Reducing her environmental impact is at the core of Maria Katsantones' cooking.
Yet hardly intuitive, it's a concept that could trip up many home cooks, Katsantones says. To commemorate Earth Day, participants in a cooking class Katsantones plans for next week can learn to reduce their environmental "food-prints."
1. Buy foods that were grown or produced as close to home as possible.
2. Buy organic foods but weigh whether a small, local noncertified producer is a better choice than a large, distant organic operation.
3. Minimize packaging waste by buying food in bulk or in recyclable containers.
4. Evaluate a food producer's environmental integrity and labor practices.
5. Confine cooking equipment to a few high-quality items that will perform for years rather than many cheap items that aren't really necessary.
"If you want to have the lowest impact on the environment, you're going to think about food miles," she says.
Eating locally grown or produced foods — or as close to home as possible — is the highest goal on Katsantones' scale of measuring the "green" in a home's kitchen. Although the importance of locally grown food has gained nationwide credibility over the past few years, it's a lifestyle Katsantones learned from her French and Greek parents who raised chickens and cultivated vast vegetable gardens absent of pesticides.
"That influence really carried through," she says.
In the 1980s, Katsantones witnessed the birth of the "California cuisine" movement with its roots in local, organic produce. Living in California's wine country, Katsantones farmed 2.5 acres to supply produce for her own catering business.
"This is my hobby," she says.
Katsantones brought that hobby to Oregon and her job as community outreach assistant for Ashland Food Co-op. Next Wednesday's class is the Co-op's first specifically dedicated to low-impact cooking, but it's a theme Katsantones weaves into virtually any discussion of food. She says she hopes participants bring their own ideas, as well.
"It's about changing habits," she says. "It'll be kind of a think-tank."
Beyond produce grown on local farms, determining the origin of a food product can require some research, Katsantones says. Look beyond the location of a manufacturer to where they obtain raw ingredients, she says. The more processed a food item, the more difficult it is to calculate how far each ingredient among dozens has traveled, she says.
Once they've determined the source of their food, cooks shouldn't overlook how it's packaged for sale.
"Is it just the yucky, yucky, bad plastic?" Katsantones asks. "Packaging is huge."
While purchasing food in recyclable containers is a step in the right direction, buying in the bulk-foods section is not only better for the environment, it's cheaper, Katsantones says.
If that savings doesn't demonstrate the fact that environmentally conscious cooking doesn't have to cost more, eating seasonally should, Katsantones says. Out-of-season items cost more because they travel further and require more resources to store.
"I think there's no coincidence that what's in season is highest in nutrients," Katsantones says.
Pay attention to what produce is on sale, which usually indicates it's freshest and in season. Plan menus around other sale items to save even more at the check-out stand, she says.
"Not wasting is a big piece of this, too," Katsantones says.
She emphasizes that no one's philosophy is iron-clad. The occasional fast-food meal doesn't negate all of an environmentally conscious cook's efforts, Katsantones says. Just conceive a trade-off that benefits the planet.
"You have to decide what your comfort zone is," she says.
"Look at your diet; decide what your priorities are."
Lastly, Katsantones urges people to reevaluate how much and what kind of kitchen equipment they really need and which are more environmentally friendly. Cast-iron pans are virtually indestructible while cheap, nonstick types scratch easily and need to be replaced every few years, she says.
"Those little actions have a big effect on this low-impact concept."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.