Root to Stem Cooking: How to Use Every Part of Your Produce

When you stroll through the farmers’ market or pick up your CSA box, you’re likely to find something that you won’t find in area supermarkets — whole plants.
Local growers tend to leave the leaves on root vegetables like beets and carrots, keep the flowery fronds on the fennel and otherwise give you a lot of extras with your produce.  Likewise, when you pick your own fresh garden produce you’ll have all of these other parts free to use, as well.
What you may not realize is that those leaves, stems and other “extras” can also be used in the kitchen for all kinds of wonderful (and tasty) uses.
Roots to Stems:  How to use every part of your produce!

Here are some ways to use the rest of your fruits and vegetables:

Swiss chard stalks can be sliced and sauteed for stir fries or added to soups and stews like celery.
Beet greens can be sauteed for a healthy side dish. Here’s one recipe and here’s a super simple vegan recipe for the stovetop or microwave. Beet greens can also be added to green smoothies (use a light hand and balance the flavor with zestier fruits like pineapple and citrus). You can also thinly slice them and add them to soups and stews.
Turnip greens can also be sauteed, sliced for soups or used (lightly) in green smoothies. Turnip greens are often bitter tasting, though. To counteract this, you can boil them well in water first and discard the cooking water, then use them in your recipe. This gets rid of a significant portion of the bitter compounds, though it also gets rid of some of the nutrients. A very long cooking time sometimes also helps with bitterness, as does the addition of an acid like apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Turnip greens picked after a frost are said to be less bitter, too.
Celery leaves can be added to green smoothies or sliced and used in soups.
Corn cobs can be simmered with onion and carrot for a simple, delicious veggie stock.  Add salt, pepper and herbs of choice to finish it off.
Pumpkin seeds can be tossed with a bit of olive oil and salt and roasted.
Broccoli stalks can be peeled and sliced lengthwise to eat raw with dip. You can also peel off any tough outer parts and then shred them for salads and cole slaws.  Our family also loves them shredded along with shredded potatoes, onion and/or cauliflower to make homemade veggie tots.  Steam the shredded stems or cook them briefly in the microwave until tender, then add them to the other veggies along with some beaten egg, parmesan cheese, salt and binder of your choice (bread crumbs, mashed potato flakes, etc.).  Shape them into little tots, place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 375 until golden, turning once.  They’re delicious dipped in ranch dressing!
Watermelon rinds can be pickled for a tasty, old fashioned snack. There are both sour and sweet versions, and some that combine both flavors.
Cauliflower leaves can be sliced and sauteed in butter or vegetable oil with some diced onion for a delicious side dish, or used in stir fries.
Fennel fronds can be used as garnishes or added to dips and dishes as you would use dill or similar herbs.
Citrus peels can be used for zest or can be candied. They’re also wonderful to add flavor to fruit syrups and juices.  Add the strips to simmering fruits and then remove when serving or canning.  Try to purchase organic citrus if you plan to use the peels.
Garlic scapes are the long, chive-like stems that grow on the tops of garlic bulbs in the early summer. These make fantastic pesto and are wonderful in stir fries. You can also dice them and toss them with new potatoes, olive oil and salt for a delicious side dish (microwave or bake, covered, until tender).
Onion tops (or chives) can be sauteed and used for stir fries or other dishes, just as you would use onion. Smaller chives from young onions are also delicious raw in salads and as a garnish for soups.
Potato peels can be baked for a tasty side dish. Make sure the potatoes are well scrubbed and then spread them on an oiled cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil or dot with butter, then sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake at 450 for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with shredded cheese during the last minute of baking or serve with your favorite dip or sauce.  Again, if you’re planning on eating the peels, buy organic! Aldi’s has very reasonable prices on organic potatoes or you can grow your own.
Apple peels can be used for apple peel jelly or vinegar.
Asparagus stalks that are too tough for broiling or steaming can still be used for a wonderful cream of asparagus soup.  Simply cook them well with some onion and then puree them in the blender with some tasty broth, then add salt and half & half.
There are many other fruits and veggies that you can similarly make use of.  We tend to use just about every edible part of all of the produce we grow, forage or buy, and then we compost the little bit that’s left to make even more use of it!  If you have chickens, pigs or other livestock, they’ll make good use of your scraps too, of course.
And lastly….
The broth bag:
Keep a large freezer bag or other container in your freezer for your extra produce parts such as clean carrot peels, broccoli stalks, pea pods, cabbage hearts, etc. This can be used to make wonderful homemade veggie broth (add bones from ham, chicken and other baked and roasted meats to make a meat broth). Simply dump your full broth bag into a large pot, cover with water, and add seasonings such as garlic, pepper and herbs. A few shakes of turmeric will also give it a richer flavor and a lovely golden color. Simmer for at least an hour and then strain and discard (or compost) the solids. Add salt to taste, and freeze in one cup portions to use as needed.

Some plant parts should not be used.

Occasionally, parts of plants can be poisonous. Rhubarb leaves are an example of this and should always be discarded. Some seeds and pits are toxic as well (such as apple seeds). There is much disagreement online about whether or not carrot greens are mildly toxic, too, despite a plethora of recipes for them. Before eating an unusual part of your produce, always check to make sure it’s nontoxic.


  • Try to buy (and grow) organic produce, especially when cooking with parts of your produce like the peels.  Who wants to eat concentrated pesticides?
  • Greens tend to wilt quickly, so use those within a day or two of purchase.
  • Always rinse and scrub your produce well. Farmers’ market produce and fresh garden produce sometimes has a bit more of the grit and dirt from real farming practices, so be sure to submerge and/or rinse thoroughly (especially inside stalks and tight leaves).
  • Also keep in mind that these parts of your produce can generally be preserved just as the other parts can. If you find yourself overwhelmed by it all, consider freezing some of it to use during the lazier days of winter.

By using every possible part of your produce, you’ll significantly stretch your shopping dollar — and discover some great new flavors along the way.


This article originally appeared in my green living column at




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Post Author: Alicia Bayer

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