Root-to-Stem Cooking

Making the Most of Whole Plants

Consider the average meal and think about what is going into it. Now think about what’s not—and all the pieces and parts you just dropped into the trash or composter.

Chef Jamie Simpson of the Culinary Vegetable Institute thinks about this all the time, especially when creating the menu for his popular Vegetable Showcase dinners. The dinners feature one family of vegetables and explore every possible application of the plant and all its parts, from seed to stem and from root to bloom. The result is a creative meal that follows the plant through its entire life cycle.

“We look at every stage of a plant’s life,” Jamie says. More chefs are practicing root-to-stem cooking, repurposing cuttings and scraps destined for the composter, and finding ways to incorporate them into dishes. We’re eating things we’ve not considered edible before.

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“We’ve been doing some basic calculations around standard produce with the James Beard Foundation and have discovered some eye-opening numbers,” Jamie says. Using a scale and some basic math, the chefs learned that 9% of a potato is wasted when peeled. Around 30% of red pepper is wasted when seeded, and 41% of scallions remain unused after the roots are removed and the outer leaves are peeled. When corn is husked and shucked, 61% of the plant is usually thrown away.

“Even if the produce is perfect, the way in which we handle ingredients is flawed,” he says. “There is opportunity to get more out of almost every item that we purchase.”

This vanguard approach to preparing and cooking vegetables is as practical as it is exciting. Wasting food is not only irresponsible, but it also has an insidious impact on the environment. When we throw out food that has been grown, we’re demonstrating our callousness to the natural and human resources required to bring it from seed to table. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that discarded food is about 21% of the total waste stream—more than any other item from our everyday trash. Reducing food waste can also affect climate change; about 20% of U.S. methane emissions comes from landfills.

We are inclined to toss the roots, stems, leaves, and skins of vegetables and fruits, but they still have purpose. Most of us are open to making a stock of vegetable bits or experimenting with sprouted seeds, but it doesn’t have to stop there. With a little ingenuity and, yes, discipline, that “trash” can turn into culinary treasure. Watermelon rinds can be pickled. Corncobs and cornsilk can be soaked to create a milky broth base for creamy soups. Russet potato peels can be fried and salted for a crispy snack. Vegetable and fruit remnants can infuse liquor for craft cocktails.

Jamie is especially enthusiastic about summer squash, a prolific and high-yielding vegetable. “The squash plant can range from vining varieties with tendrils to bushes pushing 10 feet,” he says. “These plants offer a tremendous amount of opportunities throughout their life cycle, beyond standard agricultural models.”

Squash seeds can be roasted and enjoyed just like those of pumpkins (they’re in the same family, after all). Blossoms can be fried, stuffed, and baked (the bulbous female flowers work best). The stalks of a middle-aged plant are tender and hollow and, once peeled, can be sautéed or marinated and used in ways similar to celery.

The Culinary Vegetable Institute will host a Vegetable Showcase Dinner featuring squash on June 15. More Vegetable Showcase Dinners are scheduled throughout the year. For more information, visit CulinaryVegetableInstitute.com.