Nothing Wasted, Not Even the Peels

by Jayne Cohen

Digest this: Americans throw away as much as 40 percent of the food we purchase. But the chefs we spoke to for our story, “Where the Vegetables Are Stars”, show us an alternative that respects and honors the earth’s bounty. They practice “root-to-stem” cooking, the vegetable version of “nose-to-tail” eating, that is, making use of every part of an animal—“even the gross ones,” as Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen writes. Only, she adds, “vegetables don't really have any gross parts and yet many people throw them away.” 

Following the traditions of the ancient Venetian Jews who made a flavorful antipasto from leftover spinach stems and the Sephardim who cook their Sabbath eggs nestled in onion peels, our chefs' recipes make use of parts that would otherwise be discarded. 

Their ideas go way beyond merely saving scraps to make stocks. Using still edible ingredients to add texture, color, and exciting flavor bombs to their dishes makes for more creative cooking as well as more mindful eating.

  • At Zahav, his Philadelphia-based restaurant, Michael Solomonov uses the cauliflower hearts that remain after frying the florets to make zesty pickles flavored with turmeric and zhug (Yemenite hot sauce). And before frying potatoes, he brines them in leftover pickle juice. “With Brussels sprouts,” he says, “we grill them and cover them in our tahini. Then you take the pieces that aren’t so uniform and puree them with more tahini or an herbed labneh. That way you’re making the most of every bit of vegetable you have. It brings a completely different perspective to the dish.”
  • Jessica Koslow, at her L.A. restaurant, Sqirl, uses every bit of the tomato. She flavors oil with the tomato stems and leaves and creates a beautiful tomato powder from the seeds and skins. And after baking a potato for use in a recipe, she removes the skin, which she fries in a little olive oil until crisp. Seasoned, it makes a delicious snack, garnish, or addition to potato recipes (it makes potato soup taste like the essence of potato!).
  • The dark green parts of leeks are usually thrown away, but New Orleans chef Alon Shaya's mom cooked the entire leek, all the pieces “nice and slow and formed them into leek patties. It was like a little veggie burger to me as a kid,” he says. 
  • To add needed crunch to an eggplant pasta dish, Amanda Cohen deep-fries eggplant peels to make crispy eggplant ribbons. Instead of discarding green trimmings, her pesto repertoire includes versions made from celery leaf and almond and beet greens with pistachio.
  • Amelia Saltsman, whose name is synonymous with seasonal cooking, turns to the farmers' market for advice. “If you want to learn, that's the place to go,” she notes. “When arugula goes to flower, they bring the flowers to market. The leaves may be too bitter by then, but the flowers reflect the spice of the arugula and the sweetness needed for pollination. They taste sweet and hot at the same time.”