From Top to Root (and Everything in Between):
Eating the Whole Plant
by Mike McGeary
When I was a child in Portland, Oregon, in the 1950s, my parents decided to grow as much of our food as possible. They bought what had been a dairy farm, which came with fruit trees and berries, and planted all sorts of vegetables, which we ate fresh, cooked, frozen, and canned. But despite this effort to get closer to nature, we still peeled our carrots and potatoes and discarded the turnip and radish tops. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that vegetable peels, skins, stems, and leaves were not only nutritious, but tasty. And there is less food waste.
It’s easy to document the added nutrition. According to the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association, beet greens contain more iron than spinach; are high in vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, copper, manganese, and antioxidants; and have more nutritional value than the beet root. The same is true for turnips. One cup of turnip greens provides 115% Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin K, 37% DV of Vitamin C, 35% DV of Vitamin A, 27% DV of folate (Vitamin B9), and more.
Some of you may already cook the tops of root vegetable and eat carrots and potatoes with the skin on. But if not, read on.
To Peel or Not to Peel
Let’s start with the easiest way to add nutritional value, save time, and eliminate waste. You generally don’t have to peel carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, or other root vegetables or tubers even if you mash them. Just scrub them well with a vegetable brush to remove any dirt. You can also eat beets with the skin on, although the skins of large beets that have been in the ground for a long time may be too tough to eat.
Then there’s winter squash. Some winter squashes have skins thin enough to leave on when you cook and eat them. They include delicata, Rred kuri, small dumpling, and even butternut and kabocha when they are still petite.
Stem the Tide of Waste
Many recipes that include greens, such as chard, kale, and collards, direct you to remove the stems and discard them, but you do not need to, particularly if the greens are young and fresh. I generally eat chard and kale stems but find that collard stems are a bit too tough. I cut or strip the chard and kale stems out and either eat them raw or, if they are thick, cut them into 1-inch lengths and cook them with the leafy parts. Deborah Madison, in In My Kitchen, has a recipe for chard stems with lemon, which uses the chard and cilantro stems left over from her recipe for silky braised chard and cilantro.
Great Taste and No Waste!
Herbs like cilantro and parsley are used mainly for their leaves, but if the herbs are fresh and tender, you can chop up their stems with the leaves and add them to your dish. Less work for you, and the stems are as flavorful as the leaves.
When cooking with mushrooms, some people remove and discard the stems, but they can be trimmed and cooked with the caps. The stems can also be saved and added to other vegetable scraps to make stock (we keep all our scraps in a resealable bag in the freezer).
Start at the Top
In addition to the traditional greens, you can also eat the leafy tops of root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes. A tip: You will find the freshest tops at a farmers’ market; by the time they get to a supermarket, they are often over the hill or may have been removed. Another tip: Andrea Bemis, of Tumbleweed Farm in Oregon, recommends in her cookbook Dishing Up the Dirt that you separate the tops from the roots when you get home and store them separately or the greens will leach the moisture from the roots and make them go soft too soon.
There are numerous ways to cook the tops of root vegetables. On our farm in Oregon, my mother steamed the beet tops and served them as a side dish with a dash of red wine vinegar on top. Deborah Madison has a recipe for braised turnip greens in The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute (SFFMI) has a recipe for creamed turnips and greens on its website: https://farmersmarketinstitute.org/tag/market-fresh-cooking/. The tops of the small white Asian turnips sold at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market are especially easy to cook and good to eat.
Radish greens, if they are fresh, are delicious raw in a salad, but some people might not like the fuzzy surface. When you cook them, however, the fuzziness disappears but the peppery taste remains. A recipe for braising radishes with their leaves is on the SFFMI website.
Carrot tops—yes, carrot tops—are also edible. The SFFMI website has a recipe for sautéed carrots served with carrot top pesto. At our house, we like carrot top salsa verde with pickle juice, from Mads Refslund’s cookbook, Scraps, Wilt + Weeds: Turning Waste Food into Plenty. We put it on chicken, pork, fish, and vegetables.
Though not root vegetables, celery and fennel also have several useful parts. Generally, we freeze the celery leaves with other scraps saved for making vegetable stock, but they can also be added to a green salad. The fennel bulb is the most commonly used part of the plant, but the fronds can be chopped and sprinkled on the cooked fennel bulbs or sprinkled on a salad. Scraps, Wilt + Weeds has a recipe for fennel pesto using fennel stalks—the part between the bulb and the fronds.
Additional Reading and Related Topics
For further reading, I would recommend Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, which includes a section for most vegetables on “Using the Whole Plant.” Mads Refslund’s book, Scraps, Wilt + Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty focuses on waste prevention—using not only all the edible parts of plants, but also wilted, dried out, and otherwise over-the-hill vegetables and fruits. His recipe for vegetable scrap and peel stock lists additional plant parts that can be used, such as onion peels, cauliflower and cabbage cores, and stems of herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, and thyme. He also has chapters on making the most of meat, seafood, and dairy products.
Finally, as a last resort, you can compost vegetable and fruit scraps that you don’t want to eat or save for stock. Our worm bed produces wonderful compost that we use to help grow the next generation of vegetables in our garden.
And finally, finally, if you enjoy using all parts of your vegetables, you might look into related activities, such as foraging for wild plants, edible flowers (such as nasturtium flowers and chive blossoms), and herb vinegars, which are topics to explore another time.