The corn, celery, tomato, lettuces and lemon juice and zest will each bring a unique function to a dish like chef Karen Nicolas’ Escarole Salad with Lemony Steamed Clams. Photo courtesy of Sunkist Growers. Looking at produce through the lens of functionality opens up new avenues for culinary creativity
By Joan Lang
Because the vast variety of fruits and vegetables are often lumped together into a category of “produce,” it can be overwhelming for chefs and menu developers to consider the individual characteristics of each item and what it brings to the menu, as they might other categories of widely used ingredients, like cheese or bread. Thus we try to categorize produce by season, color, nutritional content or preparation style. But perhaps it’s time to take advantage of produce by looking at fruits and vegetables in a fresh new way: for the distinct functions they bring to menu development. Defining produce in terms of ingredient functionality opens up new avenues for how to use it.
Here’s the pitch: Although the boundary lines are highly permeable, fruits and vegetables can be said to play one or more of four basic functional roles within any given recipe:
BACKGROUND: These items make up the essential underlying flavor nuances. Examples: onions, celery, garlic
CARRIER: These workhorse ingredients are the flavor carriers, providing a platform for flavor enhancements. Examples: potatoes, greens/lettuces
TEXTURAL: These ingredients have more going for them in the way of texture, and bring a smooth or crispy contrast to a menu item. Examples: jicama, avocados, carrots
ACCENT/IMPACT: These are items with a powerful finishing flavor, used in smaller quantities but with big flavor impact. Examples: berries, citrus, herbs
How these properties are used and combined, and what fruits and vegetables are chosen to represent them, is all a matter of creativity.
How many recipes, in how many different culinary languages, start with a mixture of diced aromatic vegetables, sautéed in some kind of fat — onions, celery, garlic and so on? For the French, it’s mirepoix, a combination of chopped carrots, celery and onions used to add flavor and aroma to stocks, sauces, soups and other foods. Spanish and Latin dishes often begin with a sofrito of garlic, onion and tomato cooked in olive oil or lard, with the frequent addition of ham, bell or chile peppers, and herbs and spices like oregano and cumin. And garlic, ginger and scallions make up the base of many an Asian dish.
These are background vegetables at their most iconic, and their most useful. “You can’t necessarily tell they’re in there, but the dish would be missing something if they were absent,” says chef Chris Casson, produce sales and marketing manager for Shamrock Foods in Denver. “Mirepoix and other mixtures provide depth and context, and they also establish the first layer of a theme, especially if it’s an ethnic one.”
Walter Zuromski, president and culinary director of Chef Services Group based in Lincoln, R.I., also speaks in terms of produce’s background role as a modifier to culinary themes, be it seasonal or ethnic. “We all know shortribs are very popular right now. As far as how you prepare them, just follow the seasons. In the spring, nature brings us ramps and mushrooms. In the fall it’s root vegetables. Shortribs braised with a jardinière of parsnips, carrots and celery will have a completely different ‘feel’ — more robust and complex — than a shortrib dish that’s barbecued and served with coleslaw.”
By the same token, says Zuromski, you can make a chicken dish Mediterranean with eggplant, red pepper and onions, or Asian with pea pods, bok choy and scallions. “Fruits and vegetables are what make food seasonal, and they deliver the thematic promise of a recipe or even an entire menu.”
Bright, flavorful veggies in contrasting textures bring penne primavera to life. Photo courtesy of haliburton international foods. HEAVY LIFTING: THE CARRIERS
Into every recipe, a neutral element must fall. In the produce world, these are products like potatoes and lettuce — basic vehicles for other, more flavor-forward ingredients.
“Take a lettuce like iceberg,” says Jim Mills, sales manager of Sacramento-based Produce Express. “It’s very high in water and it doesn’t have much flavor of its own, so you have to add a lot to make it pop. Like a wedge salad: Now all of a sudden you’ve got a lot going on there in the form of bacon, blue cheese dressing, maybe some green onion. Iceberg is the perfect foil for those kinds of ingredients.
“But what do you do to elevate a salad, since what a chef does is elevate ingredients?” he continues. “Radicchio is similar to iceberg in that it has a great crisp texture, but it also has lots of flavor and this beautiful red color. You don’t have to do as much to a salad that’s got radicchio as a carrier — maybe just add something complementary, like some fresh oranges or a nice balsamic vinaigrette with an edge of sweetness. Or maybe you tone the flavor down a bit by adding a little romaine, which has more flavor and texture than iceberg but still makes the mix more balanced.”
Casson speaks of PLOT vegetables — the potatoes, lettuce, onions and tomatoes that almost every foodservice operation purchases in some form.
“These are your base ingredients, aside from proteins, and they are going to help make it possible for you to serve a menu item that’s profitable,” he explains. “You use base items because they are filling and they bring value to the plate in terms of coverage. Because a serving of potato doesn’t cost as much as a serving of jasmine rice, you can utilize the rest of your profit on a high-impact item like fresh herbs, microgreens, or an exotic finish of blood orange salsa.”
But that’s not to say that these workhorse items can’t be used creatively or in different forms. “Carrots are pretty basic. You use them in a soup for background sweetness, or in something familiar like peas-and-carrots,” Casson says. “But you can also use these as carriers in more creative ways — infuse carrots with ginger and cumin and purée them for a luscious soup, or juice them for a light, vegetal sauce.”
Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, points out the important role that the cooking method can play with produce. “Instead of mashing or baking potatoes, why not turn them into potato pancakes or latkes, which are great carriers for other flavors and ingredients?” he says. “Or, add flavor, texture and height to a plate with a serving of multi-colored shoestring potatoes, using both white and sweet potatoes. You can even add other root vegetables like beets and parsnips, or make hash browns or homefries with the addition of squash, mushrooms and fennel.”
Many fast-casual restaurants in particular are using produce to both differentiate themselves and add variety to menus, notes Bendas, starting with familiar favorites like french fries or grilled vegetables and ramping up their appeal with different ingredients and cooking techniques. “You can make really satisfying produce-based menu specialties by looking for a different definition of how a popular item can be made.”
A dish of seasoned-and-roasted Red Bliss, Purple Peruvian and Yukon Gold potatoes creates a colorful addition to a side, snack or bar menu. Photo courtesy of u.s. potato board. TEXTURAL INTERPLAY
“Good chefs look at interplay,” says Casson. “Not just of flavors but also temperatures and textures. And produce plays a key role in that, from the gentle crispness of something like frisée to the luxurious softness of an artichoke heart. It’s that interplay that keeps food from being monotone.” Take for instance the lusciousness avocado brings to a salad or sandwich, and also as a cooling topper to a soup or rich, meaty entrée.
Texture is also a function of treatment. “Kale is almost obnoxiously trendy right now, but there’s so much new that you can do with it,” explains Amy Myrdal Miller, director of programs and culinary nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). “If you braise it slowly, you’ve got something silky and smooth, but if you cut raw kale into thin ribbons, it can be used as a textural element in a salad that’s similar to romaine but with more substance. And of course it’s got a completely different flavor.”
Zuromski has been playing with techniques like sous vide to manipulate the texture of produce, particularly root vegetables. “If you cook fennel sous vide with vanilla butter you get this amazing silky texture as well as flavor retention because you’re not boiling it away,” he explains. “A carrot cooked sous vide in a water bath at 180 degrees for 45 minutes, low and slow, will absolutely change your life.”
Miller advocates looking to ethnic cuisine for inspiration, in part because many global foodways were born of poverty, so cooks had to be much more inventive with what they had. “In Vietnam, there’s a whole tradition of garnishing food with fried shallots, which add crispness and smokiness,” she says. “We actually refer to it in classes as Vietnamese bacon.”
Think more broadly, she councils. “Steamed cauliflower is pretty ho-hum, but if you purée it with a healthful oil — oh wow — you’ve got this wonderful, creamy element that can be used in lots of different ways. I’ve even seen it used as a base on a pizza, instead of tomato sauce, topped with sausage and mushrooms.”
As far as functionality goes, produce can be used interchangeably for different effects. “There are lots and lots of products that you can use to get a smooth texture, but you can also bring in different flavor notes,” says M. Jill Overdorf, corporate executive chef for Coosemans Shipping of Los Angeles, which sources fruits and vegetables for such organizations as Melissa’s Produce and Frieda’s Specialty Produce. With a larder that runs the gamut from anise to yams, Overdorf — who also plays a key leadership role in the Produce Marketing Association — has a lot to experiment with.
“Just look at the cucurbits,” she says, referencing the category of climbing and trailing plants that produce cucumbers, melons and squashes. “In the winter, you can use pumpkin, butternut, red kuri and kabocha squash in the same way you’d use potatoes or sweet potatoes — cubed and roasted, fried, puréed — but because they are all quite high in sugar you can also bring in these beautiful caramelized flavor notes. In the summer you can create an array of crisp, salty pickles with cukes, melon and summer squashes.”
“Think about potato skins, the kind of item you see on menus in beer places all over the country,” says the CIA’s Miller. “Finish them with a sprinkle of sliced green onion and all of a sudden you’ve got something so much more appealing. Even the simplest addition of produce can create a fun, exciting element that makes an impact.”
In many ways, this is produce’s most important role: the amazing little addition of an interesting fruit, vegetable or herb that elevates a recipe into the signature stratosphere. Consider the subtle-but-significant impact a dish gets from a spritz of citrus, a sprinkling of herbs or an addition of berries. And with the growing array of agricultural products and new hybrids available from all over the world, the possibilities are skyrocketing.
Miller gives a shoutout to Padrón peppers, a specialty of Galicia, which she recently noticed seared in olive oil and used as a stem-on garnish to shrimp. Similar in size and shape to the shrimp but bright green and loaded with sweet-smoky-hot flavor, the peppers made for a memorable dish. “The best part is that you approach them with just a little bit of trepidation, because each pepper can be different,” she explains. “Will it be hot? Will it be milder? It makes every bite of the dish an adventure — and yet it was such a simple concept.”
Fruits and vegetables can also be used in boldly flavored relishes, chutneys, sauces, pickles and other condiments to bring an explosion of color and flavor to finished dishes, says Synergy’s Bendas.
“Simple pickled onions can really give sandwiches and salads a lift, and you can use fresh herbs in a variety of interesting ways, not just sprinkled on food or added to salads, but incorporated into flavor blends like pestos, chimichurris and gremolata. Pesto can be a fresh, bold garnish, a sauce, and a color and flavor addition that goes way beyond a sprig of parsley, especially if you incorporate different ingredients like arugula or chiles.”
The beauty of produce used as an accent is also that a small — and thus relatively affordable — amount of even the most specialized ingredient (truffles, berries, citrus zest, micro herbs) can utterly transform the flavor as well as the image of a recipe.
“Adding something as simple as a sprinkle of cilantro can really take a dish to the next level,” says Coosemans’ Overdorf. “It’s like a spritz of lemon that’s used to knit the whole thing together.”