It is an interesting contradiction that our same charcuterie-, nose-to-tail-, Paleo-, Heritage Breed-devoted dining public now also demonstrates a desire for vegetables. According to Technomic research, vegetable offerings have jumped 11 percent in the past three years. Leading the pack is kale, with a 400 percent increased presence on menus in the last five years.
And though it is more about making vegetables center stage, the impacts of reduced meat consumption are being felt. There are, of course, a growing number of vegetarians and vegans driving these trends. But there is also a growing movement of mindful eaters practicing conscious omnivorism—they, too, are choosing vegan, vegetarian, vegetable-dominant or meat-light dishes for certain days or dayparts.
Clean and green vegetables are moving the mark on menus. Suggesting that 50 percent of our plates should be produce, the USDA’s “My Plate” revamp of the food pyramid has surely made an impact. Fresh-from-the-farm trends have also facilitated increased access to more interesting produce varietals, not to mention cutting-edge and traditional techniques proving that once lowly veggies like turnips or sunchokes can be considered and consumed in new light.
Chefs, food personalities and culinary awards have also put produce from and center. “The Taste,” which includes carnivorous, vegetarian-eschewing judges like Anthony Bourdain, recently included a vegan contestant and even featured an entire show dedicated to a “Go Green” vegetarian challenge with über veg chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi guest judging.
And today’s highly acclaimed restaurants offer thoughtful and elegant veggie-centric preparations and even entire vegetable tasting menus.
Operators are finding all upside in offering produce-prominent dishes: They provide easy entry for capitalizing on the farm-fresh trend, broaden market reach, suggest seasonality, and evoke a healthy halo.
From Millennial-driven all-day snacking and small plates to Meatless Monday menus to a genuine focus on veggie-centric entrées, both light and hearty veg-leaning dishes are more than meat-free—and they entail more than replacing a meat-centered meal with pasta. Today, the produce prevails.
Setting aside the obvious veggie pasta, pizza, sandwich and “meat replacements,” here are some culinary cues and menu examples for putting vegetables at the center of the plate:
Timeless Techniques and Enduring Dishes
Vegetarianism too often focuses on the absence of the meat rather than the presence of the vegetables. When familiar recipes and classic preps (which may or may not include animal protein for flavor) are applied, vegetable-dominant dishes become familiar and suggestive.
Deep Dish: Baked gratins, tagines, cazuelas or tians—stacked with dairy, egg or high-flavored herbs and basting liquids—result in comforting, familiar individual-portioned casseroles requiring only a bit of heating.
- Zucca Al Forno: Oven-roasted butternut squash with Parmigiano-Reggiano, toasted pumpkin seeds, breadcrumbs and balsamic vinaigrette—Eataly’s Le Verdure, New York
Slow and Low: Classic roasted and braised roots and stalks make for meaty savory dishes traditionally served with sauce or brightened with a bit of acidic or tart gastrique, citrus or gremolata.
- Salt-roasted beets with grapefruit, avocado, Green Goddess, sherry
—The Wallace, Culver City, Calif.
Steaked: Cutting, forming or pressing hearty heads and roots into a steak for grilling can result in a vegetable platter and accompaniment that can rival a steakhouse meal.
- Stone Barn’s Wintered-Over Parsnip Steak with bone marrow, classic creamed spinach and crushed potatoes—Blue Hill, New York
Packaged: Wrapped, rolled, sous vide and even old-timey en papillote treatment with highly flavored ingredients, liquids and finishers highlight the natural flavors even without the use of much or any fat.
- Salsifis en Papillote: Salsify in red wine, honey and Roquefort—Buvette, New York
Small Dish Wonders
Trends in all-day dining and snacking conjoin with a necessity (by health, pocketbook and high usage of restaurants) to get vegetable-based dishes into the highest growth menu segment. Here, root-to-flower is proving as trendy as nose-to tail.
Small Fry: There is nothing new about diners’ desire to have a slightly naughty take on wholesome. Modern interpretations, from fried zucchini sticks to fried asparagus to pumpkin fritters, emote from menus.
- Fritto Misto: Seasonal vegetables fried in extra-virgin olive oil—Eataly’s Le Verdure, Chicago
Caked: Bite-sized or pan-sized, pancakes, rösti, hashes and latkes of shredded, smashed or puréed vegetables, with or without starch, encourage sharing and can be both healthy and indulgent.
- Root vegetable latkes with date butter—Sacred Cow, New York
Dipped: Hot, souffléd and cold dips and spreads (newly named “jars”) can easily go veg. They often contain a bit of meat or dairy, but just as often are a satisfying, shareable vegan option.
- Fava bean pâté, capers, red onion, egg —Sarma, Somerville, Mass.
Cheese Please: Even less-popular veggies become adaptable with a little fat—namely crave-worthy dairy products or aged, fresh, grated and, especially, melted cheese.
- Grilled mushrooms with Manchego curds and toasted butter vinaigrette —Casa Mono, New York
Cruciferous vegetables—from sturdy, leafy brassicas and cabbage-y Brussels sprouts to the myriad broccoli and cauliflower cultivars to rutabagas and radishes—are perhaps the most “it” vegetables among Millennials. Because they are not only healthy, but almost always a hearty stand-in, cruciferous vegetables have been highly improved by both technique and creativity. The newly triumphant cauliflower demonstrates how malleable this category is to being made over.
Roasted: Slow roasting or quick blasting most cruciferous vegetables will reveal their natural sweetness and highlight their brawniness.
- Whole-roasted cauliflower with sea salt and whipped goat feta—Domenica, New Orleans
Double Down: Combining techniques and textures—such as roasted, puréed, whipped, fried or the newly popular graveling (box-grating into crunchy bits or “couscous”)—in a single dish highlights the multiplicity of flavors in one vegetable.
- Roasted multicolored cauliflower, shaved cauliflower “couscous,” fried quail egg, Ossetra caviar and kumquat—Torino, Ferndale, Mich.
Fired: Marinated and/or oiled cruciferous vegetables get the meaty Maillard reaction when grilled, charred or, the new craze, blasted.
- Bistecca Cavolfiore: Olive oil-confited cauliflower steak, grilled to order, with almond sauce and black rice—Salumeria Rosi, New York
Reformed: Re-forming vegetables literally reforms their character, converting them from sad sides to fun and functional alternatives that are not turkey-shaped tofu.
- Cauliflower Poutine: Cauliflower tater tots, salbitxada gravy, house-crafted cheese curd—Fern, Charlotte, N.C.
Veggies in Sips and Sweets
Along with a movement toward simply eating more vegetables, the trend of making savory stylish in nontraditional places means modern desserts and drinks are also getting the veggie treatment.
Desserts: Sweet treatments of savory stalwarts is nothing new (think carrot cake or rhubarb pie), but following on the heels of other sweet-and-savory expressions that include cheese, bacon or salt, vegetables—many of which are naturally sweet—offer delightful juxtaposition that aren’t far away from the pastry bench.
- Sfera Di Caprino: Celery and fig agrodolce and celery sorbetto —Del Posto, New York City
- Beet-cocoa nib mousse, beet “ribbon,” roasted beets, beet “paper,” buckwheat, cocoa nib crumble, blackberry sauce —Journeyman, Boston
Drinks: Shaken and stirred, puréed, juiced, chipped and whipped are cropping up in cocktails well beyond the window dressings of herbs, cucumber slices and celery sticks that used to serve as garnish. Cooked and raw, roots, stalks and leaves create bright, bold bursts of fresh flavor, creative color and that sweet-savory balance bartenders and barflies alike buzz toward.
- The Dante Bellpepper: Mezcal, red bell pepper, carrot, lemon and cracked pepper and carrot habanero “air”—Picca,
- Garden Variety Margarita: Blue Agave Blanco Tequila, kale-ginger juice, lime, agave nectar and smoked sea salt
—The Wayland, New York