Taste it, Don't Waste it! Broccoli and Cauliflower Stems and Leaves

Food waste isn't always easy to spot and sometimes you might not even recognize it. I've seen eaters in the farmers' market toss out nearly half of their purchase before they even walk away from the seller. They're not doing it because they like to burn their cash. It happens because a lot of eaters simply don't realize they are tossing perfectly edible - and flavorful - parts of their produce. Beet greens, carrot fronds, radish greens and more all get left behind when they could be a delicious part of the shopper's market haul.

Take broccoli and cauliflower, for example. We are used to eating the heads. If you believed the signs in the grocery you might be led to believe that the "crowns," the very tops of the heads, are the most prized part of the plant when you see them highlighted in the aisle and marked up for a premium price. But there is a lot more to these cruciferous beauties than just their florets.

Broccoli and cauliflower grow in a similar fashion. They are both "cole" plants, which means they grow on a stalk. The heads grow in the center of a ruffle of large green leaves. All of these parts or not only edible, they are delicious and highly nutritious. Some eaters (including this one) actually prefer the stalks and leaves of broccoli and cauliflower plants to the more commonly eaten head.

Using Broccoli and Cauliflower Stalks

The stalks of these plants have a delicate flavor and texture, like a cross between broccoli or cauliflower and a water chestnut. To prep the stalks, you need to remove the fibrous outer layer that surrounds the central "marrow." You can use a vegetable peeler to slice it off like a carrot. Or use a paring knife to whittle it away. You can then cut the stems as you like - coins, batons or shreds are all great. When you are preparing your recipe, don't hesitate to throw in the prepped stalks right along with the florets.

Using Broccoli and Cauliflower Leaves

The leaves are becoming increasingly popular and that's a great thing. It's quite sad to drive past a recently harvested field and see piles of broccoli and cauliflower leaves left behind to rot. Luckily, eaters' demand is creating a retail market for these greens. A win for reducing food waste. Also, the leaves are a great bi-product crop for the farmer that allows them to generate more income from the same harvest.

Broccoli and cauliflower leaves are starting to pop up in grocery stores, bundled and right at home in the leafy greens section of the produce aisle. If you are shopping in the farmers' market, you might spot heads of broccoli and cauliflower with their leaves intact. They're quite stunning and are huge - you may very well wind up with an armful of a plant if you are lucky enough to find one just as it was grown.

Broccoli leaves taste similar to collards or kale, which are broccoli's brassica relatives. You can prepare them the same way. Just remove the center rib. It's easy to trim it away with a sharp knife. Or you can use the "O" method in which you pinch your thumb and pointer together, leaving a small circle of space between them and drag the leaf swiftly through to strip out the rib. You can eat the ribs if you finely chop them and give them a head start in the cooking process to allow them a chance to soften before adding the rest of the leaf. The outer leaves of the cauliflower plant can be treated in the same way.

The cauliflower leaves closest to the head are a bit more tender. They behave more like cabbage, another member of the brassica family. Like cabbage, you don't need to remove their ribs to enjoy them. The leaves cook down to a soft, silky texture and the rib retains a little bit more tooth, about the same as a braised leek.

If you can't cook your broccoli or cauliflower leaves right away, it's no problem. They keep for up to a week or more wrapped loosely and refrigerated. 

Using up the Whole Broccoli and Cauliflower Plant

Here are a few ways to use up your cauliflower and broccoli stalks and leaves.

Roasted
You can roast peeled stems cut into 1-2 inch sections right along with the plant's florets. The leaves cook up like kale chips. In either case, just drizzle with olive oil, season and pop into a hot oven (375-425 degrees) until tender in the case of stems, or crisp if you are roasting leaves. 

Stir-Fried
There are very few vegetables that don't go well in a stir-fry. Broccoli and cauliflower are not exceptions and their stalks and leaves fit in these types of dishes well. 

Slaw
If you want to impress and amaze your family and friends - and reduce food waste - whip up a batch of broccoli stem slaw (below). Shred up some peeled broccoli stalks, carrots and maybe some radish. Drizzle on your favorite dressing. Done. 

Soup
Pureed soup is a perfect gateway recipe to using up your stems. Peel, simmer, puree right along with the florets for added flavor with no extra cost. 

Mac and Cheese
Adding cauliflower or broccoli florets to your baked mac and cheese is an easy way to lighten up the dish and get an extra serving of vegetables in your meal. Add the peeled and chopped stalks as well. No one will even notice. 

Pickled
Turn the stalks into a quick pickle. Peel, cut them into ½ inch wide batons and submerge them in a hot brine bath of vinegar seasoned with a little salt and sugar and any spices that appeal to you. Cool cover and refrigerate overnight and keep them up to three weeks.

Rice It
Ricing cauliflower is all the rage with eaters who are looking to lower their carb intake. A head is grated on the wide holes of a box grater or chopped finely in a food processor. The resulting pebble-like pieces are used as a substitute for the grain (actually, rice is a grass, but that's another article) or in a variety of other applications. If you are a "ricer" consider grinding up peeled stalks in your next batch. 

Braise
Braise broccoli and cauliflower leaves as you would any other leafy green such as kale or chard. Sauté them over medium heat with a little garlic or onion and add a splash of something tasty such as stock, wine, cider or vinegar and simmer partially covered until tender.

Stuffed Cabbage
Stuffed cabbage, aka Polish Golabki, filled with a mixture of ground meat and rice can also be stuffed broccoli or cauliflower leaves. Give them a quick blanch in salted boiling water to make them pliable and load them up just as you would a cabbage leaf.

Steam
You can steam any of part of the plant for a powerhouse of a healthy side dish. 

Salad
The stalks and leaves of broccoli and cauliflower are great in salads. Dice peeled stalks and toss them in. Cut the stemmed leaves into chiffonade and massage with a bit of dressing to soften them.

Recipe: Broccoli Slaw

Makes 2-4 side dish servings.

If you are new to using broccoli stalks, this is a great gateway recipe. The tender stalks add just enough crunch and their delicate flavor really lets the Asian dressing shine. If you have extra veg on hand - some radishes, daikon, cabbage, peppers - you can prep them in the same manner and throw them in as well. This slaw is happy to play.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
Pinch of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as organic canola
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Broccoli stalks from 1 bunch of broccoli, peeled, trimmed and shredded or cut into matchsticks
2 carrots, shredded or cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro (optional)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Method:

  1. In a large bowl, whisk the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Whisk in the oils and red pepper flakes, if using.
  1. Add the broccoli and carrots and toss to combine. Garnish with the cilantro, if using, and the sesame seeds. Can be made up to two hours ahead.