Top to Root: Good to the Last Drop

06/05/2015 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016


Waste was one of those black and white topics in my upbringing. You finished everything on your plate as the world was filled with starving children. My Grandma Nellie, who came to this country between the world wars, never threw anything out. It was simply not in her DNA.

Today, it is a commonly accepted fact that 40 percent of U.S. food production -- from farm fields to processing facilities to wholesale/retail outlets and homes -- ends up in the trash. From imperfect fruits and veggies, to scraps, trimmings and other remaining edible food bits and leftovers, we excel at creating waste. All this happens without an uproar.

Food waste falls into two broad categories: the things we look at as unusable remnants, like carrot tops, and the leftovers that we don't know how to transform, like old bread or overripe brown bananas. Fortunately, a vigorous conversation about waste is inspiring chefs everywhere -- from food movement leader Dan Barber to home cooks like us -- to reconsider what belongs in our garbage and what might end up on our plates instead.

So, it's time to think creatively and to have fun in the kitchen. These are perfect moments to extend the conversation and challenge other adults and, even better, children. How can we utilize our food resources more creatively? For example, this past weekend I bought the season's first baby beets in the Greenmarket, with vibrant beet tops and perfect stems. A few possibilities came to mind:

1. Pickle the stems in quick-pickle brine and enjoy in a pasta dish or salad.

2. Sauté the beet greens in a splash of olive oil, sea salt and garlic.

3. Roast the beets roots.

4. Make beet-green pesto.

5. Combine all three parts of the beet in a fun, citrus-infused dish (recipe below), which is what I did. It was delicious.

Carrots are another vegetable that can be used top to root -- the peelings too. There is nothing as fragrant and rich as fresh carrot tops and I often offer to take a bag full of discarded tops from farmers who dutifully remove them for many of their customers. In noodling around the internet on the subject of using vegetable scraps, I discovered and a British recipe from World War II for carrot top and potato soup -- a nod to the scarcity and value of fresh food. The site has a wealth of carrot-top uses acknowledging their earthiness when cooked (though bitter raw.) Who knew?

When I am doing lots of cooking, I save all my vegetable scraps; from carrot peels and tops, pepper tops/ribs/seeds, onion skins, leeks, celery bottoms or leafy stalks, garlic scraps, herbs stems, corn cobs (exclude broccoli, cabbage or other members of the Brassica family.) I put them in a big pot with cold water to cover (and sometimes add a few other items like extra carrots or whatever might round out the flavor) and simmer for two hours. I then strain and season and am left with a delicious vegetable stock or refreshing cold drink.

I asked our chefs at Great Performances to share some of their "rescue recipes."

Pastry Chef Rob Valencia thrives on creative thriftiness and he came up with "Veggie Crackers" made from leftover pulp.

"I use a juice extractor for making the juice for our sorbets and our sweet vellies (paté de fruits). When making kale, carrot or beet vellies you are left with tons of pulp. I take that pulp and blend it with chia seeds, flax seeds and rice flour to make veggie crackers for hors d'oeuvres."

3 cups pulp vegetable/fruit pulp from juicer

¼ cup chia seeds

½ cup rice flour

1 cup water

Blend together in a food processor until smooth.

Spread onto a Silpat and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until crispy.

"For baking at home my bruised bananas and dark avocados become AVOCANNA Bread -- the California Avocado Board offers some great recipes!"

Production Chef Mark Greico shared his creative approach in making magic with leftovers. "A great tip on how to think about what you are going to make for dinner is not to think. If you stress and randomly think of dishes you will find that you are missing ingredients for completion. Chefs, with their experience in 'the secret basket,' just look in fridge, freezer and pantry. Use what you see. The leftovers and staples that you have may surprise you."

Mark's Chicken Mole, reinvented:

"There were two pieces of chicken thighs in my freezer and a big ol' dark chocolate bar in the fridge. Roast the chicken, but the mole sauce makes this leftover dish a special meal. Slowly melt the chocolate. If you do not have dried chilies any seasoning from your spice rack will work; salt, sugar, allspice, cumin, cinnamon, hot sauce. Use water if you do not have stock. Blend all with melted chocolate over low heat. Thicken sauce with bread, tortillas, or even graham crackers."

Executive Chef Tim Sullivan reports in on rescue tactics from Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola:

"Lobster bodies and shrimp shells can be used to make bisques; chicken bones for chicken stock; corn cobs for corn velouté; and veggie ends for veggie stocks."

"Breads from the prior evening: brioche burger rolls are great for spoon breads; dinner rolls are sliced and baked into crostini for our preservation plate; cornbread is transformed into cornbread pudding."

With the exception of leftovers gone rotten, there are innumerable ways to reuse food, many reflecting different culinary cultures and traditions: Bread pudding is a delicious invention created for the purpose of using up all bread and ailing fruit. Fried rice is the perfect dish to transform leftover rice, along with odds and end of veggies, fish or meats, into a hearty meal. Lasagnas make great use of leftover veggies (already roasted or freshly sautéed for layering between the pasta and cheese). Leftover hamburgers are reincarnated in a bolognese sauce over pasta or can be used for a delicious taco filling. Got a lonely piece of roasted chicken? Turn it into chicken salad with some creamy dressing or vinaigrette with optional veggies. When I have salmon leftovers I add them to a quiche with herbs, cheese and onions. I NEVER throw out brine -- it makes a great marinade or salad dressing. Hot dogs are delicious in split pea soup. Stick your brown bananas in the fridge and with two, it's time to make banana bread.

That's the way to think about food -- always making lemonade from extra lemons. Taste as you go, this is more inventive than strictly recipe-driven. The more you experiment, the better your skills will become. Rethink the things you instinctively throw. Forage your fridge, think before discarding, mine your leftovers; 40 percent in the garbage is simply unacceptable.

And listen for your grandmother's voice whispering in your ear, "What? That's garbage? Are you nuts? That could be delicious!"


Beets; Roots & All

1 bunch market fresh beets with healthy looking tops

1 sliced onion

2 minced cloves garlic

3 Tb olive oil

3 Tb fresh orange juice

1 Tb balsamic vinegar

Grated skin of half the orange

Wash the beet well; separate the roots, red stems and the green tops. Roast beets in oven, wrapped in foil with drizzle of oil, for about an hour. (When done you can slip them out of their skins, but if the beets are young and fresh, leave the skins on.) Sauté the onion in olive oil till translucent then add stems, salt, and minced garlic about 3 minutes till soft. Add beet tops and both liquids, cook another 4 minutes. Add the roasted beet roots. Top with zest before serving.

This piece was originally published in Our Town.