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Delicious, not discarded: Get more out of your fresh produce

Stir-fried pork belly with preserved mustard tuber and cauliflower leaves
Stir-fried pork belly with preserved mustard tuber and cauliflower leaves features two ingredients that most people wouldn’t think to use: mustard tubers — the stem of the mustard plant — preserved in salt, and shredded cauliflower leaves.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Traditionally tossed parts, such as broccoli stems and cauliflower leaves, deserve a place on your table.

In the beginning, we ate what grew near us. Often, we grew our own vegetables. Then came factory farms, supermarkets and a food system that sometimes seems divorced from the land. Sadly, some of the tastiest stuff never makes it to the plate, supermarkets or even farmers markets. Food waste, it seems, is fast becoming a pandemic of a different sort.

According to a recent analysis by ReFED, a national nonprofit, 35 percent of our food goes uneaten. Food waste is the largest portion of this and is the single largest input to landfills.

The leaves of the cauliflower plant are often discarded or used as compost, but when cooked the right way, they're delicious.
Some of the tastiest parts of plants are the parts people don’t eat. The leaves of the cauliflower plant (pictured) are often discarded or used as compost, but when cooked the right way, they’re delicious.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American family of four discards $1,600 a year in produce. Nearly 30 percent of produce grown on farms is left behind after harvest because it is considered “blemished” or deemed unmarketable, even though it is perfectly edible.

Broccoli leaves are excellent when prepared properly. Try asking at a farmers market if any are available.
Broccoli leaves are excellent when prepared properly. They are typically not sold in grocery stores, so try asking at a farmers market.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

Homes that are the single largest contributor to our food waste issues, according to Geertje Grootenhuis, program director for wasted-food prevention at the San Diego Food System Alliance.

Dana Gunders, ReFED’s executive director, agrees, adding that there are a number of reasons for this. “We have less kitchen skills than we once did and are aspirational in our shopping,” she said.

Those aspirations don’t always pan out. We shop for salad and end up making pasta or getting takeout.

One reason is that we lack confidence in knowing when foodstuffs are good, wholesome and healthful. We rely on “use by,” “enjoy by” or “sell by” dates and assume that, if they’ve passed, the food is spoiled. When we grew our own vegetables, we knew what a good vegetable looked like. If it was slimy or fuzzy, it was probably bad.

“It goes back to common sense,” Nierenberg said.

Many restaurants take those less-than-beautiful vegetables and scraps and make wholesome stocks and broths or preserve them by drying them in a dehydrator or an oven, or pickle or ferment them using salt or acid. Those solutions accomplish more than eliminate waste; they improve those vegetables.

There’s no reason home cooks can’t do the same.

Another readily solvable problem is home cooks discarding delicious parts of vegetables because they don’t know how to use them. Take two examples: broccoli stems and carrot tops. The latter can be an intriguing substitute for basil in a pesto or parsley in a gremolata, which includes lemon zest and garlic. The former, one of the tastiest parts of the broccoli plant, can be roasted or used in a Korean banchan, a small side dish.

But much of our food waste occurs because of the myth that cosmetic perfection equals a superior product.

Often, the best-tasting produce is not cosmetically perfect: Some parts may be discolored or bruised, but the whole thing need not be thrown away. One approach is to dehydrate the produce (think oven-dried tomatoes) and use a food processor or spice grinder to turn it into a flavorful powder that can be used as a garnish for soups, to thicken sauces or add to burgers or muffins.

Leaves from a cauliflower plant are an easy addition to a variety of dishes.
Leaves from a cauliflower plant are an easy addition to a variety of dishes.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ironically, some of the most delicious and beautiful foodstuffs never reach market. Take, for example, the leaves of brassicas such as cauliflower or broccoli. The flowers of these plants are supermarket staples. Often, though, markets only offer broccoli “crowns,” cutting off and discarding the stems, which also are edible. But perhaps the most flavorful part is the plants’ long, broad, flat leaves. Yet no one seems to want them. Chefs know how good they taste, but supermarkets, it seems, can’t give them away.

So, what becomes of those leaves? One option is to cook with them! The key problem — for those without their own garden — is finding the leaves, but the solution might be as close as the local farmers market. Find a cauliflower or broccoli vendor, ask for any leftover leaves lying on the ground and offer to buy some the following week.

Once you have them in hand, prepare the brassica leaves as you would any kale, collards or other greens. Braise the leaves or shred and stir-fry them. My favorite is to use them in a stir-fry or as a wrapper, as I would cabbage leaves; think Polish gołąbki, a stuffed cabbage roll.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken much away from us, it also has given us some gifts. One of them, Nierenberg points out, is that food waste has gone down. With people cooking and eating at home more, home cooks have been more focused on eating leftovers, using more of what they have, and that means wasting less. But, as Nierenberg asks, “will that continue after the pandemic is over?”

It can if we want it to. It can if we focus on flavors, not fads, and on common sense, not just convenience. Using ingredients like brassica leaves and not being put off by a cosmetic blemish helps take us back to the soil without having to turn some of the tastiest foodstuffs into waste.

Stir-fried pork belly with preserved mustard tuber and cauliflower leaves

Makes four to six servings

2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry), divided
2 tablespoons sesame oil, divided
2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
½ teaspoon ground white pepper, divided
12 ounces pork belly, cut in thin strips
1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
3 large cauliflower leaves (or 6 lacinato kale leaves)
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil, divided
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced into thin strips
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 ounces shredded preserved mustard tuber (the stem of the mustard plant, preserved in salt)
2 dry red chiles (Japanese or arbol), deseeded and sliced diagonally

In a bowl, combine 1 tablespoon each soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sesame oil with 1 teaspoon cornstarch and ¼ teaspoon white pepper; mix thoroughly. Add the pork belly and coat well, then refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. In a separate bowl, add the remaining soy sauce, wine, sesame oil, cornstarch and white pepper, then add the black vinegar and brown sugar and stir to combine for the sauce.

Prep the cauliflower leaves by cutting out the central spines (reserve them for pickles). Fold over the two sides of the leaves, role them up and shred the leaves into long strips.

In a large wok, heat 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil on high. When oil is hot, add the pork belly and cook until the edges are slightly browned, about three minutes. Remove the pork to a clean bowl and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and add the second tablespoon of grapeseed oil. Add the ginger strips, then increase heat to high and fry till fragrant, about three minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook until the mixture begins to take on a brown color, about two to three minutes. Add the shredded mustard tuber and cook until fragrant, about another three minutes. Remove the ginger, garlic and mustard tubers to the bowl with the pork belly strips.

Heat the remaining grapeseed oil in the wok. When hot, add the chiles and cook until they take on a more brilliant red color (do not let them burn), then add the cauliflower leaf strips. Stir-fry the strips until they begin to wilt, about five minutes, then return the pork belly mixture and the sauce mixture to the wok and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Broccoli stem banchan

Makes four servings (about 1½ cups)

Broccoli stem banchan
Broccoli stem banchan
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

4 stems of broccoli (1½ pounds), peeled and cut into batons
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons brown sugar
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon gochugaru chile pepper flakes (recipe below)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon white or rice vinegar

Place the broccoli batons in a pot and add ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil with the lid closed, then cook for five minutes over medium-high heat.

Open the lid, drain and let it cool for a few minutes.

Make a coating sauce by combining the sesame oil, kosher salt, sugar, garlic, dried and crushed gochugaru pepper, ground black pepper and vinegar in a large mixing bowl. Add the steamed broccoli batons to the coating sauce and mix it all together.

Serve warm or cold as a side dish for barbecue or any type of meat dish, or as a snack.

Gochugaru powder or flakes
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gochugaru powder or flakes

Makes about ⅓ cup

20 grams (about ¼ cup) dried Japanese chile peppers (untoasted dried arbol chiles are a decent substitute)

Stem and deseed the chile peppers. Using kitchen scissors, cut off any discolored portions. Cut the chile peppers into ¼-inch to ½-inch segments using the scissors.

Add the chile pepper segments to a spice grinder. Pulse the spice grinder to break down the segments. If the goal is a flakier texture (such as for the broccoli stem banchan, above) continue pulsing until the desired texture is reached. If the goal is a powder, run the spice grinder full bore until the desired powdery texture is reached.

Michael A. Gardiner is a San Diego County freelance food writer whose first cookbook, “Modern Kosher: Global Flavors, New Traditions,” was published last year.