Don't toss out the tops

Leafy greens from radishes, beets and carrots are rich in fiber and flavor

click to enlarge Don't toss out the tops
Photo by Ashley Meyer

Bunches of candy-colored radishes and vivid carrots are often as pretty as a posy of flowers, especially in spring when the foliage is lush and bright green. I always plant an excessive quantity of radishes in my veggie garden each year, partly because I enjoy them but mainly because they're one of the first crops that can go in the ground and I get over-excited when it's time to plant them in early March.

Whether you're an overzealous gardener like me or simply drawn to the many beautiful bunches of produce at the farmers market, you may find yourself with an abundance of leafy vegetable tops. Root vegetables like radishes, carrots and beets are generally prized for their sweet roots, and the tops often discarded. This is unfortunate, not only in terms of waste, but from a nutritional and culinary perspective as well.

Dark leafy greens, including carrot, radish and beet tops, are rich in fiber, iron, phosphorus, vitamins and antioxidants. Luckily it's easy to fall in love with these superfood "byproducts." Radish tops have become the featured green in my morning breakfast scramble and were delicious for dinner in a quick fried rice, along with green onions and frozen peas. Sweet and mild like spinach, their fuzzy texture disappeared when cooked. Roasted beets are a family favorite, but I enjoy the greens almost as much as I enjoy the ruby-hued roots. Earthy with a touch of sweetness, they are delicious simply sautéed with butter and onion as a simple side dish. Not to be forgotten, fern-like carrot tops are tempered with copious amounts of garlic, zippy lemon juice and fruity olive oil to create a flavor-packed sauce that wants to go on everything that comes off the grill.

Radish leaf soup

1 tablespoon each butter and olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
Tops from 2 bunches radishes, about 4-5 cups
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ cup heavy cream or creme fraiche
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Sliced radishes and minced chives, to garnish

Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions have softened and are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook one minute more until fragrant. Add the potatoes, broth and another pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender. Add the radish leaves and return to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the mustard and cream. Purée the soup until smooth using an immersion blender. If using a standard blender, cool the soup before puréeing as hot liquids can build up pressure in a closed blender and explode. You can also omit the puréeing step entirely for a more toothsome style of soup.

Season to taste with salt and pepper as needed and garnish as desired. Soup can be cooled and refrigerated for up to five days or frozen for several months.

Carrot-top chimichurri

4-5 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup packed carrot tops, washed and dried
½ cup good quality olive oil
2 tablespoons each lemon juice and red wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste

Place the garlic, lemon zest and salt in the bowl of a food processor and blitz until finely chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the herbs and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar and pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt. Serve over roasted or grilled carrots with crumbled feta cheese. Also delicious drizzled over grilled steak or fish. Store in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Pasta with beet greens and walnuts

1 1/2 pounds beet greens, washed
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for finishing pasta
4-5 cloves minced garlic
1 small onion, thinly sliced
Zest of one lemon and juice of one lemon
12 ounces short pasta, such as bow-tie or penne
½ cup chopped toasted walnuts or pine nuts
½ cup crumbled feta or grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup golden raisins, optional
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While the water boils, prepare the greens. Wash them well, then strip the leaves off the stems. Dice the stems and set aside. Chiffonade the leaves by rolling them up like a cigar before thinly slicing into strips.

When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until it is al dente, or still firm to the bite. Reserve one cup of pasta water, then drain.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and once shimmering hot, add the sliced onions and minced garlic with a pinch of salt. Sauté until fragrant and just softened, then add the chopped beet stems and lemon zest. Sauté two minutes more then add the beet greens and a tiny pinch of salt and stir until just wilted. Add the drained pasta, golden raisins if using and the cup of reserved pasta water and toss until thoroughly combined and the pasta water has reduced to a silky sauce. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and another drizzle of olive oil and toss. Top with chopped nuts, grated or crumbled cheese, and red pepper flakes to taste.

About The Author

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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