Plant Life Balance

Pottering-about with Alex Elliott-Howery

Sydney’s queen of pickles and preserving shares her tips on staying sane and well-fed during a lock-down, tackling food waste at home, online cooking classes, and keeping it green beyond the garden.

Words: Maggie Scardifield

Photography: Rowan Jackson 

Follow: Cornersmith | Alex Elliott-Howery

Dulwich Hill, NSW

When I first met Cornersmith owner Alex Elliott-Howery, I was nervous. She’s the brains behind one of my favourite cafés in town! She’s Sydney’s Waste Warrior poster-girl! She has the best hair! (Ridiculous, I know. But it’s the exact shade of red I’ve coveted for most of my adult life). In hindsight, however, I had nothing to worry about. Elliott-Howery is a straight-shooter. Before I had the chance to even try and play it cool, we were talking Little Mermaid vs Emma Stone reds, and laughing over her “backyard dehydration station” — a clothes-horse on top of the trampoline, loaded up with an array of foraged seaweed.

Until late last year, Cornersmith equated to two cafes in Sydney’s inner west, Marrickville and Annandale, along with the Cornersmith Picklery and an online cooking school. After seven years of trade, in November last year, Elliott-Howery and her partner James Grant made the tough decision to close the original Marrickville site. But this hasn’t meant slowing down. If anything? They’ve got more on their plate than ever. 

Let’s jump right in, Alex. What are some straightforward ways we can reduce food waste at home, in these trying times?

Buy less and use what you’ve got (that means fridge, pantry, fruit bowl and garden). Make sure you check all these places before you hit the shops, and don’t be afraid to swap ingredients out for something similar. Cook from scratch where you can. Learn easy techniques to make food last longer (using simple ingredients like salt, vinegar and sugar will preserve food, and make it last). Eat seasonally. Use parts of vegetables that are normally thrown away, like stems, tops and skins. We’re taught to chop the top and the bottom off of all our fruit and veg, and chuck it in the bin. But at Cornersmith we teach our chefs and students to use it all!

You make it sound so simple!

Honestly, it’s just about changing your habits. I keep all my veggie scraps in a container in the fridge for the week and then I make things like green sauce from any stems and tired excess herbs, and celery leaf pesto. Sautée your leek tops until they’re velvety with lots of butter and garlic and you basically have a free dish. And if you end up with extra veggies pickle them! I pickle tired lettuce with soy and ginger, often. It’s delicious. 

What would be your one piece of advice for someone who’s starting to try their hand at pickling and preserving?

Don’t ever feel like you have to make a big batch. Make one jar of pickles, jam or chutney, store it in a clean jar in the fridge and then once you’ve eaten it make another one! That way you don’t have to be panicked about sterilising and heat processing and all the things that seem hard and scary about preserving. Once you’ve got the craft down, then you can start filling up the pantry.

Cornersmith launched its online cooking courses back when Corona was still just a beer. You must feel quite relieved that you were ready to go with your digital classes, and of course that you shut the Marrickville café on your own terms. How are you doing?

April was completely terrifying for small business owners. I think I held my breath for the whole month. My heart is breaking for the hospitality industry as a whole. And adapting your business for the new climate looks easy on Instagram but behind the scenes it’s a nightmare. Having our online classes ready to go was awesome. It means that people can watch the videos and preserve in their own kitchen, in their own time, and in their undies if they want to! And that’s obviously great for the tricky times we’re in. It’s been beautiful watching all the pickles that have been made and shared through social media. 

Who do you think will find the online courses useful?

We teach on average 500 students per month in pickling, jam making, fermenting, kombucha, cheesemaking, baking and so much more – so lots of people! If you do have a bit of extra time on your hands, or are looking to make your kitchen a bit more sustainable, learning some of these skills will make a really positive change to reducing your food waste and saving you money! Most importantly, your tastebuds will thank you too!

The restrictions have meant many of us are spending more time in the kitchen than ever before. What are you cooking most often at the moment, Alex?

All the autumn vegetables are delicious for cooking and for preserving. Last week we had cauliflower fritters, broccoli pesto pasta, silverbeet galette, apple crumbles and potatoes every which way. I’ve just started pickling again for the café and our online store. We’ll be making quince and apple jam, sticky onion relish and everything with lime! Lime marmalade, lime pickle and preserved limes for starters.

What are you doing to stay positive during such strange times?

Between finishing the cookbook, trying to save the business and helping kids with school from home (Year 9 Maths is impossible!), there’s not much down time for me. I’m rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the kids and trying to do a little online yoga. We’re lucky to have a big backyard (mostly neglected) but we’re replanting the veggie patch out the back which is an excellent reminder of the seasons and how our food grows. Maeve has picked mint out there, because she wants to make choc-mint ice-cream. And the native garden at the front of our house is very handsome and calming. It’s full of banksias, native grasses, and a giant aloe vera that was given to us when we moved in. I say, ‘hello, you beauty’, every morning when I go out there to have a cuppa.

What tips or advice do you have for starting (and maintaining!) a veggie patch?

We are stupidly busy so we just grow things that thrive on neglect. Mint, chillies, eggplants, nasturtiums and sage are all running wild out there right now. But I reckon grow small amounts of the things you love or the things that only come in plastic at the supermarket! Small lettuce leaves, herbs, birds-eye chillies, that sort of thing. 

Have you made any new discoveries during lock-down?

I’m beginning to fancy myself as an old school herbal doctor! I I love growing and drying herbs that I can use for my witchy healing teas and potions. I’ve made a sage elixir for coughs, a thyme infusion for when I accidentally eat all the Mint Slices, and a fire tonic — apple cider vinegar with heaps of chilli, ginger, garlic and bay leaves to cure everything (cue more eye-rolling and fake vomiting from the teenagers). We’re also growing shallots from the root end of a bunch I bought, and it’s magic! You just put them in water and they grow again. I can’t believe I’ve never done it before.

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FIRE TONIC: This fire tonic takes 5 minutes to make, is immune boosting, can be added to dressings and dipping sauces and uses up odds and ends from the fridge. We’ve been making this witchy-poo, apple-cider based medicinal vinegar for years as a way to support immune health and soothe sore throats. Choose warming, anti-inflammatory ingredients like chilli, garlic, ginger, bay leaves, turmeric, peppercorns, horseradish and cinnamon sticks. Place whichever combination of ingredients you have into a clean jar and cover with 1 cup of raw apple cider vinegar with the 'mother'. Make sure everything is submerged, seal the jar and leave for two weeks on your bench top, out of direct sunlight. Then move to the fridge for basically forever. Have a teaspoon when needed as a healing tonic, mix a tablespoon with sesame oil for a fiery dipping sauce or add to olive oil and lemon juice for a salad dressing that means business #cornersmith #useitall

A post shared by Cafe, Cooking School, Pickles (@cornersmith) on

 

What’s your version of getting your hands dirty?

It’s all food related for me. Cutting up a box of pomegranate to make molasses, kneading dough, cleaning and pickling mushrooms, washing seaweed, curing olives. My hands and fingernails look like I’m a tradie!

How would you rate your Plant Life Balance?

I try to get us all outside every day at the moment. We do daily dog walks along the Cooks River, a bit of local foraging and the occasional bush walk. So between pickling, cooking and gardening, walks and trips to the ocean (when we’re allowed!), my Plant Life Balance is pretty good, I reckon.

If you could spend the day gardening with anyone in the world, who would it be?

I’ve got a big crush on Costa, but if I could just be gardening with the kids and James for half the day then I’d be pretty happy, too.

Keen to try your hand at preserving at home? Check out Cornersmith’s online courses here.

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