Before adding kale to a salad, you de-rib the leaves and toss the tough stems into the trash.
After purchasing carrots from the farmers market, you chop off the leafy tops and add them to your compost.
When you harvest tomatoes from your garden, you bypass adding other parts of the plant — like the leaves — to your plate.
But what if you found a way to incorporate those kale stems, carrot tops and tomato leaves into the meals you eat? In addition to trying out new recipes, you’ll be stretching your food budget and getting more bang for your buck.
Linda Ly, founder of the website Garden Betty, advocates cooking with all parts of produce — from top to tail, as she calls it. She recently published “The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook” and spoke to The Penny Hoarder about how to get the most out of your produce.
Testing Out Not-So-Obvious Ingredients
Not seeing ingredients like zucchini leaves or sweet potato vines in recipes or on restaurant menus makes people believe they’re inedible, Ly said. Take the green, leafy tops of carrots, for example.
“People used to think that they were poisonous because no one ever thinks about eating it,” she said.
In actuality, carrot greens are very nutritious — even more than the carrot roots themselves. Ly often uses carrot greens in place of parsley in soups and stir fry dishes or to make chimichurri.
Growing up in a Chinese and Vietnamese household, she was exposed to cooking parts of produce she never saw in American dishes, like pea shoots. When Ly started gardening in 2010, she had the chance to experiment with more food.
“I was always looking at my zucchini plant [that was] giving us massive zucchinis and squash, but before all of that comes, you have these huge vines that are like eight feet long with these leaves and I was like, ‘I wonder if you could eat those?’” she recalls.
From there, it spiraled into a game of “what weird thing can I eat from the garden.”
Ly uses kale stems to make pesto and tomato leaves to infuse extra flavor into pasta sauce. She adds leaves from pepper plants to various dishes as seasoning.
“Pepper leaves are a surprising green to use, because people think that it might be spicy like the pepper itself — but it tastes really mild, like white pepper,” she said.
Getting the Most Out of the Produce You Buy or Grow
When venturing to eat something new, you might question whether it’s edible or not. Ly said if you bought the produce from a farmers market or grocery store, it’s most likely safe to eat.
“They’re not going to sell something that is potentially toxic,” she said.
If you’re harvesting from your own garden, Ly said most things should be fair game — with the exception of berries that grow from asparagus plants and the leaves of rhubarb and potato plants (not to be confused with sweet potato plants).
“There’s a surprising number of things that you can eat,” she said.
To get accustomed to cooking and eating parts of produce you’ve never worked with, Ly suggests starting out by cooking fruits and vegetables you’ve always eaten raw.
“One of my favorite vegetables to cook is actually cucumber,” she said. “Cucumber is delicious when it’s cooked, and it just takes on such a different flavor and texture. It tastes almost like zucchini at that point.
“I also love roasted radish, which is another thing that most people don’t think to cook. People normally roast turnips, rutabaga [and] carrots, but they don’t think about radish.”
Starting with an ingredient you’re already familiar with and cooking it in a different way helps you expand your palate, Ly said. After that, she recommends experimenting with the leaves of vegetables that have a mild flavor.
“If you grow [zucchini] at home, you can actually take the shoots — which are like the younger, smaller leaves — and you can use that as if you were using chard,” she said. “It’s got kind of a velvety texture. It’s very mild [and] somewhat nutty.”
While many grocers strip the leaves and stems off the produce they sell, you may have better luck if you’re buying fruits and vegetables from a farmer’s market or CSA. If you have your own garden, you’ll have more opportunity to stretch your dollars — especially if you’re growing produce that would be pricey to buy organic at the store.
For those new to gardening, Ly suggests reusing items you have around the house as growing containers so you aren’t spending a bunch of money to get started.
“Some people think that you have to get these really fancy, beautiful cedar garden beds and have a really nice area out in their yard that needs to be landscaped and put in a drip irrigation system, but … you can really use anything to grow,” she said.
Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.