Mango makes a grilled shrimp salad shine at Daphne’s California Greek, where a prominent use of produce keeps the menu up-to-date and exciting. Photo courtesy of daphne’s california greek. New appreciation and treatment of produce boost its importance on the menu
By Cindy Han
It’s hard to miss the signs that point the way to healthier eating in our society. Obesity and diabetes are labeled as epidemics in the news. The long-accepted food pyramid has morphed into a picture of a plate loaded half full with fruits and vegetables. Farmers’ markets have surged in popularity across the country. Demand for fresh, seasonal, local produce has grown like a beanstalk as people clamor for more ways to include fruits and vegetables in their diets.
The natural response among chefs is to take advantage of this awareness and make the most of produce on their menus. It’s not hard to do, since produce offers plentiful opportunities for innovation.
CAPTURING THE SEASON
More and more, chefs and menu developers seek ways to showcase seasonal ingredients, and to let customers know that they care about presenting the freshest available choices. By its very nature, produce adds seasonality to a menu. A shift in a featured produce item automatically freshens up the menu and offers diners a new flavor experience.
“We change our menu often based on what’s in season,” says Brian Olenjack, chef-owner at Olenjack’s Grille in Arlington, Texas. “Using fresh, local ingredients is the heart and soul of what we do, but it means you have to plan ahead and stay on top of what’s growing well.”
For example, Olenjack likes to use ramps in the spring for their sweet, garlicky flavor — “their flavor is so unique, it’s almost like popcorn,” he says. But the season for ramps is short, so he has to “be flexible and pay attention to what produce comes through the door.”
Seasonal-cue ingredients like ramps are a springtime favorite of chefs who emphasize the changing of the seasons. Executive Chef Chris Curtiss of North Arcadia in Phoenix says he makes frequent menu changes throughout the year based on what’s in season. In the spring, he takes advantage of what’s growing by presenting a pizza topped with ramps, English peas, spring garlic and arugula.
By autumn, the pizza will change to reflect the season, with toppings like roasted butternut squash or Brussels sprouts. “It’s always a high-selling item,” says Curtiss. “People have a growing awareness of eating seasonally and eating fresh and local. Because we address that, people give us great feedback.”
New produce techniques freshen up a dish, like this grilled Hass avocado in a salad of heirloom lettuce, roasted beets, baby carrot ribbons, shichimi togarashi and Espelette chile-yogurt dressing, by chef Jensen Cummings of Row 14 in Denver. Photo courtesy of mark piscotty for row 14. SALAD DAYS
When consumers think of eating produce, the first thing that comes to mind is salad. And people are eating more salads than ever before. According to Technomic, nearly half of consumers now order salad all or most of the time when they eat out, citing their desire to eat healthier and lighter. Sprucing up salad offerings is a simple method to introduce creative, seasonal or unexpected produce ingredients.
One trend that has grown in popularity is the addition of fresh fruit to salads, particularly more exotic fruits. Mango is showing up on more menus these days, and customers love a touch of tropical sweetness in their salads.
At Daphne’s California Greek, which has begun franchising nationally, “freshness” is a strong selling point. Daphne’s recently added mango to its grilled shrimp salad as a limited-time promotion; the salad has been so popular that it’s earned a permanent place on the menu. At less than 400 calories, the Mango-Shrimp Salad is a crowd-pleaser. Daphne’s also offers fruit in its Chicken-Spinach-Apple Salad as well as a Chicken-Strawberry Salad that features fresh sliced strawberries, mixed greens, roasted chicken, candied walnuts, dried cranberries, feta and balsamic-hummus dressing.
Using vegetables in different ways also lends salads a new appeal. Back at North Arcadia, the beet salad is the No. 1 seller. Curtiss makes it more intriguing by including heirloom beet tops in the salad. He cuts the soft, smooth, green tops finely, like a chiffonade, then combines them with the roasted heirloom beets, fresh lemon juice and ricotta. In the winter, when the beet tops are not available, the beet salad includes arugula and lemon crème fraîche. “I like to showcase produce so that it speaks for itself,” he says.
A salad, when interesting enough on its own, makes a great signature dish. Chef Brian Lewis brought his signature salad with him from California to his new restaurant, Elm, in New Canaan, Conn. He calls it “Roots, Shoots, Fruits and Leaves,” and it features a unique medley of whatever is in season in each category. Some ingredients are served raw, some confit, some are cooked in their own skin — all are chosen carefully for their seasonality.
“I sketch things out, like an artist with a color palette,” says Lewis. “You know what you have, and when you pair things together, you get something unexpected.”
In the summer, the dish might include pulp of tomato, preserved arugula, pickled chanterelle and crisp fennel. By winter, the produce is more root-driven, and makes more use of cooked vegetables or confit. The result is an exciting, ever-changing salad that draws patrons back for repeated tastings.
VEGGIES GONE ETHNIC
The public’s growing embrace of global foods is another opportunity for creative produce varieties and techniques. Chefs have learned to use ingredients from other cultures as unique accents, setting apart traditional American dishes or matching ethnic menu offerings.
With this movement, Asian vegetables have gradually gained steam among American diners — helped along by chefs who introduce these new items in thoughtful ways.
“Gai lan is one of my favorite produce items that you don’t see a lot,” says Executive Chef Jensen Cummings of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar in Denver. His familiarity with Asian vegetables traces back to his years in San Diego, where international ingredients are prevalent. He uses a wok to char gai lan — or Chinese broccoli — with spicy hoisin sauce and toasted sesame seeds, or he serves it alongside tender pork belly, deglazed with a black-garlic vinaigrette.
Cummings also uses Chinese long beans, combining an Asian-style finish on the beans, but treating them as traditional haricots vert served with trout amandine. He also looks for ways to use wong bok, or napa cabbage, in unexpected applications.
“A lot of these exotic vegetables are more available now,” he says. “I try to use the American translation of the vegetable name on our menu with a quick flavor profile so that people understand. Once they try it, they usually want to order it the next time. You can’t overwhelm people. If you build trust with your guests, they will learn to be daring.”
At Elm, Lewis dares guests to try something new with his Peruvian heirloom popcorn — a little cob that looks like blue baby corn. “We pop it and serve it on the cob, tossed with spicy smoked paprika butter,” he says. “We serve it as a bar snack — it’s fun!”
At Elm restaurant in New Canaan, Conn., chef Brian Lewis artfully combines the best of what’s in season in his signature Roots, Shoots, Fruits and Leaves salad, drawing repeat customers eager to try each new version. Photo courtesy of michael weschler for elm. NEW TAKES ON OLD STANDBYS
Even without venturing to other cultures for new ingredients, chefs are showing more creativity with good ol’ standbys.
Potatoes present possibilities beyond the familiar. Many chefs find that using less-common varieties instantly takes dishes to a new level. At Row 14, Cummings says that fingerlings are usually the first step away from the usual russet potato. He enjoys introducing guests to different kinds of potatoes. For french fries, he uses a Kennebec potato that is higher in sugar and caramelizes well. He likes to use marble potatoes (small and round, like marbles), introduced in known flavor combos, such as sautéed with leeks. “They are adorable — people love them,” he says.
Cummings also branches out to such varieties as Okinawan purple sweet potatoes or yams. As with the other Asian vegetables, customers may hesitate to try these new varieties, so Cummings prepares them with tried-and-true methods. “I’ll make a mashed potato out of them, which everyone likes. With the yams, I mash, panko-coat and deep-fry them, then serve them tapas style,” he says. “People don’t always like the sound of ‘yam,’ but who doesn’t like mashed, deep-fried potatoes?”
For Elm’s Lewis, the potato is anything but lowly. He accompanies pork or beef with smoked potato butter — the “butter” is really a potato purée with an “ungodly amount” of butter (smoked in-house) and milk, then made into a layered foam.
Brussels sprouts are another all-American standby, but lately, more chefs are discovering the vegetable’s appeal when prepared using new techniques, like deep frying. “This simple and ridiculously delicious preparation will get any kid on board,” says Cummings. He’s seen Brussels sprouts appear on menus in this form over the past few years and predicts this treatment will stick around.
Tomatoes are getting a menu makeover, too, in the hands of creative chefs. There is a newfound enthusiasm for different varieties of tomatoes among the public, now that even supermarkets carry heirloom tomatoes in a range of shapes and colors.
Chef Olenjack features tomatoes in multiple forms within his Texas-style cuisine. It shows up as a spicy-sweet tomato broth with his popular shrimp and grits entrée. He also offers grape tomato bruschetta and a Texas Campari tomato salad with blue cheese, arugula and sweet onions. He has even made an heirloom tomato-cherry pie, drying the tomatoes to concentrate the sweetness. “People should realize that vegetables do work in dessert,” he says.
Another out-of-the-box treatment of traditional produce is to serve it in juice form. Fruit and vegetable juices have grown up beyond the juice-machine carrot concoctions that were more medicinal than tasty. At Elm, Lewis presents lunchtime diners with fresh fruit and veggie juice options that are bursting with flavor. On a given day, one glass of juice might contain red Swiss chard, kale, lemon, celery, ginger and carrots.
DIRT GETS ITS DUE
The vital role that produce plays in a chef’s repertoire can be traced to the fact that it is from the earth, literally.
“There are only five different flavors, so the ‘earthiness’ that is part of umami comes from produce. It’s what takes a dish from good to great,” says Olenjack. “I call it the ‘dirt’ — the flavor of the soil that produce contains.”
He likens the flavors of produce to the terroir in wines from different regions. “People need to understand the importance of that.”
Olenjack says food providers should know where produce is coming from, and should support those farmers who are using proper methods to regenerate the earth.
With the movement toward healthy eating and the growing appreciation of fresh, seasonal flavors, produce has clearly become much more than a side dish.
“Produce can be the real star, because you can do so much with it,” says Cummings. “I know if I can tame the mighty vegetable with a well-executed sauce, then the meat or starch can just join the party. I think produce is the new ‘center-of-the-plate’ ingredient.”