Thrifty gardeners like to use every part of the vegetable. Why throw away luscious beetroot tops, colourful Swiss chard stems or crunchy broccoli stalks? If you use what everyone else tosses away, then you are a root-to-stem gardener. This is the latest trend in a world that’s conscious of waste and the rising cost of food.
Creative gardeners/cooks are taking this trend even further with recipes for carrot-top pesto, radish greens chimichurri and roasted cauliflower steaks. It has also been discovered that the parts we throw away (hopefully on the compost heap) are just as rich in nutrients, if not richer, than the parts we eat, such as broccoli stems, beetroot leaves and more.
There are plenty of summer veggies that can be eaten root-to-stem. Here are our suggestions:
Beetroot: The leaves have eight times the nutritional content of the roots, and the plants were first grown for their leaves. In gardens with heavy soil that produce poor roots, plant beetroot closer together as a leaf crop. When thinning, plant the seedlings from the second thinning as a row or two of greens for the table or use them as small salad leaves. Beetroot leaves can also be harvested sparingly while the beets are growing, or the whole plant can be harvested and used when the beets are ready. Beetroot leaves have a milder taste than Swiss chard and can be cooked in the same way. Mix the two together to make the leaves go further.
Growing tips: Beetroot like relatively poor soil and will grow in a lightly shaded position. Don’t add manure to the soil but do break down soil clumps because the roots need a fine, stone-free soil to develop good roots.
Swiss chard: ‘Bright Lights’ varieties with colourful stems offer the most options. Chopped small they can be added to soups and stews, sautéed with onions, peppers and other veggies in stir-fries, or steamed and added to pasta, quiche and other baked dishes. Those with the large white rib can be steamed and served with hollandaise sauce, as an asparagus substitute.
Growing tips: In summer, Swiss chard grows better in partial shade. Water regularly and feed monthly with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser to boost leaf production. Harvest 2 – 3 outer stems at a time from each plant.
Summer squashes like baby marrows and patty pans, as well as winter squashes (pumpkins and butternut), produce edible flowers, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach, often referred to by people in rural areas as marog. Cook the leaves as soon as possible after picking because they wilt quickly. Wash well and shred. Sauté an onion and some garlic and add the leaves. Add some water or stock and some chopped tomatoes and potatoes and stew until the vegetables are very tender. The ‘hairiness’ of the leaves diminishes with cooking.
Growing tips: Plant in full sun, in well-composted soil that drains well. Allow enough space for plants to grow (overcrowding may cause fungal disease). Water at the base of the plant and avoid wetting the leaves.
Carrots are a spring crop that by now will be producing feathery heads and sweet orange roots. Carrot tops can be bitter, but blanching will reduce this. Put the tops in rapidly boiling water until they turn bright green, then drain and put them into iced-water to stop the cooking. Use to make pesto, as a garnish instead of parsley or coriander, and add to egg dishes, pasta, salads and even smoothies. Carrot tops are also good for vegetable stocks.
Growing tips: Of all the root crops, carrots are the most particular about the soil, which needs to be deep and on the sandy side. Carrot seed is very fine and is shallow-sown so watering twice a day is suggested during germination. A good idea is to sow radish seed with the carrots. The radishes germinate quickly and shade the carrot seed.
Radishes are fiery, and that includes the leaves. Use the leaves as microgreens or baby greens in salads or as a garnish. The larger leaves make a tangy pesto or chimichurri sauce. To make a chimichurri sauce simmer 2/3 cup of leaves in 1/2 cup of water until dark green and soft. Drain, remove any excess water and pulse in a blender with 1 chopped spring onion, 1 clove garlic, 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, a pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons olive oil. The mixture should be coarse. Keep chilled and use as a topping for steak (the Argentinian way), pizza, omelettes and roasted vegetables.
Growing tip: Harvest 3 – 5 weeks after sowing. Radishes left in the ground too long become too large, pithy and too peppery.
Other root-to-stem veggies
The stems of cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower and kale are also packed with goodness for root-to-stem use.
Broccoli: Shave stalks into coleslaw, chop and cook with florets, add to salads and pasta. The leaves are edible too.
Cauliflower: Chop up the stem and cook with the florets or make cauliflower steaks by cutting vertically through the head and stem, as though cutting slices of bread. Roast on a lightly oiled baking try, season and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for about 30 minutes, turning once. Serve with a sauce.
Kale: Blanch the stems and roast, stir-fry, use for pesto, braise and add to salads or blend into smoothies. Blanching is essential.
Try this: Veggie greens pesto Blend 4 cups of chopped greens (use beetroot, carrot, radish or turnip greens – stems removed) in a food processor with 4 garlic cloves, ½ cup walnuts, 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. While blending, stream in up to ½ cup extravirgin olive oil. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Try this unusual root-to-stem veggie
Eggplant ‘Oriental Fingerlings’ produces long, slender fruits in shades of purple, green and white. The flesh is tender and sweeter than other varieties and should be harvested young. Grow in full sun and space plants 45 – 60cm apart. Fruit is ready for harvesting within 70 days of germination. Available from RAW Seed through garden centres and hardware outlets.