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From Parts Unknown

Don't throw away those roots, stems and leaves-- they could be dinner.


Sputnik came to mind the first time I bought kohlrabi, that odd-looking member of the cabbage family, with its enlarged corm and stems shooting upward all in the same direction. Buy a kohlrabi, cut off the leaves and you will see what I mean.

Although the famous Russian satellite eventually came crashing to Earth, my kohlrabi did not--it was very well received by my gaggle of then-young children. Kohlrabi has turned into one of my favorite vegetables because it's so easy to prepare, it's mild tasting and I like the idea that it is uncommon.

But, as with some other vegetables, after preparing it I had a few spare parts left over. In the case of kohlrabi, it was the leaves, and I couldn't bring myself to throw them out, because a little taste had convinced me that they had the potential to be pretty good eating. But what to do with them?

I searched my library for kohlrabi leaf recipes and ... nothing. Well, for years I have been traveling in and writing about the Mediterranean. And if there is one thing that is true about Mediterranean food, it's that nothing, and I mean nothing, gets thrown away.

I first tried kohlrabi leaves in a spaghetti alla carbonara my kids had been asking me to fix. I decided to toss them in too, really just to get rid of them. But the resulting dish was so good it became part of my repertoire. The mild, vaguely cabbagey tasting leaves added a delicate flavor to the creamy sauce.

And that got me to thinking about all the other vegetable parts I throw away that must be useful for something other than the compost heap.

Take, for instance, those thick white or red stems of the Swiss chard that cookbooks always tell us to strip the leaves from. Or the equally thick stems of broccoli, the roots of spinach or the leaves from beets, turnips and radishes.

They're all edible--and not just edible but delicious, with a texture and flavor that is different enough from the familiar that you almost get the feeling you're eating an entirely new vegetable.

Not all of the parts are as unusual as kohlrabi leaves. Because Swiss chard regenerates its leaves so copiously, even with heavy harvesting, it's the leaves most cooks concentrate on (plus, because the leaves are so hardy, they can stand up to all manner of soups and stews). But Middle Easterners have come up with ingenious ways of using the stalks as well.

Some cooks use them to make soups and stocks, but they also can be pureed and mixed with tahineh for a hummus-like dip called silq bil-tahina. It's usually served as part of a Lebanese-style mezze table, where a variety of small plates filled with appetizing foods are served, usually as the entirety of the meal. The spread tastes like a lighter version of hummus. If you use red chard stems, it will be a beautiful pinkish crimson color.

I also like to use Swiss chard stems in gratins and in my twist on French onion soup, where I use them instead of onions (keeping the baked layer of cheese on top).

At the other end of the spectrum are beet greens. They are socommon, yet many people do not cook them, put off by their bitter taste.

But beet greens can be made less bitter by cooking them the way they're done in southern Italy. In Apulia, the beet greens are stewed with golden raisins and pine nuts and then served at room temperature in a dish that is popular during the hot summer months. I usually serve it with an assortment of other room-temperature vegetable preparations or with a piece of grilled lamb. This dish can also be made with turnip or radish tops.

Because the tops of beets, turnips and radishes are so bitter, cooks have come up with a number of ways to make them more palatable. Bitter greens can be cooked in vinegar and sugar to create a sweet-sour effect, or their bitterness can be balanced by cooking them with lots of strong-flavored aromatics, such as garlic, herbs or spices.

Sometimes the best way to use tough, hardy leaves like this is in stews. The long simmering will make them more tender, and combining them with other ingredients makes them seem milder.

One vegetable part that had always been thrown away even by a cook as thrifty as me is spinach roots and stems. Who would want to eat them? Well, for one, the Turks. Ispanak koku salatasi is a salad made from the roots and stems of young spinach plants. They are first cleaned and then steamed to soften them.

The first time I had it was at a roadside eatery in Seljuk, a town near Izmir. I thought it odd then and I think it odd now, but darned if it isn't good, especially when you make it with honey and poppy seeds. Another way to use the spinach roots and stems is chopped up in a rice pilaf.

Probably my favorite easy but uncommon hors d'oeuvre is cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman's marinated broccoli stems. She always serves them at parties as an accompaniment to drinks, and I'm usually the culprit who eats them all.

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