Plant Life Balance

Cornersmith’s new guide to modern food wisdom

Ever looked at a cook book and just felt… overwhelmed? Put down the smoked paprika and pick up Cornersmith’s newest kitchen guide ‘Use It All’, specially designed for people juggling real life with putting affordable, sustainable meals on the table.

The last time we caught up with Alex Elliott-Howery, it was May. Australia was two months deep in physical distancing, Cornersmith (Alex’s picklery, café and food community with a cult following in Sydney’s inner west) had closed their doors and moved their cooking workshops online, and the queen of pickling herself was finishing a book while homeschooling her two highschoolers. Phew!

Five months on, the picklery is still closed but the café is open again (*cheers*), and Alex and Jaimee Edwards – Cornersmith’s fermentation expert, and Alex’s childhood friend – are spinning more plates than ever. They’ve just released their long-awaited cook book-come-kitchen guide, Use It All – The Cornersmith Guide to a More Sustainable Kitchen, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As it turns out, resourcefulness in the kitchen is more relevant now than ever.

The premise of the book is alluringly simple: “A book for people juggling real life and trying to make better choices in their kitchens.” Intended to be a practical guide to reducing food waste, Use It All has much, much more to offer in the age of COVID. It will teach you to be resourceful with what you’ve got; save on time, money and stress; and re-discover the joy of cooking fresh produce at home with confidence and simplicity. Because, well, who’s got the time (or head space) to be stalking supermarket aisles for obscure ingredients these days?

This week on the Journal we caught up with Jaimee and Alex to hear all about the book, what growing on in their backyards this spring (strong favourites: nasturtium and chilli), and their hot tips for transforming even those most average mid-week meal into great one.

The last few months must have pretty full on for you both between juggling the book, running Cornersmith and tackling home-schooling! How are you going?

A: We have a really supportive working environment so even though it’s stressful, going to work is quite nice. And although it’s crazy – we do a million, trillion things – I don’t know if we would want it any other way. We’re both maniacs! So we kind of like the intensity.

The last time we caught up with you, physical distancing was a bit more of a thing and your online classes were really taking off. Have you noticed any shifts the last few months?

A: The pre-recorded classes had a spike, we’ve sold lots of cook books (of our other books), and lots of equipment – people wanting to buy a fermenting crock, or a jam pan. But there’s been less interest in our Zoom workshops, and I wonder if that’s because people want to get off their computers? So it’s been interesting going, “everything should be online!”, but then realising not everything can be replaced digitally.

People prefer a hands-on experience, tasting food together, cooking together – everything that Cornersmith is about. You can’t replace that with a screen.

How have you guys been connecting into your local community lately, given the challenges?

A: We’ve put so much work over the last ten years into being part of the community that when COVID hit, we were so supported. To be honest, we didn’t know if we’d make it through – it kind of got that dire – but the community just got so behind us with moral support and financial support. Everyone came to buy pickles and have coffee, and that’s has been really amazing.

The other thing that’s been really lovely is that we’ve kept going with the fresh produce trading program. People bring in things from their backyard…

J: Just when we think that’s the end of the cumquats, there’s another box… you know 40 kilos were delivered the other day?

Who is delivering you 40 kilos of cumquats?!

J: It was just from one garden, from this guys trees!

You’ve written this book at a challenging moment in time…is Use It All the book you originally intended it to be, or did the concept change along the way, thanks to COVID?

J: Cornersmith has been really engaged in the issues of food waste since its inception, so we always had the intention of teaching people how to think about these things on a very domestic scale. But there was a greater sense of urgency as COVID started to press down. As we finished the book, we were like, “oh – this is really timely”.

A: You know when COVID hit and everyone was panicking about how to get food? There was that kind of urgency, and we realised we have to talk to about the issue of being resourceful.

It’s definitely not been an easy time for us, collectively. For those who are feeling the mental pinch and are struggling to muster up a cooking effort, what are your top tips for easy-as mid-week meals?

A: The way we’ve set the book up is to have a bit of think at the beginning of the week… but not in a meal plan-y way. Start by cooking one big ingredient, then turn it into other things throughout the week. 

For example, you could cook up sautéed greens and poach a chicken on a Sunday; and then throughout the week you have the base of a spinach pie, or add stock and add chickpeas and you’ve got a soup. Then with the chicken, that gives you sandwiches, chicken tacos, and then a chicken stir fry…there’s five meals already.

It’s almost kind of eating in an old fashioned way – thinking, “ok, here’s the base, now how can I build on it?” In our case that base is usually a vegetable.

So instead of following long ingredient lists, you’re drawing on an understanding of ingredients and flavours. 

A: Yeah, absolutely!

The main way to stop food waste is to appreciate your ingredient.

J: People have a real misconception that a good cook is someone that can make a Bombe Alaska. A good cook is someone that knows something about their ingredients, and knows something about combining flavours. 

What are your go-to flavour hacks then, for elevating a meal from good to great?

J: Lemon! Lime! I think everything is improved by a squeeze of lemon.

A: I’m quite deep in the cayenne at the moment – just a pinch. People often think food needs a little more salt, but really it just needs something else – whether that’s a hit of chilli, a little grating of ginger, even a pinch of sugar.

We talk about this endlessly in the book, but really, it’s just about changing your habits. Use It All is not a book of recipes – it’s a book of ideas about making better choices, and easier choices. We are busy working mumma bears, ourselves – we’ve done it! We’ve done all the shortcuts. 

There’s still plenty of pickling recipes in the new book. For those trying out preserving for the first time, what’s the absolute must-haves they need to have in their pantry?

A: The great thing about pickling and preserving is that you don’t need anything special. Most people should have vinegar, salt and sugar in their pantry, and that’s really all you need to make sauerkraut, a quick pickle or to make jam.

It’s a bit of a misconception that pickling is this hard thing when it’s actually just adding vinegar or adding sugar! You just need to not be afraid, and give it a crack.

You talk quite a bit about seasonality in the book. How would you explain seasonality, in a nutshell?

J: At Cornersmith we’re so immersed in seasonality as an idea that we’re still surprised that we need to have a conversation with people about the availability of tomatoes in winter. The enormous amount of resources that make a tomato available in winter, for example, is not something that’s really transparent but it’s really taxing to the environment.  

A: It’s so exciting to have cherries coming in at the moment because we don’t get them the rest of the year. So don’t buy them from overseas in the middle of winter… let them be this amazing thing that you look forward to. It also stops you from throwing food away because you see food as more valuable. 

Food that’s in season is more nutritious too, because it’s been grown in the right conditions, and you’re supporting growers because you’re eating as they grow the food.

My advice is – if you were to change one habit in your kitchen, stop buying imported fruits and vegetables, and grow and eat with the seasons. 

Well this leads perfectly into the next question, we want to chat with you about gardening…

A: Ask Jaimee! She’s the gardener out of the two of us.

Jaimee! tell us about your gardening situation. How’s your plant life balance?

J: I’ve just pulled out the last of the radishes. I love radishes, but I possibly planted enough to supply Cornersmith the whole season…

A: …and the whole inner west!

J: My enthusiasm sometimes gets away from me – radishes for everyone! I’m pulling out the radishes, the last of my lettuces, and getting the soil ready for spring. I’m growing a lot of flowers in my front patch at the moment, so I’m quite excited about that.

A: If you ever see Jaimee walking around the streets, there’s always a branch hanging out of her backpack, some lemon verbena in her front pocket – she just forages things and makes us ridiculous teas. She’s like the crazy plant lady of Marrickville.

Love that! What teas are you making at the moment?

J: I have a huge abundance of rose geranium in my garden so we’ve got a lot of rose geranium teas.

A: Very nice with lemon! Or all spice…

J: Or black pepper, and yep, as always – a touch of lemon.

What are you both growing in your gardens this spring? 

J: I’m deep in the flowers!

A: My husband and my daughter are more into gardening, she’s actually chosen gardening as her school sport! She’ll want to plant things that she will eat, like cucumbers and tomatoes. So my feeling is we’ll just have a field of those.

The thing that I’m excited about, though, is that we have a field of nasturtiums, and the nasturtium capers are about to be ready to pick. So you pick those and you pickle them, and you’ve made your own homemade capers. They’re so delicious! I lock the children outside until they’ve picked them all. They’re the best. They add this really peppery bite to everything you cook – so everyone should do that with their nasturtium capers.

What’s the biggest difference you notice between store-bought produce and what you grow at home?

A: Jaimee brings in greens in from her garden every day for lunch, and there’s just no comparison. It’s not just the freshness, but flavour and texture.

J: It’s the abundance as well. At the very least, grow your own herbs! They can be so expensive at the supermarket and they’re wrapped in plastic.

You only need a handful for a meal, so there’s no waste when you grow them yourself.

Well, spring’s the perfect time of year for even the greenest of beginner gardeners to give growing a go. What’s your one piece of advice for people that are just starting out with a spring garden – edible or otherwise?

A: Get some herbs and chillies in. Honestly, home-grown chillies pack such a punch, you only need one of them. We have a lovely section in the book which is how to make your own chilli flakes, how to make sambal… it’s all very simple to do. It’s those things that add flavour to a meal, and if you have the ingredients in your backyard you don’t have to run out and grab it at the shops. 

J: Just give it a shot! Just choose one thing you love, and try it. My son is weirdly growing lavender in his bedroom, and against all odds its surviving and thriving and reaching towards the sun everyday. I also think you could do nasturtium in pots – they’re really such a thing of joy.

A: that’s what I was going to say! They bring in the bees, which brings me such joy as well. 

J: You can put the flowers in a salad and everyone thinks you are an Instagram star. I think everyone needs to take a moment in their lives, to think about nasturtiums, take a look at them. They really are a thing of beauty!

Use It All, Alex Elliott-Howery and Jaimee Edwards, available now.

Photography: Cath Muscat

Murdoch Books, $39.99

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