Don't Toss Tops; Leave the Leaves

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's called "nose-to-tail" eating, to borrow the subtitle of British chef Fergus Henderson's wonderful book, "The Whole Beast," and it was the way everyone ate in the days when you raised a yearly hog and used "everything but the squeal." In recent years I've enjoyed buying a whole lamb, pig or side of beef from a neighboring farmer, learning ways to cook trotters and finding I prefer flavorful short ribs to steak.

My adventure with meat is not typical, but as more budget-conscious folk take up food gardening, a similar expansion of the larder has occurred. Just as shoppers are used to seeing meat animals deconstructed as the familiar roasts and chops, they are also used to vegetables trimmed and groomed for the most common uses. The home grower, on the other hand, has an intimate relationship with everything from the seed to the fruit, with roots, stems and leaves in between.

With some crops, eating the whole beast is customary. Beets and turnips with tops intact offer two obvious side dishes, handy when you're toting up your five servings a day of fruits and veggies. But for other plants, it's not until you grow them that you see their full potential. When you do, it's almost like having a bigger garden.

Not all plant parts, of course, are edible. With potatoes, stay away from all but the tuber itself. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are fruit-only plants. But brassicas such as broccoli and radishes have leaves that are tasty and nutritious when small and tender. The tips and tendrils of pea vines lend interest as garnishes or in salads. Carrot tops are mild-flavored when cooked in soups. The next time you prune the ends of squash vines to encourage growth of fruits that have been set, try batter-frying the tips as fritters.

Use the gloriously leafy tops of garden celery in salads, soups or sandwiches. Snip fronds of bulb fennel for seasoning or to make a bed on which to grill fish. If you prune woody herbs such as sage or rosemary, cast the branches onto the fire to infuse grilled food with their flavor.

Provident gardeners see food even in plants past their prime. Bolted greens such as spinach (those going to seed) may taste fine if there is still more leaf than stem. Bolted mache and tatsoi are fine in salads or stir-fries. Even bolted lettuce has a use: The leaves turn bitter, but the stems are surprisingly succulent in a saute. Flowers from arugula, mustard and other brassicas are lovely in salads. Tender radish pods are another choice item. And stored onions may turn mushy and rank when they start to go, but with those long, scallion-like tops, wonderful raw or cooked, they, too, are good for an encore.

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