We live in an era of vegetable obsessiveness. After several postwar decades when the only vegetables we knew were frozen or canned, we have awakened to a new age in which markets overflow with forests of leafy greens and piles of colorful fruits. We buy them up, wanting to cook food that is healthy, fresh and natural. We plant gardens or join community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs to guarantee a basket of produce each week. Then we make a soup or stir-fry and find ourselves surrounded by extra leaves, stalks and seeds, the flotsam and jetsam of a produce lover’s cooking life.
We want to stay the course, but buying all this produce is starting to add up, and isn’t it wasteful if you don’t use it all? Those bags of pre-trimmed broccoli florets seem to produce less waste, at least that we can see. But we want more flavor, more color, more nutrition, more life than they can offer. We want to embrace the whole vegetable.
Beyond the home economics benefits of whole-vegetable cooking, it also helps reduce our ecologic footprints. Estimates vary, but some experts say that as much as 40 percent of all food produced worldwide is wasted. Although many of the sources of waste are on the production and distribution end, there are plenty of things home cooks can do to save food, as Jonathan Bloom describes in his book American Wasteland. He writes that, according to USDA research, almost one-third of the vegetables in supermarkets, restaurants and homes go to waste. And, according to a three-decade study called the Garbage Project by the University of Arizona, American households throw out as much as 25 percent of their groceries overall.
Preventing herbs from turning to sludge in the refrigerator won’t end world hunger, but it can save a dollar or two at a time — adding up to thousands of dollars a year for a family of four. By using more parts of the vegetables and fruits we eat, our overall resource consumption goes down. If we use carrot tops as an herb rather than buy a bunch of parsley, or cook beet greens rather than pick up a bunch of chard, that’s one less plant that must be watered, fertilized, harvested, transported and refrigerated, not to mention one less thing to buy. Just as foraging for wild blackberries or growing our own tomatoes helps us appreciate our food more, learning creative uses for the underutilized parts of vegetables and fruits can make us more aware of small things we can do to prevent waste. If you frequent farmers markets, are a member of a CSA, or grow your own vegetables, you will have even more opportunities to make use of these tips and recipes.
Adapted with permission from Root-to-Stalk Cooking. Copyright © 2013 by Tara Duggan. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photo © 2013 by Clay Mclachlan.
Tips for Eating the Whole Plant
Chop Chop: Make sure to cut fruits and vegetables in a way that makes the most of every part. Don’t leave the pepper parts attached to the stem to go to waste; make sure to trim off every last bit.
Top Shelf: Carrot greens can be made into a tasty pesto, added to juiced vegetable or smoothie mixes, or even mixed into casseroles for extra nutrition — all for free!
Greens Greed: Don’t let nutritious radish or turnip greens go to waste. Both can be sautéed with butter and garlic; sliced and added to soups, stews or casseroles; or steamed and tossed with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and black pepper.
Peel Out: Citrus peels are a rich source of the anti-cancer compound d-limonene. Freeze them to use for zest in later recipes, or candy them to enjoy as a medicinal treat.
Give Me Some Skin: Onion skins are a great source of the nutrient quercetin, useful for preventing clogged arteries and reducing blood pressure, along with other health benefits. Onion skins can flavor soups and stews, or any stock base. You can also make onion skins into a highly antioxidant, calming tea perfect for bedtime. Garlic skins are also filled with antioxidants and can be used in the same ways.
Seed Savers: The seeds of all kinds of squash, pumpkins and fruits are edible and nutritious. Next time you scoop out some seeds, make sure to rinse them, toss them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 for about 10 minutes until lightly colored. Eat them as a snack or tossed over salad to add a bunch of free nutrition to your meal.
When In Doubt: Nearly any vegetable scrap can go into a hearty and nutritious vegetable stock. Keep a large glass jar in the freezer, and add veggie scraps. When it’s full, pour it in a stock pot, cover with water and simmer for 1 to 2 hours. Use your nutrient-rich stock right away or freeze it for later use.