'The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook' Will Teach You How to Use the Whole Plant

Even carrot tops, radish greens, and potato peels can be delicious!

The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook

K Martinko

If you are looking for an unusual yet highly practical cookbook to add to your collection this spring, you should consider "The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook: Recipes and Techniques for Whole Plant Cooking" (Harvard Common Press, 2020). The title may give it away, but until you delve into the book it is difficult to understand just how much valuable vegetable material we throw away in our day-to-day cooking, making "expensive compost," as author Linda Ly calls it.

This is "farm food," she writes, a special cuisine in which "creativity and resourcefulness does not equal frugality and blandness. It's understanding that a vegetable begins with the sprouts and does not end until the tubers, vines, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds have given their all."

Ly is on a mission to show that the stalks, stems, leaves, pods, and seeds that accompany our go-to vegetables are not only edible, but desirable. Ingredients like broccoli leaves "taste like a milder version of broccoli" and can be used to wrap falafel, among numerous other things. Tomato leaves add an earthy, fragrant flavor to tomato sauce, and sweet potato leaves transform into mild and tender cooked greens, livened up by a spicy serrano pepper sauce. Radish greens and carrot tops are full of gourmet potential, too. 

bean recipe from No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook

K Martinko

Not surprisingly, Ly is anti-peeling, unless she's cooking onions, garlic, or tougher vegetables like beets and kohlrabi. Everything else, from tomatoes to potatoes to carrots, is left with the skin intact. "There's really no need to produce all that waste when the skins are perfectly edible, nutritious, and delicious. Just make sure you wash and scrub them well with a vegetable brush before using." Peeling is mostly an aesthetic choice, but one that creates unnecessary waste, so avoid it whenever you can. 

The book includes helpful charts for making pestos – out of all kinds of ingredients, as you can imagine – and using them in a range of ways. Homemade stock is another basic necessity, and Ly's suggested ratios for ingredients from four groups (onion, sweet, vegetal, seasoning) result in a rich, well-balanced, and versatile liquid. The book also contains food storage tips, including wrapping vegetables in repurposed plastic produce bags and clean rags "made from deconstructed T-shirts, bed sheets, or threadbare bath towels." 

Ly attributes her no-waste cooking techniques to Vietnamese immigrant parents, who normalized the idea of eating "top-to-tail" (or root-to-shoot, as it's sometimes called) throughout Ly's childhood. She writes in the preface, "I envied our neighbors who served up quick, tidy meals made from cans and boxes. Meanwhile, we were meticulously rinsing rice, washing herbs, chopping vegetables, and steaming whole fish, head and all. Everyone took part in the prepping as a nightly ritual, and nothing was wasted." It took years for her to realize just how lucky she was to learn to cook in that way.

There is something here for everyone who buys and eats fresh produce, but I think this book would be especially useful for anyone who subscribes to a CSA share, shops at a farmers' market, and/or grows their own food in a backyard garden. The closer you are to the source of your vegetables, the more surplus material you'll have to work with; it hasn't yet been trimmed away by supermarkets concerned with aesthetics. I know I'll be using it frequently throughout the upcoming summer, once my summer CSA share starts in June.