Top of the heap

Hang on to those leafy greens

October 8, 2007

I belong to a CSA. Last summer, I asked my fellow members which vegetables in their weekly box of farm-fresh produce regularly left them stumped.

The most common answer? Leafy veggie tops. Folks were perplexed by the greens attached to vegetables like beets, carrots, turnips, and kohlrabi.

“I end up throwing them in my compost heap,” a member sheepishly admitted to me. “I know they’re healthy, but I have no idea what to do with them, so they end up getting tossed.”

Kohlrabi greens have a great, broccoli-like flavor.

Several others echoed her sentiments. That news seemed like such a shame to me, as leafy tops are really quite delicious and a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Ever since, I’ve been on a leafy-tops crusade, trying to encourage others to cook the leaves they’d otherwise chuck.

Each leafy top has a flavor and texture of its own, but they’re all interchangeable in most recipes. Once you become acquainted with each leafy top’s flavor, texture, and cooking time, the possibilities are endless. Here’s a look at four particular greens with suggestions for cooking and eating them.

Beet greens
Available year round, beet leaves look deceivingly sturdy, but cook down quickly to a meltingly tender texture with a mild, earthy flavor. I frequently steam the leaves and use them as a bed for roasted beets. Beet greens also offer body and rich flavor to hortapita, a kind of phyllo pie I learned to make in northern Greece. Traditionally made with a mix of sautéed wild greens like amaranth and ground elder, hortapita is so complexly flavored it puts bland spinach phyllo pies to shame.

Fresh carrot tops taste a bit like carrots, parsley, and lemon, and make a delicious addition to carrot salad.

Carrot tops
Just about everyone I polled had no idea that the feathery leaves attached to fresh carrots were edible. Available all year, carrot tops taste something like a cross between carrots, parsley, and lemon zest. Taste them before you decide what to do with them, as they tend to be a bit more bitter when the carrots are older. They do make a nice addition to pastas, tabbouleh, and cooked carrot salads, such as Carrot Salad with Moroccan Flavors.

Kohlrabi greens
Kohlrabi leaves are available nearly year-round; these sturdy greens have a great broccoli-like flavor. Try them sautéed in olive oil with garlic, red chile flakes, and lemon, or briefly boiled, as in Kohlrabi Greens with Toasted Sesame Oil and Soy Sauce. The stems and white ribs that run up the lengths of the leaves should be discarded.

Turnip greens
You’ll find these in the cooler months, from October to March. Turnip greens have an assertive flavor reminiscent of young turnips or broccoli stems, with a peppery bite. The sturdy leaves do best when cooked in liquid for about 10 minutes if the greens are tender, or as long as 30 minutes if the greens are mature. The stems and ribs are edible when young, but are best torn away from the leaves if thick and tough. Pass on any bunches that have yellow leaves — a sign of age and bitterness.

Turnip greens are lovely when blanched and added to hearty soups, such as the Spanish caldo callego, a blend of potatoes, sausage, and greens. In the American South, turnip greens are commonly boiled with smoked pork hock or bacon in a soupy liquid called “pot likker” (liquor). Bacon-Braised Turnip Greens uses less liquid to create a more nutrient-rich dish that’s deeply satisfying when served atop cornbread.

When storing any of these leafy greens, separate the leaves from the vegetables they came with; if left attached, the leaves can rob moisture from the vegetables and render them flabby. And though the roots (or swollen stems, in the case of kohlrabi) that the leaves came with may last for weeks in your vegetable drawer, it’s best to use the leaves within a few days, because they’re seldom as sturdy as they look.

Ivy Manning is a food journalist and cooking instructor in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of The Farm to Table Cookbook.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Liz Crain on Oct 8, 2007 at 2:44 PM PDT

Thanks for all the great ideas. I’ve never cooked with carrot tops but feel funny tossing them in the compost. Garlic scapes have become really popular and I often cook those from the garlic I plant -- although those aren’t leafy. I like to use celery tops in stews -- esp. turkey and rice.

2. by Catherine on Oct 8, 2007 at 5:22 PM PDT

What a clever idea for the carrot salad! I’ll try that along with the hortapita soon. I’m sure they’ll leave me hungry ‘til your book comes out in spring. Looking forward to it! Thanks.

3. by becsfarm on Oct 10, 2007 at 1:42 PM PDT

I’m so happy to see you post an article about using the green tops of produce. I have been cooking these for years and a lot of people looked at me like I was a little odd....but, guess what.....the greens you mention are loaded with vitamins and nutrients and unusual flavors. Sometimes I simply steam the green tops in 1 to 2 cups of water, then I drink the water. Talk about healthy! Or I use it as a liquid in soups, and other recipes. Also, any of the greens you mentioned can be braised in olive oil.

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