As we plant and care for vegetables in our gardens, we dream of harvesting the fruit or the root of our plants. When the amazing day arrives that we can pick and cook our homegrown produce, we focus on the bright orange carrot or the compact broccoli head. Often, we discard the leaves, greens and skins of our favorite veggies. By consuming only part of our vegetables, we miss opportunities for added flavor and nutrition and waste food.
We grow garlic for it's pungent, white bulb, without knowing the joy of cutting bits of the scapes as they grow, to add to salads or scrambled eggs for their scallion or shallot-like flavor. We grow beets for their sweet ruby flesh often discarding the tasty beet greens. We throw away watermelon seeds when we could roast for a sunflower seed alternative.
Fully utilizing our fresh produce is referred to as cooking or eating in a stem-to-root fashion. It's not a new concept. Our ancestors saved peels and skins to simmer in stock and served greens as side dishes. But in recent years, our time-crunched culture sometimes opts for convenience regardless of waste.
Michael Nolan, author of I Garden: Urban Style, says cooking in a stem-to-root way, reduces waste and helps the environment.
"The most obvious benefit to the environment is reducing the amount of food waste going into our landfills," said Nolan, "Some estimates say that we waste an average of 220 pounds of food per person per year at the consumption stage. Eating more of the plants and produce that are in front of us is a real and valid way to combat that excessive waste while simultaneously reducing food cost."
Even the processing of vegetables and fruits before they hit the grocery stores can be wasteful. Nolan says it's time to relearn how we think about the produce that makes it to our tables.
"Next time you walk through the produce aisle, take note of how convenient our vegetables have become. Broccoli is cut into crowns and florets, celery is cut into neat ribs, even onions are diced for us. We lose so much potential benefit and pay extra for the courtesy," he said.
Vegetable and fruit gardeners prefer the convenience of harvesting meals from their gardens, but even the best veggie grower can benefit from the added nutrition gained from greens and skins. Nolan asks why we toss out both flavor and nutrition. There are many vegetables and fruits like potatoes, carrots and apples that don't require peeling.
"Potato peelings are full of minerals but they get shucked more often than not. Carrots are good to go with a thorough scrubbing," he said, "The most nutrient-dense part of a potato is from the skin to the layer just below it called the cambium, which sadly is the part that most often ends up in the trash."
Greens, like beet greens, are nutritional powerhouses offering antioxidant vitamin C and important vitamin A. One half cup of beet greens supply thirty percent of the RDA for vitamin C.
Beyond the nutritional value of skins and greens, Nolan said there are other ways that using more than just the fruit of the vegetable can be of benefit to your cooking. He suggests using touches of carrot and radish greens in salads.
"Okra is a great plant to explore using more than just the pods. Even the leaves of the okra plant can be eaten raw (in a salad) or cooked and used to thicken soups and stews," he said.
An avid tomato gardener and food preserver, Nolan harvests many tomatoes each year.
"I know a lot of folks who don't like tomato skins so I was looking for a way to make them useful. When I canned tomatoes this year I dehydrated the skins and turned them into a powder that is good not only for flavor but also to add color and variety to dishes later," said Nolan, "It is one of the most crucial ingredients in my salt-free veggie seasoning along with bits of dehydrated carrot, celery, onion and other things that most would toss into the trash."
Part of the fun of stem-to-root cooking is the creativity involved. As part of this growing trend, chefs have added interest and nutrition to meals by exercising their inventiveness. For example, large cauliflower leaves that grow under the head, have been cut into beautiful ribbons and allowed to sweetly grace salad plates in restaurants.
There is little to worry about as you explore stem-to-root cooking. Greens and peels are edible. Simply taste the greens and let your cooking imagination run wild. Nolan has one caution.
"While my favorite thing in the world is a good tomato, you cannot eat the leaves as they are poisonous," he said.
Importantly, true to an old adage, waste-not want-not, utilize all that you can from your vegetable garden.
"We toss so much that is both useful and tasty," he said.