Don't compost perfectly delicious veggie scraps

Russet chef Andrew Wood cuts up the Swiss chard stem before chopping up the leaves. He uses turnip and beet greens in dishes like pappardelle or fettuccine.
Russet chef Andrew Wood cuts up the Swiss chard stem before chopping up the leaves. He uses turnip and beet greens in dishes like pappardelle or fettuccine. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 17, 2014

In the world of cooking, one chef's throwaways are the makings of another's sauce. This is especially true of vegetables, where tradition has guided what can sometimes seem like the arbitrary rules of keep and discard.

"When you think about it, the first person to figure out how to eat an artichoke was a genius," says Michael Santoro, chef-owner of the Mildred in Bella Vista. "People were probably walking past those things for a while, and it took someone to look beyond that tough woody part to get what was inside."

Using the parts that ordinarily go straight to the compost bin - going the extra length of stalk, as it were - is merely a matter of creativity and technique. Restaurant chefs are expert at making use of the forgotten bits of produce - peels, leaves, stalks, stringy end - for economic and ecological reasons, sure, but just as often for flavor-boosting. At the same time, as author Tara Duggan points out in Root to Stalk Cooking (Ten Speed, 2013), her excellent book devoted to this very subject, there are also important nutrients in the lesser-cooked parts.

Duggan's first suggestion is a stone-soup-esque "scraps" stock that combines peels, fronds, cores, leaves, trimmings, pods, ends, and stems, keeping in mind a general balance of sweet, bitter, and earthy flavors (e.g., carrots plus chard plus mushrooms). Her general guidance is three cups of scraps for every quart of water, simmered for 30 to 40 minutes, then strained.

By design, root vegetables tend to offer multiple textures and flavors rising up through their stalks, but those pesky beet greens clog up the produce drawer and often wilt, a leafy afterthought. The trouble, says Russet chef Andrew Wood, is that, in many cases, the sorts of varietals that produce a sweet and delicious root often produce less-delicious greens and vice versa. "You want a fennel bulb to be over a year old - it gets fat and succulent - but it's the younger fennel that has the sweeter tops."

That said, Wood is a fan of the "rabes" that sprout from cabbage, radish, and broccoli. In season, he uses turnip and beet greens in many dishes, but the easiest of these reunites the vegetal components in a twirl of pappardelle or fettuccine, with a healthy dose of butter and Parmesan to offset their bitterness, or a few drops of a spicy chili oil to overshadow it. He makes his noodles fresh, but it's just as easy to use a premade version.

Some vegetable outgrowths are rare and exquisite pleasures. Wood was delighted last spring when a farmer shared his parsnip flowers, which gave off an unexpected burst of sweetness like acacia blossoms or honeysuckle. The blossoms of squash and zucchini, which have a fleeting appearance at the beginning of the growing season, are perfect as a vehicle for stuffing or tempura. When caught young, radish or celery leaves can be served raw, as a salad.

Others, like parsley root or the greenest ends of leeks, are the short ribs of the produce world - a treat waiting to be rediscovered and remarketed for current-day use.

Then there are the vegetables that inspire multiple treatments all at once, so as not to lose a single drop. At the Mildred, Santoro serves butter-braised sunchokes, in the vein of a Milanese, over a sunchoke puree made from the discarded parts, the dish topped with rice-dusted fried sunchoke chips. On his menu, brussels sprouts might appear in three places - the leaves fried up for a salad, the center used as a side, and any extras finely chopped for a preserved lemon and walnut oil condiment. Mostardas are a favorite way to preserve bits of turnip and save them for a year of use.

Leftover apple, meanwhile, goes into the house-made vinegar, begun from a 108-year-old "mother" (starter), which is then stirred into an apple emulsion with crème fraîche, lemon juice, and hazelnut oil. "I can't stand to waste anything," he says, "and I always like to look at a restaurant menu and see what the chef has done with the trim."

Understanding exactly how to tame the tougher parts is key. Roasted long enough, squash or pumpkin skin is edible. And of course, their seeds are another easily overlooked but incredibly flavorful by-product, to be tossed into a salad or soup, or ground and used as a crust for meats.

Stalky vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus are notorious for leaving a pile of detritus on the cutting board. Duggan solves this problem with her cauliflower "steak," the head cut in thin cross-sections that get seared like meat, and she even goes so far as to toss its pallid outer leaves in the pan. The result is a vegan entree with enough crispy edges and smoky flavor to carry the center of the plate.

When in doubt, make a puree or a hash, both of which are visually forgiving solutions for the odds and ends. And what doesn't taste better with cream, butter, or a poached egg?

Wood enjoys the daily game of making the most out of his kitchen deliveries. "Every time I put something in the compost bin, I try to ask myself whether I really want to get rid of it, because the last thing I want to do is throw away good flavor."

Pan-Roasted Cauliflower Steaks With Tomatoes and Capers

Serves 2

½ head cauliflower, plus any leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, sliced

¼ teaspoon red chili flakes

Kosher salt

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley (optional)

1.   Cut the cauliflower into steaks. Remove outer leaves and trim the bottom of the stalk. Place upright and use a large knife to cut through the florets and stalk, making ½-inch-thick slices. (In addition to the steaks, you will have smaller pieces that aren't connected to the core. If the leaves are large, remove ribs, and cook separately and longer than the leaves.)

2.   Heat the olive oil in a large cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red chili flakes, and swirl until fragrant. Add the cauliflower steaks, which should fit in the pan in a single layer, and any extra cauliflower pieces, making sure they are all touching the pan. Season to taste with salt.

3.   Cook the steaks without turning until caramelized, about 8 minutes, then flip and cook until browned on the bottom and tender, another 8 to 10 minutes. During the last few minutes, add the cauliflower leaves, tomatoes, and capers, and cook until the tomatoes and leaves wilt.

4.   Adjust the seasoning with salt, scatter with parsley, and serve immediately.

- From Root to Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan

Per serving: 156 calories; 2 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; no cholesterol;

570 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

Beet and Beet Green Pasta

Makes 4 servings.

1 bunch medium-size beets with tops (or sub with chard)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil


1 large onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1/4 teaspoon chile flakes

1 pound fresh or homemade pappardelle

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash the beets, and cut the tops off, reserving them. Toss the roots in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil; season with salt. Wrap in foil; roast until tender about 45 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.

2. Wash the beet greens (or chard) and thinly slice the stems. Heat the remaining olive oil on low, and saute onion and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Add stems, along with chile, and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Turn heat to medium, add rest of greens; cook until wilted, about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat.

3. Peel roasted beets. Dice them before adding to the greens. Season to taste with salt; cover and keep warm.

4. Cook pasta, drain. Stir in vegetables, along with the butter. Serve in warm bowls. Top with grated cheese.

- From Andrew Wood of Russet

Per serving: 541 calories, 20 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat,

116 milligrams cholesterol, 69 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 308 milligrams sodium, 9 grams fiber.

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