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Produce in the spotlight

SHAPE April 2015


Produce has long been considered the dependable yet not particularly exciting sidekick to protein. But the perception of meat, poultry and fish as the unchallenged stars of the plate is beginning to shift as fruits and vegetables finally are being allowed their opportunity to step into the culinary spotlight.

Increasingly, chefs and restaurateurs are lavishing more care and creativity on produce as they develop their menus — even to the extent of moving certain formerly supporting ingredients into the traditional center-of-the-plate positions.

“Produce — in particular vegetables — are becoming much more of a focus versus whatever meat might be on the plate,” says Sanna Delmonico, senior manager of culinary nutrition for strategic initiatives at the Culinary Institute of America at its Greystone campus in California. “We're seeing more menu items where the highlight of the dish is vegetables rather than a meat-focused dish with a side of vegetables.”

The initiative to include more produce on menus is being fueled by such trends as heightened nutrition and health concerns among consumers, chefs forming closer alliances with farmers, the increase in the number of restaurant gardens and the rising cost of protein, to name only a few.

As a result, creative chefs and operators are augmenting their culinary palettes to encompass a broader range of produce items.

“Operators are mentioning fruits and vegetables more often on menus,” says Jana Mann, senior director of research for Datassential. According to Datassential Menu Trends, compared to five years ago, the number of times vegetables are mentioned on menus is up 8 percent while fruit is up 20 percent. In addition, previously overlooked vegetables and fruits are getting their moment in the sun on menus as chefs strive to excite consumers with interesting new flavor experiences.

For example, the number of times superfood kale was mentioned on chain and independent menus has risen 536 percent over the past four years, according to Datassential. Other fast-growing vegetables include Brussels sprouts, up 273 percent; kabocha, 233 percent; pickled vegetables, 146 percent; broccolini, 100 percent; root vegetables, 87 percent; Swiss chard, 79 percent; and beets, 76 percent.

As far as fruit is concerned, the number of times kumquat was mentioned on menus rose 150 percent over the past four years. Other fruit that are growing in popularity with menumakers, according to Datassential, are yuzu, up 120 percent; blood orange, 100 percent; Meyer lemon, 100 percent; butternut squash, 92 percent; pomegranate, 89 percent; pumpkin, 85 percent; asian pear, 57 percent; and currant, 55 percent.

“We're definitely seeing beyond kale these days,” says Delmonico, who points to the growing popularity of other produce including cauliflower, green leafy vegetables, bok choy, butternut squash and collard greens. “We're seeing things like pizza topped with butternut squash, or pasta and salads that include [butternut squash].”

Increasingly, chefs and operators are going beyond generic vegetables, too, and opting for more specific varietals, like Romanesco cauliflower or differently colored carrots and beets, which add vibrancy to the plate.

As a result, chefs are looking to implement new ideas when it comes to preparing produce dishes for their restaurants. To help provide some answers, Sysco is presenting a culinary “Foodamental” workshop focusing on “Vegetables as Center of the Plate” at the 2015 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in May. The 45-minute-long workshop will offer a hands-on culinary demonstration addressing how to prepare and plate vegetables for star-of-the-plate treatment. The demo, which allows attendees to roll up their sleeves and work with the experts, will focus on two recipes: Vegetables a la plancha with miso sauce, and Vegetable escabeche (quick pickling).

To learn more about the NRA Foodamental demo and other vegetable recipe ideas, visit Sysco at the NRA at booth 5607 in the North Hall.

Innovative food preparation techniques are helping to steer produce into new and more interesting areas, too. For instance, an increasing number of chefs are trying their hand at in-house pickling and preserving. “We're seeing that with a variety of different vegetables, like carrots and small turnips,” Delmonico says. “They often make a nice addition to the plate.”

Fermentation also is getting more attention, as chefs experiment with making their own kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment, and sauerkraut. Traditionally fermented for months at a time, kimchi is usually made with cabbage, but can also be made with turnip, radish, scallion, cucumber or many other vegetables, adding variety and distinctive flavors to the preparation.

Dehydration is another preparation technique that chefs are finding works well with vegetables. They are taking items like root vegetables or even leafy greens, and cooking them in the oven at a low heat, which removes much of the moisture. The dehydrated vegetables can then be finished with a little oil and salt, and served as a snack or a garnish. In addition, some chefs are experimenting by smoking vegetables in-house, which often helps to add unexpected new flavors to the mix.

Delmonico also notes that a greater variety of fruit is being incorporated into independent and chain menus. “Citrus fruits are trending, as well as tropical fruits like guava and passionfruit. Meyer lemons are also growing in popularity,” she says. “In addition, we're seeing more interest in different varieties of particular fruits, like regional apples.”

And they're not being incorporated exclusively in desserts, Delmonico says. “Chefs are using them in entrées and appetizers and side dishes… as well as in marinades and salad dressings.” Chains, too, are debuting more innovative dishes like watermelon and blueberry salad or pizza topped with green apple, pepperoni, sausage, bacon and Gorgonzola.

The increasingly influential farm-to-table movement is having an impact on the use of produce in restaurants. For example, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone offers a one-semester program that enables students earning their bachelor's degree the opportunity to work on a farm where they grow the food and acquire a perspective into the food they prepare. Following that, they work in a restaurant where they create menus utilizing the food, cook it and serve it. The course is taught by pioneering American chef, Larry Forgione.

“It takes it from the ground to the plate,” Delmonico says.

Meanwhile, Delmonico says she expects to see the movement toward the increased use of produce continue to grow in the future. “People are more interested in health and trying new things,” she says, “and chefs are interested in cooking new things and responding to consumer demand.

“Some chefs will always be about pork belly,” she adds. “But the thoughtful ones will continue to be interested in all kinds of foods. A well-rounded chef needs to know how to use everything.”


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