''Whatever happened to celery tops?'' my husband asked as we pushed our shopping cart through the produce department of a local grocery store.
I had to ponder that a while because I really didn't know.
Depending on where you shop, most fresh (and I use the term loosely), produce is seen with the green leafy parts neatly trimmed away. Perhaps, I wondered, this made for easier packaging and shipping, since much of what we find in the stores had to travel a long distance to get to us. Perhaps customers complained, although I can't imagine why, that they had to pay for the extra weight of carrot and celery leaves. Most people these days, and I'm guessing here, cut off and toss away the leaves in favor of the firmer celery stems and bright orange carrot roots.
Some of the larger super-stores do carry produce with leafy tops aside as well, unless the purchaser hands them off to their pet rabbits. I'm speculating, but if I had a pet rabbit, that's what I would do.
My husband was entirely serious about wondering why there were no celery leaves. When we were young, what we called a bunch of celery consisted of several tightly bound stalks with a bouquet of leafy tops attached. Our mothers wouldn't think of throwing away the leaves, instead they would chop them into soups and stews, or toss the tops along with the stems into the roasting pan along with the beef. I can sit here and think of a plethora of uses for celery's leafy tops that include chopping them into egg and potato dishes and fresh salads. The leaves are, in fact, quite edible, are very tender and taste just like a milder version of the stalk.
Carrot tops are feathery and fine and can be used in those same dishes. Both vegetable leaves work great with fish, particularly in pouch cooking, which is one of my favorite ways to make a quick meal after a busy workday.
This is why it is so fun to grow our own vegetables. We get to keep the tops.
Leaves meant to be eaten, such as lettuce and spinach, are best when harvested young, but once the plant bolts, or sends up flowers and goes to seed, the leaves get bitter. They are still edible, but many people don't prefer them at this stage.
Beet tops are great eating and as mentioned in a previous column, are actually more nutritious than the underground globe. Other plants' leaves that we often enjoy are dill, fennel and cilantro, although we also collect their seeds to use as spices. The seeds of cilantro, that love-it or hate-it herb used in southwestern cooking, are in fact an entirely different spice we call coriander. Coriander is most often associated with Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean dishes.
One of my favorite green tops to eat is scallions. Also called ''green onions,'' scallions are easily grown in the summer garden. I have a couple rows planted in a raised bed in my greenhouse, but also have some alternate plantings in the main vegetable garden. I was not one of those children who wrinkled their nose at onions. Even now, onions are one of my favorites, although I try to be discriminating in eating them when I am going to be in the company of others. But in my youth, I didn't care what emanated from my breath. I ate scallion and mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch with wild abandon. I'm a little more cautious now.
We were taught to chop as much of the scallion as we could, only tossing out the very wilted tops. Even now, I chop as much of the green as I can get and use them in everything from egg frittatas to pasta stir-fry dishes. My garden isn't complete without a few rows of scallions.
You might not realize it, but leaves of broccoli and cauliflower also are edible. Like most greens, the young, tender leaves are the best. Older, tougher leaves can be bitter. The part of the plant we are used to eating is the compact flower buds. The nutrients in broccoli are more concentrated in the flower buds and in the tender young sprouts. Many times you can find sprouting broccoli seeds in your garden centers. Be sure to use only organic seeds intended for sprouting.
Keep in mind that not all plant parts of all vegetables are edible. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are members of the nightshade family of plants and only the fruit should be eaten. Those plant parts are toxic.
When the summer harvest begins coming into its own, remember to leave the leaves. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.