The soil is loose and warm as we plant the tiny broccoli and kale seedlings that Jen, my sister-in-law, has raised from seeds in her greenhouse. She shows us how to gather soil around their tender stems in a gentle motion that reminds me of tucking a child into bed. Later, Jen will water the baby plants and hope they survive the wind, quail, and gophers, and eventually grow into big plants that will feed her family.
Tending these small plants makes me appreciate the vegetables I eat, not just for the work that goes into them but also for their vibrant, fully alive selves. When I visit my family's organic farm and harvest bright, upright greens for a salad or firm, sweet broccoli for a side dish, I feel compelled to make the most of each plant.
Anyone who keeps a vegetable garden or shops at the farmers' market—or who just buys a lot of vegetables—knows what I mean. Food, and the resources that go into it, is becoming more and more precious. Wasting them doesn't feel right, and the more I learn to cook with not just parts of vegetables but the entire plant—the colorful stems in a bunch of rainbow chard, the tough ends of asparagus, the leaves that surround a head of cauliflower—the more flavor, inspiration, and satisfaction I get from each dish.
There are many reasons to embrace what I call root-to-stalk cooking, a way of using vegetable parts that are routinely thrown out but that are actually edible. There's the practical side: Buying produce, especially if you choose organic, adds up, and using the whole vegetable gets you the most for your money. Then there's the environmental aspect. A recent study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that between 30 and 50 percent of the food produced around the world never makes it into a human stomach. Here in the United States, half of our land and 80 percent of our water are used in food production. Throwing away edible food means wasting these resources.
But perhaps the most convincing reason to use the whole vegetable speaks to the cook in us: The unexpected trimmings of your favorite vegetables can be delicious. The dark green tops of leeks take longer to cook, but transform into a braising green with a slight onion flavor that gives depth to egg dishes. Fennel fronds and stems are sweeter than the white bulbs and have a stronger anise flavor. If you like licorice, you can thinly slice the stems and candy them, or head in a savory direction and toss them in a salad with sliced fennel bulbs, shaved Parmesan, lemon juice, and olive oil. Radishes come with peppery-tasting leaves that you can use as salad greens tossed with sweet corn, tomatoes, and a creamy dressing, along with the radishes themselves.
Beet greens look and taste like a cross between beets and chard—they are close cousins—and are delicious sautéed and added to a whole-grain salad with pickled beets, goat cheese, and walnuts (recipe on page 50). The silky, dark leaves surrounding broccoli stalks cook like spinach and taste like the sweetest broccoli you've ever had. And peeled broccoli stems are sweet and crunchy; I like to snack on them while cooking or shave them into a salad. I no longer throw out the stem from a head of cauliflower after removing the florets. Instead, I slice straight through the stem to create meaty "steaks" to roast in the oven or sear in a pan with tomatoes, black olives, and capers (recipe on page 48).
Blending fresh herbs into a sauce is a great way to use up a leftover bunch that might otherwise wilt in the refrigerator. The result is a flavorful condiment that you can reach for when garnishing main courses, salads, soups, and savory breakfasts. Extra cilantro can be whirled into an easy salsa to serve with eggs, and basil can be puréed with lemon and olive oil for a light and simple version of pesto.
Slow, Slow Food
Once you start cooking this way, it's hard to stop—though it does require a little advance planning. When you buy leeks for a recipe that uses only the white part or chard that requires only the leaves, you'll want to think ahead about what you'll do with what's left over. If you buy beets for one dish, you don't need to pick up a bunch of chard for another; you can just substitute the beet greens. If you buy carrots to snack on, you can chop up their leafy tops for a quinoa tabbouleh rather than buying a bunch of parsley.
In the process of exploring the overlooked parts of vegetables, I've learned to think this way about every meal. Whenever I cook asparagus, I save the tough ends in a bag in my freezer. Once I have collected enough, I simmer them to make a flavorful stock for asparagus soup, to which I add fresh asparagus and celery leaves; I finish it with a swirl of cream. Some nights I'm inspired to sauté the green part of leeks with other vegetables for a pasta sauce. Then there are busy weeks when I set aside chard stems for later and never have time to cook them, so into the freezer they go for a future vegetable stock. In a way, this is the slowest of slow-food cooking, and it's satisfying to take the extra care and time to use these foods thoughtfully.
Whether I'm on the family farm or just making dinner after work, cooking from root to stalk feels good. It has ignited my creativity and put me in touch with the flavors and textures that are hidden inside each plant. Every part of the vegetable is useful and precious—and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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Tara Duggan is the author of Root-to-Stalk Cooking.