Tasty and nutritious roots and leaves are too often discarded

June 01, 2005|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I was checking out at the grocery store the other day when the clerk asked whether I wanted the green tops removed from my carrots. I started reflexively to answer "yes," as I always have except for that brief period I was in charge of feeding my daughter's guinea pig Dovey.

But this time I hesitated. Dovey has long since left the building, but I had a sudden flash of what those carrot tops smelled like when I was chopping them up - intensely green, like turbocharged parsley.

I already had a big old gnarly celery root, and I thought for a moment about how those two might go together. At first it was just a bit of whimsy: What if I combined one common vegetable's little-used top with another common vegetable's little-used bottom?

Then I pinched a bit of carrot green and tasted it. It was pretty much as I remembered, but with a touch of spice and even a hint of lemon that I'd never noticed before. I told the clerk to leave the tops on.

When I got home, I prepared the celery root as I usually do - cutting away the tough, hairy peel, and then carefully slicing the crisp ivory flesh into sticks about the size of toothpicks. But rather than dressing these with a mustardy mayonnaise as I normally would, I whisked together a vinaigrette made with olive oil, a hint of garlic, lemon juice and a handful of chopped carrot tops.

The result was lovely: The sauce was a vivid green that barely clung to the cream-colored celery root, with a few flecks of darker leaf for emphasis. And it tasted even better. The slight spiciness of the carrot tops perfectly complemented the bracing celery root. My brother-in-law from Oklahoma - who had never tasted celery root - was visiting that night and had thirds.

That started my thinking about how many other foods like that there might be - plants where one part is treasured but the rest is usually trashed. How much good stuff is going straight to our rabbits?

We eat all kinds of roots without giving them a second thought: carrots, turnips and beets are just a few. But some are less familiar. In addition to celery root, there's also parsley root, which has a lovely root-vegetable sweetness spiked with a hard green core.

Spinach roots are used as vegetables in the Middle East, while cilantro roots are used in spice pastes in Southeast Asia. In both cases, the root is similar in appearance and flavor to the stems - somewhat like a milder version of the leaf.

And there are all manner of greens - some of them quite pungent, others more docile. Carrot tops belong in the first category, as do the tops of radishes, which have a distinctly peppery bite. Puree them with creamy, fresh goat cheese to make some nice crostini (be sure to wash the radish tops thoroughly - they harbor an unbelievable amount of sand).

I also use them to make a simple salad to garnish grilled meats. I quarter the radishes lengthwise with the tops attached and dress it all with vegetable oil, red-wine vinegar and a couple of tablespoons of the carving juices.

You can toss these pungent greens in a salad - with discretion. (Remember, with vegetables as with people, too much personality can be every bit as bad as too little.) Or blanch, chop and combine them with milder ingredients such as rice or ricotta to make a risotto or a filling for ravioli.

Other less-rowdy greens are more adaptable. In fact, some might have sneaked right past you. Look carefully at most mesclun salad mixes and you'll find baby beet greens. And one of my favorite ravioli fillings is nothing more than beet greens that have been cooked briefly with garlic and then mixed with ricotta.

There is enough of the beet root's bright red betaine pigment in the leaves to tint the cheese a delicate pink. Serve this with the simplest sauce - melted butter flavored with fresh sage - and a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

I mentioned my ravioli recipe to a friend - a very good cook - and she expressed surprise that people ate the leaves of beets. Then she said in amazement, "I've seen recipes for turnip greens, too."

As an adopted Son of the South, I was shocked. I and others of my kind are enthusiastic eaters of those and other greens.

I started to say something but stopped when I realized the patience that my friend, whose family is Chinese, had shown me the last couple of weeks as I've nattered on about the amazingly delicious pea sprouts I've been cooking.

I've eaten them in restaurants for years, but it wasn't until I discovered big boxes of them at a Japanese grocery last month that I started experimenting with cooking them. In my friend's family, sprouts and shoots of all kinds of vegetables are culinary staples.

How in the heck had I missed these for so long? The sprouts, which are the tendrils and leaves of the very tips of pea plants, can be used almost like spinach but they have the sweet, green taste of English peas.

Pea shoots are delicious simply tossed together as a salad, but I like them even better quickly sauteed with garlic. Cook them just until they wilt.

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