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National Restaurant Association - Getting the most from your produce: Root-to-stalk cooking

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Getting the most from your produce: Root-to-stalk cooking

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Chard stalk
Photo credit: Clay McLachlan

Sliced-off carrot tops, torn-away fennel fronds and leftover Swiss chard stems may look like trash to some chefs, but to Chef Jonathan Luce they are culinary treasures that he highlights at Bellanico in Oakland, Calif. “The whole vegetable is fair game,” says Luce. “We use anything and everything.”

Luce embraces one of today’s hottest culinary trends, root-to-stalk cooking, in which chefs utilize most, if not all, of a plant in their dishes. In a National Restaurant Association survey, chefs identified root-to-stalk cooking — along with nose-to-tail cooking using the whole animal — as one of this year’s 25 top tableservice menu trends.

“It’s actually an old concept, though,” Luce says. “We’ve come full circle back to the days when nothing gets wasted.”

Waste not, want not
Customers love Bellanico’s malfatti, tender dumplings made from Swiss chard leaves, cooked with browned butter and sage. “We go through four to six cases of Swiss chard each week making malfatti,” says Luce. “That generates about 20 pounds of stems. We don’t want to throw all that away.” Instead, Luce grills the stems, featuring them as a side dish for pork chops.

At Chicago’s Publican, sous chef James Lyons transforms leftover carrot tops into a pesto and incorporates sautéed turnip tops into turnip side dishes. “The less you throw away, the more money you save,” he says.

With today’s emphasis on farm-to-table cooking, many restaurants pay a premium for local, sustainable produce. Using the entire vegetable keeps rising food costs in check, notes Tara Duggan, author of “Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable.”

“But it’s not just about economics,” she says. “It’s about discovering new flavors and new textures.”

On the menu
Find out how to transform leftover vegetable scraps into culinary delights anywhere on your menu:

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Chard stalk relish featured in Tara Duggan’s “Root-to-Stalk Cooking.”*
Photo credit: Clay McLachlan

Stocks, soups, stews. Leek tops, leftover carrot tips and the outer leaves of Romaine lettuce boost the flavor profile.

Salads. Cauliflower leaves, turnip greens and beet leaves add variety to salads.

Braises and roasts. Fennel stalks and fronds infuse flavor into braises and roasts, even replacing traditional ingredients like celery and dill. Sauces. Carrot tops and fennel fronds add a new dimension to pesto, salsa verde, gremolota and other sauces.

Garnishes. Carrot tops and fried fennel fronds serve as garnishes at Bellanico.

Side dishes. Swiss chard stems have inspired many dishes at Bellanico, says Luce, who has prepared them as a gratin as well as tempura-battered and deep-fried.

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Leek Greens Stir-Fry featured in Tara Duggan’s “Root-to-Stalk Cooking.”*
Photo credit: Clay McLachlan

Creative spin on standards. Duggan’s “Chard Stalk Hummus,” uses pureed chard stalk, instead of chickpeas. She features leek tops, rather than garlic chives, in a stir fry with salty pork belly. The recipe was inspired by a dish served at Eric’s Restaurant in San Francisco.

Getting to the root of the matter
Some quick tips for getting started, from root to stalk:

Establish precise produce specifications. If you want beets, carrots and leeks to have tops attached, specify so.

Talk with farmers. They can introduce you to “exotic” vegetable parts and share cooking tips. Chicago’s Publican highlights sweet potato greens on its menu, a gem the culinary staff found when a farmer shared that she cooks them at home.

Make sure it’s worth the work. With some recipes calling for peeled tomatoes, Duggan decided to dehydrate the leftover skins to produce a flavoring powder. “But I ended up with a tablespoon of powder that didn’t have a ton of flavor,” she says. Clearly not worth the time or energy.

Be flexible. When a crop of Swiss chard has short stems, Luce forgoes their use as a side dish, pureeing them instead for a sauce.

Plan ahead. Some vegetable parts have a shorter shelf life than others. For example, carrot tops won’t stay fresh as long as carrots. Extend their longevity by freezing items such as carrot-top pesto.

Do a safety check. While most plant parts are edible, some aren’t. If you haven’t heard of an item being used, Duggan advises that you research it before incorporating it into your dishes.

*Reprinted with permission from Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable, by Tara Duggan, copyright 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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