Flash in the Pan
Robbing the Compost Pile
Carrot tops, spinach bottoms and the whole radish
“Plant offal” includes carrot tops and spinach bottoms.
The preparation and consumption of animal offal has become trendy in recent years. From headcheese to braised pig feet, there are all sorts of 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.
We typically eat the plant parts with easy calories, then toss the rest. But in the old days—before we had legions of hardworking, underpaid brown people to grow vegetables so cheaply they're practically disposable—we were more apt to use every part of the plant we could.
Plant offal can be tasty, nutritious and just as deserving of a place alongside animal parts 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 kökü salatasi, which spotlights spinach offal the way foie gras showcases 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 flavor and nutrients to a meal. Carrot leaves are high in chlorophyll and potassium, and they’re used medicinally for kidney problems and other ailments. Because of their strong, fragrant taste, carrot tops are often added to summer soups.
You can pick them repeatedly off the carrots in your garden and they'll sprout right back.
This time of year I like to cook them in quinoa along with fresh garlic flowers, since they're also in season and add color and flavor.
Sauté a chopped onion in olive oil. Add four peeled, medium-size carrots that have been sliced into 1/4-inch rounds. Stir in two to six garlic flowers, chopped, and a cup of cleaned and chopped carrot tops. If you're so inclined, apply chile pepper heat via whichever form you prefer—I took a few big, dried red chiles off a ristra hanging on the front porch and crushed them with my hands over the pot. Add a cup of quinoa, four cups of water, then simmer. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Cook until the quinoa is tender and the water's gone, and enjoy the flavor-packed grains.
We now move from carrot tops to a salad of spinach bottoms. While spinach is best known for its tender, dark green leaves, recipes for ispanak kökü salatasi often 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.
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: Smaller, bitter leaves are coming. The crown and roots aren't affected by the bolting bitters, so just pull the whole plant, roots and all. Trim off the leaves (save them for later, of course) and clean the crown and root portions—or remove the root if you only want the tender crown.
If your spinach leaves take on a pointed arrowhead shape, you know the end is nigh: Smaller, bitter leaves are coming.
Boil the spinach parts, five minutes for the crown or 20 minutes if you leave the roots on. Drain the spinach and toss in the following dressing: 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 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 assertive dressing makes the spinach crowns taste like artichoke hearts and the roots taste like the dressing—which is to say, really good.
Cooked whole, fried radish leaves are melt-in-your-mouth crispy.
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 flavor, eating them gets old fast if you don't have any tricks up your sleeve beyond slicing them onto salads.
I pick radishes while they’re small. I wash them with the leaves still attached, then cut off the long, spindly taproot 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 fried soft-shell crab legs, especially when juxtaposed with the soft, sweet, juicy flesh of the bulb. It makes a beautiful garnish, but it 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 will perform like stars when given the stage.