Over the past few years I’ve read the tales of those who embark upon “nose-to-tail” eating with the kind of interest one usually reserves for looking at dissected frogs in Biology class. I like the idea in principle, but I just can’t get excited about eating entrails and organs. However, in the past 2 years I have embraced what I call nose-to-tail eating vegetarian-style. It began with my habit of snacking on the food I’m preparing. Nibbling on broccoli leaves, for instance. Other times I would find a recipe that intrigued me like pickled nasturtium seed pods (taste like capers!). I have found that it has broadened my view of what can be eaten and allows me to waste even less food.
We Americans waste approximately 40% of our food. It is truly appalling. I do everything I can to avoid wasting food. However, I know I can do more. So, with that in mind, I am sharing one aspect of what I do to reduce waste in my home.
What follows are some of my most useful (and fun!) discoveries.
Carrot greens can be used in a number of ways. I have used them in place of basil when making pesto. Because I find making pesto tiresome, I cram as many carrot greens as I can in my food processor so I don’t have to make it very often. To streamline the process further, I use almond butter instead of nuts and I don’t bother with the cheese. If I want it later, I can just add it then. Next, I freeze it in blobs on a piece of tin foil, peel the blobs off and keep them in a zipper bag in the freezer. They are great for tossing into a pot of cooked orzo for an easy flavor blast. Another place to use carrot top pesto is slathered on roasted vegetables. This is rather like icing on the cake as roasted vegetables are already so fabulous. The addition of the pesto is so good you will not believe it.
Carrot greens can also be used in place of parsley. Nothing annoys me more than a recipe that calls for a sprinkling of parsley as garnish. And what am I supposed to do with the rest of the bunch of parsley I had to buy? If I am buying carrots with greens anyway, I can just use those! Last summer, a friend recited for me a recipe that is an old stand-by for her: smoosh up some anchovies in a large bowl. Add lemon juice, olive oil (or oil from the anchovies), and pepper. Chop up a couple of bunches of parsley (here’s where you sub the carrot greens) and place them in the bowl with the anchovies. Toss until the greens are well-coated and serve. Anchovies are very nutritious (chock full of omega-3s) and, since they are smaller fish and have a shorter life span, they are near the bottom of the food chain so they add far fewer toxins to your body than larger fish.
Now, you might wonder, where am I going to get all these carrot greens? I started out using ones I had grown in my garden. The carrots were pretty puny, but the greens were quite luxuriant! Later, I learned that a good way to be sure carrots you buy are fresh is to choose ones with the greens still attached. Once they get wilty, supermarkets cut them off so that is a good sign that the carrots are getting older and are not as nutritious. I was eating lots of carrots so we ended up having quite the bonanza. It got to the point that my son and I started taking some of them to some chickens we helped take care of as they thought they were quite a treat.
Another under-utilized part of a vegetable is the leaves and stems of broccoli. I started out just peeling and slicing the stems of broccoli that I bought and steaming them with the florets. Then I realized they could be treated like vegetable sticks and served with dip just like carrots and bell peppers (call them “batons” make them sound more elegant). Next, I noticed that a large proportion of recipes published that purported to be “quick,” called for broccoli slaw. I very rarely buy convenience foods like that, but I was curious so I checked out what it was the next time I was at the grocery store. Well, if you haven’t figured it out, what it is is merely the shredded stalks cut off of all those pre-cut broccoli florets people buy, except they jack up the price. What I do is save the stems from a bunch of broccoli and then peel and shred it in one go in my food processor. Then I use it as a salad or in a stir-fry.
The tender broccoli leaves near the florets are also edible. Then can be steamed alongside the stems and florets or sliced and sprinkled on top of a salad.
I have also found that steamed artichoke stems can also be as good as the heart. Simply trim the end, peel the stem, and allow it to be steamed along with the rest of the artichoke. Sometimes it will be a little stringy or bitter, but I have found that to be the anomaly and if you don’t try it, you’ll never know.
If you grow nasturtiums (a very easy flower to grow and, so far for me, deer do not appear to like them), almost all parts of the plant can be eaten. The leaves can be torn and added to a salad. The same with the flowers. Both are a little spicy so I wouldn’t use them as the only green in a salad. Near the end of summer, gather the seed pods and pickle them by putting them into a jar and then filling the jar with pickling liquid. You can just use leftover pickle juice. After a few months, the seed pods will be pickled and can be used in place of capers.
A year and a half ago I had a bonanza of grapes harvested from some friends’ farm. I used many of the grapes to make jelly. After extracting the juice from the grapes I had a mesh bag full of grape skins. Because I was curious, I ate a couple and was struck by how tasty they were. I was thinking they would be good in muffins in place of something like raisins or blueberries. However, my husband was the one who identified that they taste like sour cherries. Sour cherries are pretty pricey (I’ve paid $5/lb at a u-pick!), but make superior pies. Using grape skins is much more economical and easier as they don’t require pitting. With the grape skins, I made 3 delicious crisps which I froze to have later.
Over Christmas, I made cookies and I used the trick of placing melted chocolate in a plastic zipper bag and then cutting off the corner so I could drizzle the chocolate out. When I was done, I could see there was still a fair amount of chocolate in the bag that wouldn’t come out easily. So, I popped it in the freezer. Later I took it out and peeled off the plastic to reveal beautiful chocolate “shards.” They would be prefect on top of a cake or cupcakes or on top of ice cream and now that chocolate wasn’t getting wasted.
With the lessons I’ve learned, I would encourage anyone to taste new things and see what he or she discovers. Re-purposing food that is getting old or would otherwise be thrown away is not a new concept. Bread that is going stale has long been made into croutons, stuffing or French Bread (in France called “pain perdu,” literally “lost bread.”) A hambone in a split pea soup is divine and turkey carcasses are wonderful for making soup. Also, a cooking error doesn’t need to be tossed. When you burn something, call it “blackened.” If you over-boil vegetables, puree them. Mushy carrots sounds nasty, but how about pureed carrots with cardamom and a drizzle of olive oil? Just think, if you were in a fancy restaurant, you’d probably think it was something very elegant!
If you have any culinary discoveries you’ve discovered that allow you to reduce waste, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.
Caveat: Please note that not everything that grows is safe to eat. Sometimes one part of a plant is safe while another part is not. A good example is rhubarb. The stalks are perfectly edible while the leaves are poisonous. So, if in doubt, check first!!