In ‘Perfectly Good Food,’ No Ingredient Goes to Waste

Category:

With their latest book, Margaret and Irene Li share strategies for using up what’s already in our refrigerators.

Mei Mei Dumplings is Bluedot’s kind of company: a woman-owned, Boston-based business doing good for the community and the planet. Sisters Irene and Margaret Li, along with their brother Andrew, get seventy percent of the produce for their popular dumplings (like the Lemongrass Pork or 5-Spice Tofu Mushroom) from farms throughout New England and New York. All of the meat used is pasture raised. As a sustainable business, they’ve made it their mission not to waste any food, which has led to tasty innovations like herb-stem green sauces and carrot top pesto. Their latest accomplishment is a new book called Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking.

Mei Mei means “little sisters” in Mandarin, though all three Li siblings have worked together in one way or another. Irene and Andrew first introduced the food of their Chinese-American childhood to Boston through the Mei Mei Food Truck, which later became Mei Mei restaurant. Both won huge followings and numerous awards, including James Beard nominations and a James Beard leadership award for Irene in 2022. All three siblings collaborated on the award-winning cookbook Double Awesome Chinese Food in 2019.

When restaurant-going faltered at the onset of the pandemic, Mei Mei began selling their dumplings at area farmers markets. They became an instant hit. The company opened a brand-new dumpling factory in South Boston, complete with a factory café and retail shop, dumpling tours, and cooking classes where more than 4,000 people have learned how to make dumplings.

Perfectly Good Food was released in June, 2023. In this guide/cookbook, Margaret and Irene share their professional knowledge on reducing food waste and their passion for cooking delicious meals with food already on hand. Margaret contributes her knowledge of sustainable food systems from years in the restaurant industry and service on the boards of organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Project Bread. Irene has also worked in the sustainable food world for years. She founded Food Waste Feast, an online resource for flexible recipes, strategies, and tips to fight food waste.  

Perfectly Good Food is one of the best books I’ve seen on the subject and I predict that it, too, will win awards. Recently, I spoke with Margaret and Irene.

Our journalism has been and always will be free.

For as little as $5 per month, you can help us continue to deliver stories that shine light on a better world. Contribute Now.

Perfectly Good Food by  Margaret and Irene Li

One of your first lines in the book is “Together, we’re going to cut down on your food waste and save you money.” In the book, as chefs, role models, cheerleaders — maybe even psychologists — you offer all kinds of recipes, suggestions and systems. But do you really think zero waste in the kitchen is an achievable goal for most cooks, even for someone like myself that tries but always seems to be falling short?

We don’t expect most people in the kitchen to actually be zero waste and that’s why we call it a zero-waste approach rather than focusing on the term too much. Our goal is to help people waste less in the kitchen and also have more fun. For some people, that might be small steps, like cooking more from their fridge rather than going out to buy new ingredients. For others who manage to go through their ingredients and compost everything uneaten, they can celebrate putting zero food waste in the landfill. We want to provide the support, ideas, strategies, and recipe starting points for people to try, even if they fall short, which we believe is inevitably part of the process and not something to view as failure. If you tried a new recipe and didn’t love it, but you saved an ingredient from the trash, that’s a small win. Eat the evidence and move on!

One statistic in your book that struck me is that forty-eight percent of food waste in the U.S. is household-generated, hence a book like this for home cooks. What were some other surprising things you learned about food waste in this country?

We were surprised to learn that food waste tends to be one of the largest components of landfill, typically about twenty-five percent. Unfortunately, all of that organic waste creates methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, and also leaches toxic chemicals into the ground. Where I used to live in North Carolina, food waste makes up almost thirty percent of household trash, and my local landfill was set to reach capacity by 2040. So when you think about how much space could be saved by composting instead of sending food waste to landfill (and how much better it would be for the environment), I personally felt more of a drive to try to keep food waste out of my trash.  

You say setting up organizational systems in your kitchen is one of the keys to success. Two of your suggestions, the “Eat Me First” box in the fridge and “Stock and Smoothie” bags for the freezer, seem like great ideas and easy to implement right off the bat. 

Yes, we’ve had great responses to the Eat Me First box in particular, as it’s so easy to set up. You might have a nice-looking box already in the house, or you can just rinse out the plastic clamshell your strawberries just came in, and boom  — you’ve got a new organizational strategy in the kitchen! Almost all of us can benefit from knowing where to put uneaten halves or soon-to-go-bad items. I used to find lemon halves all over the back of the fridge and now they all go in one place. 

You’ve provided recipe templates with great names like “Anything-You-like Galette,” “Fridge-Forage Baked Pasta,” “Make-It-Your-Own Stir-Fry,” and “Mix-and-Match Slaw Party” that can help readers use two to four cups of stray vegetables any day of the week. When people use your book, I think they will end up not only rescuing their own food, but becoming better, more inventive cooks in the long run.

That was absolutely a goal for the book — helping people cut down on waste and save money in the kitchen, but also getting a better sense for how ingredients work, how to improvise, and their own personal taste. It’s great to be able to follow a recipe, but you become a more confident and inventive cook if you learn how to swap, substitute, and make your own decisions. And you’re more likely to eat what you make if you tinker with it until you love the way it tastes. It’s hard for recipe writers to write a specific recipe that speaks to everyone perfectly because everyone likes things in different ways. We encourage you to try new things and see what works for you. Slowly teaching yourself to trust your instincts and make your own decisions while cooking will save you food and, over time, help you become a better cook. 

And then you have what you call “Hero Recipes.” What are those?

Hero Recipes are our recipes that help you rescue everything in your fridge! The idea is that you can use various templates (soup, stew, galette, frittata, smoothies, and pancakes, for example), and put in so many different fruits or vegetables. They can also help you use up bits of meat, cheese, or random condiments. They’re super flexible and adaptable so you can use up what’s in your kitchen instead of needing to run out to the store. And you’ll feel like a hero when you clean out your crisper drawer and get dinner on the table in one fell swoop!

I have wasted so much tomato paste over my cooking life, among other items. You say silicone ice trays work not only for leftover tomato paste, but also for wine, herbs in oil, even coffee cubes. How do you organize the different cubes after you pop them out, and how do you remember to use them?

Once the ice cube trays have frozen, I transfer them to a resealable freezer bag (either silicone or resealable plastic), press out all the air, and label and date them with a Sharpie and painter’s tape. Then I have an area of my freezer dedicated to bags of stuff. When cooking, I try to poke through that area and see if there’s anything that I can toss in the recipe I’m making. If you find yourself losing things in the back of your freezer, you can devote one day a week/fortnight/month/whatever works for you to clearing out the freezer with a tasty meal.  

The Mei Mei food truck.
Margaret and Andy Li with the Mei Mei food truck.

I love that your mom took time out of her work as a physician to drive you in her camper down to Georgia and back up to Boston on your East Coast book tour. How was that experience, and what did you learn on the tour about how people are viewing food waste around the country?

Well, she is retired, but busier than ever, so it was amazing to get to spend some time with her. We call her the OG [original] food waste warrior because she is always saving odds and ends, like 1 ounce containers of takeout sauces, for later deployment. She didn’t cook as much as she grilled, and one of her specialties was a kind of fridge-door marinade: all the takeout sauces and packets mixed in a bowl and then used to marinate chicken wings for the grill! It’s something we kind of groaned about as kids, but as everyone knows, one eventually evolves into one’s mother, and we have a book to prove it. We loved meeting folks from all over the East Coast and seeing firsthand the different reasons people have for wanting to tackle food waste in their homes. For some people, it’s about the environment, for others it’s a matter of saving a few dollars, and for others there is just the guilt of seeing anything good go to waste. It’s cool to unite those folks in one room and get everyone on the same page regardless of their age, background, or skill level in the kitchen.

The graphics in this book are fantastic and fun. I think my favorite is “How to Drink your Melons,” with recipes like the Cantaloupe Daiquiri and Watermelon Spritz. Those sound not only useful, but delicious.

Thank you! We always have trouble with melons because they’re generally large (my kids say they want a watermelon, then get bored after eating a slice each and then you still have four pounds of watermelon) and they don’t freeze well. So blending is generally a great way to use them up. And most adults I know are more likely to drink a spritz than eat a third slice of watermelon as well! 

Mei Mei Storefront.
Mei Mei Storefront.

If you try your recipes for making pickles, citrus curd, jam, nut butters, scrap chili oil, or fridge-door dressing — you not only save food, but you may end up having some more interesting foods on hand to use.

Exactly. The making and using of condiments ends up becoming a useful cycle that continually adapts and informs the way you cook. I love making green sauces with herbs, for example, and then using that green sauce in all my soups, stews, and frittatas. Scrap chili oil goes on everything in my house. Especially if you put together a meal with what you have and it’s only okay, you can make it amazing with the right condiment.  

Why do you think your dumplings became such a Boston staple, and where can we find them?

We have the immense privilege of running our business in our hometown, where lots of people know us and our team members, our vendors and farmers, and that helps deepen the connection between our dumplings and our diners. Our dumplings aren’t traditional, but they are very New England and Boston inspired, which I think also speaks to the multicultural palates of diners here. Right now, our dumplings are available at our storefront and at a variety of farmers’ markets. We’re working on our wholesale production licensing and will be in stores later this year.

Latest Stories

Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers
Catherine Walthers, Bluedot’s food editor, is a Martha’s Vineyard-based writer, culinary instructor, and private chef. A former journalist, she is the author of 4 cookbooks, including Kale, Glorious Kale, Soups + Sides, and Raising the Salad Bar. She wrote an environmental guidebook called A Greener Boston published by Chronicle Books in 1992. Follow her on Instagram @catherine_walthers.
Read More

Related Articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here