Where's the Beef?
Now is the time to make vegetables the star on your menu
For years, dinner just wasn't dinner without some sort of meaty protein. Whether it was a grilled steak served with steamed broccoli, chicken thighs cooked with shallots and lemon or shrimp tacos topped with shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes, the meat took center stage. But times are changing and meat now may start playing second fiddle to all those vegetables instead of the other way around.
More and more chefs across the U.S. and Europe have realized how wonderful showcasing vegetables can be. There's vast diversity in vegetables, and they tend to cost less than most proteins. Plus, they're just healthier overall.
"We want you to leave here feeling elated and not destroyed," said Lula Café chef/owner Jason Hammel, who has showcased vegetables on the menu since they opened in Chicago 15 years ago. "If you are interested in that feeling that when you're finished eating, you're fulfilled, you're going to look for lightness and freshness and you tend to get that from vegetables, not protein."
Lula is by no means a vegetarian restaurant, but they're veggie-forward. They even offer a $45 six-course vegetarian tasting menu to show people that vegetarians can have something interesting and complex without spending a lot of money. That sentiment was shared in 2014 when Next Restaurant chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran offered a vegan menu for one of the oft-changing restaurant's quarterly menus. Word on the street it was one of their best and traditional meat eaters were wowed.
Meat doesn't have to go away, but many restaurants are using it as a flavor component in a dish instead of making it the star — and you can have fun with how you prepare vegetable-focused dishes. Charleston's 492 breaks its menu into four sections, with two heavily focused on vegetables, the other on meats. But sometimes, diners get confused with things, like the beet — not beef — tartare and chef Nate Whiting is OK with that.
"People still think it's beef and they love it," Whiting said. "We do fun little things that can be whimsical. We like to get the best ingredients, so we can do our own interpretation. Taste is subjective, but quality isn't."
Whiting uses various techniques when preparing vegetables to get different outcomes, like braising leeks in olive oil and garlic, but then taking the tops and making a vegetable hash, or he'll puree some and make a leek granita to give it an icy effect. He also looks at culinary links between vegetables such as how lavender naturally grows below apricots and he'll pair those ingredients or he'll use strawberries in a risotto and tell guests it is tomato. "It's not to be deceitful, but to play with people's preconceived notions. It's fun," he said.
Taste is subjective, but quality isn't.
Flower Ave Garden
Getting involved is what farmers do when it comes to vegetables. Peter Klein, who owns Seedling Farm in Mich., makes it a point to work with chefs in Chicago to get them what they need, and that often means finding new seeds to grow for them.
But Courtney Guerra takes it to the next level. The owner of Flower Ave Garden in Venice, Calif., actually partnered with now James Beard-nominee Ari Taymor and his Downtown LA restaurant Alma a few years ago to ensure he had enough greens and herbs for his menus. Now the two collaborate. "I work with Ari and we plan at least three months in advance," Guerra said. "When I first started, it was me bringing my knowledge to the restaurant and now two years in, we have a collaborative relationship." She's able to grow things for the restaurant you can't find at farmers markets, "different esoteric herbs with really intense flavors that can really make a dish pop."
So while that's beneficial for a restaurant in LA with a year-round growing climate, most parts of the country don't have that luxury. So what should you do off season? Use what you have while it's in season. "You can pickle. Salt-cure vegetables. We do fermented mushrooms and carrots," Whiting said. "It's about preserving the harvest and stretching it out."
Because, that way, you have fresh vegetables all year round, no matter the season. And your customers will thank you for it.
Herbs with really intense flavors can really make a dish pop