Taste It, Don't Waste It! Stems and Ribs

Photograph courtesy of Sherri Brooks Vinton

Chard, collards, kale– these greens are loved for their leaves, but what about the ribs and stems? The prepping instructions for these vegetables often call for these parts of the plants to be removed and –gasp – discarded. That kind of “take the best, leave the rest” thinking has led many of us to pitch perfectly good dinner fixins. But once you get a bite of these bits, you’ll agree that they deserve better than the compost bin.

The ribs and stems of leafy green vegetables have a texture and flavor all their own. The stems of Swiss chard are similar to celery, offering a little snap to dishes when lightly sautéed and becoming meltingly tender when braised. Collard and kale stems bring a lot of good green flavor to the pot and, unlike the leafy part of the plant, don’t cook down in volume as dramatically.

It’s easy to separate the ribs and stems from the leaves. Always start by trimming away any dry, woody ends from your stems. Then you can run a paring knife down each side of the rib to cut it away from the leaf. Or, you can strip the leaves off the rib by making a small circle with your pointer and thumb and quickly pulling the leaf through it by the stem end.

You can often include the ribs and stems in recipes that use the leaves by chopping them finely and adding them to the pot a few minutes ahead of the prepped leaves, so they get the little head start they need to cook through. If you aren’t going to include the ribs and stems in your recipe, you can store them in the fridge for several days, loosely wrapped in damp paper towels or a reusable wrap or container. If you want to keep ribs and stems on hand longer than that, chop them, give them a quick blanch in boiling water and then store them in the freezer for up to three months.

How you use your stems will depend on the kind of shape they’re in:

  • Frozen stems are best used in soups and stews.
  • Thin, tender stems have a bright, grassy flavor and can be enjoyed raw or with very little cooking time. Try them:

Pureed into pesto with walnuts, hard cheese, olive oil and a handful of herbs.

Blended into a smoothie.

Sautéed as a side.

Raw as a snack.

Pickled

  • Tougher, thicker stems that might be a bit fibrous are better off with a longer cooking time where the low, slow heat will tenderize them. Try them:

Braisedinto submission.

Blanchedand baked into a quiche or frittata.

Or try your ribs and stems in the recipe below, where their bright tastes balances the rich, creamy béchamel sauce. Be sure not to overcook the stems so their snappy little bite offers another layer of texture to the velvety potatoes.

Rustic Rib and Stem Gratin

Serves 4-6

This recipe is terrific with any kind of ribs or stems you have on hand – those from collards, chard, kale or a combination of all three will work beautifully. The rough and ready chopped potatoes are a beat apart from the thinly sliced ones you traditionally find in a gratin, but the chunks do a better job of catching the chopped stems between them – and less fuss is always a good way to go in my book.

Ingredients:

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 1” dice

Stems from 1-2 bunches of greens, trimmed and cut into 1/2” pieces, about 1-2 cups

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

1 cup grated cheese (such as gouda, cheddar or gruyere), about 4 ounces

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F.

Place the diced potatoes in a large pot of cold water to cover, bring to a boil and add enough salt to make the water taste like the sea. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are almost tender, about 10 minutes. 1-2 minutes before the potatoes are done, add the chopped stems to the pot to soften them. Strain through a colander and drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, a few tablespoons at a time, incorporating fully before adding more. Season with salt and pepper and simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce is as thick as heavy cream, about 2-3 minutes. Add half the cheese and whisk to incorporate.

Combine the sauce and potato mixture in an 8” x 8” brownie pan or casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese. Bake until brown and bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.