November 26, 2013

Root-To-Stalk Cooking

At the end of cooking school, I did a month-long “externship” at Centro, a legendary fine dining restaurant (now closed) in midtown Toronto. From a jewel-like concassé of tomatoes to perfectly julienned peppers, vegetables were cut in a very precise manner, leaving a fair amount of scrap. Every ounce of these trimmings were saved, sorted and used up. The bulk of it went to flavour stocks and sauces, but sometimes they were transformed into a big steam kettle of delicious soup fondly known as potage de garbage (only the kitchen, never the dining room.) Even dark outer leaves of romaine lettuce, too bitter for salad, where used to cover salmon filets as they baked to keep them moist. This thrifty attitude showed both a respect for the ingredients and the restaurant’s bottom line.

Today, as more people become conscious of where their food comes from, cooks are taking this mantra to the next level. Like nose-to-tail for vegetarians, the root-to-stalk cooking movement is coming up with creative ways to use edible trimmings that usually end up in the green bin. To further explore the root-to-stalk trend in the January 2014 issue (pick up your copy on Eastern newsstands December 9, and Western newsstand on December 16), here are some ways to get the most out of your veggies.


When I buy a head of celery, I divide it up into four groups. The tops, dark leaves and bottom cores go into stocks or braises. They can also be run through a juicer and used in cocktails or smoothies. The outer stalks, which are more bitter and fibrous, are best slow-cooked in soups or stews. The tender inner stalks are delicious shaved into salads or cut into sticks for crûdité. Finally, the delicate inner leaves are terrific in tuna salad or smoked fish sandwiches.


Some recipes require coring, peeling and seeding tomatoes. This byproduct adds a golden hue and hint of umami to vegetable stock. The seeds and their surrounding goop can be strained and the resulting liquid saved for gazpacho or Bloody Caesars. Or cook down everything to make a rough tomato paste that can be frozen and used in dark stocks or braises.


Often a recipe will call for removing the stems from portobellos. These brown cylinders are vegetarian gold. Deeply flavoured and packed with umami, they are delicious cut into julienne and used in stir-fries or omelettes. If you have bunch, pulse them in food processor and cook them down with butter, shallots and thyme for mushroom pâté. Shiitake stems are way too tough to eat, but they can flavour stocks and cream sauces.


Broccoli stems are good eatin’, but all too often they end up in the garbage. Trim an inch off the bottom — it’s usually too woody — and peel, saving the trimmings for vegetable stock. The tender stalk can be sliced paper thin and eaten raw in salads or winter slaw, or sliced into coins and cooked along with the florets.


The dark green leaves of leeks are so rarely called for in recipes that most people think if them as inedible. Au contraire. While they may be too dark and strong for elegant soups, leek greens are delicious sliced and braised in butter and chicken stock for a wintery side dish. Leeks are expensive, might as well get your money’s worth.

Photo credit:
1. Eric Vellend