That's not trash, that's dinner

Updated: 2011-07-27 14:44

(The New York Times)

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That's not trash, that's dinner

Peach leaves.[Photo/The New York Times]

One of those homeowners, Erica Blom, a graduate student who says she eats everything from apple cores to potato peels, especially if they come from her own garden, has embraced the slight bitterness of her homegrown carrot tops, mincing them as a garnish like parsley and using them in salads.

Modern chefs have long embraced a nose-to-tail approach to meat, but recently they have been looking at the plant kingdom with a predatory eye. One of the most adventurous is Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"It came from a curiosity about flavor, more than a need to use things up," she said, referring to stem-to-root recipes she has tinkered with. "But of course that's a benefit, and something our ancestors were very good at."

She has infused wine with peach leaves, toasted the seeds of watermelons and taken a hammer to cherry pits, cracking them open to unleash the kernels' sweet almondlike perfume into panna cotta. The recipe is included in Ms. Reusing's new book, "Cooking in the Moment."

(But as good as it is, this dessert should be eaten in moderation. Cherry pits, like peach leaves and apple seeds, contain minute amounts of cyanogens, compounds that can produce the poison cyanide. Other plant parts can also contain small amounts of toxins, so be cautious when eating them. The central number for the American Poison Control Centers is 800-222-1222.)

That's not trash, that's dinner

Watermelon rind.[Photo/The New York Times]

Ms. Reusing spends a lot of time prowling farms in North Carolina, where, she said, she finds all sorts of renegade vegetable specimens. She particularly relishes the strange shoots that emerge when a garden has bolted from too much heat: cilantro flowers, broccoli seed pods and tough lettuces that cry out for creamy, rich dressings and bacon-fat vinaigrettes.

Her cooking often combines Southern farmhouse tradition with the flavors of Japan, Korea and China, rich sources of stem-to-root traditions. She buys from farmers who grow Asian varieties of turnips, soybeans and radishes; she has salt-cured whole daikons, pickling the white flesh and salting the greens with chiles. The leaves of the wasabi root, she said, have an oily, mustardy kick: she slices them thinly to use as a garnish for a Japanese-inflected pot-au-feu.

Other chefs are redrawing the sometimes arbitrary lines between vegetables, fruits and weeds. At Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio, Jeni Britton Bauer "milks" the first corn cobs of the local harvest, adding the sugary liquid to her basic ice cream mixture, and then swirls the buttery results with tart berries.

John Shields, the chef at Townhouse in Chilhowie, Va., festoons plates with chickweed and makes juice from wild grass. Last summer he harvested a crop of green strawberries, curing them in salt and sugar so he could serve them as dessert with soft drifts of whipped cream, cucumbers and marshmallow.

That's not trash, that's dinner

Tomato leaves.[Photo/The New York Times]

For Mr. Shields, stem-to-root cooking is a means to an avant-garde end. He worked in Chicago at Alinea and Charlie Trotter's before making his way to Chilhowie, in a part of southern Virginia pressed up against the Appalachian hills. The lush wild and farmed land around the restaurant is, he said, the main reason for restaurant's location, with unexpected vegetal pleasures that even the lushest urban farmers' market cannot provide.

"I picked the flowers and shoots from the green bean plants at my farm this morning, and I am going to work with their sweetness," he said. "In my kind of cooking, I wouldn't really know what to do with green beans."

At Your Disposal

Before you throw away your vegetable trimmings, consider some alternative uses:

CARROT, CELERY AND FENNEL LEAVES Mix small amounts, finely chopped, with parsley as a garnish or in salsa verde: all are in the Umbelliferae family of plants. Taste for bitterness when deciding how much to use.

CHARD OR COLLARD RIBS Simmer the thick stalks in white wine and water with a scrap of lemon peel until tender, then drain and dress with olive oil and coarse salt. Or bake them with cream, stock or both, under a blanket of cheese and buttery crumbs, for a gratin.

CITRUS PEEL Organic thin-skinned peels of tangerines or satsumas can be oven-dried at 200 degrees, then stored to season stews or tomato sauces.

That's not trash, that's dinner

Cilantro flowers.[Photo/The New York Times]

CORN COBS Once the kernels are cut off, simmer the stripped cobs with onions and carrots for a simple stock. Or add them to the broth for corn or clam chowder.

MELON RINDS Cut off the hard outer peels and use crunchy rinds in place of cucumber in salads and cold soups.

PEACH LEAVES Steep in red wine, sugar and Cognac to make a summery peach-bomb aperitif. (According to David Lebovitz's recipe, the French serve it on ice.)

POTATO PEELS Deep-fry large pieces of peel in 350-degree oil and sprinkle with salt and paprika. This works best with starchy potatoes like russets.

YOUNG ONION TOPS Wash well, coarsely chop and cook briefly in creamy soups or stews, or mix into hot mashed potatoes.

TOMATO LEAVES AND STEMS Steep for 10 minutes in hot soup or tomato sauces to add a pungent garden-scented depth of tomato flavor. Discard leaves after steeping.

TOMATO SCRAPS Place in a sieve set over a bowl, salt well and collect the pale red juices for use in gazpacho, Bloody Marys or risotto.

TURNIP, CAULIFLOWER OR RADISH LEAVES Braise in the same way as (or along with) collards, chards, mustard greens or kale.

WATERMELON SEEDS Roast and salt like pumpkinseeds.

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