One average Sunday, my husband and I were doing the food prep for the week. The usual clean-up of veggies, separating the parts we cooked with (kale leaves, beetroots, pepper outsides, herb leaves) from the parts we didn’t use (kale stems, beet leaves, pepper innards, herb stems, and tons of peels). Doing all the prep at once made it very clear that we were creating a lot of food waste, and that didn’t sit well with us.
Our employer at the time had a composting bin. Easy solution, friends said. Put them in the compost bin and the scraps will then be reused as soil. The food won’t be wasted. This also didn’t sit well with us. That food took up a lot of the Earth’s resources to end up in our kitchen. Shouldn’t it be used for food, rather than being relegated back to soil? Others have more eloquently explained the environmental toll of food waste. It is staggering to think of the impact simply throwing away biodegradable food is worse than fuel emissions from cars. I want to share recipe solutions, so you can use “food waste” as food.
Our first solution is the easiest place to start. We took the food waste, put it in a container, and put it straight in the freezer. When enough accumulated, we would make our own vegetable stock. At first, I wasn’t sure how valuable vegetable stock was in our household. We lived in the tropics, so making hot soup wasn’t high on my to-cook list. I quickly learned that all kinds of recipes call on stock to make the taste of a dish deepen. Cooking soups takes significantly less time with pre-made stock. And I don’t mean to brag, but my stock tastes way better than store-bought stock. Vegetable scraps keep for months in the freezer, and then the stock keeps for even more months in the freezer. Making vegetable stock takes little effort and time, which for me, are important qualities in a recipe.
Our vegetable stock solution has worked for almost two years. I was content with using our food waste to make stock, until one Sunday, I was cleaning up the vegetables from the market, bemoaning how many scrapes I was putting in the freezer. It was taking up too much space! I looked down at the beets and wondered Why do I need to have these huge stems and leaves, when I just want the beetroots! I took a step back, and realized I was missing something. Was vegetable stock the best I could do with these vegetable parts? All that land, water, and fossil fuels went into growing this vegetable, to get some flavored water?
That’s when I truly started making use of my food waste. I challenged myself to find uses for our common discards. Of course I still collect scraps to make vegetable stock, but only those I haven’t found a way to cook (yet). Here are some common discards in my kitchen, and how to cook I’ve cooked them.
Beets stems and leaves
Beets are a triple threat vegetable: you get the beetroot, the stems, and the leaves. I’ve made three separate dishes out of a bunch of beets by using each part. This maximizes the Earth’s resources put into growing those beets, and it maximizes our wallets by allowing us to buy less food. Beetroots are common in recipes, so I will skip that part, and focus on the stems and leaves.
Beet leaves are a hearty green, and easily substituted for spinach, kale or chard. I’ve put them in smoothies, in soups, in stir fries, and when chopped finely, raw in salads. No need to put a link to a special recipe, as they can go into some of your favorites already. One recipe I am looking to try next time is beet leaf pesto. Beet leaves do wilt quickly once the beets have been plucked from the ground. My recommendation is to cut, wash and dry them within a day of purchase, and store them in a tight container. They have stayed fresh for 10 days this way.
Beet stems are a bit trickier. Firstly, they will turn your food a hue of pink. Your toddler might dig this, but others might find it weird. I’ve found they work as a substitute for celery or bell peppers, as base for soups or stir fries. My current favorite uses of beet stems is this beet stem + leaf stew. I put in lentils instead of farro to up the protein quotient, and it is hearty meal on a chilly day. I’ve also changed Thug Kitchen’s Vegan Chilaquiles recipe (no link, go buy the book!) to use beet stems rather than green peppers, and the beet leaves rather than spinach. There is a subtle pink in this dish that works with all the salsa and tofu on top of it. Beet stems will last for a while in your fridge. No need to do any special storage.
When I first starting getting celery from the local market, I was not too pleased with the amount of leaves I had to cut off the stalks. What a waste, but also, what was I going to use these leaves for? The answer: so much! If you cut the leaves off the stalks, they will keep for a week or two in a tupperware container in the fridge. More than enough time to add them to your dishes.
I’ve found celery leaves are a herb substitute. They have a spicy kick that takes a dish up a notch. Don’t have coriander or parsley? Some celery leaf will do the trick. It can top stir fries, risottos, and be stirred into sauces. Our favorite so far is celery leaf pesto. Rather than buy spinach to make pesto, we just use the leftover leaves from our celery purchases. Two dishes out of one vegetable.
Once the wonderful piece of cheese has been eaten, you are left with a lonely rind. It can be instinctual to put it straight in the trash from the cheese board. For the love of yumminess, keep that rind in your refrigerator!
Two years ago, I was making a J. Kenji Lopez-Alt soup recipe. It didn’t require pre-made stock, but it did ask for a simmer of carrots, celery, onions, water, beans, and a cheese rind. Yes, a cheese rind. It transformed the watery stock into a hearty soup with unami bursting through. Life changing. I am now that person that asks the hostess at the end of the party, “Are you going to use those cheese rinds? Because if you’re not, can I have them?” Rather than sadness the cheese is done (and I love cheese), I now do a little party dance that I can suck the unami goodness out of the rind. They keep for months in the refrigerator, in a sealed container, so use them at your leisure.
Chard leaves are used regularly in our kitchen, but I was bummed that no recipes included the stems. When I came across this chard hummus recipe, I struggled to believe that these stems could make a fluffy dip. The proof is in the pudding (and attached photo). Chard hummus is more like baba ghanoush in texture, and somehow creamy without any added diary. I served it with some spicy chips, and the combo worked for my family of eaters. Chard stems can keep without any special storage, so just toss them in your refrigerator crisper, and use them within 2 weeks.
Scallion or spring onion stems
Those who love raw onions atop their food have millions of uses for scallion or spring onion stems. Diced up, the stems can top baked potatoes, chilis, pizzas, and salads, to name a few.
I never met a raw onion I’ve liked. The idea of sprinkling a dish with raw bits of onion, to include the scallion or spring onion stems, makes me shudder. Therefore, I’ve always used up the white bulbs for sauteing, leaving me with the green stems. Inspired by the Catalonian calçotada, we now grill our stems. We keep them in the refrigerator until we have a few other items to grill, and then after a few minutes on the grill, I am happy to ingest them. Scallion and green onion stems are hearty, and can keep up to two weeks in your refrigerator, without any special storage.
Indian and Turkish cuisine (among others) use the stems of spinach too! The common theme I found was to cook them like green beans! Put them in a stir fry, steam them on their own, or even deep fry them. My husband threw diced spinach leaves and stems in a soup, and only half way through dinner I realized what I was eating. Since the stems are less bitter than the leaves, some smoothie enthusiasts put the stems and leaves in their smoothies. The stems hold up better than spinach leaves, so I’ve never needed to store spinach stems in a special way once they are separated from the leaves.
It feels awkward to call any of these food parts “waste” now because they are now part of our eating rotation. Our veggie stock bag has grown smaller, and I feel better that we are using these food parts for their intended purpose: as food. If you want to buy foods with their leaves and stems, talk to your local grocer. They might be eager to sell the veggies whole, and intrigued with how you will cook them.
In the coming months, I am going to expand and experiment with kale stems, broccoli stems, and cauliflower leaves and stems. Please give recipe suggestions in the comments!