Click Here to sign up for the SHAPE Newsletter!

Seasonal vegetables spring on to menus

Sysco Shape May 2014

With fresh vegetables taking a more central role in menu development these days, many chefs and restaurateurs find that spring is a great time to showcase seasonally available offerings.

As the long, drawn-out winter finally releases its grip on the country, menumakers — particularly those in the full-service sector — are unveiling creative applications for such welcome spring fare as artichokes, arugula, asparagus, baby spinach, Brussels sprouts, chard, collard greens, fennel, pea shoots, rhubarb, watercress and a variety of lettuces. Meanwhile, menus continue to feature popular cold-weather carryovers like cauliflower and kale.

Among the elements helping to drive this trend at full-service operations is the steady movement of vegetables into the culinary spotlight. “Vegetables are coming more toward the center-of-the-plate — or at least claiming their half of the plate,” says Libby Mills, registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“When you couple the fact that protein prices are at or near record-breaking levels and that more middle class Americans are desiring to eat healthier, the time has never been more right for vegetables to take center stage,” says Jason Bechtold, director, Chef Ex for Sysco Corp.

The advent of warmer weather also is helping to give the veggie-centric trend additional traction, experts say. “I think spring and summer tend to evoke the desire for lighter dishes, and meatless options seem lighter,” says Neil Doherty, Sysco's senior director of culinary development. “In California, I saw many dishes where the main dish was plant-based but accented by proteins like chopped thick-cut bacon or prosciutto.”

Doherty says he has seen many vegetable pizzas and pasta dishes appearing on menus, too.

In the meantime, chefs and operators are exploring the burgeoning variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables available to them. Richard Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco, says he is starting to see a wider variety of green vegetables appear on menus. “We've seen newly popular vegetables like kale and brussels sprouts gaining in popularity [at more full-service restaurants] over the past couple of years,” he says. “But we'll eventually see that trickle down. We'll see QSR operators eventually put kale in salads.”

Sysco recently completed its month-long Produce Promotion that featured such green blends as Arcadian Harvest, containing a variety of fresh salad greens; Rainbow Kale, with Redbor, Lacinato, Green Kale and Flowering Kale; Cascade Mix, which includes green leaf and romaine heart leaves together with radicchio; and Power Mix, containing baby kales, yellow chard, spinach and lolla rosa.

Also helping to propel spring vegetable usage is the evolving trend toward eating more healthfully. “The message of eating vegetables is getting out there,” Mills says. “People's awareness of vegetables is at an all-time high.”

Mills points out that vegetables are rich in such nutrients as folate, which aids rapid cell growth; B vitamins, which help with the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and protein; Vitamin A, which is beneficial for cellular health; chlorophyl, which removes toxins from the body; and Vitamin K, which is critical for blood clotting.

Vegetables also contain potassium, which, when balanced with sodium, help to control fluids in the body — which translates to controlling blood pressure, Mills says. “People get plenty of sodium in their diets, so vegetables help supply the needed potassium.”

In addition, many greens provide a good source of iron that helps to prevent anemia and ensures that cells are getting enough oxygen, as well as calcium, which strengthens bones and teeth.

While spring seems to open the floodgates to a wider use of fresh vegetables, one of the traditional seasonal favorites remains asparagus. Popular at the higher end of the foodservice spectrum, asparagus has moved far beyond the confines of simply being steamed or boiled, and is today served in a variety of ways — both raw and cooked.

Asparagus, in fact, is one of those vegetables that can be found in a range of preparations. It lends itself to long-simmering soups and quick grilling over a wood-burning fire. It also can be served hot accompanied by a variety of ingredients or cold in a salad. One of the more current techniques employed by chefs is to shave raw pieces of asparagus on flatbreads and serve as an appetizer.

Flatbreads also represent “the perfect palette” for spring greens, Mills say. “We're seeing a lot more flatbreads served with a variety of vegetables, like salad greens, which have very distinct flavors and add color to a preparation.”

Fennel is another green vegetable that can boast multiple uses. Not only is the highly aromatic vegetable being shaved and added to salads raw, but it also is being used in stocks, soups and sauces. Doherty notes that he has seen many preparations accented with fennel, such as fresh salads and pizza with sausage.

Brussels sprouts — still another vegetable that was once only found steamed or boiled in restaurants — are increasingly appearing raw and served in thin slices on salads and flatbreads.

And while not strictly considered a spring vegetable, cauliflower is showing up on more menus, Bechtold says. “I have seen the popularity of cauliflower skyrocket, primarily due to its versatility in meeting the needs of those with special needs diets,” he explains. “Cauliflower is now an extremely popular replacement for flour in pizza crusts — once a fringe idea outside of major metropolitan markets. It also makes a phenomenal substitute to rice for those who want to offer their patrons a familiar non-carb alternative. Thinly shaved cauliflower and broccoli make an intriguing base for cold salads and slaw mixes.”

Clearly, experts say, vegetables have come a long way. “Twenty or 30 years ago steamed broccoli was okay,” Mills says. “But that won't cut it on restaurant menus today.”

Moreover, she adds, “There is a growing awareness and excitement among chefs. Vegetables represent a way for them to use their creativity. They are a flexible tool, and the sky is the limit. They present a real opportunity for chefs to do their own thing.”


Related Articles

Green vegetables to star on spring menus
Chefs put arugula, spinach, kale, more in center of the plate.

MenuMasters 2014: True Food Kitchen
Health-focused concept draws customers with innovative, nutritious dishes

Harvard Study: New School Meal Standards Boost Vegetable Consumption
Selection of fruits and vegetables also increased, but fruit consumption was unchanged and waste remains a problem.

Getting Kids to Eat More Fruit: A Simple Solution
At a Florida high school, presentation made all the difference, resulting in a big spike in the number of students choosing oranges.


Related Recipes

Creamy Brussel Sprouts with Bacon and Cheese
Seared brussel sprouts with crumbled Oscar Mayer Bacon and rich, creamy Kraft Ranch Dressing.

Kale Quinoa Salad
A quick salad packed full with healthy vegetables and toasted sunflower seeds.

Stuffed Long Stem Artichokes
Long stem artichoke stuffed with caramelized onions, St. Peter's Blue Cheese Crumbles and herbed ciabatta crumbs.

Chared Brussel Sprout, Sweet Potato and Farro
Maple syrup and dried cranberries add a hint of sweetness to this brussel sprout, sweet potato and farro salad.