American consumers are paying more attention to vegetables, and therefore so are chefs. Chefs are looking at produce as a means not just to express seasonality and give their food a more healthful sheen, but also to display their talents.
They’re paying as much attention to how they source and prepare their vegetables as they do their meat, and are finding that their guests have noticed.
“People are growing more health-focused,” said Kris DeLee, chef of The Duck Inn in Chicago. “So they’re interested in eating more vegetables, and once they understand how good they taste, they don’t even miss the meat.”
The Duck Inn serves a lot of meat, from duck fat hot dogs to crispy pig head, but DeLee doesn’t neglect the vegetables.
He recently added a spice-dusted seared bok choy dish to the menu. (Left; photo by Rockit Ranch Productions)
To maintain the Asian cabbage’s crunch, he doesn’t blanch it but just sears it in a cast-iron skillet at “super high heat,” to give it a “borderline char.” Then he adds butter, which he said helps steam the bok choy. Then he rubs the seared side with a powder of flax seed, chia seed, onion seed, fennel seed and poppy seed — each toasted individually and then pulsed together.
He plates that over a purée of equal parts parsnip and sorrel and garnishes it with chopped bits of kiwifruit and shaved celtuce stem.
“Then we go really heavy with these hydroponically grown nasturtiums,” he said. “It’s green on green on green.”
Although bok choy isn’t among the fastest growing vegetables on menus, its cousins in the Brassica genus, kale and Brussels sprouts, are. Perennial favorite kale is now on 240 percent more menus than it was four years ago, according to Datassential Menu Trends, and Brussels sprouts’ appearances are up by 154 percent.
Kale is now ubiquitous enough that it’s available at many large chain restaurants, including McDonald’s, which added baby kale to its Signature Sriracha sandwich, made with a choice of ground beef or chicken along with fried onions, baby spinach and kale, tomato, white cheddar cheese and Sriracha Big Mac Sauce.
Last year, Chick-fil-A replaced its signature coleslaw with its Superfood Side, made with chopped kale and broccolini tossed in maple vinaigrette and topped with dried sour cherries. It’s served with a blend of roasted walnuts, almonds and pecans that customers can sprinkle on top.
Denny’s, too, has jumped on the kale bandwagon with items such as its Chopped Kale & Grilled Chicken Salad, made with chicken breast, feta cheese, dried cranberries and honey roasted sliced almonds on a bed of chopped kale.
As for Brussels sprouts, Wenford Simpson, corporate executive chef for New York City’s B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill, reinforces that restaurant’s southern theme with a special he calls Brussels Sprouts Succotash.
The restaurant roasts the sprouts with oil, salt and pepper in the oven and then adds them to sautéed onions, garlic, peppers and scallion. Then he adds bacon bits and finishes the dish with Parmigiano-Reggiano. He periodically adds corn and curry powder, and sometimes lima beans to reinforce its resemblance to succotash.
“I could just say ‘sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon bits and cheese’,” Simpson said, but “succotash” sounds better.
“Quite a few people come in here and have it,” he said.
Another type of brassica, cauliflower, has a lot of buzz lately, even if it hasn’t displayed the growth of its cabbage cousins, and it sells well, according to Matt Ford, chef of Americano, an Italian-American restaurant in Dallas.
“Cauliflower has a lot of very earthy, hearty properties that can take over, so I thought a nice bright acid like fresh lemon juice would be great,” he said. The restaurant balances that acidity with sweet golden raisins, and adds toasted pistachios to round out the salad dish.
He said he has been surprised at how well the salad has been received.
“Most months it outsells our Caesar salad, and in a Italian-American restaurant, that is unheard of,” he said.
Perhaps not unheard of, but rarely seen in dishes, are cauliflower leaves, which Bruce Kalman uses to make a salad at Union in Los Angeles.
“The idea came from being in the garden and seeing the plant grow,” he said, noting that each huge plant just produces one head of cauliflower.
Kalman tasted the leaves, and found that they were delicious — like collard greens, but much more tender — “nutty, earthy, with the essence of cauliflower. They kind of taste like the garden,” he said.
He juliennes the leaves and tosses them with Pecorino Romano cheese, Meyer lemon, breadcrumbs and olive oil and runs that dish as a seasonal special — usually from spring into summer.
Cauliflower greens are normally thrown back into the field for compost, Calman said, so he gets them at a great price.
“It’s one of those things where you can sell them to me, or you can throw them out,” he said.
“And we sell the hell out of it. I mean, they love it,” he said of his customers.
Union already has a reputation for being conscientious, seasonal and anti-waste, according to Kalman.
“It kind of sums up our ethos, and it’s tasty,” he said of the salad.
Carrots, too, are catching the eyes of many chefs, for their inherent sweetness and for people’s familiarity with it.
Tony Conte, chef of Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Washington, D.C., does a variation on caponata (left), a cooked vegetable side dish originally from Sicily that's usually made predominantly with eggplant. One of Conte’s caponata dishes is made with carrots instead.
“At Inferno we try and use only seasonal fruits and vegetables in our kitchen,” Conte said. “So I like to experiment with a variety of caponatas throughout the year.”
He juliennes the carrots and roasts them for a few minutes in the oven, just to soften them and brown them slightly. Then he puts them in a bowl with capers, golden raisins, chile flake, toasted hazelnuts and salt.
Separately, he takes white grape juice steeped with cinnamon and mace and mixes it with rice wine vinegar and dry vermouth. He tosses the caponata in that and garnishes it with chopped parsley and cilantro. He tops that with burrata, cracked black pepper, salt and olive oil.
“It’s a simple dish but extremely well balanced and delicious,” he said.
Chandon Clenard, brand chef of 20-unit Phoenix-based, casual-dining chain True Food Kitchen, doubles down on the carrots that he serves with chicken and potatoes.
Clenard rolls various colors of heirloom carrots in cumin and then marks them on a grill. He also grills the tops and uses them in place of marjoram for his own version of za’atar, a Middle Eastern blend of thyme, oregano, sesame and sumac as well as marjoram. “Then we balanced it with some arugula because it needed something to freshen it up a bit,” he said.
“We lightly grilled the carrot tops because they can be a little harsh,” he said.
Roasted carrots in particular are growing in popularity, appearing on 124 percent more menus now than four years ago.
That puts them behind little gem lettuce, however, which has grown at a rate of 141 percent.
Chefs particularly like smoking or grilling that lettuce.
Jimmy Carbone, founder and president of the event producer Food Karma Projects and owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 in New York City, said he smokes little gem and other vegetables, such as cabbage, for a couple of hours and then chops them and serves them in salads with a vinaigrette containing basil and mustard. “The smoker brings out bitter, complex flavors,” he said.
Chef Noah Sandoval chars little gem at Oriole in Chicago and serves it, along with furikake and sesame leaf, with Wagyu beef.
“Little gem lettuce lends itself well to quick high heat because it’s pretty dense,” he said. “In our case, I need it to be both charred and still fresh at the same time.”
“Also, it’s a great size,” he added.
Another increasingly popular vegetable is golden beets, which are on 127 percent more menus than four years ago.
Nicole Ella, chef of Bottlefork in Chicago, uses them, along with watermelon beets, in a dish with asparagus and cured egg yolk.
She cuts the golden beets obliquely and makes a 24-hour pickle of them in a liquid of white distilled vinegar with chile flake, juniper, white peppercorn, cumin, sugar, salt and a little cinnamon.
She uses the same liquid for watermelon beets that she slices into thin sheets, so they end up softer, providing textural contrast.
The asparagus is just blanched in salted water “until it’s just cooked to the right point, where the crunchiness is still there, but there’s a softness.”
She dresses them in a bagna càuda sauce — traditionally a mixture of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies used as a vegetable dip in northwestern Italy.
Ella dresses hers up a bit, combining finely ground Parmesan cheese, Marcona almonds, garlic and Calabrian peppers with olive oil, the oil the Calabrian peppers were stored in and a little fish sauce.
That’s drizzled on the vegetables along with egg yolk that she has cured by covering it with cheesecloth and salt for a couple of days. She then dehydrates the yolks and finely grates it over the dish. “It becomes like Parmesan cheese,” she said.
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Aug. 8, 2017: B.B. King's Brussels Sprouts Succotash preparation was clarified, and the name of True Food Kitchen's chef was corrected.