The protein-and-sides equation that once defined a typical restaurant meal is giving way to a new formula: Plant-based mains and small shareable plates are nudging animal proteins out of their traditional dominant role.
The strategy is a win-win-win: Chefs like the challenge of creating something memorable with vegetables and fruits. Restaurant owners like the relatively low cost of entrees built around grains and produce instead of more costly proteins. And consumers, a growing number of whom self-identify as clean eaters, flexitarian or vegetarian, are happy to see menus offering newer, heartier takes on vegetables.
Forty-four percent of consumers who choose vegetarian or vegan options at least monthly said they would like more restaurants to offer protein substitutes for meat, poultry and seafood dishes, according to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, the figure was 52%, showing just how much younger consumers are driving this trend.
Health considerations are one of the biggest factors behind a desire for plant-forward options. The Technomic report found that 68% percent of consumers who report they are eating more vegetarian meals do so because they consider the practice healthier.
Thus, chefs are using various tricks to spin vegetables into more substantial fare.
Iron Chef Bobby Flay and other innovators don’t hesitate to season vegetables the same way chefs have traditionally flavored proteins. Flay favors spice rubs, for three reasons—to make a more pronounced flavor impact, to help form a crust, which in turn adds texture, and for speed. Rubs can take to heat immediately, unlike marinades. His favorite rubs mix in paprika and coriander.
Philadelphia’s Vedge, regarded as one of the best vegetarian spots in the U.S., smokes, glazes, sears and roasts vegetables such as carrots, asparagus, eggplant and maitake mushrooms, then elevates them as entrees with flavorful sauces and purees. Spiced Little Carrots with Chickpea-Sauerkraut Puree plunges carrots into an olive oil marinade made with a steak spice blend, sherry vinegar, salt, ground cloves and garlic, then roasts them before serving them over the puree.
At Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, Calif., chef and “vegetable whisperer” Jeremy Fox is known for regarding vegetables as equals to meats, using the same preparation, cooking and seasoning techniques. The menu of shareable plates is a simple list, with proteins and vegetables sharing equal billing, and includes heady creations such as white yams with green garlic butter, celery, pickled onions, aioli and hazelnut dukkah.
Several produce items lend themselves to center-of-the-plate treatments. Cauliflower, eggplant, portabella mushrooms, potatoes and squash are popular choices. Cauliflower “steak,” star of so many Instagram snaps in recent years, provides a showy and filling entree. Chef/entrepreneur David Burke’s fragrant curried version combines slices of cauliflower with turmeric, curry powder, mustard seed, coriander, lemongrass and ginger.
A common practice at some growing restaurant chains is to cast animal proteins in a supporting role as part of a balanced dish that loops in grains and produce. Grain bowls often downplay animal proteins, as in the Harvest Bowl served at the Sweetgreen chain, which mixes organic wild rice, shredded kale, apples, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken, local goat cheese, toasted almonds and balsamic vinaigrette.
At True Food Kitchen, modest servings of proteins (tofu, chicken, shrimp, steak and salmon) are add-ons to the bowls, which include the Ancient Grains Bowl, a flavorful mix of grains, miso glazed sweet potato, turmeric, charred onion, snow pea, grilled portobella, avocado and hemp seed.
For more tips on menuing craveable, produce-forward items, reach out to Mrs. Dash Foodservice here. Its variety of BOH herb and seasoning blends make it easy to offer consistent, flavorful veggie-forward dishes year-round.
This post is sponsored by Mrs. Dash Foodservice