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From Whole Vegetable to Whole Farm

It’s not news amongst veteran farm to table cooks that food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. and it’s particularly bad in the restaurant industry. There’s a growing trend toward making use of the whole vegetable — meaning the less than perfect ones with blemishes and the parts normally discarded such as radish tops and mushroom stems. Every year 40% of our food in the U.S. is wasted which makes this a very timely and healthful conversation to be having. At Peter Lowell’s, we are constantly challenging ourselves to explore new ways to do this. In much the same way that we approach our whole animal program, always making use of all the parts of the cow, pig, lamb or rabbit, we extend this idea to produce. In the kitchen at Lowell’s, fennel fronds or onion trim often become a stock, which in turn becomes the base of a delicious sauce for pastas, fish or meat.

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Out at Two Belly Acres, our fully dedicated family farm, we get to see first hand just how remarkable many of these wasted parts are in the field. On a dewy morning out at the farm, the carrot tops stand more than a foot tall and the sunlight illuminates vibrant chard stems. Tiny beads of water accumulate on arugula leaves dotted with thousands of tiny holes left behind by the industrious flea beetle, leaving the arugula visually unfit for the salad plate, but still delicious on the palate. We explore unique ways to use these things in the kitchen, often making a pesto out of the carrot tops, pickling the chard stems and throwing the arugula leaves into a zesty soup.

Finding ways to use as much of the vegetable as possible allows us to help support our farmers. The cost of growing food doesn’t always make the endeavor economically viable for a small farmer, so we are committed to buying the ugly, imperfect, yet ripe and delicious fruit and vegetables and all of their typically under valued parts to be sure that nothing goes to waste in the field or in the kitchen. Furthermore, it allows us to learn and grow as farmers. For example, rather than tearing out a row of cilantro that had started bolting, we left it alone and eventually the plants bloomed into beautiful fragrant flowers, attracting all kinds of pollinators and beneficial insects and with a little more patience, we discovered that eventually those flowers would yield fresh green coriander pods which make for a beautiful pairing with any fish.

At PL’s, we have the unique opportunity to take this idea a step further. In most restaurants, produce is ordered on a weekly basis in quantities determined by the demand of the restaurant. We have a slightly different approach. During the height of the growing season, the quantity of produce brought into the restaurant is determined in large part by the supply at the farm. As any home gardener knows, there comes a point in each season where we find ourselves quite literally up to our ears in whatever produce is in the height of production at that given moment. Through June and July we are blessed with hundreds of pounds of summer squash ripe and ready to harvest each week. In August and September, the farm is flooded with beautiful tomatoes of every color, shape and size. Rather than cherry picking only the best of these ingredients for the restaurant, we scramble to find a thousand different ways to use all the tomatoes we possibly can. This is no easy task, from soup to sauce to jam, we push ourselves to experiment with all the ways to enjoy a tomato at the right time of year. This glut of one particular ingredient almost always wears us out, to the point where we can’t wait to be done with tomato season, but this makes having to wait until next season to bite into that perfectly ripe tomato that much sweeter.

In addition, the guarantee that every tomato we can grow in a given year will be used, allows an often times much needed buffer for our farm to experience crop failures, pest issues and many other common challenges that a small farm faces that can potentially wreak havoc on a steady income for the farmer. This is a more sustainable way for us to grow food. Just this year the cabbage moth destroyed our turnip crops, however, despite the decimation underground the turnip greens were tender and delicious. We sautéed the leaves into our frittatas and blended them with cheese & garlic into an incredible pasta filling.

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Nourishing mouthwatering food isn’t created using only the very best and beautiful ingredients from farmers around the world. It has more to do with the story behind the process, the heart and soul that goes into the care and preparation of the food and the good stewardship of the community of people who grow it.

To read more about using the whole vegetable, we highly recommend Tamara Adler’s book An Everlasting Meal and Tara Duggan’s Root To Stalk Cooking.  Both are good reads.

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  1. Pingback: Handline's Roots and Shoots:  An Exploration of Seasonality - LocalFoodMatters

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