I was checking out at the grocery store the other day when the clerk asked whether I wanted the green tops removed from my carrots. I started to reflexively answer “yes,” as I always have except for that brief period I was in charge of feeding my daughter’s guinea pig Dovey.
But this time I hesitated. Dovey has long since left the building, but I had a sudden flash of what those carrot tops smelled like when I was chopping them up -- intensely green, like turbocharged parsley.
I already had a big, old gnarly celery root, and I thought for a moment about how those two might go together. At first it was just a bit of whimsy: What if I combined one common vegetable’s little-used top with another common vegetable’s little-used bottom?
Then I pinched a bit of carrot green and tasted it. It was pretty much as I remembered, but with a touch of spice and even a hint of lemon that I’d never noticed before. I figured that since I already had one weird vegetable in my basket, I might as well go all the way. I told the clerk to leave the tops on.
When I got home, I prepared the celery root as I usually do -- cutting away the tough, hairy peel, and then carefully slicing the crisp ivory flesh into sticks about the size of toothpicks. But rather than dressing these with a mustardy mayonnaise as I normally would, I whizzed together a vinaigrette made with olive oil, a hint of garlic, lemon juice and a handful of chopped carrot tops.
The result was lovely: The sauce was a vivid green that barely clung to the cream-colored celery root, with a few flecks of darker leaf for emphasis. And it tasted even better. The slight spiciness of the carrot tops perfectly complemented the bracing celery root. My brother-in-law from Oklahoma -- who had never tasted celery root -- was visiting that night and had thirds.
That started me thinking about how many other foods like that there might be -- plants where one part is treasured but the rest is trash. How much good stuff is going straight to our rabbits?
Vegetables, by definition, are the parts of plants that don’t contain seeds (those with seeds are fruits). That means, for the most part, the leaves, stems and roots -- and in most plants, we eat only one of those three, discarding the rest.
We eat all kinds of roots without giving them a second thought: carrots, turnips and beets are just a few. But some are less familiar. In addition to celery root, there’s also parsley root, which has a lovely root-vegetable sweetness spiked with a hard green core -- it tastes to me like a cross between parsley and parsnip. Cook it as you would a carrot or a turnip; it is particularly good in soups.
Spinach roots are used as vegetables in the Middle East, while cilantro roots are used in spice pastes in Southeast Asia. In both cases, the root is similar in appearance and flavor to the stems -- somewhat like a milder version of the leaf.
We eat lots of stems -- celery, for example, and asparagus (which is the stem of a fern; left to grow, it develops lovely, frilly foliage). Then, of course, there are broccoli stalks, which are the stems. A small industry has sprung up around using what is left over when broccoli has been trimmed to its florets. The most common is shredding the stems into broccoli “slaw.”
But I peel and cube the stalks and turn them into a pasta sauce. Add them to the pasta water after the dried noodles have been cooking for about five minutes, then drain everything at the same time and add it to a skillet of hot, garlic-scented olive oil. Dinner couldn’t be simpler.
My friend Martha Rose Shulman makes a wonderful “drinks snack” of broccoli stems peeled and pickled with some chopped garlic.
Mild to pungent
And there are all manner of greens -- some of them quite pungent, others more docile. Carrot tops belong in the first category, as do the tops of radishes, which have a distinctly peppery bite. Puree them with creamy, fresh goat cheese to make some nice crostini (be sure to wash the radish tops thoroughly -- they harbor an unbelievable amount of sand).
I also use them to make a simple salad to garnish grilled meats. I just quarter the radishes lengthwise with the tops attached and dress it all with vegetable oil, red wine vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the carving juices.
You can toss these pungent greens in a salad -- with discretion. (Remember, with vegetables as with people, too much personality can be every bit as bad as too little.) Or blanch, chop and combine them with milder ingredients such as rice or ricotta to make a risotto or a filling for ravioli.
Other, less rowdy greens are more adaptable. In fact, some may have sneaked right past you. Look carefully at most mesclun salad mixes and you’ll find baby beet greens. And one of my favorite ravioli fillings is nothing more than beet greens that have been cooked briefly with garlic and then mixed with ricotta.
There is enough of the beet root’s bright red betalain pigment in the leaves to tint the cheese a delicate pink. Serve this with the simplest sauce -- melted butter flavored with fresh sage -- and a generous dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Some culinary greens are even more exotic. Banana leaves are used as wrappers for steamed foods in Mexican cooking, as are the leaves of some Mexican varieties of avocado. These can also be toasted and ground and used as a seasoning. In Southeast Asia, the leaves of certain lime trees are used to give a citrusy perfume. In parts of Africa, the leaves of the okra plant are used as a green vegetable.
As should be obvious, a lot of our preferences about which parts of the plant to eat are culturally based. What might seem like an odd ingredient to one person might be a family favorite to another.
I mentioned my ravioli recipe to a friend -- a very good cook -- and she expressed surprise that people ate the leaves of beets. Then she said in amazement, “I’ve seen recipes for turnip greens too.”
As an adopted Son of the South, I was shocked. I and others of my kind are enthusiastic and promiscuous eaters of those and other greens (at a soul food restaurant, I once saw a special that was billed as “turnips and their bottoms”).
I started to say something but stopped when I realized the patience that my friend, whose family is Chinese, had shown me the last couple of weeks as I’ve nattered on about the amazingly delicious pea sprouts I’ve been cooking. I’ve eaten them in restaurants for years, but it wasn’t until I discovered big boxes of them at my Japanese grocery last month that I started experimenting with cooking them. (Of course, in my friend’s family, sprouts and shoots of all kinds of vegetables are culinary staples.)
How in the heck had I missed these for so long? The sprouts, which are the tendrils and leaves of the very tips of pea plants, can be used almost like spinach but they have the sweet, green taste of English peas. Pea shoots are delicious simply tossed together as a salad, but I like them even better quickly sauteed with garlic. Cook them just until they wilt -- any longer and the contrast between the tender leaves and the wiry stems becomes too great.
I like to saute together pea shoots and mushrooms -- the earthiness of the mushrooms emphasizes the sweetness of the sprouts. Use this combination as a bed for a chunk of crisp-skinned salmon and you’ve got a pretty remarkable dish.
The other night I chopped a bunch of pea shoots into roughly 2-inch lengths and added them at the very last minute to new potatoes I’d been steaming (literally at the last minute: I popped them in on top of the potatoes, clamped down the lid and counted to 10, that’s it).
I tossed everything just to coat in a bowl with some soft (not melted) butter and minced shallots, and sprinkled in some coarse salt. The combination of the earthy, minerally potatoes, bright green sprouts and sweet, clinging butter was amazing. And to think I might once have wasted them on the guinea pig.