Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Best of FlavorTop 10 Trends

Veg on the Edge Ten produce categories creating interest and flavor-forward innovation on today’s menus

Charred Heirloom Carrots combine with tzatziki, spiced chickpeas and feta for a modern interpretation at American Harvest Eatery in Springfield, Ill.
PHOTO CREDIT: American Harvest

With the veg-centric movement in full swing, innovation in the produce category relies on both creative technique and exploitation of “new” products, resulting in flavor-forward vegetable dishes that generate interest and show off culinary style and skill.

Root to Stem

Using every bit of every ingredient increases sustainability, challenges creativity and speaks to foodie-activists—and the strategy works for produce as well as protein. The trend goes beyond using produce parts behind the scenes—it’s showing up in interesting menu applications.

Menu Examples

Hay-Smoked Carrot, brown-butter pecan cake, carrot-top pesto and carrot-miso butter
—Parsnip Restaurant & Lounge, Cambridge, Mass.

3 Kale Salad, celery greens, smoked beets, candied pecans, pickled shallots, sunny-side-up egg
—Woodshed Smokehouse, Fort Worth, Texas

Try this

  • Use herb stems in infused oils, broths and vinegars.
  • Poach the ribs from chard, then gratinée them, much like asparagus stalks.

Also called Jerusalem artichokes, the tubers from a particular type of sunflower (or girasole in Italian) are tender and nutty-flavored.

Menu Examples

Roasted Sunchokes, snap-pea pesto, mint, pecorino, garlic
—Bäco Mercat, Los Angeles

Roasted Sunchoke Bisque with sultanas, sunflower seed, benne, goat cheese, Compass Winds sorghum tuile
—Shagbark, Richmond, Va.

Try this

  • Cook and purée sunchokes with potatoes for an unexpected vegetable mash.
  • Cut into similar-sized pieces and pan-fry with garlic and bay leaves.
Gai Lan

Often referred to as Chinese broccoli, this attractive, bright green vegetable boasts green clusters of flowering buds on a thick leafy stalk, with a flavor that’s milder than regular broccoli. Its popularity is growing on eclectic and market-driven menus.

Menu Examples

Szechuan Prime Rib with wasabi potato purée, charred gai lan, shiitake, beef bone jus
—Tag, Denver

Green Curry Chicken with little vegetables, gai lan with fried shallots, coconut jasmine rice
—Picnic on Third, San Francisco

Try this

  • Use in any broccoli rabe recipe where a milder flavor but similar texture is desired.
  • Steam, sauté or roast, and toss into a rice bowl or savory porridge.
Kabocha Squash

Move over, butternut. This smaller, round, creamy, orange-fleshed winter squash, originally hailing from Japan, is just as versatile but carries exotic appeal.

Menu examples

Kabocha Squash Soup with persimmon
—Little Park, New York

Bacon-Wrapped Scallops, kabocha purée, cucumber-daikon relish
—Tantalum, Long Beach, Calif.

Try this

  • Use as a filling for ravioli, tortellini and other stuffed pastas.
  • Halve, roast and stuff with a flavorful grain, mushroom or vegetable filling for a meatless entrée.
Maitake mushrooms

With the colorful alternate name of “hen of the woods,” this frilly, mounding, gray-white mushroom grows wild in hardwood forests, but is also finding success as a cultivated mushroom.

Menu examples

Whole Roasted Maitake Mushroom with pear cream and chestnuts
—Elske, Chicago

Pizza with sweet Italian house sausage, spinach, maitake mushroom, red onion
—Stem Kitchen, San Francisco

Try this

  • Use as the base for an earthy risotto or mushroom pesto sauce for pasta.
  • Quick-pickle for a garnish for charcuterie or salumi, or for an artisanal pickle assortment.

This once under-appreciated root vegetable is just starting to follow in the footsteps of beets, varietal potatoes and carrots. The parsnip’s sweet, round flavor, especially when it’s been over-wintered and spring-dug, adapts to many menu utilizations.

Menu examples

Parsnip Gnocchi, smoked pork belly, umami broth, spigarello, trumpet mushrooms
—Juniper & Ivy, San Diego

Crispy Spring-Dug Parsnip “Tostones,” baby Swiss chard, spicy calamari braise
—Francine, Camden, Maine

Try this

  • Cut carrots and parsnips into baton shapes and roast to create a duo of flavor and color.
  • Use spring-dug parsnips to create an earthy but elegant velouté soup.
Heirlooms Beyond Tomatoes

Whether called out by name or simply identified as heirloom, long-forgotten vegetable varieties are being rescued from the brink to elevate produce offerings

Menu examples

Heirloom Carrots with agave, pistachio, crispy tops
—Edge Restaurant & Bar, Denver

Bincho Roasted Kanpachi, China Rose radish, greens, gooseberry, ghee, sea salt
—P.Y.T., Los Angeles

Try this

  • Menu a crudité plate of raw heirloom vegetables.
  • Create an elaborate bagna cauda (“warm bath” dip of olive oil and garlic) for the table to showcase multiple varieties of heirloom potatoes.
Little Gem lettuce

Also called sucrine, this romaine-like lettuce forms compact, rosette-shaped heads, with sweet-tasting, frilly leaves and an equally sweet name

Menu examples

Little Gem Lettuce Caesar, chicories, charred broccolini, Parmesan, lemon-anchovy dressing, polenta croutons
—Little Nonna’s, Philadelphia

Little Gem Salad, fennel, radish, cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, green goddess dressing
—Black Sheep, Jacksonville, Fla.

Try this

  • Though more delicate than romaine, this lettuce is sturdy enough to be grilled, either whole, halved or quartered, to make a Caesar salad variation or other signature hot/cold salad option.
  • Though more delicate than romaine, this lettuce is sturdy enough to be grilled, either whole, halved or quartered, to make a Caesar salad variation or other signature hot/cold salad option.

Cauliflower has been enjoying some attention for a while now, from whole roasted to riced. Chefs are maximizing its starchy quality, density and ability to carry big flavors, often making it the star in modern veg-centric dishes.

Menu examples

Warm Cauliflower Salad, shaved Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, fermented Fresno chiles, gremolata, fried dates, tahini
—Seabirds Kitchen, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Cauliflower Ravioli with curried cauliflower, pine nuts, Parmesan crust, pine-nut tea
—Forest, Birmingham, Mich.

Try this

  • Use a rainbow variety of white, yellow, purple and green cauliflower in a grilled or roasted application.
  • Season a head of cauliflower with a flavorful rub or paste—such as pesto, herb butter or dukkah—roast it whole, and serve as-is, speared with a steak knife, for a shareable specialty.
Seaweed and Other Marine “Vegetables”

Broader interest in both sustainability and interesting new culinary ingredients—not to mention umami bombs—has put seaweed and sea vegetables (a more inclusive description for plants like dulse, wakame and kelp) in the public eye.

Menu examples

Pad Thai Kelp Noodles, Thai almond sauce, carrots, red bell pepper, kale, teriyaki almonds, sunflower sprouts
—Café Gratitude, California locations

Halibut Tartare with nori chips
—State Bird Provisions, San Francisco

Try this

  • Add toasted, seasoned seaweed—such as nori or Korean-style seaweed snacks—to avocado or cucumber salads.
  • Use dulse (a.k.a. sea lettuce flakes) to season popcorn or edamame for a bar snack.

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About The Author


A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.