Photo by Justin Chamberlin.
Like many homesteaders, I’m fascinated with the idea of a zero-waste economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines a circular economy in part as one where waste is written right out of the equation—no more landfills, no need for consumer outrage at big food chains’ use of plastic straws. Instead, every item would be designed with its full lifespan in mind—not just one initial use, but the art, building materials, or fertilizer the object would become when that was done. We’re a long way from that point now, but people like you and me can still step out of the cycle of waste in small ways that add up.
One way I experimented with minimizing my waste footprint recently was by using leftover pork drippings to make a candle. It always makes me sad to throw fat away. Although sometimes my family saves it for cooking fat or stirs it into a sauce, fat that has marinated with strong flavors can confuse the flavor of a future dish if you cook meat in it, and some dishes just don’t require a sauce. The recipe my family and I had just made, carnitas heavily flavored with onion and orange, struck out on both counts. So we got creative.
First, we strained the liquid fat that had dripped off the meat through a paper towel to remove fragments of burnt meat. We poured our newly purified liquid fat into the paper cup we were using as our candle holder. For a wick, we used a spare length of string, but string doesn’t stand up on its own, and no one had time to stand around holding it while the fat hardened. Our solution: an ingenious machine made of chopsticks. We crossed two chopsticks in an X over the cup and hung the string over one of them. Then we stuck the whole thing in the fridge.
Photo by Wendy Chamberlin.
By the next night at dinnertime, our candle was ready. The pork lard had hardened to an iridescent off-white. We sheared the top off the paper cup, as it was twice the height of the candle inside, and trimmed the wick. Then we lit the candle as we ate our carnitas for dinner.
Unlike beeswax candles, which are as good as silent, the new lard candle emitted the quiet sizzle of hot fat. This noise was a little distracting as we got used to it, but the candle added a cheerful glow to our dinner table.
As far as waste reduction went, the little lard candle probably didn’t reduce our footprint very much. Burning beeswax candles doesn’t require us to use paper cups or chopsticks, although both are compostable. Worse, when we left the candle out, it went rancid—a development that, in hindsight, we really should have seen coming. But, for the thrifty among us, reusing household items to make a candle can save money. It’s also a fun project for those of us who love arts and crafts.
If you’re interested, I’ve included recipes both for the candle and for the delicious meal from which it came.
Slow-Cooker Carnitas Lettuce Wraps with Pineapple-Avocado Salsa
For the carnitas:
• 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
• ½ tsp ground cumin
• ½ tsp garlic powder
• ½ flaky sea salt, or more to taste
• ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
• ¼ tsp dried oregano
• Pinch of cayenne pepper, or more to taste
• 1 (2½-pound) bone-in pork shoulder
• 1 onion, thickly sliced
• Juice of 1 orange (reserve the shells)
• 2 tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice
For the pineapple-avocado salsa:
• ¾ cup bite-size pineapple chunks
• 1 small red onion, chopped
• ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
• 1 tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice, or more to taste
• Pinch of flaky sea salt, or more to taste
• 1 Hass avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed
1 head of butter lettuce, separated into individual leaves
To make the carnitas:
1. Mix the olive oil, cumin, garlic powder, salt, black pepper, oregano, and cayenne in a small bowl.
2. Pat the pork dry and rub it all over with the spice mixture. (I recommend reserving a little bit for after cooking to heighten the flavor.)
3. Place the pork in the slow cooker and top with the sliced onion and citrus juices. Add the orange shells to the slow cooker as well.
4. Cover and cook on low until the meat is tender and falls apart easily, 8 to 10 hours.
5. When the pork is done, preheat the broiler and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
6. Remove the pork from the slow cooker, composting the orange halves and onion. Use two forks to separate the meat from the bones and excess fat, then tear the meat into bite-size pieces. Save the fat.
7. Place the meat on the baking sheet, spoon about ¼ cup of the liquid from the slow cooker evenly over the meat, and broil until browned on top and crispy around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
8. If a whole pork shoulder is too much for your family to eat in a night, save the rest of the liquid from the slow cooker and repeat this process the following night.
To make the pineapple-avocado salsa:
1. Combine the pineapple, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, and salt in a medium-size bowl.
2. Gently fold in the avocado.
3. Taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt if desired.
Wrap the pork and salsa inside the lettuce leaves.
Recipe adapted from Paleo Planet: Primal Foods from the Global Kitchen, with More than 125 Recipes, by Becky Winkler.
• Leftover fat from cooked meat, such as Slow-Cooker Carnitas Lettuce Wraps with Pineapple-Avocado Salsa
• Cheesecloth or paper towel
• Paper cup
• Spare string
• 2 chopsticks or Popsicle sticks
1. If necessary, liquefy the fat by warming it.
2. Line the strainer with your cheesecloth or paper towel and strain the liquid fat into a bowl, then pour it into the candle holder—or skip the bowl and use a funnel to direct it right into your paper cup. (After this step, I like to compost the dirty paper towel, but if you do this, don’t leave it in your kitchen, because the fat will go rancid and smell.)
3. Make an X over the top of the cup with the chopsticks or Popsicle sticks. Lower the string into the fat until it touches the bottom of the cup, then drape the part that remains outside the fat over the edge of the X so that it doesn’t fall in. Refrigerate overnight.
4. When ready, cut the paper cup down to the same height as the candle, trim the wick, and enjoy. Refrigerate when not in use (don’t be like us!).
Claire E. is a high school senior passionate about sustainable development, independent living, and the music and stories that connect us.
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