Getting to Know: Shoots and Stalks
Come spring, shoots and stalks are everywhere. Here are a dozen that could end up in your kitchen and on your plate.
Swiss Chard Stalks
With edible stalks and leaves, Swiss chard is one vegetable in two. We often keep them together, chopping the tougher, more fibrous stalks smaller than the leaves or giving them a head start in the pan to soften them. But you can also roast, braise, or even pickle the stalks by themselves. Whether red, yellow, or white, the stalks will taste the same (and the colors will fade when the chard is cooked). To stem Swiss chard, fold each leaf in half along the stalk and cut out the stalk with a knife.
Thanks to a global market, asparagus is now sold year-round, but its appearance at the store used to mean that spring had sprung. Store spears, cut end down, in a glass of water in the refrigerator. Steam the thinner spears and broil, roast, or grill thicker ones. Or try them with goat cheese and olives in our Asparagus–Goat Cheese Tart (see related content). Asparagus are members of the lily family.
White asparagus is actually just green asparagus that was grown covered in hay or soil: Shielded from sunlight, there’s no photosynthesis. Europeans love their white asparagus (the Germans even hold spring festivals in its honor). In America, any fresh spears you find probably come from Peru. Try them poached or steamed and dressed in herb vinaigrette. Canned or preserved white asparagus are mushy and taste tinny—walk on by.
Garlic scapes are the flower stalk of the garlic bulb. Each bright green shoot loops in a circle and ends in a mini clove called a bulbil. A darling of foodies, garlic scapes show up at farmers’ markets in the late spring or early summer. Snipping them promotes growth underground, meaning plump garlic cloves—plus it gives farmers two products to sell. The scapes taste like very mild garlic. Sauté them in olive oil or puree into a white bean dip or pesto.
Celery is indispensable—whether it’s sent to school in a child’s lunch box; served raw with dip as crudités; or sautéed with onions, carrots, and herbs to make a mirepoix (the classic building block for soups, sauces, stuffing, and much more). Next time you’re chopping it up to add crunch to chicken or egg salad, throw in the leaves, too: They carry lots of flavor.
The Chinese form of celery has skinny, hollow stalks, which are woodier than those of common North American celery. Other differences? Chinese celery is leafier (the leaves look and taste somewhat like parsley), and it has a pungent, peppery flavor. Chinese celery is a nearer relative of wild celery than the cultivated variety we eat in America. Asian cooks use it in soups and stir-fries as both an herb and a vegetable.
Because it’s usually paired with strawberries and made into pie, rhubarb is often mistaken for a fruit. Actually, it’s a vegetable, and though very tart and astringent, sugar transforms it into dessert. Buy it red or green: The color doesn’t indicate ripeness or affect the taste. Slice rhubarb thinly across the grain to reduce stringiness. Don’t eat the leaves; they are poisonous.
Once a specialty Italian ingredient, licorice-flavored fennel is now familiar to most Americans. To prep it, slice off the stalks, trim the bottom of the bulb, halve the bulb lengthwise, and remove and discard the hard core. Cut the remaining bulb into chunks and roast them, or slice it thinly (across the grain to prevent stringiness) to eat raw in salads and slaws. Treat the feathery fronds like an herb to add mild anise flavor to a dish.
Hearts of Palm
Once referred to as “swamp cabbage,” hearts of palm took a turn for the gourmet in the 1950s. They come from the innermost portion of the cabbage palm tree, which grows in South and Central America. Many grocery stores carry canned or jarred versions. Fresh, they are smooth and white, crisp yet creamy, and slightly tart. Use them in salads with seafood, corn, papaya, and/or avocados.
Asian cooks simmer, braise, stir-fry, and even grill this off-white shoot of the bamboo plant, which is crisp and slightly bitter. To prepare fresh shoots, peel back the tough outer layers (carefully: They have bristles) and parboil the shoots for 20 minutes to let the bitter compounds dissipate. Unless you shop at Asian markets, though, you will probably be using canned, in which case you should drain, rinse, and dry the shoots before using.
The young, unfurled shoots of several types of ferns are a much-prized early spring vegetable. Their high price reflects the fact that they’re wild, delicate, and highly perishable, plus the season is short. Fiddleheads have a “grassy, nutty” flavor similar to that of asparagus and green beans. Clean them carefully before blanching them in boiling water, shocking them in an ice bath, and briefly sautéing them in butter.
Ubiquitous in curries, soups, and salads across Southeast Asia, lemongrass reached America more than a decade ago; many supermarkets now carry it in the produce section. Lemongrass has a delicate, citrusy, slightly “peppery” flavor. To prepare it, first peel and discard the tough, outer layers. Then mince or grate the pale lower stalk (freeze it first for easy grating) or bruise it by pounding it and leave it whole to infuse stocks and soups.