Baby Boomers insist on a healthier slant. Gen X-ers feel more connected to their food. And Millennials just want whatever they want. As such, chefs are digging into vegetables with gusto and reckless abandon. Perceived as healthy with playful takes on flavor and an interesting medium of which the kitchen can explore, vegetables are really starting to matter. Beet carpaccio was once an anomaly. All-vegetable menus were reserved for the eclectic, granola eating, hemp wearing hippy crew that proliferated after California spa cuisine washed across the country emanating from Alice Waters and the likes of the nouvelle movement. Avocado toast was panned as an overpriced, New York joke.
Vegetable is again hip. Very hip. Not just hipster, either. Cauliflower steaks are virtually one step away from Lone Star’s menu. Gramercy Tavern is touting vegetable creations that rival appeal much like the seared scallops do in the proliferating gastro pub or even in the local sports’ bar. Vegetables are appealing on all levels, carry lower food cost, and can often showcase culinary craftsmanship. So how does the jump happen to get them from the oft-relegated sidelines to the center of the plate? Beef is always expensive. Seafood? The same. Dirt crops are grounded in a modicum of price stability, especially when figuring seasonality. Produce is that unique commodity that is best consumed when prices are lower. There is a reason why strawberries are so expensive in, say, January.
8 Ways to Incorporate Vegetables on the Menu
Vegetable boards. Charcuterie boards are de rigueur at this point. And that is quite acceptable; local cheeses and specialty cured meats are a welcome respite on menus. Having a spectrum of flavors, textures, and visual facets makes for good eating and even better menuing. The added boon is the cost of goods. With premium pricing, it can be tough to justify fanciful preparations, but with just some simple handling, the upended food cost can be balanced by the minimal investment in the labor side of things. More appealing for operators, a vegetable board can lock in the same appeal — great visual, variety, and ease in preparation. And the food cost is marginal compared to a locally produced goat cheese or soppressata.
Shareable. The communal table is not a new idea, rather just reborn. As such, two-tops will always play starring roles on a Saturday night. Joining the dating couples, though, are groups numbering 8, 10, 12, and more, that migrate to fun food that can be sampled across the table. Shared and discussed, Instagrammed and Yelped, vegetable dishes are the talk. Smashed cucumber salad, bowls of roasted Brussels sprouts, pea samosas with spicy sauce, and roasted enoki mushrooms all fodder for group talk. Shareable starters, snacks, and large plates are incomplete without bloggable approaches to vegetables. Cabbage hot pot at New York’s Dirt Candy [video] fetches $28 for a shareable portion. For owners and operators, what used to be a $3 side of mashed potatoes is now a $10 bowl of pureed cauliflower with brown butter, served for the table with a bump to top-line sales.
Not just hot. The requisite crudite doesn’t have to stop at office parties and fire hall weddings. Bless an array of dainty vegetable cuts with green goddess dressing, served on a bed of crushed ice and garnish with fun heirloom organics for upended appeal. Celery and carrot sticks can get a formidable twist by changing the knife work; shaving on a mandoline goes a long way for visual appeal — or using celery root, a rainbow array of carrots or even marinating the carrots to get them away from the convenience store look of a few strips tucked into plastic packaging.
Tempura. A little technique pays off. At Publican in Chicago, the tempura sweet potatoes drizzled with Sriracha honey go long on flavor and pique interest with compelling texture as well as a sweet-spicy bent. Tempura baskets replete with a punchy dipping sauce are a righteous selection for a bar stop or across a table. Bar food is getting edgier; a tempura vegetable treatment is an easy one-two punch to getting a contemporary approach folded into the menu.
No steam. Steamed vegetables are part of a diet. Not a diet as in a pattern to eating — rather, in a calorie-restricted, bland, genteel mode for proposed weight loss. Steaming vegetables is not awful, but does not encompass the only way vegetables should be prepared for a menu. Vedge and its little sister restaurant, V-street in Philadelphia are arguably some of the best destinations in a hot-for-food town. Creative approaches to fabricating vegetables into dishes that not only hold appeal but can demand premium pricing is no fool’s errand. Rather, deliberate, calculated culinary tiptoeing brings vegetable dishes to life. Vedge’s take on braciole, for instance, is no accident. Eggplant that is smoked and roasted then hit with salsa verde and olive puree pushes the kitchen skill set. V-street’s trumpet mushrooms shawarma gets a very un-steamed take on vegetable cookery.
Not relegated to the side or that little box at the bottom of the menu. Price premium vegetable selections with the same seriousness as other menu real estate. It isn’t necessary to value-price vegetable dishes. There is more of an allure when prices are commensurate with the rest of the menu. Rather than bargaining meatless options, describe, portion, and price them with the gravity of the rest of the menu. What’s more appealing: a side of ratatouille for $2 or braised summer eggplant with tomatoes and baby zucchini for $11?
Don’t call them “veggies.” Vegetables are a category; they are almost a brand. There is a disservice to vegetables when their namesake is truncated and made cutesy for the sake of getting 5-year-olds to eat their peas and carrots. There is a certain respectability — and responsibility — when tackling the vegetable menu part. So go with it. “Veggie” doesn’t lend credence to the segment. Rather, it diminishes the value. Little shrimpy and chicky fingers is much akin to the sophomoric “veggies.”
Blue collar them. Buffalo cauliflower is flavorful enough to appeal to the wing eater. Just do it the right way. Make it a vegetable menu item rather than a meat alternative. There is a reason why “veggie burgers” often don’t capture the omnivore’s sense of adventurous eating. A soy-based, pre-grill-marked patty is not quite in line to satiate a robust palate. Rather, a black bean, jalapeño burger with shishito peppers and chayote slaw is a burger all its own, with no nod to being “in place of” anything.
Chefs and cooks like playing with seasonal variety. Chicken is chicken. But what’s new this week? Fiddlehead ferns are peeking around the corner? Baby leeks are making a play for the market? Capture the appeal of the season as well as the value benefit of buying what is fresh. The added upside? It is easy to tout “local” and “fresh” in menu engineering — and the vegetables make the sale.