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Stems and stalks

"It's such a nice surprise to learn stalks and stems are so delicious."

Sean Moran

I felt quite proud of my dinner last night - shown above in not particularly glamorous photographs. There were two reasons for this. The first - the main topic of this blog - how I used a whole lot of stems and stalks, as well as some pretty dodgy looking leaves for this dish. The second is how I managed to concoct a dish undreamt of in my youth from these unprepossessing ingredients and some equally unpreprocessing leftover cottage and ricotta cheese (almost on the turn) and a few sheets of leftover filo pastry.

The second first. It made me reflect how years of cooking and absorbing trends, new ingredients, new cuisines from here, there and everywhere have enabled me to know that greens such as silver beet go with bland cooking cheeses such as ricotta, and that the two together go very well with filo. My other alternative had been soup but this would not have used up either the cheese or the filo, and besides David chose the filo. I could, of course, also have done a lasagne but this would not have used the filo and he did fancy the filo.

Those years of experience told me that I could also have layered the filo and the greens/cheese mixture, made it all into a strudel like roll, or made smaller rolls and coiled them into one big dish filling thing. I think I learnt this latter technique from magazines and the net. I suspect it's not quite an authentic thing. Oh and I also knew to add some eggs to bind it together, and some garlic. And that I could use the little bit of buttery water from cooking the greens to moisten the whole thing at the end. And being English I couldn't resist grating a bit of cheese on top. It was very yummy and the good news is that we only ate half of it so there is another meal there. Sort of good news - it gets a bit boring eating the same thing twice.

As a novice cook I would not have known of the existence of some of those things - filo and ricotta being the main ones. I would also not have known of the existence of lasagne - yes really, or spanakopita, even strudel, and so I would not have been able to throw this dish together from a fridge and garden raid. I would have had to use a recipe and mostly that is how I learnt to cook I have to say. I was lucky to have a good cook as a mother, so I learnt a lot from her, but mostly I was also lucky to live in the age of Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier and Jane Grigson, and very lucky to have spent so much time in France. Novice cooks these days have so many more sources to choose from and lots of encouragement to experiment so I hope they will all be better cooks than most of us in my generation.

But really what I want to talk about is using up stems and stalks. Interestingly the frontispiece, of Yotam Ottolenghi's groundbreaking vegetarian book Plenty, features stems - hardly a leaf to be seen and it does show how appetising they can look. Some stalks are, of course, vegetables in themselves - asparagus, celery, rhubarb being the main ones, but there are also others in which the line between stalk and leaf blurs a bit - fennel, leeks, spring onions, lemon grass, pak choy - all those Asian greens ( think that's what these stalks are) in which the stem is used as well as the leaves ... but what I mean to talk about are the stalks and stems of vegetables that are more usually used for their leaves - or more rarely - their roots.

I'm also not really going to talk about broccoli stems - though actually I did put some in my filo dish - mostly because recipes for broccoli stems seem to be everywhere. And they are indeed delicious - just remember to peel them - a strangely satisfying process.

No my starting place was Jamie. Some time ago - I think in one of his Carry on programs in which, of course, he was emphasising that you should use up what is in your fridge - I noticed him chopping up the stalks of various soft herbs, and putting them in with the onions and garlic that we all generally start cooking a multitude of dishes with. This extended into him chopping up - pretty finely - various other leafy vegetable stalks. And in one instance he grated - yes grated - a whole head of broccoli, stalks and all. You could do this with the cores of cabbages and cauliflower. Did you know that 20% of the weight of these vegetables comes from the core? And I have to say that ever since then I have been doing this, whenever appropriate bits are to hand. And I did quite a lot of that yesterday. Did you know - I found out today from The Guardian's Tom Hunt - that if you use all of a bunch of parsley rather than just the leaves, that you increase the yield of that bunch by 300% - not to mention the flavour.

And whilst we are still on herbs do use those stalks. They have just as much flavour, sometimes more, as the leaves, and if you chop them up finely, or if you are blitzing the herbs anyway for a pesto, or a dip or a soup then adding the stalks to the mix makes no difference. Indeed it heightens the flavour. I think the first time I ever used the stalks of a herb, other than chucking them in a stock, was making Thai curry pastes à la Charmaine Solomon for which the stems are a definite ingredient. The roots too. This dictum generally only applies to soft herbs with soft stalks - oregano, thyme rosemary are generally too woody, though you could certainly try - the tips of rosemary are pretty soft, and sometimes oregano and marjoram are not very woody either. And the very woody rosemary stalks can actually be used to add flavour to kebabs by acting as the skewers. Be sure to soak them first though or they will burn. I have never tried this I confess, but I believe it is a really good thing to do.

But what about all those other stalks - the spinach the silver beet, the kale and then the cabbage, the cauliflower and the broccoli. Here's a quick run down of ideas from here and there.

Slaw and salad - Just include the stems from cabbage, cauliflower, kale, etc. in a slaw or salad. If you slice it thinly nobody will notice. I also saw recipes for carpaccios of very thinly sliced things like broccoli and cabbage stems - very thin - use a mandoline - and then dress - with finely chopped parsley stems was one version I saw. Or you can simply use them as sticks for dips.

"The core of a cabbage or the stalk of a cauliflower or broccoli, when eaten raw (either shaved or finely sliced), is crunchy and refreshing, with a subtle bitterness that works wonderfully in a salad and can stand up to robust flavour pairings – think anchovy vinaigrette or blue cheese dressing. When cooked through, they are tender and the taste is milder, like a radish crossed with asparagus." Victoria Glass - Great British Chefs

Stir fries - This one is a mix of garlic and lettuce stems, but really you could stir fry anything if it's cut up in a suitable manner. It doesn't have to just be the stems of course, as here, it could just be an extra tasty ingredient in a meat or fish stir fry. Lettuce stems - yes - I almost always throw them away. Well they go into the compost, so they are not completely wasted, but I certainly don't cook them. But as Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall says:

"A splash of vinegar, a shake of spice, a bit of fiery chopped chilli and it's quite possible to turn the least prepossessing ingredient into dishes that will delight."

Soup - as I mentioned, my first option last night was soup - but it was a hot day, and even though the preparation was going to generate less heat than my ultimate filo bake, David felt that soup was somehow too hot for a hot day. It could have been a chilled soup of course, but we're probably not much into them. Not sure why because those I have had in the past have been delicious. Anyway here is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Stem soup which is made almost entirely of the stems and tough outer leaves of things like cabbage. The recipe can be found elsewhere on the net with the addition of things like oregano and parsley and Fearnley-Whittingstall himself suggests adding croutons or caraway seeds, plus some cheese. Mine would have included leaves, but would otherwise have been much the same. A very French kind of thing to do. And so many possibilities here. And of course you can just put them into a stock - not the strongly flavoured brassicas though.

Pestos, sauces, dips - Endless possibilities here. I guess you could also include smoothies. What I am really talking about here are just bunging the stems in a food processor and whizzing them up with other things, and hey presto your next party dip, salsa, sauce or pesto. Here are a few I found from here and there: herb stem pesto, Kale stem hummus, Cilantro stem manchego pesto, Swiss chard stem, beet and tahini dip, cauliflower stem chutney/dip

Roasting and grilling - charring really - which is a bit like stir frying. Toss in yummy things and bake or griddle or barbecue until they are soft and/or crunchy, then use in whatever way you would use any other roast vegetable - as they are, in tarts, in omelettes, in salads ...

Tempura - This picture is of Ottolenghi's vegetable tempura and to be fair is mostly 'proper' vegetables, but the one on the left seems to be some kind of vegetable stem and I really don't see why you couldn't use the treatment on a whole lot of different stems.

Fritters - interestingly I couldn't see any recipes for fritters for anything other than broccoli stems although I really don't see why you couldn't use either chopped or grated stems and cores, mixed with herbs (chopped stalks?) and other things to make fritters. Why not? And an extension could be to mix with something more solid to make a filling for hamburgers, or gnocchi, or falafel kind of things.

A couple of sweet out there options

These are pretty unusual. On the left Beetroot 'laces'. From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The laces are beetroot leaf stems that you cook in a syrup (300g sugar and the same of water) until very tender. Lift out and dry on a wire rack over a baking tray to catch the drips. When cool and dry toss in sugar. Eat as they are or decorate a chocolate cake or something similar. Different. Then there is Tom Hunt's Basil stalk pannacotta. Weird.

Now I certainly couldn't have dreamed up those two.

If all else fails - into the compost I suppose.


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