A No-Waste Approach to Veggies
Waste not! Here are creative ways to use vegetable trimmings in fresh, healthy recipes.
You’ve already paid for them once, but you can get better value (and additional flavor!) out of many of your veggies by diverting more of them from the compost bucket to the plate. Lots of plant parts we assume are just garbage are not only edible, but — when cooked with care and a little flair — delicious. Think of them as bonus vegetables!
With reduced trips to the grocery store these days, now is the perfect time to discover these simple techniques so you can stretch grocery runs — and grocery budgets.
Of course, using veggie scraps isn’t new. Our frugal ancestors would squeeze every bit possible from fruits and vegetables, even when times weren’t lean. And in thrift-minded restaurants, they put piles of trim from prepping cases of produce to work in stocks, garnishes, and sauces.
At home, your supply is comparatively modest. But you can still capture nutrition and flavor from overlooked stems, leaves, and cores. Some of these are now the part of the plant I enjoy the most!
The easiest place to start is with a solid recipe. With that in mind, I’ve picked some favorite ideas to take the mystery out of prepping and savoring overlooked gems of the vegetable kingdom. Before long, you, too, will love cooking with vegetable scraps.
Jump ahead to:
How to make vegetable broth
Learning how to make vegetable broth from scraps is simple. Accumulate vegetable trimmings in your freezer and when you have a batch, cook them all together using your slow-cooker, Instant Pot, or a pot on the stovetop. (Wondering what to do with vegetable pulp after juicing? Add that to your stash, too.)
This recipe for Crock Pot vegetable stock lays out the basic concept of creating a stash in the freezer, and offers tips on what veggies to add — and which to steer clear of.
Use the same principles to make quick Instant Pot vegetable stock, in about an hour total time.
This is a mushroom-forward version of veggie stock. Stockpile woody mushroom stems in a bag in the freezer, and when you build up enough, cook them into a rich stock on the stovetop to add to soups, stews, and risotto.
What to make with leaves and fronds
Whether attached to root vegetables (radishes, beets, carrots, turnips, kohlrabi) or heads of the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower), many leaves that some of us routinely discard can be enjoyed raw, braised, sautéed, or pureed.
Take pesto: Add enough garlic and olive oil, and every obscure edible green becomes fabulous. This is a good trick to know, because if you’re craving pesto but there’s no basil handy, you can whip up a batch with carrot tops, radish leaves, or fennel fronds.
These leaves often have a strong flavor. Carrot tops have a caraway vibe; radish leaves, a horseradish bite; fennel fronds, a licorice undercurrent. You can always mix them with other greens, like spinach, or herbs, like parsley.
When you buy roots and the greens are still attached, it’s best to separate them once you get them back from the store. Pat the leaves dry so they won’t spoil, put them in a plastic bag with a paper towel, and use in a few days. Wash them thoroughly before cooking — beet, turnip, and radish greens in particular can be full of grit or dirt.
Other leaves may not be as plentiful, but are still noteworthy. Little broccoli leaves poking out from broccoli stalks are totally edible; I add them to soup, stir-fries, or sautes. Celery leaves you can think of as an herb. A handful adds a pungent note to tossed green salads, while mincing them to throw in sautéed bases for soup or stews contributes another layer of flavor. Unlike other leaves, these guys store just fine kept attached to the stalks.
Here’s an easy intro to using radish greens. Cook them right along with radishes, adding them later in the braise so they don’t get mushy.
This zippy green pesto has become the emblematic pesto of the movement against food waste. Because who even considered eating those frilly fronds before? Here they’re cut with basil and mint, but parsley or cilantro work, too. Serve the pesto over pasta, grilled chicken, or…carrots!
Next time you buy a head of fresh fennel and wonder what to do with all the feathery fronds, make them into a pesto with garlic, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and Parmesan.
A generous 5 ½ cups of chopped broccoli leaves goes into this easy soup featuring packaged tortellini, but if you don’t have that much, you can use part kale or another green.
Recipes using cores, cobs, and peels
This category brings together several disparate types of vegetable trimmings that all still have plenty of usefulness in your kitchen.
After hacking florets from a head of cauliflower, don’t toss the core! Whether you’re making cauliflower soup, riced cauliflower, cauliflower pizza crust, or mashed cauliflower, once the core is slowly sautéed or simmered, it becomes as sweet and delicious as the rest of the head. Trim off the leaves (save them for sautés!) and brown or cracked parts, then either mince the core by hand, or hunk it into smaller pieces before pulsing it in the food processor. I cook cauliflower core with minced broccoli stems or kale stems for a cruciferous vegetable hash.
Corn cobs, while not technically edible (unless you’re a goat, say), are worth holding onto for the sweet flavor they impart to broth and soup. Got some potato peels? Read on.
A creamy soup without the cream: For this 35-minute recipe, you saute onion and garlic, then add cauliflower and vegetable broth, and simmer until tender. Blitz with a blender, and you’ve got a nice velvety puree.
Remember this the next time you make fresh corn salsa or salad! Simmer cobs with a few aromatics and you have sweet stock that’s great in chowders and summery soups. This version calls for kernels, but you can leave them out and use only stripped cobs for a lighter stock. (In a rush? Here’s a simpler recipe using the same concept.) Corn cobs don’t keep long in the fridge, so either use them up fast or freeze them for later.
Peeling potatoes? Don’t pitch the peels! Cover them in cold water to keep them from turning brown, and keep them in the fridge for a few days until you’re ready to bake this irresistible snack. The key is to get the potato peels as dry as possible before tossing them with oil. I find tea towels work best.
Great ways to use vegetable stems
How many recipes instruct you to discard the stems from kale, collard greens, chard, or broccoli (or cilantro)? Though some can be tough when raw, these stems transform with heat — or a little knife work — and are worthy vegetables in their own right. Save them!
While broccoli, kale, beet, and collard stems can be fibrous, if you cut them across the grain into tiny coins, they’ll cook up sweet and succulent. I add them to soups like minestrone, or toss them into a pan of sauteing broccoli or cauliflower. Note that these stems keep longer than the leaves — often up to two weeks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Chard stems meld well with many flavors. In a lot of recipes, you can chop them and saute them in a skillet along with onions or carrots. Stems from ruby or rainbow chard add appealing color, while the milder white stems add sweetness and a mineral tinge.
The woody lower part of asparagus stems that you usually snap off is a great addition to vegetable stock. You can also trim only the bottom half inch of the stalks, then peel the fibrous skin from the lower third of the stalk. This gives you a much bigger yield on a bunch of asparagus.
You’ll never see broccoli stems the same way again. Riced broccoli stems have a sweeter, less sulfuric flavor than cauliflower rice, and they're fabulous as an add-in to grain bowls. I make a simplified version (with olive oil as the fat, and salt and pepper as the only seasonings) about once a week.
It’s a little work, but this recipe turns broccoli stems into an alluring center-of-the-plate attraction.
A mere roast in the oven gives you the guilt-free fries of your dreams. Bake these at 400° just as you would potatoes.
Cooked whole, chard stems can be limp and watery. Grilled, they turn sweet and appealingly charred (get it?). Blanch the stems first so they keep their color on the grill.
Here’s a whole other approach to chard stems, for a tart and crunchy snack. Choose red chard if you want the pretty pink color.
Look closely at this photo, and you can see how finely shredding collards with the stems still attached gives you more texture in the final dish. Brazilian collards are quickly sauteed, a fresh revelation if you are used to slow-cooked American greens.
Quickly cooked beet greens taste like ruby chard. The stems are fibrous, so be sure to cut them into segments. Here you simply add them to the skillet along with the greens.
Those stubby stems on zucchini and summer squash? You can eat them. Just trim off the very end (which is often brown or dry) and discard it. These stem ends have amazing flavor, similar to squash blossoms. In these zucchini boats they’re simply left on, but if I’m chopping summer squash I always slice that part finely and add it to whatever I’m cooking.
Many recipes call for pitching cilantro stems, but these little guys pack quite a bit of flavor. If you’re a cilantro lover, finely chop the stems across the grain and add them to salsas and sauces, or simply grind them in a blender, as in this chutney. Stems give the chutney body and provide a cooling foil for the chilies’ heat.
More thrifty, zero-waste cooking ideas
What other food scraps can you put to good use in the kitchen?