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Squash the Competition

Squash the Competition

This fall, promote vegetables to make them the star of your dishes

Unless you’ve been living under a cow patch, you likely have noticed vegetables are having a moment — a long overdue moment. Americans have started to eat healthier and that means vegetables have started making larger appearances on menus at restaurants all over the country. That doesn’t mean the entire country is going vegetarian or vegan, but many more people have started to incorporate more vegetables into their diet — and a bunch of newer “vegetable-focused” restaurants have opened from Chicago to Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

For decades, vegetables, whether spinach, broccoli, carrots or potatoes, have been an afterthought, the supporting role to the main star: meat. The time has come to put the attention on vegetables because frankly, they’re more interesting to prepare. This fall, it’s up to you to continue to push that movement forward and start — or continue — to make vegetables a leading role in your culinary repertoire.

“With steak, chicken and fish, there’s only so much you can do with it … with vegetables there are so many things you can do with it: puree, grill, roast.”
– Jeff Mahin, executive chef and partner at Summer House Santa Monica

“With steak, chicken and fish, there’s only so much you can do with it,” said Jeff Mahin, executive chef and partner at Summer House Santa Monica in Chicago and Bethesda, Md. “With vegetables, you get broccoli, broccoli rabe or artichoke and there are so many things you can do with it: puree, grill, roast. More chefs are finding more interest in vegetables. We’ve always liked vegetables, but we had to wait for [everyone else] to catch up to us.”

With fall vegetables like turnips, beets, kohlrabi, carrots, parsnips and rutabagas, you can easily roast them, which Mahin jokingly called the laziest method of cooking, but admitted it offers great results without too much effort put in. One way to spruce up any roasted vegetable dish is to also include shaved raw pieces of the same vegetable to add a different texture.

“Sometimes people get root vegetable fatigue at the end of winter and that comes from the fact we cook them the same way,” said Julia Sullivan, chef/owner of Henrietta Red in Nashville. “People get tired of having this soft brown roasted thing. Squash is wonderful, but putting in shaved squash is even more wonderful. The same with sunchokes. And also pairing celeriac and celery to give it brightness and texture.”

Sullivan loves roasting sunchokes because that brings out an earthy quality, but also residual sweetness. She has prepared a raw and roasted sunchoke salad where she gets the roasted sunchokes to a point where they’re a little crispy outside and soft inside. She serves them at room temperature and shaves raw sunchokes on top to add both crispiness and the vegetable's pre-roasting juiciness.

“The salad offers savoriness and then adding some fresh herbs and lemon juice to balance the natural sweetness with acid and maybe some chili flakes to add spice,” Sullivan said. “Otherwise it can become very one note if you’re not bringing in those other elements.”

An old technique that has found new life in kitchens around the country lately is open-hearth cooking and the part that benefits vegetables is cooking in the ash. At Chicago’s Proxi, executive chef and partner Andrew Zimmerman takes advantage of the ash produced by his open-hearth fire to cook all sorts of vegetables. He places whole root vegetables or different kinds of squash into the fire’s embers to roast them. He removes the skins and mixes the vegetable with tahini for a play on baba ganoush. Another fun technique he uses is to wrap potatoes in a salt crust and bury those whole in the ash. Once finished, he breaks open the potato, which has steamed inside the salt herb crust and smears bone marrow butter onto the potato and serves it in its rustic simplicity.

If you have diners who are strict meat eaters, you can trick them into eating vegetables. You take whole vegetables — cauliflower, butternut squash, celery root — cut them down the center, throw them onto a grill until they get a nice char and serve it with a fork and knife.

squash competition 1

“Vegetables can be really hearty,” Mahin said. “I also love whole-roasting cauliflower. The outside gets charred brown, but then you cut it in half and it’s a beautiful steamed vegetable you can add sauce to like a really nice chicken stock with chili flake and lemon.”

Adding to the notion of steak and potatoes, you can pair those whole-roasted vegetables with a vegetable gratin, which is a fantastic dish for fall and winter. While most people are familiar with potato gratin, flex your culinary creativity and reach for other great fall vegetables like sweet potato, beets or cauliflower and layer in spinach for a twist on an ordinary gratin. It’s lush, wholesome and adds to the feeling you’re eating a robust entrée.

Everyone has done some sort of Brussels sprout dish on their menu in the last five years — and there’s no reason to stop. But instead of just roasting them, you can flash fry them, like Mahin does at his other restaurant, Stella Barra Pizzeria, which has four locations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Bethesda, Md. The frying gets the Brussels crispy and as soon as they come out, get tossed in Moscato balsamic vinegar, breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. “The oil and balsamic mixes to give an awesome tang to the vegetables,” Mahin said.

Back to the notion of a “vegetable-focused” restaurant, many chefs have taken on the philosophy of having vegetable-driven menus and then having meat — salmon, chicken, steak or whatever — as add-ons. That way people can get extra protein and more hardcore carnivores can get their meat fix. Having more vegetables on your menu can help reduce food costs while also helping ease the impact raising meat proteins has on the environment.

“Let’s be frank, buying local and seasonal is not always inexpensive, but it’s less expensive than serving the equivalent proteins all the time,” Sullivan explained. “I understand the impact it has if you want to eat steaks all the time, but we don’t need to eat that all the time.”

Zimmerman, who is a Michelin-starred chef with his first restaurant, Sepia, agreed that eating less meat is overall better for the environment, not to mention much healthier for people.“

Some of the reasons beyond vegetables being good for you, the amount of nutrients versus the amount of carbon that goes into producing them is a big deal,” Zimmerman said. “The amount of stuff we have to give a cow to get a steak versus getting an eggplant is widely different. And if people were enticed to eat more vegetables by talented chefs, it’ll be better for all of us in the long run.”

Vegetables clearly have become a trend, but it’s a good trend. Vegetables are interesting and they force you to get even more creative in how you can prepare them with different cooking methods and different sauces, seasonings and spices. It doesn’t take much to get serious about it and your diners will appreciate the effort.

“Vegetables have been neglected for a long time,” said Matt Lair, executive chef of Clever Rabbit in Chicago. “It’s important for chefs to respect vegetables and sell them in a manner where it’s serious and more thought gets put into it — and have someone want to sit down to eat an entire meal focused on vegetables.”

And that can happen no matter if it’s fall or any other time of year.