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Isn't Cooking Verbunderful?
by Elliot Essman
Many lives ago I had a job as a writer and editor at a large publishing corporation. The work was dismal, the pay forgettable, the perks nonexistent, yet the subsidized company cafeteria was really something to write home about. I can only imagine what it would be like to sit down to lunch today in the subsidized cafeteria of BASF AG, Germany's hyper-efficient chemical giant. Perhaps the BASF menu is not particularly adventuresome, but on the other hand I don't think I'd ever complain about soggy sauerkraut, or an undercooked bratwurst. BASF, you see, adheres to a corporate philosophy they call verbund.

The most accurate non-technical way to translate the word verbund from the German is to use a phrase that I find as handy in the kitchen as I do in life: "Everything depends on everything else." At BASF's city-sized mega-plant, the world's largest chemical operation, in Ludwigshafen, Germany, 350 individual buildings access each other through a maze of ducts and pipes. The waste product from the manufacture of one chemical becomes the raw material for the manufacture of another. The heat and energy created by one process fuels another. BASF applies verbund to every interaction it has: with customers, employees, strategic partners, even society as a whole.

BASF was founded by Friedrich Englehorn in 1865 to manufacture textile dyes, but I suspect the father of verbund may have had prior experience working in a commercial kitchen. There isn't a food service or restaurant kitchen on the planet that could survive without employing at least some form of verbund. For the home cook who has graduated forever from the prospect of throwing a frozen entrée into the microwave, verbund is a "do-it-or-else" essential. Like the efficient home cook, when the BASF commissary makes a recipe calling for egg whites, you can be sure they'll be offering up another that uses an equal quantity of yolks.

Recently I accomplished my own kitchen verbund when I made a stew using dried wild mushrooms. Before adding them to the stew, I soaked the mushrooms in hot water until they were nice and plump, then used the rich brown liquid that remained to slowly simmer a dish of fresh okra. Once the okra was nice and tender, I used the liquid a third time as a base for a sauce. I not only saved time and ingredients, I also ensured that the flavorings of all my dishes would relate to each other in subtle ways. I never discard a cooking liquid if I can possibly use it in another dish, or freeze or refrigerate it for later use.

Many traditional foods we've come to love got their start out of a desire to get the most out of expensive ingredients, typically meat. In Italian cuisine, ravioli and meatballs are two prime examples; each mixes measured amounts of meat with a cheaper grain product. Italians who dine at restaurants here in the U.S. often complain that the meatballs are too "meaty." Real Italian polpette require about as much bread in them as they do meat. Italians don't tend to eat day-old bread, but neither do they waste it. They mix the day-old bread with the remains of yesterday's meat to get the best value out of both. In serving a second purpose, the bread is just as good the second day as it had been the first. Our own commercially produced months-old bread crumbs, at the other extreme, don't qualify flavor-wise for this Italian version of verbund. To be effective, the product that results from verbund must be at least equal to the original product in quality. Need the toasted variety of bread crumbs? Stay out of the supermarket; crumble your own bread and dry it in the oven instead.

To get into the verbund habit, hesitate before throwing out anything edible. Bits and choppings of vegetables, meat scraps, bones, and the like, all offer extra utility as constituents of soups, stocks, sauces and stews. Even if you are not up to making your own stocks and broths, you can use these "throwaways" to doctor up commercially prepared products. Chicken bones, which you can freeze for later use, are particularly effective for this. Add a half cup of chopped chicken bones per quart of store-bought chicken stock, simmer for half an hour, then strain out the bones for a more authentic taste.

If a recipe calls for the juice of lemons, limes, or oranges, grate and use the fragrant peel of the fruit before you cut it open for juicing. Conversely, if the recipe calls for lemon peel (also called rind, or zest), by all means do something else with the inside of the lemon that remains. Lemonade comes rapidly to mind. Whisky sours? Grated citrus peel can be frozen, as can the juice. Citrus peel is a particular shame to waste, since, in additional to a complex array of fragrant oils, it contains potent anti-oxidants. When grating or slicing off citrus peel from the fruit, make sure you remove only the outer, colored layer, avoiding the bitter white pith that lurks between the peel and the inner fruit.

I make lemon, lime, and especially orange flavored salts with the grated peels of these fruits. They keep for months in the refrigerator and are great as condiments or even as a snack on their own. Using a mortar and pestle, crush your grated peel with an equal quantity of good quality sea salt. Spread the mixture onto a foil-lined cookie sheet and bake to dry for ten minutes or so in a 350 degree oven, or air-dry in the sun. Refrigerate in a sealed container to isolate the fragrant citrus salt from stray refrigerator odors.

Bacon has always been on my top-ten food list. When roasting meats or fowl, drape a few strips of bacon on top. The bacon fats and juices will drip down to baste the meat, but you can also snack on the bacon afterwards or serve it with the meat. When you make bacon on its own, save at least some of the fat for cooking other items. For that matter, save some of the bacon itself to crush and sprinkle on salads or to throw into stews for extra flavor.

To truly round out our discussion of verbund, let's attempt to make more of leftovers than leftovers. I find leftover pieces of meats, chicken or fish ideal to use in Asian stir-fry dishes where protein items tend to play a minority role. Just stir fry your vegetables or noodles, adding small chunks of the already-cooked meat at the last moment to warm them and incorporate some of the flavors. If you'd rather think Mexican, use strips of the meat, or even leftover vegetables, in fajitas, tacos or burritos. If you have leftover vegetables from tonight's dinner, dice or cut into thin julienne strips for tomorrow's salad.

Two egg-based dishes (I'd rather call them "concepts" since they are so versatile) work particularly well with leftovers. To make croquettes, mix your meat or vegetable pieces with an equal amount of breadcrumbs or chopped pasta, mix in an egg, form into patties, large or small, then bake or pan fry. To make a frittata, first preheat your broiler and arrange your oven rack about four inches beneath the flame. Briefly pan fry your leftovers in a nonstick skillet with a little oil, season to your liking, whip up enough eggs to fill the pan about two inches, then mix in the eggs so that all the ingredients are combined in the pan. Cook over medium heat about three minutes until the eggs are almost set, then transfer the pan to the broiler for two to four minutes, or until the top of the frittata is crisp. If you have extra cheese, breadcrumbs, crushed tortilla chips or anything that suits your fancy, you can sprinkle it on top of the frittata before you put it under the broiler. Serve the frittata hot, or let it cool and slice it up for appetizers. The result is a genuine example of culinary synergy or, if I may coin a bilingual term, absolutely verbunderful. Top -- Food Articles Home

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