. No, I couldn’t cook a 30-lb turkey in the kitchen with just the toaster oven, but I could bake turkey parts in it, and those are the adaptations we make along the way because we have to. I think one of the important things I’ve learned so far on this journey is that nothing is ever perfect: the kitchen, the equipment, the ingredients, the budget, or even the enthusiasm. Especially the enthusiasm. But we all have to eat and feed our families!

We are almost always “making do” one way or another, especially during this time in history, and it almost always works out fine. Even when it doesn’t, we are  usually lucky enough to still eat.

Start with the old, make it yours, make it better, and maybe quicker!

Many of my recipes began life with my mother or grandmother, my sister, or an aunt or friend. I never leave anything alone, and while I love keeping the idea and the taste and the feel of the original, I have no problem with making hollandaise in the blender, or pie crust in the food processor.

At some point, I’m sure my grandmother thought her food mill was a great innovation! Ingredients change as well. We have access to so many wonderful items that I never heard of growing up, so I might add some sun-dried tomatoes to my mother’s herb bread recipe, or a little hot sauce or lemon juice to brighten up a dumpling.

Recipes evolve to reflect the cook. You’ll change them up too!

Here is my gold-from-straw recipe for today. Radish tops, if you even find them on your radishes, are usually tossed away. But these wonderful greens are packed full of nutrition – protein, fiber, tons of Vitamins and minerals, even  more than what is in the radish themselves. Throw them in soups and salads, or any place you’d use a green!

In my house, the Brazil nuts are the last of the mixed nuts to be eaten. Although I love them, I’m afraid I’m alone in this, so there’s always quite a few left like little orphans in the bottom of the jar.

So I combined them all and came up with Radish Top and Lonely Brazil Nut Pesto:

Radish Top and Lonely Brazil Nut Pesto

  • The tops from one bunch of radishes
  • 2 or 3 radishes from that bunch, small dice
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped up roasted Brazil nuts
  • ½ to 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

Roughly chop the radish tops and grind in a mortar and pestle. Add the radishes, grind some more, then add the garlic and nuts and continue. This takes a while, but the flavors will be a little deeper. Place in a bowl, and add the other ingredients, mixing well.

Alternately, place everything in a food process and pulse until you have achieved your desired texture. Season with salt and pepper, mix well, taste again and correct seasoning.

Serve with sliced radishes, crackers, or baguette slices.

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41 Comments Add yours

  1. John and Dolores Breen says:

    Yours is the best essay I’ve read in many years. I do recall fighting with a wood stove in Connecticut years ago and making conscious decisions to pass up using our electric range. It was a heart warming reminder that I should stop cussing at running out of Ragu just as I’m ready for a spaghetti dinner. Thank you.
    John Breen
    Santa Fe, NM

  2. John Breen says:

    Yours is the best essay I’ve read in many years. I do recall fighting with a wood stove in Connecticut years ago and making conscious decisions to pass up using our electric range. It was a heart warming reminder that I should stop cussing at running out of Ragu just as I’m ready for a spaghetti dinner. Thank you. John Breen Santa Fe, NM ________________________________

    1. Ah, I’m so glad you appreciate the post, it was written from the heart! The wood stove was challenging, but once I got the hang of it, I think it was my favorite stove to cook on!

  3. I love this post! and the pesto looks delicious!!

    1. Thank you so much! The pesto was perfect!

  4. John and Dolores Breen says:

    Thanks for all the great memories, Dot… of our parents and our grandparents, of all the years with wood stoves before REA electricity! We were certainly blessed and you have the ability to remind us…….

    1. You’re welcome Dee! I will always remember the look of glee on Mom’s face when we moved to the cabin and I showed her the wood stove. She delighted in showing me how to operate it, and how to bake bread in the finicky oven! I think they all have their little tricks to make them work the way you want, but it was always like a warm friend in my kitchen. At least in the winter!

  5. Hi Dorothy! What an excellent tasty dish and share on convenient cooking choices. 👍👍

      1. Just for your info Dorothy, your food shares are not only delicious but a welcoming feed with spiritual consolation. )))❤️❤️❤️(((

      2. Thank you so much for these kind words! I believe all our kitchens are sacred.

      3. Indeed, they really are! Best wishes Dorothy for your day and weekend. XOXO.!🌺💗🍃

  6. Though I’ve never cooked with wood stove, I’ve had my share of odd kitchens to struggle with and conquer over the years, so I definitely empathized with your post.
    The pesto sounds amazing! 🙂

  7. OMG Dorothy! A seasoned cook like you comes up with golden recipes even from most unusual items. Never thought of radish greens in the Pesto. Kudos to you. Looks absolutely yummy!!!

    1. Thank you so much! Once I find that something is edible, it’s fun to experiment with ways to use it. The tops have flavor, certainly not as much as an herb like basil, but they are lovely mixed inn with other greens for a salad, or just sautéed the radishes whole in a little butter and garlic! Splendid!

  8. Carolyn Page says:

    I felt your heart, Dorothy, in every word, every stage of your adventure of life. What a pleasure to have so many wonderful memories to look back upon!
    During the 90s I lived in a house with a wood burner. It was such hard work to keep it cooking. But, also something very comforting about the convenience of a heater in cold weather, which, in the end, became its more mundane purpose. Thankfully, there was also a very modern electric stove, which was my usual cooking source. (I didn’t have your alternate background, obviously!)
    And now you tell me that radish leaves make for a delicious recipe. I believe you. I’ve been wondering what new veggies to plant this spring. Now I know of, at least, one!

    1. Ah Carolyn, you have tons of wonderful kitchen memories as well. It’s great to look back on these experiences and know that many of our little struggles made us better cooks and certainly better, more creative and resourceful people!
      I hope you try the radish leaves! Carrot tops too! A little acid, some flavorful oil, and you have a lovely little condiment that came from nothing! ❤️

      1. Carolyn Page says:

        That is true, Dorothy; I do have tons of wonderful kitchen memories. However, it was also wonderful to read of yours.

        Yes, I did try it. I just returned from the grocers with a bunch of young radish. A small handful of the leaves mixed with an equal amount of arugula; the juice of half a large lemon (from the garden); half a dozen walnuts and a heaped tablespoon of tahini. Oh yes, plus a few of the radish thrown in for good measure!
        Pulse, pulse, pulse; and voilà. Another delightful recipe. 🤗😋💝

      2. So glad you enjoyed it, and added your own touches! The arugula sounds great in this!!!!!

  9. CarolCooks2 says:

    Ahhhh so much of this I can relate to both in my past and now my present living here…at times it seems like I have come a full circle…A lovely, lovely post, Dorothy 🙂 x

    1. Thank you so much Carol! It is like coming full circle!

  10. I spy with my little eye…something green. Dorothy, do you collect vaseline glass? I am always on a quest to add another piece to my china cabinet. And, yes, I actually use it. 🌿🌱🍃

    1. Good eye! I have a few pieces of the vaseline glass which I love, including my favorite bowl in the picture. But my glass passion is the pink Depression glass which started with a few pieces that were my grandmothers. I’ve added to the collection over the years, and I use it all the time! That stuff is not only pretty but durable! All the colors tend to go with everything else! 🍽❤️

      1. Exactly. My rule of thumb is….if I buy it, I must use it! 😜

      2. Good words to live by Gail. So often I see people save their “best” for some event in the future that never happens and I think they really miss out on the joy of using, isn’t that why they called out to us in the first place!

  11. I so enjoyed your kitchen journey Dorothy, and your are the most creative chef I have ever seen! Your encouragement to use all parts of our foods to reduce waste, have more nutrition and flavor and live more gently on the planet, is so important. You can definitely cook in any situation and I so admire your talent and cooking energy! Today’s pesto is incredible!

    1. Thank you so much Jenna! I am extremely fortunate in that I was raised by a wonderful mother who used every scrap of everything out of necessity, and then out of habit. It became my habit, and I truly believe that those times in our life when we really have to struggle to make do, are gifts that teach us how creative we really are. The rest I think is curiosity, looking at what we throw away and wonder how else it could be used!

  12. Dorothy…what a great story. I can totally relate. I love the evolution of your cooking experiences and how you work with what you have. It’s refreshing.

    1. Thank you for your comments! It’s all an amazing journey!

  13. nancyc says:

    Loved reading about your kitchen experiences! My mom also grew up in the depression and was careful about not wasting anything. Brazil nuts were never my favorite, but then I read they were really good for you, so I eat them now! 🙂

    1. thank you so much Nancy! We learn so much from those who had to experience hard time. Just think, our kids and grandkids will be learning from our experiences during lock down . Necessity is truly the mother of invention.

  14. Great memories! Yes, I do remember my grandma’s kitchen too and nothing went to waste there too 😉
    You’re perfectly right: nothing is perfect in the kitchen, not even the enthusiasm, but in the end we need to eat so we better find ways to enjoy it 😉
    What a great idea! I bet the taste of that pesto is super delicious! 😋

    1. Thank you so much! Our grandparents and parents kitchens are fertile life training grounds indeed!

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  16. Julia says:

    I loved reading about your different kitchen experiences and how you adapted to the limitations of the early kitchens.

    While I have added beet greens to things, I have never added radish greens. Are they spicy like mustard greens or more like turnip greens?

    1. They are not spicy, a little on the bland side, which is why you have to jazz them up a little with lemon and addition of the actual radish!

  17. Ganga108 says:

    Such a lovely post, and brought back memories of the kitchens of both Grandmothers, and growing up where we had both a wood stove and an electric stove. Both my mother and her mother never wasted anything, not a scrap. I grew up with that mentality too, and look on in horror at the food that some of my friends throw away. I love the pic, is that the wood fired one or the gas one? I am very jealous of it.

    1. The red stove is my gas Aga, and I love it. I tell everyone it’s my middle-age red convertible with nice chrome trimmings! The kitchens of grandmothers are special places, I’m so glad you have those memories and the lasting legacy of recognizing how precious food is. PS I have the same observations with the same horror!

  18. Ganga108 says:

    By the way, I use radish tops in sandwiches, layered thickly. Gorgeous with tomato and cheese, perhaps some chutney or pickles. Love them.

    1. YUM!!!! I’ve tucked them in salads and soups, but haven’t tried them on a sandwich. I will certainly do so!

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