“It wasn’t until I started working in restaurants – especially in the last job where I worked for a Michelin-star chef – you have to be very precise on how you prepare and how you cook food,” describes the American chef, who is now based in south London.
“So, for instance, you have to peel the carrot, then you’ve got to take off the more bulbous, round sides of the carrot, and you basically just use the centre. So, you’re throwing away more than 50% of the carrot, and you’re just using this centrepiece that’s perfectly symmetrical.”
La Manna remembers thinking: “I don’t cook this way at home… Why are we peeling the carrot? There are more nutrients in the peel.”
The self-taught chef soon moved away from working in restaurants to showcasing his skills on social media, where he’s made food waste a central part of his ethos.
“We’ve all had our parents at one point in time say, ‘Don’t waste food, there are starving people in the world’. I always thought it was some faraway distant place – it’s right here on our doorstep. And with the cost of living, it makes no sense for us to be throwing away food.”
Over the years, he’s tried innovative ways to use up fruit and veg – from the flamboyant, such as grapefruit caviar, to the more everyday, such as lentil and broccoli stem tacos – which is a recipe in his second book, You Can Cook This!
“I love food – I think something chemically happens in my brain, and I know it probably happens with everyone. But for me, I can shut off, and I’m in the food. That’s why I enjoy cooking, because I feel like I forget problems. We all have baggage, we all have something happening in our lives – life isn’t easy. And sometimes, when I get into cooking, it shuts things off.”
Sticky aubergine and peanut salad
2tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2tbsp maple syrup
2tbsp sesame oil
For the sweet and spicy peanut sauce:
2tbsp peanut butter, either smooth or crunchy
Zest and juice of 1-2 limes
1tbsp maple syrup
50g peanuts, roughly chopped
4tbsp chopped fresh coriander
4tbsp chopped fresh mint
3 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
1. Preheat the grill as high as it will go. Slice the aubergines in half lengthways and use a knife to cross hatch the flesh. Grill in a roasting tin for 10 minutes or until charred. Once the aubergine is grilled, remove from the oven and turn the oven to 220˚C/200˚C fan/gas 7.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together the soy, maple syrup, siracha and sesame oil. Place the charred aubergine on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and drizzle with the marinade. Cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes. Remove the foil cover and spoon any glaze in the tray over the aubergine, then roast for a further eight to 10 minutes, uncovered, until very soft and sticky.
3. Whisk the ingredients for the sweet and spicy peanut sauce with enough water to make it drizzleable consistency.
4. Once the aubergines are cooked, place on a large platter and drizzle with the sauce. Scatter over the peanuts, coriander, mint, spring onions and red chilli.
Smoky lentil and broccoli stem tacos
2tbsp olive oil
½ red onion, thinly sliced
1 large broccoli stem, grated
1 x 400g tin green lentils, drained and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 sundried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1tbsp tomato purée
1tbsp soy sauce or tamari
1tsp smoked paprika
1tsp ground cumin
1tbsp nutritional yeast
¼tsp black pepper
For the crisp cucumber salsa:
2 baby cucumbers, quartered lengthways, then thinly sliced
½ red onion, finely chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lime
2tbsp freshly chopped mint
2tbsp freshly chopped coriander
½ fresh red or green chilli, seeded, finely chopped
Generous pinch of salt
¼tsp black pepper
8-12 corn or flour tortillas, warmed
Freshly chopped coriander and basil
1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion for three to five minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the grated broccoli stem, lentils, garlic and sundried tomatoes, and cook for two to three minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Add all the remaining ingredients and cook for about three minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and begins to stick to the pan. Stir in one to two tablespoons of water for the last minute of cooking. Remove from the heat and cover with a lid while you warm the tortillas.
3. Make the cucumber salsa: in a mixing bowl, combine the cucumbers, red onion, lime juice and zest, mint, coriander and chilli. Season with salt and black pepper and leave for about 10 minutes before serving. This will allow the flavours to marinate and will also remove some of the liquid from the cucumber, providing a less watery crunch.
4. To serve, spoon the lentil and broccoli stem mixture onto warm tortillas and top with cucumber salsa, fresh coriander and basil, with lime wedges on the side.
Chocolate peanut butter and tahini brownies
2tbsp flaxseed meal
170g plain flour
60g cocoa powder
2tsp baking powder
150g brown sugar
¼tsp sea salt, plus more for finishing
320g dark chocolate chips
½tsp instant coffee
230g oat milk or non-dairy alternative
120g butter, melted
1tsp vanilla extract
50g smooth peanut butter
1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C/180˚C fan/gas 6. Line a 23 x 23-centimetre baking tin with baking parchment.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flaxseeds with three tablespoons of water. Set aside for about five to 10 minutes until it thickens and develops a jelly-like consistency.
3. Into a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Stir in the sugar and salt.
4. Place a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the hot water. Weigh out and set aside 100 grams of the chocolate. Melt two-thirds of the remaining chocolate in the heatproof bowl, stirring often. Once completely melted, add the remaining one-third of the chocolate and the instant coffee powder, remove from heat and stir until silky smooth. Leave to cool for five minutes.
5. Fold the melted chocolate, oat milk, butter, flaxseed paste and vanilla extract into the dry ingredients until well combined. Pour the mixture into the lined baking tin. Tap gently against the counter to remove any trapped air bubbles.
6. Bake for 25 minutes; the top should be slightly cracked and cooked, and the inside should be slightly gooey. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely in the tin.
7. Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Melt two-thirds of the remaining chocolate in the bowl, stirring. Once melted, add the rest of it, remove from the heat and stir until smooth. Cool for five minutes.
8. Spread the remaining chocolate mixture over the brownies, top with dollops of peanut butter and tahini. Using a knife or a toothpick, gently swirl the peanut butter and tahini together to create a magical design. Transfer the brownies to the fridge to cool for about 45 minutes.
9. Cut the chilled brownies, sprinkle of sea salt and serve.
You Can Cook This!: Simple, Satisfying, Sustainable Veg Recipes by Max La Manna is published by Ebury Press.