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Root to Stem: Reducing Food Waste with CSA Produce

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

Root to Stem: Reducing Food Waste with CSA Produce

The Produce Section Paradox

I’ll admit it – I’m one of those people who gets a little overly excited when I step into the produce section. The vibrant colors, the fresh aromas, the endless possibilities for delicious recipes – it’s enough to make my heart skip a beat (or at least make me forget my grocery list). But inevitably, my produce-fueled enthusiasm leads me down a familiar path of guilt and regret.

You see, I have this bad habit of loading up my cart with way more fruits and veggies than I could ever hope to use before they start to wilt and rot. It’s like I get hypnotized by the beauty of it all, imagining all the fabulous dishes I’ll whip up. But then real life happens – the recipes stay bookmarked, the juicer collects dust, and those once-vibrant vegetables turn into unrecognizable compost fodder.

I know I’m not alone in this produce-purchasing predicament. In fact, according to a study by the Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a staggering 52% of all the fruits and vegetables we buy in the U.S. end up getting tossed. That’s more than half! And it’s not just us consumers – food waste happens at every stage of the supply chain, from farm to table.

Rethinking the Whole Vegetable

So how do we break this vicious cycle of produce hoarding and wasting? Well, I recently stumbled upon a book that just might hold the answer: Root to Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable by Tara Duggan. As a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a recipient of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, Duggan knows a thing or two about making the most of our plant-based bounty.

Duggan’s book fascinated me because it challenges the way we traditionally think about fruits and vegetables. Instead of just focusing on the “prime” parts – think broccoli florets, carrot sticks, and apple slices – she encourages us to embrace the often-overlooked stems, leaves, and other “extra” bits. And the more I learned, the more I realized just how much edible potential we’re letting go to waste.

Take broccoli, for example. Most of us are guilty of tossing the sturdy stalks in favor of the vibrant florets. But Duggan points out that those stalks are not only perfectly edible, but they can actually be quite delicious when prepared the right way. The same goes for the leafy greens that accompany vegetables like beets, radishes, and carrots – they’re packed with flavor and nutrition, but often end up in the compost bin.

Anatomy of a Vegetable

To help us better appreciate the whole plant, Duggan breaks down the basic anatomy of common produce items. Once you start thinking about vegetables in these terms, a whole new world of culinary possibilities opens up.

Roots: The main edible portion of the plant, such as beets, carrots, and radishes. But don’t forget about those leafy tops – they can be used just like greens in salads, sautés, and more.

Stems: Often discarded, but stems from broccoli, cauliflower, and fennel can actually be quite flavorful when cooked properly. They can be sliced, roasted, or even candied for a sweet treat.

Leaves: From beet greens to carrot tops, these nutrient-dense leaves are a healthy and versatile ingredient. Use them anywhere you would use spinach or chard.

Flowers: Believe it or not, many vegetable plants produce edible flowers, like the vibrant blooms of squash and the subtle buds of herbs. They can add a delicate flavor and beautiful garnish to all kinds of dishes.

Once you start looking at your produce this way, you’ll be amazed at how much less ends up in the trash. And the best part? These oft-discarded parts of the plant can be just as (if not more) delicious than the “prime” cuts.

Putting It All to Use

So how exactly can we make the most of these vegetable cast-offs? Duggan offers up plenty of creative ideas and mouthwatering recipes in her book, but here are a few of my favorite ways to put the whole plant to use:

Leek Greens Stir-Fry with Salty Pork Belly

Leeks are one of those veggies where we typically toss the dark green tops and only use the tender white and light green parts. But Duggan shares a recipe that puts those leek greens front and center. She stir-fries them with garlic, chiles, and salty pork belly for a dish that tastes like a cross between chives and spinach.

Beet Leaf and Grain Salad

Beet greens have a similar flavor to Swiss chard, so you can easily substitute them in recipes that call for that leafy green. Duggan tosses them with cooked grains, roasted beets, creamy goat cheese, and toasted walnuts for a hearty and nutrient-packed salad.

Candied Fennel Stalks

Those frilly fennel fronds and fibrous stalks are usually destined for the compost, but Duggan has a genius way to transform them into a crunchy, candy-like snack. She slices the stalks thinly, dries them in the oven, and then coats them in a sweet glaze. They make a delightful topping for yogurt or salads.

The best part is that these ideas are just the tip of the (carrot) iceberg. Duggan’s book is brimming with all sorts of creative uses for vegetable scraps, from blending chard stems into a hummus-like dip to simmering carrot tops in soups and stews.

The Power of Community-Supported Agriculture

Of course, maximizing our use of the whole plant is just one piece of the food waste puzzle. We also have to consider where our produce comes from in the first place – and that’s where community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs like Thorn Apple CSA come into play.

Unlike the perfectly manicured fruits and veggies you find at the supermarket, CSA produce often arrives with all its natural accoutrements still intact. That means you get to enjoy the full spectrum of flavors and nutrients that nature intended, from beet greens to carrot tops.

As Duggan discovered through her work with local farms, this connection to the whole plant can be incredibly eye-opening. When you see those leafy tops and gnarly roots still attached to your produce, you start to appreciate just how much effort and care goes into growing each and every item. And that makes you a lot less likely to mindlessly toss them in the trash.

A Bountiful Future

So the next time you find yourself wandering the produce aisles, I challenge you to think beyond just the carrots and the cauliflower. Start exploring all the edible wonders that lie in those oft-overlooked stems, leaves, and flowers. It’s a surefire way to reduce your food waste, save some money, and discover a whole new world of flavors.

And if you really want to take your vegetable appreciation to the next level, consider signing up for a Thorn Apple CSA box. With a direct connection to local, sustainably-grown produce, you’ll be able to make the most of every single part of the plant – from root to stem.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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