A Conscious Christmas With Cornersmith
From home cook to cult café owner and author of three recipe books, Alex Elliott-Howery of Cornersmith shifted her approach to food and never looked back. In the lead up to Christmas Alex sat down with our Head of Hospitality Harriet Leigh to share her thoughts on how we can all move towards a more sustainable kitchen at home.
Harriet: Why did you start Cornersmith—what was the impetus behind it?
Alex: We [Alex and husband James Grant] started Cornersmith 10 years ago. I was at home a lot with the kids when they were very little—not a chef, not a trained cook, just really into food.
And into preserving food as well?
Not at that stage. I was just at home, trying to figure out how to be more sustainable and I couldn't stop thinking about food waste. I would lie in bed at night thinking, "Oh my God. I throw away this much food, which means the next-door neighbours do, and the whole street does." So, I did heaps of research and realised the food system is f***d. And then I was like, "I've got to solve it." So that's when I started learning how to pickle and preserve and change the way that we ate at home. I didn't know then what I know now, so everything was trial and error.
Is that what inspired your new book, Use It All?
It's the book I wish I had when I first started. It very much goes back to me at home trying to figure everything out, but with the ten extra years of knowledge that I have now. It's really easy and breaks things down—it's not about big batch preserving, or big fancy cooking. If you've got broccoli in the fridge, you can flip to the broccoli pages and find 10 things to do with it. It’s about making sustainable choices, but also being more resourceful, saving money and stretching things.
Why did that fall out of fashion in western culture?
So many reasons. Firstly, the industrialised food system really messed everything up; losing seasonality, everything being accessible when you want it. And it's really hard work cooking from scratch all the time, so I think people just stopped because they thought, "Oh, I don't have to do that anymore because I can buy it at the supermarket."
Do you have a recommendation for how we can start incorporating conscious processes?
Start to make them part of your weekly kitchen habit, rather than trying to dedicate your whole Sunday to it. If you have one celery stick left over when you’re making Bolognese, put it under some vinegar brine. It will only take three minutes, and then you've got celery that can go into a salad, with cheese, in a Bloody Mary. Just start by incorporating these things on a very small scale.
With Christmas coming up, what sort of things should we be thinking about?
Everyone's always got way too much food on their Christmas table, so I think we all have to buy less.
I go harder on booze than I do on food at Christmas.
Well, that's okay. Booze doesn't go off.
No, it doesn't. But I love what you do with oxidized wine.
Oh, yes. If you open a bottle of wine for cooking and have a little bit left over, we've got a delicious vincotto recipe [in Use It All]. You reduce the wine with sugar and spices and just drizzle it on everything.
You guys do a great Christmas tree, or Christmas branches.
I just go down to the Cook's River [in Marrickville, Sydney] and find a beautiful big dead branch, drag it home—much to my teenager's embarrassment—and decorate it with dehydrated orange.
Whole or slices?
Slices. I've had the same orange slices for five years. We dry chilies too. All the pretty things. I think we've got dried flowers from last year. I basically bring out the same decorations every year, just in a slightly different formation because if you dehydrate stuff, it lasts forever.
What sort of gifts do you give at Christmas?
I think preserves are beautiful to give at Christmas. Summer's coming, so you can make jam, bottle fruits, syrups for cocktails. I always make mustard fruits that people can pair with ham or seafood or cheese. It's a fiery, sweet relish type thing you can make with mustard oil, or mustard powder—whatever you can get.
Homemade is the best.
Homemade is the best. But if you can't make your gifts, buy from the people in your neighbourhood. I think everyone needs to support their local small makers.
How do you prepare for Christmas day?
I'm throwing a Christmas lunch, so I’ll just delegate really well. I’m like, "You are bringing this, you are bringing that, I need this much bread." I'm like a head chef, but for the family. It means there's no leftovers, no waste and everyone only has to bring one thing each.
Does everyone have seconds?
Yeah, they're very well fed.
Do you have any tips on how we can shop more seasonally and sustainably during the festive season?
Yes, definitely. If you pick up an ingredient and understand its flavour, history and how it works with other things it will help you make better choices. So, my first tip is to arm yourself with knowledge. Also, before you go to the shops, Google "What's in season?" And then when you get there, you will know.
What about buying things like eggs?
There's an amazing app that I use called Cluckar. You hold it over the packet of eggs, and it either comes up with chickens in jail, or chickens chilling. And it's really good. My kids use it and they love it.
I also recommend buying whole ingredients, even if you're scared. Buy a whole cauliflower, don't buy the plastic wrapped portion. We've got to start saying no to plastic and imported produce.
Alex’s Fast Five For The Festive Season
One of the biggest sources of waste each Christmas is wrapping paper, with more than 8,000 tonnes being used each year—the equivalent of approximately 50,000 trees. Be mindful of how you wrap your gifts. Second-hand fabric off-cuts, bandanas or uncoated brown paper and string are good options.
Try to support small-scale local businesses for all your ingredients, gifts and booze. Get out of the supermarkets and visit your local fruit and vegetables store, butcher, bottle shop, bookstore, and plant centre.
Remember to keep fruit and vegetable choices seasonal and Australian. Aussie growers need our support! Think cherries, mangoes, stone fruits, tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers. Eat for our climate, not for the tradition.
If you’ve got time, see if you can make it, rather than buy it. Whip up a batch of homemade jam or pickles—everyone loves the thought and appreciates the effort. Long lasting food and booze make the best gifts as they have a long shelf life and can be enjoyed later in the year.