Don't Throw Away Those Tasty Vegetable Trimmings

The first time I bought celery in a Manila grocery store, I was surprised to find the stalks still crowned with leaves. Accustomed to the neatly trimmed, plastic-bagged bunches in American supermarkets, I was mildly peeved over the extra effort I had to make to cut off the tops, even if it involved nothing more than a solid thwack of a chef’s knife to decapitate those unwanted greens. I swept them from the cutting board into the trash without another thought, blithely unaware that I had just added to the more than 200 pounds per person of edible food discarded around the world last year.

According to Global Food Losses and Food Waste, a study commissioned by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and released this past May, over 1 billion tonnes of food are squandered annually. Losses occur primarily during the production phase and can be caused by technological shortcomings or environmental problems in the food system, but waste refers to edible food that is deliberately tossed out by producers and consumers for various reasons. Among the most commonly wasted foodstuff are fruits and vegetables, often because of perceptions fed by marketers that equate appearance with quality. However, not all rejected produce are misshapen carrots, blemished apples or overripe melons. Many of our favorite fruits and vegetables have perfectly palatable parts that are discarded simply because their culinary value is unfamiliar to consumers.

Interestingly, the FAO study noted that the rate of food waste is higher in Europe and North America compared to developing countries in Africa and Asia, where the use of all edible parts of produce is a common practice. This ‘stem to root’ food philosophy is also a part of Western culinary traditions, but one that’s been relegated to the back burner in recent generations. Now, with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs bringing produce in all their original, earth-crusted glory directly to consumers, it’s experiencing a resurgence: A New York Times article last month highlighted the growing rediscovery of this vegetable version of the nose-to-tail food movement.

Some of the suggestions to help prevent unnecessary edible waste are already quite familiar, such as leaving produce like apples and cucumbers unpeeled, or using broccoli stalks along with the florets. Others have become hot foot trends in recent years, such as cooking with garlic scapes and squash blossoms. Then, there are secondary vegetable edibles that are well-known in some parts of the world but unfamiliar to others because they’re usually discarded before they even make it into kitchens. It may be difficult to find these whole produce in supermarkets, so look for them at local farmers’ markets, health food stores or ethnic grocers.

Celery Leaves – I’ve certainly had a change of heart about leafy celery tops. Instead of tossing these fresh-flavored greens into the trash, try tossing them in a salad. Other great uses include adding them to soups as leafy fillings, sprinkling over pastas and stir-fries, or using them in recipes as an alternative to fresh parsley, fennel or cilantro.

Sweet Potato Tops and Squash Vines – Hearty tubers and gourds get all the attention, but their delicate shoots and leaves have a lot to offer, too. Good sources of vitamins and full of fiber, sweet potato and squash leaves can be prepared much in the same way as other greens like chard and spinach. A popular ingredient in Asian and African cuisines, sweet potato leaves are cooked in coconut sauces and peanut stews, while the prickly texture of fresh squash leaves make them a mild-tasting and less painful alternative to stinging nettles in such recipes as Turkish isirgan otlu borek (savory pastry with stinging nettles).

Edible FlowersTasty flora are nothing new: stuffed and fried squash blossoms are an early summer delight, while calendulas and nasturtiums add bright color to green salads. But you don’t need a large garden to cultivate edible flowers: a container of herbs, from basil and dill to lavender and lemon verbena, yield dainty buds that impart a more delicate version of the leaves’ fuller flavors. So don’t just pinch and pitch them – try herbal flowers to flavor a carafe of refreshing iced tea instead. For the more adventurous, banana blossoms have a taste and texture similar to artichokes and can be found in Asian markets, either dried or fresh inside large red, teardrop-shaped bulbs.

Cilantro Root – [photo at top] An essential ingredient in Thai cookery, cilantro roots have an even stronger flavor than the leaves and are used in curry pastes, meat marinades and soup flavoring. Unfortunately, cilantro bunches found in supermarkets are likely to have their roots already trimmed off. Your best bets: Ask a favorite herb vendor at your local farmers’ market for intact cilantro; check at Asian markets; or grow your own supply.

The next time you prepare a meal with your favorite produce, remember to serve it with all the trimmings.



Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.