Food trends come and go, but some have lasting power for a reason. No, I’m not talking about cupcakes. I’m referring to “nose-to-tail” eating, the modern term used to describe what grandmas around the world have been doing for centuries. Nose-to-tail eating is the idea of using the entire animal, organs and all. Although it doesn’t go quite as far as using the skin for clothing, like the Native Americans did, it’s basically the same idea. Fergus Henderson is largely credited with the modern-day version of this philosophy, by making (supposedly) incredibly delicious, simple food in his London restaurant, St. John. To give you an idea of his influence, his recent press has ranged from a glowing spread in Food and Wine to a lyrical and fawning section in Anthony Bourdain’s latest book.
Now, the benefits of nose-to-tail eating are fairly obvious. Rather than raising animals to merely use one or two muscles, nose-to-tail eating recognizes that the entire animal is worthy of respect. A cow is not just about the prime rib. It also minimizes waste, by finding new ways to use pieces that were once thrown away or at best, put aside for pet food. Lastly, it preserves traditional ways of eating, celebrating old dishes that were once considered gauche or out-of-date. It finds joy – and apparently, deliciousness – in much-despised meals such as liver. Anything that makes liver palatable has to be worth something. In doing so, it connects us with our past and helps us better understand how our ancestors lived and ate.
All of this sounds great, but what is a vegetarian or vegan to do? Even many people who normally eat meat shy away from organs. If you don’t eat meat at all, there’s nothing appealing and perhaps even something grotesque about this philosophy.
Except that you can apply some of the same principals to vegetables. Like meat, much of the vegetable and the plant it comes from is wasted before it gets to the table. But you can think outside the box in terms of what you eat and what you throw away.
If you’ve bought the vegetable from the farmer’s market, there are a few ways to maximize your yield. If you’ve bought a pumpkin, you can always toast the seeds. Even though most people only use broccoli heads, the stem is certainly edible, although a little tougher. Chop it thin. In his book, “The Whole Beast,” Henderson has a number of salads that make use of entire plants. But his most basic vegetable recipe is simply titled “How to eat radishes at their peak.” It has as its ingredient list:
– Bunches of breakfast radishes
– Coarse sea salt
– Good salted butter
The vinaigrette is used to dress the leaves for an incredibly simple salad once you’re done eating the main part of the radish.
If you have your own garden, you have even more options. I myself tried to take advantage of our beautiful garlic and shallot sprouts. The greens of garlic are called garlic scapes, and behave as if a very strong garlic plant suddenly became a weedy-looking green. Because they are greens, put them in close to the end of cooking your vegetables, just enough to wilt them. This is in contrast to how you handle garlic, which goes in at the beginning, with the onion. I learned this from Chris after half-burning my scapes, of course. Also, just because they’re greens, don’t assume they’ll be mild. Again, Chris pointed this out far after I had cooked far too much with some summer squash as a side-dish. Thankfully, I had a lot of other vegetables available to toss in and tone down the strength.
In addition to cooking knowledge, I also gained a valuable lesson in gardening – don’t cut your vegetables too low. In my enthusiasm, I cut the greens almost down to the bulbs, leaving not nearly enough plant to gather sunlight and produce more garlic. As a result, almost all of the garlic I cut stopped growing. Even the ones that started regrowing are now in statis, halted by the awful heat. Learn from my mistake – if you’re going to cut garlic scapes, be sure to leave enough green that the plant can use for future growth.
So whether you’re a mostly-carnivore (“A big glass of meat!”) or a strict vegan, eating “nose-to-tail” has an incredible number of possibilities.