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Vegetables take center stage

SHAPE February 2016

Chefs, restaurateurs expand center-of-the-plate parameters of versatile veggies.


Long considered to be the unimaginative and often indifferent sidekick to the more glamorous star of the plate — protein — vegetables are emerging from the shadows and into the spotlight at restaurants across the country.

While chefs and menumakers are lavishing more time and energy on the creation of flavorful veggie-centric side dishes and appetizers, many are also developing recipes that elevate vegetables to the center-of-the-entrée-plate.

Driven by a combination of factors including consumer health concerns, interest in sustainability, rising protein costs and more adventurous customers, chefs are applying the same creative energies to vegetables that were formerly reserved for meat, poultry and seafood.

In fact, professional chefs say that vegetables are indeed trending, according to the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast. The study, which polled nearly 1,600 members of the American Culinary Federation, found that 59 percent regarded meatless/vegetarian items as a “Hot Trend.” Meanwhile, vegan entrées (58 percent) and root vegetables (48 percent) also were considered hot trends by those polled.

Americans' concerns about health are playing into the increased interest in vegetables, which are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and are satisfying as well, says Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“They also provide all their nutritional benefits at a lower calorie bang,” she continues. “A diet that is rich in vegetables and fruits has been associated with many positive health benefits.”

However, according to a recent report released by the National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, only 4 percent of Americans meet the daily recommendations for vegetables.
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the federal government’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. The goal of the guidelines, which are updated every five years, is to provide recommendations for a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet.

According to the new guidelines vegetables, and fruit should comprise half of a person's daily intake. That should include a variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups, including dark green, red and orange, legumes and starchy.

But while the USDA recommends that individuals get seven servings of fruit and vegetables every day, the average American only gets three, says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting in Carmichael, Calif. “Americans just aren't meeting the goals,” she adds.

Nevertheless, progress is being made on the vegetable front in the restaurant industry, says Elaine Cwynar, associate professor and chef at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. “Vegetables and health are in the forefront,” Cwynar says, noting that in addition to nutritional concerns, consumers are showing an increased interest in seasonal produce that is locally and sustainably raised. “People are just amenable to learning more about the foods they're eating,” she says.

According to Chicago-based research firm Datassential, old favorites like onions, tomatoes and peppers are among the most common vegetables found in restaurants, appearing on over 85 percent of all menus. However, kale, Calabrian chili peppers, shishito peppers, Brussels sprouts, heirloom tomatoes, peppadew peppers, golden beets, roasted carrots and pickled vegetables are the fastest-growing vegetables on menus today.

Experts also cite root vegetables, cauliflower, kohlrabi, various squashes, portobello mushrooms, and legumes like chickpeas, lentils and black beans as up-and-coming candidates for the center-of-the-plate.

In the meantime, the colorless, steamed vegetable plate of yore is gradually becoming an endangered species as more chefs and menumakers devise vegetable selections that are not only more attractive but are highly flavored as well.

Some ideas creative vegetable-centric dishes follow:

• Eggplant meatballs. Roast an eggplant in the oven and drain off all liquid. Mix the eggplant with Parmesan cheese, Italian seasonings, breadcrumbs and egg, and roll into balls. Bake or saute until done. They can be served as an appetizer or served over pasta in a marinara sauce. “Everybody thinks they contain meat,” says Miller.

• Colorful carrots three ways. Arrange three whole smoked orange carrots on a plate together with diced and seared maroon-colored carrots and the juice reduction from a yellow carrot.

• Power bowl. “Power bowls will be a hot trend in 2016,” says Sheth. Some of the more popular iterations include roasted vegetables, beans, spices and whole grains like quinoa, farro or brown rice.  

• Spiralized vegetables. Vegetables such as zucchini, beets and carrots can be cut in spirals, converted into “noodles” and used in place of pasta. Miller identifies it as another hot trend.

• Meatless tasting menus. One top-rated restaurant in Napa Valley offered guests a five-course vegetable Tasting menu that included a Persimmon Salad in a Pomegranate Vinaigrette, Butternut Squash Risotto, Stuffed Portobello Mushroom, Hand-Crafted Cheese Course, and for dessert, Crème Fraîche Ice Cream.

• Roasted vegetable steaks. Roasted vegetable “steaks” can take the place of meat on a plate. For example, slice a cauliflower in 1½-inch steaks, brush with seasoned olive oil, sear on the grill or griddle, and finish in the oven. Serve with a vinaigrette as a dipping sauce.

• Vegetable tart. Take a raw vegetable like asparagus, broccoli or mushrooms, cut in pieces and arrange in a tart shell. Combine eggs with a melting cheese like fontina, yogurt and Parmesan cheese. Pour the mixture into the tart shell over the vegetables. Bake and serve warm or chilled, with a salad dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, Johnson & Wales' Cwynar says.

• Stuffed zucchini. Slice zucchini (or a small eggplant) down the middle and scoop out a narrow channel. Combine sautéed, chopped shallots and mushrooms with chickpeas or pine nuts, chopped Swiss chard and mint, and fill the channel with the mixture. Bake in the oven and finish by sprinkling with grated cheese like manchego or fontina. Serve with a cinnamon béchamel.

• Asian noodles. Combine sautéed firm tofu with vegetables like mushrooms, scallions and bok choy. Flavor with garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, lime juice, black and white sesame seeds, and red chili sauce. Arrange on a bed of soba or udon noodles.

But while professional chefs are indeed beginning to invest more time and expertise in the development of meatless dishes, experts maintain that vegetables still have a ways to go before they receive the respect they deserve in restaurants. “Vegetables are so much more versatile than meat,” Miller says. “They are more than just a garnish or a way of getting additional color on the plate. It's hard to find fault with vegetables. They can easily be the star of the plate.”



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