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On Saturday afternoons, Dillner Family Farm sets up a table at the Lawrenceville farmers market. One late summer day there were bright heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, stone fruits and greens neatly organized into a dazzling array of food. Lining the ground just to the right of the table were bins of produce labeled "seconds."
Seconds, loosely defined, are produce items that aren't pretty enough to be put directly on display. These fruits and vegetables are blemished, bruised or bug-eaten. They can be ripe to the point of bursting. Sometimes these seconds just have a minor nick in them, and other times they're downright ugly.
We're a culture of pretty things, and most people don't give a second look to the discarded fruits. Grocery stores even turn them away, knowing that the public will simply pick through them in search of prettier produce.
According to a United Nations report released last week, 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste annually. That waste causes an estimated economic loss of $750 billion, and, the report claims, "significant damage to the environment." Although the U.N. report examines food waste from a global perspective, the issue also is noticeable closer to home. An employee at the Freeport Road Walmart, for example, said that bruised produce found on the store's shelves are destined to end up in the trash compactor and then the dump.
But, here's a secret that savvy home cooks and restaurant chefs have known for years: Just because something is ugly on the outside doesn't mean it's not beautiful on the inside. Perform a little bit of cosmetic surgery and your seconds can shine. If you're making a salsa or sauce, the starting product doesn't need to be pretty, because you're going to be chopping it up anyway.
I recently moved into a new house, and so I'm without a garden this year. So instead of harvesting my own produce, I've been hitting up area farmers markets at a pretty furious pace. I was feeling pretty creative a few Saturdays ago and decided to buy a basket of nectarine seconds from the Dillners.
My assortment of seconds was over twice the weight of a similarly priced quantity of firsts. For $5, I had pounds of them. I ate a terrifically ripe one on my walk home, its juice running down my hands and face. When I got back to my kitchen, I chopped a few up along with some shallots, cilantro and pepper to make a quick and easy salsa to accompany the pork chops I was planning to grill for dinner.
Most of the nectarine seconds were destined to become shrub, the colonial-era "drinking vinegar" that's become so popular with bartenders in the past few years.
I cut out the bruised bits, pulled out the pits and squished the nectarines with my hands; after a minute, it didn't matter that what I'd started with was imperfect. I added an equal measurement of sugar and two days later the same amount of vinegar. Later, I strained the mixture and now I'll have preserved nectarine essence straight through next summer.
Other shoppers also were purchasing seconds at the market. Diana Stoughton of Gryphon Tea Shop (it has a brick-and-mortar store in Lawrenceville) sells an assortment of teas and herbs at the market, which has been a boon to both her creativity and her bottom line.
"Since we've been coming to the farmers markets we've had the opportunity to pick up all these seconds," she said.
"I'm going to cook these down and turn them into a drink for the tea shop," she said as she hauled a bounty of seconds back to her stand.
That drink is called sekanjabin, an ancient Persian recipe that is considered to be a forefather of the shrub. Her nectarines were to be cooked with rose water vinegar and a pinch of nutmeg.
That day she had a strawberry, mint, ginger and balsamic vinegar sekanjabin syrup on hand. Mixed with cold seltzer water, her strawberry essence reminds you of that warm June day when you knew that the harsh transition from the winter months was just about over. The vinegar in the drink is far less assertive than a shrub; sekanjabins are tangy, but not overwhelmingly so. And they're remarkably refreshing.
The day after Labor Day is typically slow in the restaurant business, so Chef Trevett Hooper closed Legume, his Oakland restaurant, to do some much needed work. At the same time the dining room received a makeover, hundreds of pounds of castaway tomatoes, green tomatoes, peppers, and cantaloupe were transformed into sauces, pickles and preserves.
"We wouldn't be able to do this if we were paying full organic prices," he said. His primary supplier, Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem, cuts him a break on its seconds. This year's cool, wet summer brought an early tomato blight, leaving the farm with an abundance of green tomatoes that Mr. Hooper ended up buying.
"Instead of just going on to the compost pile, we can do something with it," he said. "It's a beautiful thing."
According to him, a bushel of beetle-bitten greens is one of the most beautiful things a chef can hold.
"To me it's a sign of health. It means this comes from soil that hasn't been sprayed. It means we're able to offer a product that's more nutritious than if we got an equally priced, conventionally grown food," he said.
But how would customers paying good money for a meal at a James Beard award semi-finalist react to eating greens poked with miniature holes by the mouths of hungry flea beetles? These are greens that Who Cooks For You Farm didn't even feel comfortable putting in its CSA boxes.
"I've never really worried about that. We wash it and make sure it's clean," and besides, he said, once the greens are cooked down, "you can't see the holes in them anymore."
If fact, Mr. Hooper sees the extra labor that goes into processing seconds as an important addition to his chef's toolkit. "Imagine you're cooking on a spectrum. If you're buying stuff like canned tomatoes, or whatever, you're only going from here-to-here. That's the only space you have for being creative. When you're processing your own foods, you have from here-to-here, too. You open up whole new doors of creativity."
And the economy of seconds allows him to do that work. Still, he's careful to make sure the farmers he works with get his full support.
"They're in business to sell firsts, so that's kind of the balancing act with farmers -- making sure you're a good customer first. I wouldn't expect to get bargains all the time without buying their bread and butter, too."
That idea is echoed by Chris Brittenburg of Who Cooks For You Farm. "Restaurants love seconds," he said. Although some tomato seconds make their way to the East Liberty Farmers Market on Mondays -- and he'll occasionally supply another restaurant with seconds when requested -- nearly all of Who Cooks For You's seconds end up at Legume.
The relationship is economically beneficial for both the farmer and the chef. "We expect a good price for our produce," said Mr. Brittenburg. And he's able to sell that produce at a premium to Legume because Mr. Hooper "knows that he will be able to balance out his bottom line with the seconds."
Indeed, Mr. Hooper said that, in lieu of an advertising budget, he spends the money he would have spent on ads on the produce and labor that go into processing seconds.
The grower and the chef also share a similar philosophy about the importance of respecting the energy and ecology of where the food came from. "It's a full circle thing," said Mr. Brittenburg. "It pains us at the farm," he adds, "to throw away anything people could eat." Besides, he said, "it's just a cultural stigma that you can't eat something because it has a blemish or a bruise on it."
For some people seconds aren't castaways to be saved from the compost heap. For lower income people, seconds are a lifeline. "There's a lot of food leftover in the whole cycle of the food system, and we need to get it to those people in need," said Lisa Scales, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Nearly all of the produce donated to the Food Bank is seconds. It comes from a variety of sources including directly from area farms, grade-outs from the produce terminals in the Strip District, and from Feeding America, the hunger-advocacy organization that supplies food to more than 200 food banks nationwide, including the local food bank.
According to Jeralyn Beach, the food bank's produce specialist, some of the seconds are "often fresher than you'll find at the grocery store."
During the growing season, Ms. Beach organizes teams of volunteers to conduct what are known as gleanings. The act of gleaning -- canvassing a field for unharvested food -- dates to biblical times. Then, farmers were instructed to leave parts of their farmland unharvested for the poor.
The food bank doesn't pay the farmers for the gleaned food, but they are given a tax writeoff for the value of their goods. Plus the fields are cleared, no food goes to waste, and hungry people eat.
The gleaned food is trucked to partner food pantries or to a Produce to the People event organized by the food bank. And, like Ms. Beach said, the produce can be very fresh.
"A lot of times we've picked that produce in the morning and it comes off my food bank truck and goes directly onto another truck for distribution," she said.
That was the case at an early September Produce to People event in Braddock. That day, more than 600 people lined up on a Saturday morning to receive nearly 60 pounds of produce per household. The sweet corn, cabbage and peaches that were put in the bags all had been harvested within the previous 48 hours.
Amy Tamburro, 47, of North Braddock, was one of the people lined up to receive a share of produce. She was not fazed that the top leaves of the cabbage were damaged, or that some of the peaches had blemishes.
"It doesn't bother me that things are bruised. Being a single mom, by the time I pay my bills, it's tough for me to get [fresh produce] at all, period. And even if you go to the grocery store some of the things that's in there are bruised anyway. You're paying how much for stuff that you can't really use? So, no, this is a blessing to me," she said.
Her statement was echoed by Connie Brown, 60, of Swissvale. She planned to eat a peach on her way home, and grill some of the corn later in the evening. "These are things that would cost me a lot at the store. When you don't have [the money], you don't buy it," she said.
And that corn can make for a very satisfying meal. The high summer staple grows two to three ears of corn per plant, but only the largest first ear is commercially valuable. Once that ear is harvested from a field, Ms. Beach's volunteers are ready for action.
"Sometimes they're smaller, sometimes the tips aren't fully filled out, but they're still perfectly edible," she said, "and sometimes even tastier than the bigger ears."
Where to shop
A home cook's best bet for picking up seconds is the farmers market. Seconds almost never make it into the supermarket; OK Grocery, Giant Eagle's distribution wing, donates its seconds to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Some farmers -- such as Mott Family Farm at Farmers@Firehouse or Dillner Family Farm at the Lawrenceville Farmers Market -- have seconds on display. Others farms bring seconds, so don't be afraid to ask a vendor if he or she has any on hand.
SIMPLE SECONDS APPLESAUCE
This is a quick and easy recipe for applesauce. You'll have great success when using a combination of sweet and tart apples; I like to combine Jonathan and Fuji. Part of the fun in using seconds is you'll likely encounter a few unexpected varieties to try. Be sure to adjust seasonings based on personal preferences.
About 1 cup apple juice or water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup sugar (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon butter
Pinch of salt
Peel and core apples. Cut into rough chunks When using seconds, make sure to pay close attention to removing any unwanted bits.
Place apples into a heavy pot and add just enough apple juice or water to cover. If using water, also add lemon juice. Add cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer.
Cook 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender. Remove cinnamon stick.
Crush apples in cooking liquid using a potato masher or wooden spoon. Add sugar, butter (optional, but very nice) and salt. Taste, and add more sugar if desired.
Cool. Store in refrigerator.
Yield: Approximately 6 cups, depending on size of apples.
-- Hal B. Klein
Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published September 19, 2013 4:00 AM