In the spring of 1994, as part of an externship program at George Brown chef school, I spent three solid weeks working at Centro, a celebrated fine dining restaurant in midtown Toronto.
From a perfect julienne of red pepper to a ruby-like dice of tomato, vegetables were cut with ruthless precision – which created a fair amount of scrap. While some of these trimmings were used to flavour stocks and sauces, the bulk of it went into a giant steam kettle, where it was transformed into a vat of delicious soup. In the kitchen it was known as "potage de garbage"; on the menu it was $7 a bowl.
Getting the most out of your vegetables has always been an economic necessity for restaurants. Today it's evolved into the root-to-leaf movement, where chefs apply the nose-to-tail ethos in an herbivorous manner. Now leaves, stems and peelings destined for the green bin are ending up on your plate.
At Dirt Candy, a vegetarian temple in Manhattan, Amanda Cohen turns radish tops into a peppery pesto to serve with ricotta and the roots. In Toronto at Buca Yorkville, Rob Gentile takes it a step further flavouring fresh spaghetti with leaves from a tomato plant, an idea he borrowed from his friend Derek Dammann of Maison Publique in Montreal. It creates a verdant pasta al pomodoro and amplifies the sauce.
Most vegetable trimmings, including kale ribs, cabbage cores and corn cobs, not to mention that tired bunch of green onions in the crisper, can be made into stock for soups, stews and risotto. Just cover with water in a pot, add a few bay leaves and simmer for one hour. On a more advanced level, save the tough, dark green outer layers of a Savoy cabbage for minestrone, and strain cucumber seeds and their pulp for juice to use in smoothies or cocktails.
Root-to-leaf cooking will take on a new significance as the California drought continues to raise the price of imported produce that Canadians rely upon so heavily for half the year. (When cauliflower costs six bucks a head, you better make the most of it.)
In this pasta recipe featuring carrots, everything but the stems are utilized. (Save them for the stockpot.) The leaves, which taste like robust parsley, become pesto, a recipe adapted from April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Greens: Hearty Meals from the Garden, an excellent vegetable cookbook filled with revelatory ideas. The roots are roasted unpeeled, which intensifies their sweetness.
With crunchy walnuts and salty pecorino, it's a satisfying vegetarian entrée for the first cool nights of autumn.
Ready time: 1 hour
Carrot top pesto
4 cups carrot leaves (no stems), loosely packed
1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup walnut halves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. rainbow carrots, unpeeled
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 lb. (375 g) dried Italian farfalle or other pasta shape
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino-Romano, plus more for serving
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup walnut halves, toasted, chopped
1/4 cup carrot leaves
Chili flakes for serving (optional)
One bunch of top carrots should yield enough leaves for this recipe. Since they are quite dirty, rinse thoroughly then swish them around in a large bowl of water, which allows the dirt to settle to the bottom. Lift them out and dry in a salad spinner.
Place carrot leaves, basil, garlic and walnuts in food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. With motor running, add oil in slow steady stream. Stop machine. Scrape down bowl and season with salt. Pulse briefly to combine. Transfer to airtight container. Press plastic wrap against surface of pesto. Refrigerate up to five days.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash carrots thoroughly and dry with kitchen towel. If any carrots are thicker than 1-inch, cut in half lengthwise. Place on heavy-duty baking sheet. Toss with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast on lower shelf, turning occasionally, until browned and tender, for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite-size pieces. Place in microwavable bowl.
Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to instructions on package. Turn off burner and drain pasta in colander. Return pasta to pot. Microwave carrots on high to reheat and add to pot. Add enough pesto to generously coat – 2/3 cup should do it. Mix. Add cheese, lemon juice and a glug of olive oil, if it seems dry. Taste and adjust seasonings. Transfer to serving platter and top with walnuts and carrot leaves. Serve with more cheese on side and chili flakes, if desired.