At Restaurants, Vegetables are Stealing the Show

By on June 10, 2014
Alden & Harlow

Alden & Harlow

At one point in my life I was an advocate of calorie counting. I could eat whatever I wanted within 1350 calories per day. It was okay if that meant I just had 1 cupcake and a few small meals or if I started my day with a Cliff Bar. In the end I was perfectly slim with a killer body fat ratio but I also had acne and a 3pm energy plunge. It was at that moment in my life that I decided to eat the right portions but to make healthier choices. I’m finding that it is easier and easier to find veggies out and about. I went out for Mexican with my friends last week and found a grilled chicken breast with a side of carrots and snap peas on the menu between the fajitas and tacos. I was seriously amazed at the shift in thinking. It seems like restaurants everywhere are taking note that veggies can be amazing and fresh. In support of the farm-to-table movement several restaurants in Boston have started to buy, cook, and eat local.

CARROTS ARE THE NEW PORK BELLY

There is one on every menu in town. Vegetables, so long supporting players of restaurant meals, are finally landing the starring role. After years of glorifying charcuterie, bacon, and hefty chops, chefs are beginning to push produce.

“Vegetables really are the focus” of these new dishes, says Michael Scelfo, chef-owner of Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square, one of the new restaurants putting vegetables first. “Components are being paired to the vegetable itself, treating it like you’d treat a protein. More people are eating small plates-style and communal-style, and that lends itself to vegetables.”

The trend has been a long time coming. Food prognosticators began forecasting the rise of the vegetable several years ago. Boston has seen flashes of it: charred romaine lettuce here, roasted shishito peppers there, house-made pickles everywhere. But heading into this year’s growing season, vegetables are truly getting their due. Their prominence is buoyed by the interest in local and seasonal produce, the spread of farmers’ markets, and the evolution of farm-to-table dining from novelty to status quo — not to mention pure and simple pork-fat fatigue. A couple of years ago, Scelfo says, there was a lot of talk about focusing on vegetables. “Now there is actual follow-through.”

One of his favorite of the mostly small plates on Alden & Harlow’s menu, Scelfo says, is among the most simple. Charred broccoli is combined with a hummus-style spread made from squash and cashew tahini, with montasio cheese and cashews crumbled on top. “I don’t think I’ll ever take it off,” he says. “People seem to really love it. And I love to send it to people, because they say they never would have ordered it themselves.”

For a vegetable dish to open diners’ eyes that way, it needs to have the right balance of flavors and textures, Scelfo says. “I like a lot of acid. I’m really into texture. That’s what makes vegetables exciting to eat. You need creamy richness, crunch, and acidity for it to make sense. Otherwise vegetables can run mute on your palate.” In building a new dish, he thinks about how to incorporate each element. “We bring these things in and play with it. It’s fun because we’re not talking about a pork chop, a pork belly. We’ve done that. This is new.”

The chance for exploration is a big part of the appeal vegetables hold for chefs, who have focused for so long on meat preparation. Produce offers a new paint box to play with. “That whole offal and charcuterie, nose-to-tail thing, nobody loves it more than me,” Scelfo says. “But to be able to do something different that’s truly a departure from that is super satisfying. You’re playing in a different field almost. No pun intended.”

Kale

AT WEST BRIDGE in Kendall Square, chef-owner Matthew Gaudet is on board with reducing meat consumption, both from a taste and a health perspective. “We still love meat,” he says, “but I think vegetables now are where it’s at. They deserve a lot more focus.

A 2-ounce piece of bacon with a bunch of vegetables in Europe is totally OK.

We’re over here throwing down a 32-ounce porterhouse. It’s silly sometimes. It’s great for a moment, but this was the staple way we ate in this country for a long time.”

Cooking this way has been an evolution for Gaudet. Once he might have started with rack of lamb or chicken and figured out what vegetables to put with it. Now it is the other way around. “We work seasonally, so we try to think about vegetables and what’s great and how they can promote themselves at the center of the plate, and then garnish with meat and fish if it’s necessary,” Gaudet says.

So although the food may be vegetable-oriented, it is not vegetarian. Impressing that upon diners is one of the biggest challenges West Bridge faces, Gaudet says. “We are lightening it up, making things fresher for people,” he says. “Spring especially is exciting. When we go into winter, we think, ‘How are we going to manipulate a turnip into something awesome?’ ” Or, in spring, what are they going to do with beautiful white asparagus from France? The answer: Make it the star of the plate, complemented by sardines and tangy sauce gribiche, a cousin of mayonnaise.

Gaudet, too, stresses the importance of texture, maximizing the innate flavor of each ingredient and incorporating crunch, creaminess, sweetness, and acid for contrast and balance. “If it’s missing something, it needs more vinegar. That’s my motto,” he says. For a twist on eggplant Parmesan, the kitchen roasts eggplant and covers it with a layer of kataifi to mimic the crunch of breading. A relish made with raisins and sundried tomatoes, similar to the Basque dish piperade, takes the place of tomato sauce. And for the cheese, there is tofu whipped with black cardamom and yuzu juice.

West Bridge has had cauliflower dishes on the menu since it opened two years ago, the heads always cut into thick, steak-like slices. Currently, they’re seared and lacquered with apricot puree, served with shaved raw cauliflower, parsley and tarragon, and grapes with tart verjus, spicy sambal, and rich hazelnuts. An earlier version incorporated bone marrow, harissa, and sherry vinaigrette. “The idea,” says Gaudet, “was to replicate a steak. It’s the simplest thing. It’s one piece of cauliflower dressed up a little bit.”

The rise of vegetables in restaurants wouldn’t be possible without the increased availability of high-quality local produce. Alden & Harlow gets many of its ingredients from operations such as Verrill Farm in Concord, MacArthur Farm in Holliston, Blue Heron Organic Farm in Lincoln, and The Food Project in Dorchester. Sarma relies heavily on Siena in season; other purveyors include Verrill, Equinox Farm in Sheffield, and Sparrow Arc Farm in Copake, New York. West Bridge also works with Verrill, Siena, and Sparrow Arc, as well as L’Espalier chef Frank McClelland’s Apple Street Farm in Essex and Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth. All buy from wholesalers — such as Baldor, Katsiroubas Bros., Russo’s, and Specialty Foods — that offer produce from local growers.

“The independent farm resurgence in the last years has done something great for us as chefs,” Gaudet says. “When I was a wee kid in the ’70s, our parents’ generation in a middle-class family in Lynn wasn’t exactly connected to farms. Their knowledge of freshness went by the wayside .  . . . Now we have a lot more farms. You see a lot of restaurants with their own farms. It gives us something to work with. It keeps us challenged.”

You can read the full story on the Boston Globe.

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