Farm News

Stalk & Stem: Why Do We Trim?

kale stalks image

Each week, I stand for several hours at the packing shed sink cleaning produce for our CSA families. This kind of work provides wonderful contemplation time. Recently, I caught myself trimming the stalks on a crisp bunch of greens. Before the rough ends hit the bottom of the compost barrel, I thought, “Why did I do that? Surely it wasn’t just to make it look neat and tidy?!” Upon further consideration, I remembered my early post-college days and the first kitchen sink I could call my own. Until the farmer’s market opened in the summer, I bought my vegetables at the old Hy-Vee grocery store in the center of town. The browning, wilted ends were a give-away as to the true age of the produce. Having been trucked in from a long way off, the decomposition process was clearly evident. This is where I first picked up the habit of trimming all my produce. I remember cutting inches off the bottoms of winter greens, ‘just to be on the safe side.’ But now I that I have the privilege of cooking with such fresh produce, my engrained behavior serves no purpose.

TO TRIM OR NOT TO TRIM

When we pick up the paring knife, we are making a critical decision: we are deciding what is edible and what is not. Unless composted, what we deem to be “not edible” contributes unnecessarily to the painfully large amount of food waste in our country.

In my own kitchen, I chop up stems, (including for instance, that [carefully washed] part of the carrot where root becomes top) and sauté them in the pan at the same time the onions and garlic go in. Just by giving the stems a little longer to cook, they are more than edible. By the time the soup or casserole or pasta is finished cooking, the trimmings are as tender as can be. These ‘vegetable edges’ disappear into background flavor and sometimes make two servings into three.

When I’m not planning to sauté, a grater, blender or thin dicing with a knife reduce my stems and stalks to palatable, non-stringy bites that add crunch, color and/or body to whatever raw dish I’m making.

When I have more stems and stalks than I can use in one recipe, I find a way to preserve them. It is easy to keep cleaned, chopped ends in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. On a cold day, you have the makings for a great stock. Likewise, it is easy to let carrot tops or extra parsley stems dry like herbs on your cutting board. I find I use them more frequently this way because the are so visible and accessible.

With corn on our list this week, I’ll offer one more tip a favorite chef taught me. After you cut your corn off, save those cobs! Corn stock is a welcome winter treat in our house. It can be made with the carrot tops, parsley stems or even just water and cobs. The aforementioned favorite chef once made me a corn soup that was simply corn stock, salt, and cream. I can still taste that rich meal!

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE IT OVER THE TOP

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly strict about stems and stalks. There are times when the bitterness of a stem or core is just too much, and I’m certainly not munching on things like grapes stems. The point is to think first, then act so that discarding a part of the vegetable or fruit is more the exception than the rule. Out in the packing shed, back at the sink, every stalk or stem I come across, I think to myself, could my families reasonably be expected to make use of this part of the produce? If not, I keep it at the farm to feed our chickens and to feed our soil. Thanks to my packing shed musings, I’m no longer trimming for looks or out of habit. Nature works hard to feed us. Meal after meal, this is a blessedly simple way we can show our respect.~AJ

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