Bountiful Opportunities with Veg-Centric Cuisine
As produce continues to nudge protein out of the spotlight, many chefs and operators feel out of step with the veg-centric dining trend. Some restaurant professionals say vegetarian dining doesn’t fit with their concept. Many wonder why they should build their menu around vegetarians. The answer is, “They shouldn’t.” And neither should you. The veg-centric trend is not about vegetarian dining. It’s about treating vegetables—and fruits—as ingredients worth celebrating. By using aggressive cooking methods—e.g., wood-grilling, charring, and roasting—previously reserved for proteins, seasonal produce takes on sensational flavour worthy of a star turn on the plate.
This is a seismic shift in the way people are eating. It’s not about taking away but rather about adding more: more flavour, more options, more creativity. It’s about keeping the steak and upping the ante with fire-roasted carrots and salsa verde. It’s about taking a good, hard look at your produce and paying it the same respect you give to your proteins. Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and carrots (peels, stems and all) happily share space with sweet potatoes, bok choy and broccolini, by turns anointed with bacon or crispy pork belly, dollops of crème fraiche, bone marrow, rich broth glazes or sublime chunks of duck confit While most customers equate vegetables with healthy eating, veg-centric cooking puts flavour first, and it’s this ethos that has paved the way for its success.
Spotlight on winter squash
Winter squash is highly economical, ridiculously versatile and has widespread appeal, so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing it become a star ingredient. There are virtually endless ways to take a veg-centric approach with winter squash. Here are just a few examples:
Stuffed delicata squash with chorizo and greens served on a base of squash purée for a double punch of flavour that’s amplified by the piquant chorizo and earthy greens.
Winter-squash carpaccio—paper-thin ribbons of squash brushed with olive oil and caramelized to order with a handheld torch. The squash is then topped with cumin-scented labneh and pumpkin seeds.
Avocado salad with thin-shaved squash ribbons tossed in olive oil, Indian spices, grapes and sunflower seeds for an unlikely combination that evokes those delicious days between summer’s end and the first crisp days of fall.
Tempura-battered Kabocha squash served with a sweet soy dipping sauce.
Fancy toast. It’s really—still!—a thing. And, after all, why not? For years we’ve happily gobbled up bruschetta—and have loved all the colourful and flavourful combinations that took toast beyond standard at-home breakfast fare—so it’s not a huge stretch to reboot the concept with outside-the-box toppings.
Start with a flavourful spread—either a soft cheese or a rich vegetable purée—on thick-sliced toast. To me, a nice artisan sourdough is perfect: rustic with a crisp crust and toothsome crumb. Here are just a few examples of how indulgent and flavourful toasts can be:
Layer grilled bread with sweetbreads, grilled corn, and lamb belly on a schmear of smoked butternut-squash purée.
Top toast with a rich cauliflower purée, grilled asparagus and white cheddar.
Spread artisan toast with spicy-tomato or other vegetable jams and top with a boiled egg.
The crudité platter is a super retro throwback, but a fresh take on the concept bears little resemblance to those tired trays of limp celery and carrot sticks. New-fashioned crudités feature a wider array of vegetables, often in miniature or heirloom varieties left in their whole state: miniature rainbow carrots, scrubbed but unpeeled; tiny Persian cucumbers and crisp radishes, whose tops make a convenient handle for dipping.
Because there will, of course, be dip.
Far and away the No. 1 accompaniment is some version of green-goddess dressing. You can cream it up with avocado or buttermilk, strip it down to a vinaigrette or blend it into sour cream—it’s versatile, delicious, and vibrantly coloured. Bonus points for dramatic presentations in a cocktail glass or clear-glass bowl: e.g., fresh greenery (celery leaves, chives and carrot or fennel fronds, etc.) for visual depth; cracked ice to keep the veggies crisp and cool.
If you’re just starting to consider adding some veg-centric dishes to your menu, consider replacing simple side dishes with more complex vegetable small plates. Get inspired by specialty and heirloom varieties, whose fleeting season often means they’re not available on the conventional mass market—this is one of the best reasons to visit your local farmers market. Veg-centric dining is a huge opportunity; let’s make the most of it.