Take It from the Top

by Claire Cella
Photography by Carole Topalian

You most likely do it without thinking: Grasp the freshly plucked produce resting on the cutting board and lop off the greenery to be added to the compost pile. Yet, many commonplace vegetable greens assumed valueless, and sometimes even virulent, are not only serviceable, but edible—and enjoyably so.

At the SFC Farmers’ Market - Downtown, these underappreciated parts appear in copious numbers, and a few farmers have begun to spotlight them in the hopes of catching the eyes and palates of curious customers. 

“The general population just wants the beets or the carrots,” says Govinda Hough of Winfield Farm. “I sell more in bags than I could ever sell with the greens on them.” So, Hough removes the beet and radish greens, bundles them together for sale and is quick to inform customers about their nutritional value and distinct tastes and textures. Beet greens, she says, are surprisingly and satisfyingly salty and make great side dishes, and radish greens have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to aid digestion and circulation. If no one buys the bundles—which is often the case—Hough reluctantly takes them back to the farm in Bastrop to add to her soup stocks or feed to her chickens and goats. 

Hough is hardly the only farmer here who shares these values. Nathan and Cindy Heath of Phoenix Farms bundle together their carrot greens, hefty wide broccoli greens and Brussels sprout greens and show them off in rustic wooden baskets. The Heaths say they use the broccoli and Brussels sprouts greens like collard greens, but that the broccoli greens are a bit more sweet and tender. Nathan enjoys the broccoli greens slightly wilted in a sauté, but says they could also be steamed or even grilled because of their heartiness. And Cindy says she loves to make a rich and healthy soup out of the carrot greens, and that one of her customers uses them to make pesto. 

Glenn and Paula Foore of Springdale Farm say they’ve tried to be as inventive as possible with all parts of their produce, but Paula admits that she draws many of her ideas from the creative menus of the chefs with whom she partners. “Fennel fronds, for example,” she says, “are used to garnish plates or mix into herb butters, and the grassy, thin ends of lemongrass stalks are thrown into soup stocks and tea blends. The spiraling green shoots of garlic bulbs, called ‘scapes,’ are diced up and added to dishes for a hint of the flavor of chives or shallots, and the leaves and flowers of mustard greens and arugula are used to impart flavors of vegetables but with a more delicate presentation.” 

Yet, reticence toward unfamiliar greens still prevails. And the resilience of old wives’ tales isn’t helping. Many people, notes Chef Sonya Coté of Austin’s Eden East and Hillside Farmacy, still believe carrot tops and tomato leaves to be toxic, even though this is nothing but lore. But with the continued efforts of wise farmers and inventive chefs, perhaps more minds and mouths will begin to open to the oft-overlooked, above-ground value of many plants. “We have to start educating people that this part is good, too,” says Hough. And because we take such care to cultivate our plants—roots, stems, leaves and all—it only makes sense to try and discover the tasty truth behind as many of those parts as possible.