Fall is in the air, but before we trade the summer bounty of local fruits and vegetables for the dark days of winter (and endless cold-storage beets and potatoes) there’s still the fall harvest to look forward to — the time when hearty root vegetables are fresh and exciting; a rustic prelude to the winter holidays.
Going to school in upstate New York, harvest time was always my favorite. The excitement of a new semester was accentuated by the chance to experiment with the season’s best local produce, and scouring farmers markets for new ingredients is how I fell in love with “nose-to-tail” vegetable eating. While we don’t have to eke out every last nutrient from our food supply to survive, using all the edible parts of vegetables can be both practical and fun.
Nutritionally speaking, greens and skins hold extra nutrients that can help support a healthy diet. For those of us who buy local foods for both flavor and environmental benefits, using all these parts is also a great way to make the most of the resources that go into American agriculture, which produces 8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for 80-90% of the nation’s water use. Cooking with more of what you buy also helps divert organic waste from landfills, which currently produces around 17% of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., emissions that have 20 times the impact on our climate as carbon dioxide.
But those statistics aren’t what drive me to cook with carrot greens, broccoli stems, and onion skins. I use them because it’s a fun and delicious way to add flair to my weekly cooking regimen (and get an extra meal out of a produce purchase). Here are some of my favorite ways to make the most of local vegetables:
Stems and Stalks
I started cooking with stems and stalks to save some money and reduce kitchen waste in college, but now I love it so much I forget that other people don’t use them! These generally need a little more time to steam or sauté than leaves and florets, but they can cook up just as nice. Broccoli stems are particularly versatile. They’re great roasted with root vegetables, pan-fried with sausage, or cut up into match sticks and eaten raw. Some people remove the outer layer, but I usually don’t bother unless the broccoli is particularly large or old (at which point the stalk starts to get woody). Beet greens are another excellent extra vegetable bit (more on greens later), and their stalks are also fabulous raw — light and crunchy, like a red-colored celery.
One of my favorite, go-to dishes is a simple sauté of kale or chard with garlic, onion, olive oil and salt and pepper. I separate the stalks from the leaves and throw them in a minute or two early to soften, then add and sauté the leaves. Once they’re tender, the stalks add an extra level of substance to the greens that pairs great with beans and rice or whole wheat bread for a simple, hearty meal.
Peels and Scraps
All those vegetable scraps from your dinner preparation are great for boosting the flavor of homemade stocks. Simmering cabbage hearts, onion skins and even Brussels sprout stalks, with more typical stock herbs and vegetables can give your soups a unique, local character all winter long. When I’m organized, I’ll save up good-looking vegetable scraps in a resealable container in the freezer until I have enough for a big batch of stock. It’s fun to experiment with smaller batch stock too, that way you get to taste specific flavors more clearly. I would caution that artichoke leaves are difficult to make stocks with – they tend to make the broth too bitter – but I’ve yet to try anything else in stock that seemed like a mistake!
In addition to saving skins for stock, I also just like to leave them on when I cook. While there’s no substitute for creamy mashed potatoes, leaving the skins in can give your meal a rustic, hearty feel, and add a splash of color if you’re using blue or red skinned potatoes. I also love to roast squash with the skin on, which gets crispy crackly if brushed with oil or butter, and is 100% edible.
Greens, Greens, Greens
Greens are hands-down the best extra vegetable part to get when you’re shopping. Sure, they seem like a lot of work, but they’re easy to steam or sauté like spinach, crisp up like kale chips, or toss into salads for some extra flavor. Radish leaves are particularly great in salads – they have an herbal flavor that adds a savory depth to lettuce, and which also reminds me of the piles of greens I was served with food in Vietnam. Chopped with cilantro, basil, parsley and others they add a great local flavor to homemade pho or Southeast Asian inspired stir-fries.
Carrot greens are one of those greens that can be particularly difficult to deal with – often sandy, and with stems that have gotten tough and unpleasant by harvest time. Separating the leaves from the stems helps minimize grit (which often stays trapped in the grooves of stems after washing), and is easy to do by hand. Hold the stem in one hand and pull the leaves off along the length of the stem with the other. It takes a few tries to find the right force to pull with but, once you do, it’s pretty effective. The stalks can then be saved and washed more thoroughly for stock or just composted, leaving the leaves free to add a green, carroty flavor to your next meal. I particularly love to heap them in with chilies and spicy sausage, like our housemade smoked linguiça, but the lightness of the carrot flavor makes it fun to play with in both savory and sweet dishes. This week I bought some yellow watermelon – one of my favorite summer fruits for being simultaneously so light and sweet – and made carrot green infused watermelon ice pops!
Really, when it comes to eating the whole vegetable the possibilities are endless. I’d love to hear your favorite ideas for nose-to-tail vegetable eating. Leave us a comment or come chat sometime at the store.
For more ideas, check out books like Root-to-Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan, which was recommended to me last week, or classics like Diet for a Small Planet, which focuses on weekly meal planning to make the most of would-be food waste.
For more statistics and tips on making full use of your food, check out the National Resources Defense Council report Wasted (published 2012) and the United Nations new food initiative, Think.Eat.Save.
Rob is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.