Alex Elliott-Howery’s Thrifty Kitchen

Alex, co-owner of Sydney cafe Cornersmith, is the Queen of Kitchen Thrift. She and husband James Grant have pickled, foraged and traded their way into the hearts of the communities surrounding their two cafes in Marrickville and Annandale with their focus on simple locally sourced food, minimising food waste, and community connection and education. And pickles. Lots of pickles.

We’re big fans of Cornersmith here at TPH (I’m in love with their fennel pickles) and their focus on all the good things – making and sharing delicious food, minimising waste, community building and education. So, I reckoned it was about time I chatted with Alex to find out more about her approach to kitchen thrift.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your life with plants? I’m a plant admirer rather than a gardener. My garden is full of things that thrive on neglect yet still give me something to use in the kitchen or as a home remedy. I have a very nice relationship with my rosemary bush, amazing aloe vera plant nasturtium field and cumquat tree.

I also am very fond of finding edible plants in unexpected places in the city. There’s an old apple tree down by the Cooks river that I like to visit, a mulberry tree up a back alley near my house and wild fennel down at the skatepark where I take my kids. It makes me love living in the city.

Can you also please tell us a bit about Cornersmith? Cornersmith is a project I started with my husband James Grant about seven years ago. It began as a little café in Marrickville and has grown to include a Picklery, a cooking school, two cookbooks, a backyard produce trading system and recently another café in Annandale.

The idea behind Cornersmith is to always make good decisions about food, the environment and our community.”

We focus on local seasonal produce; small scale producers; traditional kitchen skills; reducing food waste; ethical food production; education and our neighbourhood.

What does thrift mean to you? I think of most things in terms of food and so for me being thrifty means to avoid wasting. Not just my own money, but to be respectful of the amount of natural resources, time and energy that went into growing, making or producing the food that ends up on our plates. We have to be very mindful of then not just throwing that food in the bin.

Learning how to make food last longer is one of the thriftiest kitchen skills you can have. It’s one of the reasons I fell so hard in love with pickling and preserving, and was the beginning of Cornersmith.”

What are your favourite foods to cook with on a tight budget? I’m obsessive about making use of what’s already in the fridge, pantry or fruit bowl and not buying things if I don’t need to. I also like to try and get multiple meals out of more expensive items like a good free range chicken. Tonight’s dinner is a good example:

Last night I cooked a roast chicken, mash and salad. So I stripped the leftover chicken for school lunches and put a small pot of stock on. Just a quick one for an hour or so. So tonight we’ll have a chicken broth with whatever veggies are in the fridge and with the left over mash I’ll make potato cakes. I just add some grated tired broccoli, an egg and lots of parmesan cheese and then fry it into little delicious cheesy balls. I’ll also make a quick stovetop rice pudding from some leftover rice that needs to be eaten. It’s not long, hard work kind of cooking.

I always look in the fridge in the morning and see what needs to get eaten that night. And I get two family meals and school sandwiches out of one chook, some potatoes and vegetables so it ends up being very economical.

Can you please share some of your tips to reduce kitchen food waste? Oh, I’ve got so many! We actually have a new cook book coming out in October called Salads and Pickles – vegetables with more taste and less waste which is full of yummy salads and pickles but also lots of handy tips for reducing your kitchen waste.

My top tips are:

  • Always know what’s in the fridge and pantry
  • Only buy what you need
  • Plan your meals
  • Learn how to store your food properly, especially fruits and vegetables

And LEARN HOW TO PRESERVE! By using simple kitchen ingredients like vinegar, salt, sugar and oil you can extend the life of food. All these ingredients stop bacteria from growing and therefore help to stop food going off. You don’t need to make 25 jars of jam, just make one jar or container of something and store it in the fridge. Preserving needs to become part of our weekly kitchen routine as a way to battle food waste. Here are some preserving tips:

  • Make a jar of pickles from that quarter of a cauliflower and 1 lonely carrot you know you’re not going to eat. Pickled vegetables last for so much longer than fresh vegetables
  • Make a quick chutney from the floury apples the kids reject
  • Make a green sauce from all your herb stems
  • Make sauerkraut from all the green bits lurking at the back of the fridge

Once you start, you’ll get obsessive about it and never throw anything away again. And it’s lots of fun!

Can you please tell us about your produce trading system and why its important to you? I’m so proud of our produce trading system. We started it not long after Cornersmith opened as a way for people to pass on their surplus backyard produce and to stop locally grown food going to waste. There’s so many established fruit trees and veggie gardens in our neighbourhood and it’s surprising how much fruit a happy tree can grow! (Often way too much for a family to get through).

I’d been swapping vegetables and preserves with my neighbours for years and wondered how it work on a bigger scale. We wrote a sign up on a black board in the cafe explaining what we were looking for and the produce started rolling in. Chokos, mandarins, mulberries, bay leaves, lemongrass, apples, passionfruit and quinces all turned up on our doorstep.

I used to cry in the beginning because I was so pleased that the community shared the same vision that we did.”

It’s very informal, but the general idea is that someone brings us a box of homegrown lemons or a bucket of chillies they can’t use and we trade them for pickles or coffees. Depending on what it is, we either preserve it at the Picklery or we send it to one of the cafes to be used on the menu.

This winter we have traded over 700kg of locally grown citrus. We made lime marmalades, preserved lemons, grapefruit sodas, blood orange syrup and pickled cumquats.

I often think about why people are so committed to the trading program and over the years that it has been running I’ve seen that the majority of people hate food waste. They don’t want to watch food rotting in their backyards – they want it go to a good home where it will be appreciated. At Cornersmith it goes even further to because their food goes on to feed the community they live in. I think it’s about feeling connected and being part of a bigger vision. It’s a really important feeling to have in busy urban areas.

What are you enjoying cooking with this season? All the winter fruits and vegetables are coming to an end, so I’ve been busy bottling all my favourites for later in the year.

Pickled cumquats are one of my favourite things to make at this time of year, they’re so delicious sliced through salads, on a cheese plate or in a negroni! I’ve also been eating as much fennel as I can and pickling it for when I know I’ll miss it in summer. I’ve bottled pears in pinot and made a very delicious savoury lemon jam to have on pancakes.

I am also looking forward to all the green things that come with spring. Asparagus is just around the corner!

What’s something thrifty you learned from your grandmother? My grandmother, Joan was a great cook and very thrifty! She taught me how to wash, dry and reuse plastic bags.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Why? I’d have to be something that provides food – maybe a cumquat tree, because I love them so much and my hair seems to be getting more and more orange.

If you live in Sydney and haven’t been to Cornersmith (located in Marrickville and Annandale), GO! Check out their WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM / FACEBOOK for more info.

All images supplied by Cornersmith.