Welcome to One Quick Bite, where we share smart, cool, and weird conversations with our favorite authors about their new cookbook and beyond.
Margaret and Irene Li love trash. Or rather, they love keeping food from becoming trash. What they do instead is use it to build inspired meals and pantry staples that are both snazzier and friendlier than regular old recipes built on grocery lists and rigid ingredient amounts.
The chef sisters got their skills from owning and operating eateries (including Boston’s Mei Mei Dumplings) and share their expertise in “Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking,” their new hybrid cookbook and inspo-packed ingredient field guide. It’s perfect for recipe followers and recipe riffers alike. What they deem “hero recipes” anchor the book with fundamental templates for soups, dressings, and more. Then they offer supplemental quick ideas and strategies for each ingredient.
“Perfectly Good Food” is the most flat-out fun entry in the sometimes austere genre of food waste recipe volumes. The Li sisters gamify the pursuit of using up leftovers, and the prize is really cool stuff to eat. They’ll have you using allium scraps to infuse flavor in homemade chili crisp, pureeing saggy heads of lettuce in a creamy soup, and mixing any kind of ground meat into four-ingredient meatballs. Playful illustrations dot pages that decode how to store and use up all kinds of perishable ingredients. And for readers who need reassurance, the Lis offer ways to tell when specific ingredients are okay to use and when they should go straight to the trash.
I spoke to Margaret, who goes by Mei, about foraging the fridge, freezing lemons, and how being lazy can make cutting food waste easier. Plus I just had to ask how she came up with the amazing, almost torte-like banana bread recipe I will make for life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What food ingredient are you ever delighted to have an overabundance of?
I love having extra spinach around because my son and I both love green smoothies. Which is hilarious because he’d throw a fit if I asked him to eat raw spinach, but he’ll grab fistfuls to stuff inside a blender for smoothies. I also blend it into eggs to make very thin crepe-style omelettes that I cut into slices and my kids call “green noodles”. And then if we still have extra I’ll toss the raw spinach straight into the freezer and it can still go directly into smoothies and get cooked into other dishes. So flexible!
In writing this book, did you pull from practices you already had in place, or did you find yourselves discovering new-to-you uses for perishable ingredients?
Both! I refined my use of Irene’s “Eat Me First” box that started at our restaurant in the walk-in fridge as an organizational tool for the chefs. When using it at home, I realized how important it is to keep your box at eye level and at the front of the fridge. Otherwise, it gets pushed to the back and becomes just another item hiding in the back to forget about.
I also learned that you can freeze whole lemons! Our cookbook copy editor told me about that and now if lemons are hanging around too long I pop them straight in the freezer (zesting first if I have the chance). Then a quick thaw in the microwave and you’ve got your lemon juice.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you when it comes to cooking, eating, food, etc.?
Ha! People think that as a cookbook writer I must be a meticulous chef, but I’m the opposite. I love figuring out how to make things work with what I have, even if that means wildly disregarding recipe instructions, and substituting debatably odd items. For example, I made breakfast at my friend’s house a few days ago by foraging through her fridge. I’d picked up a cookbook as inspiration and thought a recipe for eggs with scallions and asparagus looked good, but she didn’t have asparagus. So I used an open pack of prosciutto instead! Delicious.
They also think I must work really hard in the kitchen, which is only sometimes true. I’m really into lazy workarounds that also happen to be great for reducing what you throw into the landfill, like not peeling my root vegetables.
What’s your dream sandwich?
One of my favorite sandwiches is one I made up on a whim for Mei Mei’s food truck menu called the Double Awesome and it has arguably achieved minor sandwich fame in the Boston area. It’s two slow-poached-then-fried oozy eggs, local greens pesto, and sharp Vermont cheddar cheese all folded into a griddled scallion pancake, and I dream of it because I no longer live in Boston and can have the restaurant make me one every day!
What’s your biggest meal or recipe fail?
It’s actually pretty rare that I have a big recipe fail because I usually find that enough tinkering can save a recipe. Even if it ends up being totally different than what you originally had in mind, it will usually still be pretty good, and even if it’s not, you eat the evidence and move on! That’s much harder to do in baking than in cooking of course, but my biggest recipe fail in baking actually turned out to have a miraculously fantastic result! (See the last question below.)
Is there one particular recipe or idea you share in your book that you’re really excited for readers to make for themselves?
I’m really into turning any vegetable in the kitchen into soup. We’ve got a recipe for Cream-of-Anything soup, because you can turn any number of random vegetables into soup, whether they’re looking a bit sad and wrinkly or you got a bit too excited and over-purchased something at the farmers market. And it doesn’t have to use actual cream―you can get a creamy texture with anything from coconut milk or another non-dairy equivalent, or even a potato or some bread.
Is there an Instagram/TikTok/social media account you just love?
Irene and I love to send each other ‘My Boomer Mom’ videos by @callmekristenmarie because our mom does all sorts of hilarious and wonderful boomer-y things. Also @devolkitchens because I aspire to have a beautifully historic British kitchen and now that I live in Scotland I hope to make that dream become reality.
Which cooking competition show would you want to compete in?
After competing as a family on several episodes of Guy’s Grocery Games I don’t think I ever want to be on a cooking competition show again. It was so fun but SO very stressful! Unless I can be a judge, in which case I would like to live in the calm and charming world of the Great British Baking Show, or get my mind blown on Is It Cake?!
Your banana bread recipe in “Perfectly Good Food” has changed the way I make banana bread! Can you give us a quick recap of how this happy accident came to be, and how it changes the character of the final loaf?
Thank you, I love this recipe! I bought a bag of bananas at the grocery store in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I used to live, and it came in a bag with recipes printed on it. I decided I’d try the banana bread and somehow, I’m not sure how (see above re: not being a meticulous chef) I left out all the white flour!
And it came out so soft and banana-y that I’ve made it that way ever since, preferably with lots of chocolate chips. I find sometimes that banana bread is too bready and dense and dry and the banana flavor is just a side note. This one is rich and heavy on the banana (and ideally, the chocolate). It’s sometimes so moist it’s almost barely sliceable—you have to be careful not to pull it from the oven too early—but it’s so luscious and gooey and that’s everything I want in a banana bread.
If you didn’t have the limit of time and budget, what book would you write?
After just getting back from the first part of our cookbook tour, where we spent 10 days on the road in our mom’s bright red camper-van style RV, known to all as Big Red, I am actually sketching out the first draft of a novel in which a Chinese American chef finds herself on an unintentional road trip with her highly opinionated mother! (You’ll never guess where I got the idea.)
BUY THE COOKBOOK: “Perfectly Good Food”