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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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