Many years ago, I ran into Alain Giraud, one of the best French chefs in Los Angeles, rummaging through crates of discarded vegetable greens at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. This was a good decade before food waste became the sort of thing people talked about on high-profile panels and in beautiful documentaries. Giraud doubtless already knew to use his kitchen’s parsley stems and fennel fronds in stock, as any classically trained chef would, so I ducked under the table and asked him what he was doing.
“It is for my rabbits,” the chef said in his thick Parisian accent, tucking a thatch of bright green carrot tops into the straw market basket under his arm, along with bouquets of lavender and chervil.
I remember this for many reasons. Because it was incredibly charming, of course, but also because my daughter used the story years later to guilt me into letting her get her own pet rabbits, which we have fed with discarded farmers market greens ever since. It was also an object lesson in free pet food and the accidental, often invisible treasures of farmers markets. Not only can you feed your kid’s permanently hungry rescued rabbits with the stuff but you can make your own dinner out of it too.
We throw an enormous percentage of food away, not only wasting food we know about but also food we don’t think of as being part of the farm-to-table sequence. Sometimes, when I’m at my neighborhood farmers market pulling beet greens and carrot tops out of the discard bins behind the produce stalls, someone will ask me what I’m doing with them. Or, more often, they’ll ask the nearby farmer whether the tops of the various vegetables they’re buying are edible.
Fresh greens are gorgeous, fragrant, healthful and enormously flavorful; they’re also endlessly useful in cooking. Not only do we use herbs and greens in soups, salads, sauces and stocks, but also in bouquets garnis, as garnishes, even in cocktails. Why we value some more than others is pretty arbitrary.
Until relatively recently, many of the pricey, sought-after and hard-to-find greens at markets were considered weeds: Farmers used to throw out stinging nettles, lamb’s quarters and nasturtiums instead of selling them. Similarly, the green tops of various vegetables were often tossed into soups or stocks by thrifty cooks, but they’ve now found their way into mainstream kitchens and restaurant menus, often by chefs who want to draw attention to the issue of food waste or who apply nose-to-tail principles to plants. Of course, many have been using every part of a plant or vegetable for generations, much as they’ve been foraging for much longer (decades, millenniums) than it’s been considered trendy.
“Food waste is partly a value judgment about what is desirable and what is not,” Danish chef Mads Refslund, one of the founders of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, writes in the preface to his recent cookbook, “Scraps, Wilt + Weeds.” Refslund includes some pretty desirable dishes in his book: daikon pea dumplings, spruce sugar cookies and a pesto made with carrot tops — they taste rather like bitter frisée, with a hint of, you guessed it, carrot — that I like to serve with the carrots that come with those tops, roasted in the oven with olive oil and salt. Refslund is just one of many notable chefs who are folding recipes for these forgotten bits into their cookbooks. Portland, Ore.-based Jenn Louis devotes an entire chapter to them in her new book, “The Book of Greens.” “As a rule,” Louis writes, “don’t overlook anything green on a root, fruit or vegetable.” Among her highly desirable dishes: pasta made with tomato leaves and sherbet made from celery leaves.
If making dessert out of your rabbits’ food feels a little too ambitious, treat these greens as you would parsley or other conventional herbs. Blend them into pesto, salsa verde, chimichurri and other sauces and salsas. Even simpler: Toss them directly into salads and maybe whisk some of them into a vinaigrette.
Hardier greens, such as those atop beets, turnips and radishes, can be wilted and added to soup or pasta or folded into tacos. Combining the greens with the vegetables attached to them is happily symmetrical. So, load goat cheese quesadillas with both roasted beets and sautéed beet greens. Thinly sliced radishes make great sandwiches — with butter and sea salt, or smoked salmon and crème fraîche — on slabs of thick, rustic bread. Turn the radish tops, which have a peppery tang to them reminiscent of arugula, into a vibrant salsa verde. Drizzle over toast or stir into crème fraîche (or yogurt or cream cheese) to brighten both the flavor and the color.
The leafy tops of fennel have an anise-y flavor, not unlike the dill they resemble, and are terrific in salads and with salmon and cucumber. Celeriac leaves look and taste like a more hardcore version of celery and thus work well in potato salads and soups.
If you’re not familiar with the greens, taste them and consider what dishes you might like. You could also do worse than strike up a conversation with the farmer at the produce stand — or whomever is digging through those piles of carrot tops and radish greens.
ROASTED CARROTS WITH CARROT-TOP PESTO
About 1 hour. Serves 2 to 4
2 bunches small carrots (about 12)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Trim the greens from the carrots, leaving a half-inch or so bit of stem on the top of each. Spread the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet, coat with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Roast until the carrots are tender and golden, 30 to 40 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes or so for even coloring.
CARROT-TOP PESTO AND ASSEMBLY
1 cup packed chopped carrot tops
1/2 cup packed parsley leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
Grated zest of a lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
In a food processor, combine the carrot tops, parsley, cheese, walnuts, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt and sugar, pulsing until coarsely ground. This makes about 1 cup pesto. Serve with the roasted carrots.
Note: From Amy Scattergood. Pesto adapted from a recipe by Mads Refslund.
BEET GREEN, ROASTED BEETS AND GOAT CHEESE QUESADILLAS
1 hour, 15 minutes, plus cooling time. Serves 4
2 bunches small beets with their greens attached (about 12)
Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large sprig rosemary
3 cloves garlic, chopped
8 (6-inch) corn tortillas
11 ounces soft goat cheese, or to taste
Hot sauce, for serving
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the greens from the beets, coarsely chop the greens and reserve.
2. Place the beets on a double layer of foil and drizzle over 3 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle over 1/4 teaspoon salt and add the rosemary. Seal the foil around the beets, making a pouch, place on a baking sheet and bake until the beets are tender, about an hour (a knife should pierce the beets easily). Set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel and thinly slice.
3. In a skillet heated over medium-high heat until hot, add 2 tablespoons oil. Stir in the garlic, cooking for a minute or so until it begins to color, then add the chopped greens. Cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are wilted and the stems are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
4. Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat until hot and coat with a thin layer of olive oil. Place a couple tortillas in the pan and top with goat cheese, beet greens and sliced beets. Top with tortillas, flattening each to spread the filling evenly.
5. Cook the quesadillas until the cheese is melted and the tortillas are golden, carefully flipping to cook the filling and tortillas evenly. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling. Halve the quesadillas and serve while warm, with hot sauce on the side.
Note: From Amy Scattergood.
RADISH, SALMON AND RADISH- GREEN SALSA VERDE TOASTS
20 minutes. Serves 4
2 cups radish greens, from approximately 2 bunches, chopped
1 cup cilantro
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
Zest and juice from 1 orange
In a food processor or blender, combine the radish greens, cilantro, oil, garlic, a pinch of salt (or to taste), lemon zest and juice, and orange zest and juice. Blend until smooth. This makes about 1 1/2 cups salsa verde.
4 ounces crème fraîche
4 slices whole wheat or country white bread, toasted
4 ounces smoked salmon, more if desired
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
Prepared salsa verde
Divide the crème fraîche among the toasted bread slices, spreading it evenly over each piece. Top with the salmon, followed by the radish slices. Drizzle or spoon over the salsa verde and serve immediately.
Note: From Amy Scattergood.