It is easy to forget in the modern age of convenience, that food is perhaps the world’s oldest economy. From the earliest hunter and gatherers in the wild to the cascading lines at fast food drive-thrus, humanity has always been defined by what and how we eat.
Whereas now we have supermarkets to cater to our every whim, once upon a time people had to maximize every bit of available food to survive.
In recent years, this idea has come back to the forefront in the chef driven “nose-to-tail” movement, a way of using every part of the animal for both flavor and out of respect to the animal.
This same philosophy is less commonly applied to vegetables, although the principles are much the same and provide a way for cooks to explore new and often unfamiliar terrain.
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To understand the nose-to-tail, or root-to-leaf, approach to cooking vegetables one must first understand the main subject itself — the plant and all of its components such as roots, seeds, stems, leaves and flowers. Just as each animal is different from the next, so too are our vegetables, and like those animals each is made up of different parts.
In the age of the supermarket, it is easy to disassociate our food from its source and any real sense of time and place. We see piles of zucchini — the fruit of the squash plant — long since removed from its vines full of stems and leaves, buds and blossoms.
But zucchini, like tomatoes, corn and others, aren’t the products of some magic spell or sinister lab experiment yielding only the shiny fruit of the plant. They were all once living things that grew from the ground, cared for and nurtured by farmers, harvested and delivered so that we may have the convenience of food at our beck and call.
Strolling the aisles of a farmers market is much different experience than the fluorescent-lighted supermarket trip, as you are much more likely to see your vegetables attached to their greens or roots, as they existed in nature.
Carrots, radishes and beets sit side by side, brightly hued roots with stems and vivid green leaves — an inspiring feast for the eyes just waiting to be used in a dish befitting such natural beauty.
Maybe you find your inspiration at a farmer’s table full of summer squashes of varying colors and shapes adjoining their vines with delicate, silky flowers at the end of its stems. Take it as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the person or people that grew the vegetable; ask what they suggest you do with it.
Their knowledge may help you understand the whole vegetable better, giving you the chance to get creative with each part of a gorgeous ingredient. Seasonal vegetables are nature’s way of telling you what to eat and when, an example of ingredients at their peak.
Let the market be your guide, and as you experiment and get acquainted, a menu of sorts will unfold.
Respecting this connection from Earth to table is key to better understanding our food and its production, allowing for a well-rounded, creative and economical approach at the market and in your kitchen.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes a nose-to-tail cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local farm-to-table foods. He blogs weekly for Chow Town and contributes a monthly restaurant review to The Star’s Food section. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What to look for when shopping
Shopping locally and in season is one of the best ways to get used to root-to-leaf cooking. Nature has done much of the work for you, but knowing what to look for in each part of a plant will allow you to adapt these ideas in your kitchen.
Greens like Swiss chard, spinach and kale are all nutritionally dense, readily available vegetables that make for an easy transition into using the whole plant. The stems of these greens are generally fibrous and tougher. Buy younger, more tender plants and use the stems in stir fries, braises or even pickles, while using the green leaves in a raw or quick cooking preparation.
When buying root vegetables like beets, radishes or sweet potatoes, look for a firm flesh and vibrant stems with relatively unblemished green leaves. The greens deteriorate faster so its best to use them within a day or two of buying. The less time between picking and eating, the better.
Techniques for root-to-leaf cooking
Figuring out what to do with some of the more unusual parts of vegetables, such as vines, stems or flowers, takes basic understanding of their scientific makeup.
Stems of plants, be it greens or vines from vegetables, are generally more fibrous; they require a longer cooking time to break down. This makes stir-frying or braising ideal, and like their meat counterparts, you want to cut them into sizes that make sense for the amount of cooking time. Think of a kale stem like a tougher cut of meat: the smaller the piece, the quicker it will cook.
Root vegetables like beets and radishes are naturals for root-to-leaf cooking. While a radish can be sliced and served raw in a salad with its greens, a beet or sweet potato is best cooked before hand, then tossed with the quicker-cooking leaves.
Don’t be afraid to use things like the flowering ends of herbs, or the tendrils and budding fruits on a squash plant. More delicate ingredients make fantastic garnishes and can add another distinctive dimension to your dishes.
Green Curry Sweet Potato, Eggplant and Okra With Sweet Corn Grits
This vegan curry makes a great dinner and even better leftovers for lunch. Feel free to use other seasonal vegetables, just pay attention to texture and cooking time for best results.
Asian farmers often sell sweet potato stems as they are frequently used in Asian coking. If they are not available, use kale or chard stems and leaves.
This recipe is gluten-free.
Makes 8 servings
Sweet corn grits:
8 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups quick-cooking grits
1 ear corn, kernels removed, cob reserved
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, to taste
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped, greens reserved (if more like straw, remove the husk to use in tea or grits cooking water)
1 cup sweet potato stems, chopped
2 sprigs Thai basil, leaves and flowers removed and reserved
1 teaspoon Thai Green Curry Paste
2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil, divided
4 green onions, sliced, whites and green parts separated
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 medium sweet potatoes, cut in large dice
1 (13-ounce) can coconut milk
1 cup okra, cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1 Japanese eggplant, cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1 cup sweet potato leaves, chopped
For the grits: Cook grits according to package instructions, folding in fresh corn and salt to finish. Optional: Add corn cob and lemongrass greens or husks to stock or water, bring to a boil and remove before stirring in grits.
For the curry: In a food processor, chop lemongrass, sweet potato stems and Thai basil stems with green curry paste and 1 tablespoon oil to combine. In a pan over medium heat, saute white onion parts and garlic in 1 tablespoon oil for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent. Add sweet potato green curry mix, sauté 4 minutes until fragrant. Add sweet potato chunks and coconut milk, cook 12 to 15 minutes until tender, then add okra and eggplant, cook an additional 5 minutes. To finish, fold in sweet potato leaves and Thai basil leaves.
Serve on top of grits and garnish with basil flowers and sliced green onion.
Per serving: 334 calories (26 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), trace cholesterol, 57 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 277 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Corn and Leek Soup With Marjoram Flowers and Crispy Leeks
This corn and leek soup is vegan, but has a lusciously bisque-like flavor and texture from the corn stock and blended smooth finish. It works just as well served cold for a light first-course or snack on a hot day.
This recipe is vegan and gluten-free.
Makes 8 servings
6 ears fresh corn, kernels stripped, cob and inner green husk reserved
2 large leeks, cut into rings, white and green parts separated
2 fresh bay leaves
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small celery stalk, chopped, leaves reserved
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 sprigs fresh flowering marjoram, leaves and flowers separated
2 teaspoons Kosher salt, to taste
To make corn stock: Add corn cob and inner husk with leek greens and bay leaves to medium stock pot. Cover with water, about 2 quarts, bring to a boil then simmer for 25 minutes. Strain and reserve.
Reserve 1 cup of corn kernels for garnish. Fry half cup of leek rounds in 1 cup olive oil until golden brown, about 1 minute; reserve for garnish. Strain oil and save leek-scented oil for other uses.
In a medium pot, saute the remaining leek rounds, celery and garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil for 4 minutes until translucent. Add remaining corn kernels and cook 2 minutes. Add corn stock; bring to a boil and then simmer 10 minutes. Add marjoram leaves and salt. Allow mixture to cool slightly then transfer to a blender and blend in batches to a silky smooth puree. Return corn puree to pan to warm.
To serve, pour soup into bowls and garnish with a fresh corn kernels, celery leaves, crispy leek rounds and marjoram flowers.
Per serving: 342 calories (79 percent from fat), 31 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 489 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Nose-to-Tail Squash Pizza
If you can’t find squash greens and stems, you can substitute equal amounts kale or Swiss chard leaves and stems. My philosophy on pizza? It is a canvas for which the ingredient is the paint and discretion is the stroke. So go light on pesto sauce, you can always add a fresh dollop at the end.
Substitute vegan cheese and this recipe is suitable for vegans.
Makes 2 pizzas
1 cup squash greens, stems and leaves, any tendrils and sprouts reserved, divided
1⁄2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds, divided
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 delicata squash, or summer squash, cut into 8 rings
2 portions pizza dough, homemade or store-bought
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced or grated
10 squash blossoms, stemmed (snap off at the base of the flower, no need to remove stamen)
For pesto: add squash stems, leaves, a half cup pumpkin seeds, garlic, lemon zest and juice. Pulse to mix, then slowly add olive oil to make a pesto. Add salt and reserve.
For pizza: Roast delicata squash in 350-degree oven for 20 minutes until fork tender.
Turn oven to 550 degrees. On a pizza peel or parchment-lined baking sheet , put thinly rolled pizza dough. Spoon on enough squash pesto to coat dough to edges, then add half of mozzarella in an even layer. Top with 4 delicata squash rings, then 4 squash blossoms between each and squash blossom in the middle. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds and any squash tendrils or sprouts. Bake for 7-8 minutes, until cheese melts and crust begins to blister. Repeat for second pizza, then cut into pieces and serve.
Per pizza: 1,059 calories (53 percent from fat), 62 grams total fat (24 grams saturated), 101 milligrams cholesterol, 85 grams carbohydrates, 41 grams protein, 1,302 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber. (Note: For analysis, we used two 8-inch Boboli crusts and 3 tablespoons pesto per pizza.)