Over here in the elitist foodie bubble, there’s now talk of the “stem to root” trend in vegetable cooking. The phrase refers to the impulse to minimize waste by using all parts of the plant. It’s a close cousin of the “snout to tail” movement that brought crispy pig’s tails and pickled lamb’s tongues to upscale restaurant menus. I appreciate conservation, but how visionary can it be if for the last two decades busy dieters and soccer moms have unknowingly been stem-to-root trailblazers, buying veggie scraps that were previously used as animal feed thanks to one of the oldest broccoli packers in America?
Sometimes we culinary trendsetters can pick up a trick from everybody else.
I can be an obnoxious know-it-all about food and cooking. Being aware of this doesn’t help keep my culinary smugness in check, but recently I got something of a wake-up call as to how little I know about certain sectors of contemporary food culture and supermarket ingredients.
I came across a recipe for an Asian chicken salad with ginger vinaigrette. It looked simple and delicious but there was one ingredient that left me scratching my head: bagged broccoli slaw. Even more appealing than the recipe itself, though, was the promise that this broccoli slaw could be doused with dressing and then set aside for hours without getting soggy. It sounded like a bagged-lunch miracle for someone whose office doesn’t have a kitchen, like me.
I know you can do the same thing with kale, but the kale itself needs to be washed, de-stemmed, and sliced before it’s ready to turn into salad. This broccoli slaw came in a bag, all washed, shredded and ready to go. I set out to track it down. My local Whole Foods doesn’t carry bagged broccoli slaw, which wasn’t exactly a shocker to me given that most of us who regularly shop there live in a privileged food-snob bubble, looking down on packaged “processed food” conveniences while simultaneously having our favorite Indian takeout joint on speed dial.
I found it at my neighborhood supermarket—the kind of place with a pharmacy and an entire aisle of soda, but without any actual, whole broccoli. The produce manager told me he sells a ton of it. I bought a 12-ounce bag of Mann’s broccoli slaw for $2. I made the recipe and ate it for lunch all week, delighted that the slaw lived up to its crisp promise, and bought another bag to use in soups, salads, and to fill up pita breads. It may be packaged and not organic (though Mann’s does offer an organic variety I couldn’t find anywhere), but it’s just vegetables—no funny stuff in the ingredients list—and certainly a healthy alternative to the gourmet food truck fare I often succumb to at lunchtime.
Where has this stuff been all my life, I wondered? I called the company, and spoke to PR rep Elena Hernandez. It turns out, bagged broccoli slaw has existed since 1991. Mann’s is an old player in the produce biz, packing and selling broccoli since 1939. For most of those decades, they sold broccoli the way Whole Foods still does—long pale green stalks that flower into the familiar green crowns of florets.
But, according to Hernandez, something happened in the 1980s. The florets became very popular, and people didn’t want to buy the stems anymore. I think this has to do with how much kitchen IQ has plummeted over the past two generations—the heartier stalks need to be cooked differently than the more delicate florets, and I guess many home cooks didn’t know how to prepare them. Whatever the reason, Mann’s was taking the stalks, which make up about half of broccoli’s edible weight, and discarding them. “We were actually just giving the stalks away to dairy farmers to use as animal feed,” says Hernandez.
At the time, people thought of broccoli stems as inedible—trash. I was reminded of a restaurant I once worked at where the economical chef turned the leftover stalks into a vegetable side dish by peeling away the tough exterior, slicing the broccoli stalks into thin half moons, and simmering it until tender in a bubbling pool of salty, garlic-scented butter. Customers loved it and often asked what it was. Regularly, once they learned it was just broccoli stalks, the remaining bites of the veggie side returned to the kitchen uneaten. The perception that something is trash and not food can be a tough barrier to break down.
In 1991, broccoli stalks got the image make-over they needed. A Mann’s executive made the decision to stop throwing them away. Instead, they would be shredded, bagged, and marketed as a premium product. Carrots and red cabbage were added for color, and the stalks themselves even got a warm and fuzzy (and trademarked) name: Broccoli hearts. Other companies, including Dole, make a similar product now, but they have to call the main ingredient something else.
It’s true that you can easily make your own broccoli slaw with leftover stalks. You can save money that way, obviously, but you’ll also need to wash, peel, and shred your stalks before packing them up and washing your food processor. I made it, and it took me about half an hour to produce a 12-ounce portion.
My homemade version was greener, more vegetal in flavor, and wetter than the prepackaged alternative. For some reason, it didn’t stay as crisp once it was dressed. And while this doesn’t apply to most people, my husband doesn’t much like broccoli florets, so I rarely have leftover stalks to dispatch this way. Plus, as much as I love to cook, I sometimes just plain get lazy, especially when it comes to packing my lunch. I will probably keep buying the bagged stuff.
Bacon, Cheddar, and Apple Salad
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
2 teaspoons champagne or other white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon low-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
4 cups broccoli slaw
1 small apple, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 ounce sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped
2 tablespoons sliced almonds (optional)
1 scallion, sliced thin (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, combine the shallots, vinegar, salt, and sugar and let stand for 10 minutes.
Whisk in the yogurt and mayonnaise, toss with the broccoli slaw until it’s evenly coated. Divide the dressed slaw evenly among two plates and top each with half the apple, cheddar, bacon, almonds, and scallions. Alternatively, refrigerate the dressed slaw in sealed container for up to two days and combine with the apple, cheddar, bacon, almonds and scallions just before serving.
Makes 2 servings; halves or doubles easily