Waste Not Want Not

Over-mature garlic breaks apart and will not store as well, so it can be dried and ground into garlic powder. Photo by Kindle Bonsall

By Will Bonsall

I go to a lot of effort to produce food crops, and nothing irks me more than having useable food go to waste. I’ve heard people say, “Nothing really goes to waste; it can always be added to the compost.” Balderdash; the economic or ecological value of a carrot in the compost heap is vastly less than its value on my plate. The only way you can say it’s not wasted is to compare composting that carrot with incinerating it.

Granted, there are stalks, roots, cobs and other plant parts that seem useless or really are useless, but we should take a hard look at them. A lot of fertility, water, space and your labor went into making that crop; don’t let it go lightly. Here are a few suggestions.

You know those droopy, leathery outer leek leaves that are too tough to eat? I chop them coarsely and dry them on overhead nylon screen racks. When they’re brittle dry, I run them through my Corona grain mill. (If you don’t have a Corona, you’re not really set up for housekeeping – swap in your TV.) If you set the mill too tight, the leaves will gum up the plates, but set it just a smidgeon loose and out comes a brilliant green powder you can use in many ways. For example, do the same with dark green, strong-tasting outer celery leaves and maybe some kelp powder. Whisk those (and whatever strikes your fancy) into your favorite vegetable oil, such as olive, and spritz that on toast, potatoes, any steamed veggie or popcorn. (See the University Maine Cooperative Extension Bulletin #4385, “Safe Homemade Flavored and Infused Oils.”) Or simply add the powder to miso soup broth.

In late winter some of my garlic starts sprouting. I grow two varieties: Russian Red, which gets big but breaks dormancy earlier, and Rowe (aka Philips), which is somewhat smaller but stays solid longer. I start using the Russian Red first, and when it shows the slightest sign of sprouting, I chop it all up and dry it, grinding most of it into garlic powder.

Zucchini goes by if left too long (although Costata Romanesca can be quite overgrown and still be perfectly palatable). Even when beyond most uses, I split it in half, scoop out the seeds, and stuff it with rice, lentils, onions, herbs, etc., for a traditional Lebanese entree.

Of course really gone-by zukes and summer squashes have ripe seeds that are almost useless except for new planting stock, but how much of that do you need? On the other hand, that fully ripe seed contains a delicious oil. What’s the difference between that and pumpkinseed oil? In fact maxima (winter) squashes are no less useful that way, as are melon and ripe cucumber seeds. (I haven’t tasted butter in about 50 years, but I don’t recall it being quite so good.) You need an oil press, which sounds daunting, but if you’re envisioning only kitchen-table-scale, a small-but-tough model available from Piteba for less than $200 opens up lots of opportunities for delicious home-grown oil, including from sunflower, mustard and radish seeds.

Green and wax beans often go by and are tough and useless – or are they? They can generally be shelled by hand and used like any green shell bean (think frozen limas). I usually freeze them, but you can also dry them into wrinkled dry beans and store them if they’re gone by enough and have lost their green background color. The corollary is also true: You can hand shell dry beans that get hit by frost before properly drying down and use them as green shell (aka horticultural) beans. Don’t get me wrong: Green bean varieties are not ideal for either shellies or dry beans, and dry bean varieties are most suitable for soup and baking, but the difference isn’t that rigid and certainly doesn’t warrant wasting beans that get caught at the in-between stage. And for what it’s worth, while dry beans contain more total protein than shellies, the latter are more digestible (as in less gas) and assimilable.

Many years ago we started growing dry soybeans – the yellow type for burgers and stuff. One year we planted them too late and an unusually early killing frost caught us with a big crop of unripe soybeans. Never having heard of edamame, we shelled them just like unripe dry beans and loved our “new” discovery, especially when mashed into a sort of North Country guacamole. If you know at the outset that you’re going to use them at that immature stage, then by all means plant an edamame variety – they’re larger and tenderer – but if you plant dry soybeans intended for dry use and you get caught, don’t let them go to waste.

A similar idea works for peas but not the wrinkle-seeded types. There are many round, smooth-seeded table types – notably Alaska – which were originally a soup or field pea, and most of the edible-podded varieties are smooth-seeded. The round, smooth seed is a result of higher starch and protein content, as with canning and freezer types, which lack the soft succulence of the petit pois types. Anyway, any of those round, smooth-seeded varieties can be used for soup or field peas, especially if made into split peas by cracking them in a Corona and winnowing off the hulls.

Regarding green tomatoes, think relish, chutney and salsa.

In late winter, potatoes start sprouting and getting soft, especially early types, such as fingerlings. I steam them and run them through my Saladmaster using the coarsest shredding attachment. I spread them on screen racks to dry, then grind them in the Corona into a cornmeal texture and use them to thicken various dishes or as instant mashed potatoes for camping and backpacking. Adding a bit of that leek powder mentioned earlier does no harm.

Cabbage produces little waste; only the core, right? Wait! I peel off the tough fibrous rind of that core and use the tender core just as I’d use kohlrabi, especially at krauting time when I’m generating lots of cores at once. It’s probably my favorite pickle. “Pickled cabbage cores” sounds pretty unclassy, but I if I call them “dilled hearts of cabbage,” they taste much more elegant. Likewise the peeled tough lower stalks of broccoli are much too nice to toss.

Regarding dill, as much as I love dried dill seed, the herb is nicer when the seedheads are picked green and dried that way on racks. I used to consider the late planting of anet (dill herb) a waste if it bolted, but now I prefer to let some go to green seed for that herbier aromatic flavor. A mixture of green seeds and flowers is even better, although it takes more finger-work to strip off the dried seeds and flowers without getting all the stemlets mixed in.

Some of my carrots, turnips or beets may be misshapen, mouse-chewed or otherwise defective. I pack them all into buckets in the cellar, and when things settle down I pull them out, trim, steam and mash them and store them in the freezer to be added later to red flannel hash. I also fine-shred cull carrots (and sometimes parsnips) in the Saladmaster and dry and crumble them. Added to a bowl of corn porridge, the flavor is somewhat like dried coconut.

Organic apples can have a number of blemishes, making them unsalable but still quite useable. Bruised apples are perfectly good trimmed for applesauce or cut into wedges or coarse shreds (again, the Saladmaster) and dried for Pennsylvania Dutch-style schnitz for snacks, fruit stews, pies, etc. We use most of our apples – all varieties – in cider and vinegar. For that, the only truly “cull” apple is one that is either unripe or decayed. By the way, for most cider makers the spent pomace (skins and cores) is a waste product, but for jam and jelly makers it’s a great source of pectin. I’m working on perfecting the extraction/concentration process, but it isn’t rocket science.

Surplus lettuce is a difficult thing not to waste, especially when you’re planting for your own use and can’t gauge demand accurately. What can you do with old lettuce, right? Well, I used to be bemused at the Pennsylvania Dutch wilted salad, for which you pour hot bacon fat over chopped lettuce, then add crumpled bacon and hard-boiled eggs with a sugary vinegar dressing. Even before I was a vegan, I found that recipe a little “strange,” but since then I’ve heard of people adding chopped lettuce to their soups like any other greens, and of course Italians serve pasta with steamed endive, which is annoyingly similar to bolted lettuce. The only lettuce I regularly grow is Webb’s Wonderful (I never understood why folks bother with other kinds), which is still palatable even when quite bolted, so I suppose that greens idea could work for me. That being said, most of my gone-by lettuce does end up in the compost pile.

Onions are among those delightful crops for which virtually the entire plant is food, but even in a good gardening year I seem to have a few that were crowded and just made little pearl onions. Sometimes I pull and replant those elsewhere in mid- to late summer for fall scallions, being careful to get them before they bolt to seed. (Maybe they just don’t realize they’re too little.) And onion skins are useless as food, perhaps, but are useable for food coloring. They used to be used as a dyestuff, something like saffron.

Most folks who grow nasturtiums in the  vegetable garden, i.e., to repel cucumber beetles, or in the flower garden, deadhead the spent blossoms to keep new blooms coming. Some actually pick the blossoms or leaves for a salad garnish. I prefer to let the flowers go by to form large, immature seed pods. When they reach pea-size, I pick and pickle them. They’re an excellent addition to potato salads, especially along with those raunchy Greek olives. I’ve heard them described as a substitute for capers, but I think pickled nasturtium seedpods are what capers are trying to imitate.

What about rhubarb? No one suggests that you eat their large, tender leaves, which are loaded with toxic levels of oxalic acid. Yet that oxalic acid is their main value to me. I almost think of the red stalks as a byproduct and the foliage as the crop, a home-grown pest repellent. Chopped, boiled and strained, I pour the extract into my sprayer and make a very fine mist over young crucifer plants (radish, kale, etc.). A heavy spray will bead up and run off the waxy foliage, but a few separate mistings, each applied after the last one dries, will leave a sticky coat looking somewhat like a sugar glaze. This will repel many of the pests that would attack young seedlings, especially flea beetles. By the time repeated rains have washed off the rhubarb extract, the plants are usually advanced enough to hold their own, although you can re-apply the mist – but not on crop leaves that you plan to eat. If you find oxalate-coated leaves unpalatable, cheer up – so do the pests!

Many of these ideas will not be applicable to commercial growers, although some (leek powder?) may be marketable along with the main crop. In any case, they give you, especially the home gardener, some alternatives to sending your hard-won produce to the compost pile.

About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed-saving enterprise. He is the author of “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening” (Chelsea Green, 2015). You can contact him at [email protected].

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