What is at the end point of one, two hours or more of cooking?
A chaotic if loving dinnertime with young children banging their BPA-free mini-utensils on the table as they wait to be served? Supper for two people who slurp from their soup spoons, few words passing between them after years of eating together on a daily basis?
We ought to take a moment, in the midst of our simple - or complicated - cooking efforts to consider where we arrive when we come to the end, by which I mean the beginning.
Some guidance may come from the carrots and young turnips we are chopping, to the head of fresh garlic we are about to wrap up in a square of foil. To the now naked tomato stems from which we have just plucked globes of red, ripe fruit.
Take a look at them. Really look.
These are the tops and tails. The endings and beginnings.
They are beautiful.
Once, they were parts of plants whose roots reached down into the rich mystery in which they grew searching for water and nutrients, tended by a farmer or a home gardener. They are easy to miss as we cut, tear and yank them off, transforming them from sum to parts for our best use, tossing them without much thought into a heap or bowl to be carried out to the compost bin outside.
Stems, tops, peels, roots. Not much good are they for our dinners or lunches. Not much good are they for anything other than the compost. That's the general thought, isn’t it?
The other day, I was going through our CSA produce box, prepping all the vegetables I could for the coming week. My son was with me, sitting on the kitchen stool, watching (as he often does) as I worked on the vegetables. I had just hacked off and tossed aside the green leaves of a bunch of salad turnips leaving only the stubby tops.
As I began trimming the pale green stubs off the white orbs, Kingston reached toward the heap of unwanted stubs. On each, a piece of turnip was still attached. Each one looked like a little embellished cap. He piled up these pieces then began separating them again.
Good, he's keeping busy, I thought, as I continued cutting.
Then I heard his small voice. Mama, look.
I paused and glanced over at his handiwork then at him, his face shiny with pride in himself and at what he had created. He had lined the white-and-green tops up in a most orderly fashion at the end of the large butcher block.
As much grief as they may cause us each day (let’s be honest) due to flare-ups of independence and verve, two-and-three-quarter-year-olds have a unique talent for reminding us of the wonderment of little things. Ants. Pushing a button, any button, on the dishwasher and delighting at the sound it makes when it turns on. The way toy trains link together when their magical, magnetic ends touch.
At that moment, though, the turnip tops standing at attention before us were that very thing of wonderment. They were beautiful, exuberant, with a certain sculptural confidence, standing tall even after being brutally removed from their prior whole selves.
Now, they practically shouted at me, reminding me of their worth, of the worth of all vegetable tops and even their roots and peels, not to mention their very leaves.
Do something with me! Don’t let me be wasted, they cried.
To which I now respond: Let us honor the entire vegetable, the person who farmed it, the soil that fed it, the water that nurtured it, the sun that coaxed it to grow by not merely taking of it only that which we believe to be good.
Let us use all of it. Let us find goodness in the slippery skin of a fresh garlic bulb, the feathery ends of a fennel bulb that do their gentle dance when the wind blows through them. Let us use as many parts as possible, if not all.
I would go even further to suggest this: That it is imperative for us to use everything that is offered to us by a farmer, a gardener and the earth. Everything, from root to leaf.
By harnessing the full potential of a beet, a carrot, or even a turnip - we are undertaking a civilized activity requiring thought and reflection. That in turn enables us to arrive at the beginning of living more honestly and completely as human beings.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the end, that is the very point.
Guidance for Making Vegetable Stock
There are as many possible types of vegetable stocks to be made as you can imagine. It's important to consider what vegetable flavors and herbs go well together. Onion skins, cabbage, turnip tops, broccoli, and red beets are to be avoided. Beets mostly for the obvious reason. (Unless you purposefully desire a red stock!) You'll want to keep away from strongly-flavored herbs as well as they can be overpowering.
If you want to make use of most of your vegetable and it happens to be, say, a turnip (on the to-avoid list), a soup using the tops in addition to the roots is a good alternative. Peel a few medium-sized turnips or one bunch of salad turnips and thinly slice them. Slice a few small boiling potatoes. Slice the white parts of two leeks and mince a clove of garlic.
Cook these all together in a generous pat of melted butter. Toss in several sprigs of fresh thyme. Add a couple of good pinches of salt and pepper, 6 cups of water, and let it simmer on low until the vegetables soften. This is the time to add a good pour of cream or milk, about half a cup, and then puree the soup to the texture of your liking. Taste for salt and adjust.
Then, chop the turnip tops and sautee them or simmer them until they wilt. Add them to your whole-turnip soup and you're done. This is soothing and delicious, especially when served with toast and cheese or croutons.
But I digress. We were talking about stock, weren't we?
A good, basic stock can always include potato pairings, carrots, carrot tops, thyme, bay leaf, parsley (including stems), chard stems and beet greens, celery parts including root skins, lettuce, scallions, onions, leeks, and mushrooms.
Deborah Madison (Vegetable Literacy, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) helpfully suggests using two quarts of water, which will give you 6 cups of finished stock. She also adds a tablespoon of nutritional yeast to her basic vegetable stock for depth. She also tells us to please avoid celery seeds, which will lend bitterness to a stock.
This is as basic as basic guidelines go, but if you do try combining some of your odds and ends to make stock, you will see that there are many vegetables (including their parings and tops) who enjoy spending time together, some of whom you never thought could actually be friends in the first place.
I keep stocks of all types in the freezer, defrosting and using them as needed. I urge you to do the same. You'll never need to buy a packaged stock again. Not the veggie kind, anyway, and you - and your cooking - will be the better for it.