This year, I've been working on getting more creative with my approach to the ingredients I purchase; in particular, I've been rethinking the ends of vegetables, experimenting with how I can work them in to dishes instead of piling them straight into the compost.
Though it's less popular than a kale leaf, a kale stem is still nutritionally loaded and edible. Same for chard stems, broccoli leaves, cauliflower cores, and so much more. I'm on a mission to cook them rather than pitch them; this means good things for both for my pocketbook and for the world (by some estimates, about 25 percent of America's food supply is thrown away each year). In case you're interested in the same mission, I've gathered up a few of my favorite ways to cook with these less beloved parts of vegetables:
The beauty of a slaw is that when things are chopped that finely, they become hidden and disguised, no longer castoff vegetable parts but instead now one, cohesive, composite thing. Julienned broccoli and cauliflower cores, very thinly chopped kale, chard, or collard stems, and too-fibrous green onion tops are all softened and muted with mixed with a good amount of oil and vinegar. Fresh herbs, like cilantro, and a handful of nuts or sesame seeds improve this mightily.
Try your hand at regrowing them.
Amazingly, some vegetables can regrow themselves from the bottom up, using only water, air, and sunlight. After you've used the tops of the vegetables, set the intact bottom of a celery bundle, lettuce head, or bunch of green onion bulks in a sunny windowsill in a glass dish containing an inch or so of water. Change the water daily, and watch new vegetables grow from the old, just like magic.
Keep the green tops that are sold with vegetables.
For the most part, they're not only edible but are also tasty and nutrition-packed. If you use them instead of discarding them, you'll be buying two ingredients for the price of one. Beet, turnip, radish, and kohlrabi leaves function like any other dark leafy green - well washed and roughly chopped, they can be sauteed, stir fried, blanched, or added to anything else that calls for greens (the stems work well here, too!). If the leaves re really tough, they'll soften up in soups, beans, and other recipes with long, slow simmering times. Green leafy carrot fronds can be made into a pesto the same way you would make one with basil, which can then eaten on tomatoes, pasta, pizza, or crostini. The only exception that I can think of are rhubarb tops, which are poisonous and shouldn't be brought into your kitchen.
Anything can be soup.
Your family might shudder if you plopped a platter of collard green stems on the table, but once the chopped stems are softened and hidden in a thick vegetable soup, they'll never even know to complain. When you find yourself with many such odds and ends, make a hearty vegetable soup. If I start with a mirepoix (finely chopped onions, carrots, celery, and garlic) and add beans, grains, broth, chopped vegetables, and salt and herbs to taste, I find I can wing vegetable soup from whatever I have on hand. It's always different, and always good. Things that particularly lend themselves to this treatment: stems of hardy greens, diced broccoli or cauliflower leaves or cores, the tops of green onions, beet greens, and finely chopped radicchio or cabbage centers.
Mash fading root vegetables.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas that are past their prime and fading into limp, rubbery, unappetizing things can be chopped, boiled, and then turned into mashed potatoes or a root vegetable mash. With salt, savory herbs like thyme and rosemary, fat (butter or olive oil work well), and maybe a dash of acid (like vinegar or lemon juice), they'll be perked up and delicious.
Stem, leaf, and core pesto.
The genius food writer Tamar Adler introduced me to this incredible recipe, which I make anytime I have neglected stems or cores lying around. You can find a more detailed breakdown in her book An Everlasting Meal, but here it is, in brief: Take two cups of a jumble of castoff stems, cores, or leaves (of kale, broccoli, chard, collards, cauliflower, spinach, leafy carrot fronds, or anything else that seems to suit). Boil them all until until they're soft and tender but still brightly, gorgeously colored, and then mash everything together with salt, garlic, and olive oil to taste (you can use a food processor to achieve a smoother consistency, but I find a big spoon works fine). Spread the finished product on crostini or garlic bread, and top it with grated parmesan cheese, pine nuts, tiny bacon pieces, small quickly pickled green onions, or anything else your heart desires.
Tasty additions to beans or grains.
Smaller ends of vegetables that have nowhere to go (half a clove of garlic, kale stems, broken-off fennel fronds, the last sweepings of your herb cuttings) can be added to pots of beans or grains to make the meal more flavorful. Think garlic rosemary quinoa, lemon fennel barley, a pot of black beans with chopped kale stems dotted here and there - all are much more interesting than their unvarnished counterparts of plain beans and grains. Chop your vegetables or herbs up into small pieces and mix them in during the last half of the cooking time.
A perfect use for cucumber peels, the last few herb leaves or stems (basil, mint, or rosemary are nice here), and citrus rinds. Add these to a carafe of water, and let it sit in your refrigerator or on your countertop for a few hours to make a lightly flavored, refreshing infused water. For even more variations, you can mix and match the produce you use, or even use sparkling water as the base. The flavor always tastes a little luxurious and spa-like to me - by making flavored water, you've taken a few moments to do something small and special for yourself, which can make an otherwise hectic day feel calmer and more intentional.
Make vegetable broth.
When in doubt, you can add the ends of vegetables to your largest pot and make vegetable broth. I save the scraps of vegetables that are past eating in a big bowl or jar in my fridge - onion skins, garlic peels, carrot tops, bell pepper cores, herb stems, the base of celery stalks, leek greens, the yellowing outer leaves of heads of lettuce and cabbage. Then, once my container can't hold any more, I add it all to boiling water and let it simmer down into rich, fragrant broth. Since it's so easy and inexpensive, I find myself using the broth in everything, not just as the start of soup - I'll use it in place of water to steam vegetables, to cook grains, as a base for cooking dried beans, which makes all of these dishes richer and more flavorful without any added cost or too much fuss.
Stride bravely into the unknown.
It happens to all of us - somehow, some way we find ourselves every so often with a new-to-us, intimidating ingredient. Whether a gift, an impulse purchase, an accident, I say: use the dang thing. Look up a recipe as soon as the vegetable enters your domain, work it into your meal plan for the week, and get started on it before you have a chance to procrastinate on cooking with it, lest you put it off until the vegetable is no longer at its peak. I've used this tactic for years (as a one-time kohlrabi, tomatillo, and radicchio newbie, for example), and simple though it sounds, it helps make sure those vegetables get eaten.
What are your favorite ways to use vegetable cast-offs? Any moments of particular inspiration? I'd love to hear. And, you can find more ideas for reducing your waste this year here, if you'd like.