Drought-Friendly Recipes Kick Up The Flavor — And Cut Back On Water

Chef Nathan Lyon and his culinary manager, Sarah Forman, have whipped up some “drought-friendly” recipes to help everyone in their water conservation efforts. Here’s what they shared with NPR.

When television chef Nathan Lyon read about California’s worsening drought earlier this year, he started thinking about the amount of water it takes to grow the food in recipes he creates.

That’s when he and his girlfriend and culinary manager, Sarah Forman, decided to develop what they call “drought-friendly recipes.”

“Instead of looking at a bowl of strawberries, I look at that bowl of strawberries and think, wow, that’s like 20 gallons of water right there,” says Lyon, who co-hostsGrowing a Greener World on PBS. “I just want these recipes to start a dialogue that people aren’t having right now.”

With this idea of drought-friendly recipes in mind, the two went to a farmers market in Los Angeles, where they’re based, and hit the kitchen to create meals with the smallest water footprint possible. To become more drought conscious, Lyon encourages people to use recipes calling for ingredients that require less water to grow or raise, less water to cook with and to use as much of a product as feasible to decrease water waste.

In order to measure how much water it takes to produce, raise or grow an ingredient, the couple use the online tool offered by the Water Footprint Network. They also turn to water footprint studies by the University of California, Davis.

“As a chef, it’s sort of up to us to revolutionize what people have been doing in the past, bring attention to the amount of resources it takes to grow these things and say, you’ve already paid for it, so utilize that to the best of your ability,” says Lyon, who previously hosted A Lyon in the Kitchen on the Discovery Health channel.

Even though Lyon’s cooking shows reach a national audience, for now, the drought-friendly recipes at this point are only found in full on Lyon’s blog. It takes several days, if not weeks, to develop a recipe, says Forman. She says they plan to keep working on the project at least through the end of this year. The couple is currently planning a series of cooking demonstrations with the recipes to spread the word.

“We were just part of a Chef’s Collaborative discussion” on fighting food waste, says Forman, referencing the nonprofit that advocates for sustainable food practices in restaurants. “People are excited about the recipes all over California,” she says. “The recipes are made in Los Angeles, but people can decrease their water footprint all around the nation by cooking with our recipes.”

One of the recipes the duo created is an Alaskan True Cod Taco with Pickled Radish and Radish Top Salsa.

“It’s not a beef taco, so we’re using fish,” Forman says. “So it’s going to be a lower water footprint to process this fish.”

When creating a recipe, the couple looks at the relative use of water for each product, since water use ranges by each grower’s practice. For example, a pound of beef can take up to 4,000 gallons of water to raise and process from farm to plate.

All of the duo’s recipes tend to use more fruits, vegetables and fish over red meat.

Lyon says part of the idea behind drought-friendly recipes is to reduce food waste, which in turn reduces water waste.

“I think that’s what Americans are looking for — something very simple, but also something they can do to actually make change,” Lyon says. “Really be aware that when you throw food away, you’re throwing away gallons and gallons of water that we desperately need.”

Lyon also wants to expose consumers to foods with a low water footprint that they may not know how to cook with, but that are readily available in stores and farmers markets.

Shoppers’ “habit is to go and get the bananas and the apples,” says Lyon. “When we bring different types of recipes to the general populace, then it makes it more accessible. … It doesn’t make them so stressed about using the vegetable they’re experimenting with for the first time.”

For example, Forman came up with the idea to use excess radish tops for a salsa on the drought-friendly taco. “The salsa, if you have a food processor, you can just wiz it up, and that’s really the end of it,” she says.

While they don’t expect people to cook “drought-friendly” meals all the time, they hope their recipes will get people thinking about how much water goes into growing the foods we consume.

“It’s just a topic we really want to bring awareness to and keep the conversation going and eat delicious food,” Forman says.


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