Flash in the Pan 

Robbing the compost pile

The preparation and consumption of animal offal has become trendy in recent years. From headcheese to braised pig feet, there are many ways of turning animal refuse into delicacies. And while plant offal hasn't exactly become the new rage, B-list plant parts can be incorporated into tasty meals as well.

Today we typically eat the plant parts with the easy calories, and toss the rest. But in the days before we had legions of hardworking underpaid immigrants to grow the nation's vegetables so cheaply they're practically disposable, we were more apt to use every part of the plant we could.

Many types of plant offal are tasty, nutritious, and deserving of a place alongside animal offal like sweetbreads and pig jowls. Today I'm going to give you recipes for three such underused ingredients: spinach roots, and the greens of carrots and radishes.

Some B-list plant parts are so strong in flavor they're best used to support other main ingredients—such as in my recipe for chopped carrot tops in steamed quinoa. Other pieces of plant offal are mild enough to serve as a dish's main ingredient, like the spinach bottoms in the Turkish salad Ispanak Koku Salatasi, which spotlights spinach offal the way foie gras features liver.

Carrot greens are one of the most easily available and commonly overlooked of plant parts. You can pick them repeatedly off the carrots in your garden and they'll sprout right back. While the underground carrot part gets more attention, the fragrant foliage upstairs can add unique flavor and important nutrients to a meal. Carrot leaves are high in chlorophyll and potassium, and used medicinally for kidney problems and other ailments. Because of their strong, fragrant taste, carrot tops are often used to add flavor, such as in summer soups, or in the following recipe with steamed quinoa.

This time of year I like to include fresh garlic flowers in this dish, since they're in season and, like carrot greens, they add color and flavor.

Sauté a chopped onion in olive oil. Add four medium carrots sliced into rounds. Stir in 2-6 garlic flowers, chopped, and a cup of chopped carrot tops. If you're so inclined, apply chili pepper heat via whichever form you prefer—I took a few big dried red chiles and crushed them with my hands over the pot. Then add a cup of quinoa, four cups of water, and simmer. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Cook until the quinoa is tender and the water's gone, and enjoy the offal-flavored grains.

We now move from carrot tops to a salad of spinach bottoms. While spinach is best known for its tender dark green leaves, many recipes for Ispanak Koku Salatasi treat the foliage as a byproduct, as in "don't discard them, they're great in salads." In many recipes the term "spinach roots" also includes the lower portion of the stalk where the leaf stems attach—aka, the crown. While both crown and root are edible, the root is tougher and requires longer cooking.

click to enlarge Photo by Chad Harder
  • Photo by Chad Harder

Spinach root salad is timely for early summer, because after a spring of supplying fresh leaves, many spinach plants are ready to bolt. If your spinach leaves take on a pointed arrowhead shape, you know the end is nigh and smaller, bitter leaves are coming. The crown and roots aren't affected by the bolting bitters, so pull the whole plant, roots and all. Trim the leaves off (save them for later, of course) and clean the crown and root portions—or remove the root if you only want the tender crown.

Boil the spinach parts, five minutes for the crown only or 20 minutes if you leave the roots on. Drain the spinach and toss in the following dressing: three tablespoons olive oil, one tablespoon cider vinegar or lemon juice, chile powder to taste (I like a teaspoon), and a clove of garlic mashed to a pulp with salt and pepper.

By themselves, these nether parts are earthy and strong, but the dressing is assertive, and leaves the spinach crowns tasting like artichoke hearts and the roots tasting like the dressing, which is to say, really good.

Radishes are another plant we're forced to confront this time of year. They're often sown in early spring when little else can be planted, and because of their strong fiery taste, eating them can quickly get old if you don't have any tricks up your sleeve beyond slicing them onto salads.

I plant radishes thick and pick them small. I wash them with the leaves still attached, and cut off the long spindly tap-root that extends from the bottom of each bulb.

To cook whole young radishes, heat a combination of butter and olive oil in a pan and sauté the radishes slowly on medium heat without stirring. After about five minutes the leaves will have flattened against the bottom of the pan and begun to crisp, while the bulb will have turned slightly translucent. Add a shot of sherry or white wine to loosen anything that might be sticking to the pan, and carefully flip the radishes. Now add a few sliced garlic cloves and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the garlic browns.

The leaves turn melt-in-your-mouth crispy and remind me of the legs of soft shell crabs, especially when juxtaposed with the soft, sweet, juicy flesh of the bulb. It makes a beautiful garnish, and won't be left behind like other garnishes.

With the affordability of vegetables today, consuming plant offal may no longer be a matter of life and death, but it can improve the quality of your life. As these three seasonal dishes show, the B-list of plant parts can perform like stars when given the stage.

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