That's not trash, that's dinner
Updated: 2011-07-27 14:44
(The New York Times)
[Photo/The New York Times]
Last week in Chelsea, Mich., as people wilted and vegetables flourished in the intense heat, Anne Elder ran through some of her favorite summer ingredients: pearly garlic "rounds" that flower at the top of the plant in hot weather, the spreading leaves of the broccoli plant, yellow dandelion flowers that she dips whole into batter and deep fries.
"When kids visit the farm, we give them cornstalks to chew," she said. Like sugar cane, the stalks contain sweet juice.
For Ms. Elder, who runs the Community Farm of Ann Arbor, the edible vegetable begins with the sprouts and does not end until the leaves, vines, tubers, shoots and seeds have given their all.
If home cooks reconsidered what should go into the pot, and what into the trash, what would they find? What new flavors might emerge, what old techniques? Pre-industrial cooks, for whom thrift was a necessity as well as a virtue, once knew many ways to put the entire garden to work. Fried green tomatoes and pickled watermelon rind are examples of dishes that preserved a bumper crop before rot set in.
"Some people these days are so unfamiliar with vegetables in their natural state, they don't even know that a broccoli stalk is just as edible as the florets," said Julia Wylie, an organic farmer in Watsonville, Calif. The produce she grows at Mariquita Farm is served at Bay Area restaurants like Delfina, Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse.
At some large farms, she said, only the florets are processed for freezing or food service; the stems are shredded into the chokingly dry "broccoli slaw" sold in sealed bags at the supermarket.
(A much better way to treat broccoli stalks: cut off and discard the tough outer peel, shave what remains into ribbons with a vegetable peeler, scatter with lemon zest and shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese: all the pleasure of raw artichoke salad with half the work.)
Mariquita Farm also runs a flourishing Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) program and sells at farmers' markets, where, Ms. Wylie said, she has become expert at holding shoppers' hands when it comes to stem-to-root cooking. She reminds them that even the thick ribs of chard, beets and other greens soften with braising (most kale stems, though, are too fibrous to eat). She encourages them to cook the leaves that sprout from the tops of radishes (they have a delicious bitterness) and offers a traditional French method of baking fish at high heat on a bed of fennel stalks.
Among her favorite neglected greens are the big, sweet leaves that grow around heads of cauliflower — leaves that supermarket shoppers never see and recipes never call for. She cuts them across the ribs, then sautés them with minced onion.
"It's like a silky version of a cabbage leaf, with a hint of cauliflower," she said.
At this time of year, cooks around the country haul home full bags from the farmers' market or a weekly box from a local farm but also wonder how to make the most of their produce. Eating more vegetables, being spontaneous in the kitchen and celebrating the season are the aspirations that lead people to join C.S.A.'s. But many find that they don't know what do to with boxloads of melon, tomatoes, onions and leafy greens, not to mention their stalks, tops, peels and stems.
"I joined a C.S.A. because I wanted to be frugal and I thought it would force me to be creative in the kitchen," said Megan Smith, a learning specialist in Brooklyn. "But it generated a huge amount of work and all this debris."
Much of what is tossed out is edible, but not everyone greets the opportunity to recycle food scraps as an exciting food adventure.
"When you mention using them for stock, that's when people start to roll their eyes," said Ronna Welsh, a cooking teacher in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who chronicles her adventures with chard stems and watermelon rinds on her Web site Purple Kale Kitchenworks, in a column called "Otherwise, Trash."
Her students are the kind of home cooks who make the extra effort to go the farmers' market and support local agriculture, she said, but whose schedules and lack of skills cause them to feel stressed by a refrigerator full of raw ingredients.
Ms. Welsh likes to generate recipes for trimmings, she said, because using up everything satisfies some of the same urges that fuel the desire to be a better cook.
"When you spend $40 at the Greenmarket, the pressure starts right there," she said. "You feel more invested in the carrots you buy from the farmer than the ones you buy at Key Food. You feel sentimental about them, you have more respect for them."
Ann Arbor, with its thriving farms, gardens and greenmarkets — including a new one this summer that is held in the evening so that working people can shop — is a fertile source of stem-to-root ideas.
"People know that nasturtium flowers are edible, but the leaves are also great salads and the seed pods, if you pickle them, make a wonderful substitute for capers," said Kevin Sharp, an outreach manager at the People's Food Co-op there, one of the oldest in the country.
He substitutes the palm-size leaves from stalks of brussels sprouts in recipes that call for collard greens, cooks the leaves and shoots of sweet potatoes and battles a bumper crop of asparagus by making a sweet relish from the woody ends.
Lindsay-Jean Hard, who works at a new farm-to-table Web network called Real Time Farms, said that she chops the leaves atop celery stalks to make a pungent, fluffy celery salt.
Last year, hundreds of homeowners around Ann Arbor joined a local 350 Gardens Challenge, a global climate-change initiative that includes "visible food production" (like a garden in an urban front yard) as one of its engines for sustainable food.