Vegetable Scraps Go Haute: How to Cook Root to Stalk
Save those stems! Across the country, chefs are getting very good eating from parts of our produce we typically trim away. Here are their tips for using every part of the
By Jane Black in the Wall Street Journal
THE MENU WAS garbage, literally: a salad of bruised apples and pears, “pasta” made from the fibrous cauliflower core, the yellow inner leaves from a head of romaine lettuce served with broken razor clams in a pig’s ear vinaigrette. This was dinner at the opening night at chef Dan Barber ’s experimental pop-up WastED (as in waste education, not “let’s get wasted”). For three weeks at what is normally his jewel-box New York restaurant Blue Hill, Mr. Barber and a series of guest chefs including Grant Achatz, April Bloomfield and Daniel Humm served up a high-concept menu of culinary gems composed of ingredients that would otherwise have ended up in a dumpster. “As a chef, I think about waste all the time,” said Mr. Humm who served that cauliflower pasta with lobster leg meat painstakingly extracted from its shell with a rolling pin. “Chefs at our level have a responsibility to educate the diner. We’ve been given this power, and we should use it.”
So is garbage the new kale?
Chefs are going out of their way to make use of everything that comes into their kitchens—and bragging about it. The odd bits of the meat—beef neck, cod cheeks—have gained major cachet over the last decade. Now vegetable trimmings are getting their star turn too. At New York’s Park Avenue Spring, the hanger steak comes with “nose-to-tail beets”—the root, roasted and lightly pickled, served with sautéed greens and stems. At Miller Union in Atlanta, a ruby chard-stem chutney accompanies the cheese plate. Chef Andrew Wisehart, the vegetable wizard at Gardner in Austin, sautés broccoli florets and serves them with a salad of broccoli leaves and flowers and sprinkles it all with dehydrated, powdered broccoli stalks to further boost the broccoli flavor. Foxy Organic, a national produce company, just started selling broccoli leaves at grocery stores across the country. New use-it-all vegetable cookbooks have sprouted, too: “Root to Leaf” by Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield and April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Greens” are just two released this spring.
But the point chefs want to make is this: Too much food that’s thrown away doesn’t belong in the trash. Squash skins are edible. So are kale ribs, beet greens, fennel tops, even carrot skins, which most of the time just need a good scrub. “Given the scale of hunger in this country, we need to convert what can be eaten into actual meals,” said Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland: How America Wastes Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It).”
The statistics are shocking. Today 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. This, at a time when 47 million Americans are on food stamps. The waste costs $100 billion annually. It also contributes to climate change as perfectly good food decomposes in landfills and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. With sustainability so in vogue, it’s only natural for chefs to start rethinking whether something should really be destined for the trash heap.
Tara Duggan, a San Francisco food writer, has given a lot of thought to where, and how, to begin that process. Way back in 2009 she began noticing that local chefs were calling out vegetable parts on menus, the same way they did with unfamiliar cuts of meat. It made her curious: Was this just culinary bravado in a town where a chef’s sustainability and status are linked? Or was there undiscovered deliciousness in her kitchen trash?
‘Rather than preaching about wastefulness, why not start with the satisfaction of good cooking?’
The answers are in her excellent 2013 book, “Root to Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable.” Some of her solutions were no-brainers: broccoli stems (shaved in a salad with broccoli leaves and Mexican cotija cheese), fennel stalks (candied as a garnish for fruit salad), pea pods (to infuse cream for a savory custard). Others? Not so much. Tomato skins were too much work—she tried dehydrating them and making a powder—with too little payoff flavorwise. And though Ms. Duggan was desperate to find a use for all the basil stems left over after making pesto, they too were a bust: “I just couldn’t coax any flavor out of them,” she said.
EATING ROOT TO STALK // Delicious Things to Do With the Odd Bits
1. Chard stems: Cook with red wine, vinegar, sugar and salt for a sweet-and-sour relish.
2. Carrot tops: Purée with basil, Parmesan and pine nuts for pesto.
3. Fennel stalks and fronds: Chop finely and sauté with leeks for a delicate sauce for fish. (See recipe for trout fillets with sautéed fennel stalks and fronds.) Or boil in simple syrup and use to flavor lemonade.
4. Leeks: Finely chop the usually discarded dark green parts and stir-fry with ginger, garlic, fish sauce and tofu.
5. Asparagus stems: Save the tough ends in the freezer for stock.
6. Radish greens: Trim then toss in a buttermilk dressing with corn, thinly sliced radishes and tomatoes.
Apricot pits: Crack them open and find the kernel inside. Use to infuse cream with a subtle almond flavor.
Broccoli stalks and leaves: Trim and peel the stalks, then shave into a slaw with the tender leaves, a lemony dressing and feta.
Cauliflower stems: Roast the whole head with tomatoes, anchovies and garlic. (See recipe for whole pot-roasted cauliflower with tomatoes and anchovies.)
Watermelon rinds: Trim the dark green skin from the rinds, then pickle with lime juice, sugar, vinegar, salt and spices.
For chefs, culinary curiosity is certainly a catalyst. Miller Union’s Mr. Satterfield has created delicious stocks with corn cobs and mushroom stems, which he uses to make grits or polenta. But the bottom line is at least as big a motivator. On a recent conference call sponsored by Chefs Collaborative, a non-profit that educates and advocates for sustainable practices in restaurant kitchens, Mr. Satterfield explained to more than 100 chefs how a case of beets cost $45 and makes just one gallon of pickled beets. “I was losing money on them,” he said. “But when you use the stems and sauté the leaves in salted water, the food costs change. To survive and support these local farmers, we have to be smarter.”
There’s another way to prevent food waste: using imperfect or ugly produce. Hard as is it is to believe, millions of pounds of perfectly edible fruits and vegetables hit the trash heap every year because their size, shape or color don’t match the food industry’s stringent cosmetic standards. In the new documentary about food waste “Just Eat It,” one farmer noted that anywhere between 20 and 70% of his fruit is discarded in the field because of small blemishes that have no impact on flavor.
Appalled by such statistics, Compass Group, one of the nation’s largest food service providers, and its subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Company, launched a pilot program last year to rescue these fruits and vegetables. Called Imperfectly Delicious, the program already has salvaged nearly 10,000 pounds of produce for its kitchens in California and Washington.
The company’s chefs are thrilled. At Taste Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum, tiny carrots were blended into soup. Small onions were roasted whole. Lumpy potatoes and oversize leeks bolstered a creamy turnip soup that was already on the menu. To date, Imperfectly Delicious produce accounts for about 10% of that restaurant’s fruits and vegetables. “Nearly all the items I’ve gotten through the Imperfectly Delicious Program, I couldn’t even tell what was supposed to be wrong with them,” said Craig Hetherington, Taste’s executive chef. “They were big or small or a little weird, but still high quality.”
And that, Mr. Barber believes, is the way that you change minds and habits: “Rather than preaching about wastefulness, why not start with the satisfaction of good cooking?”