If it happens to be the height of summer, or if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the country where a wide variety of produce is bountiful year round, then getting the daily quota of five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day is a breeze.
Come winter, though, the number of farm-fresh ingredients becomes more limited. But that doesn’t mean operators should ignore rising consumer demand for seasonal, produce-centric dishes. Rather, it just means they need to get more creative.
A positive perception
“Menuing seasonal vegetables showcases a restaurant’s commitment to fresh, quality and premium ingredients,” says Jana Mann, senior director at Chicago-based researcher Datassential. “In-season foods convey rotating menus and chefs sourcing produce that matches the other flavors of the season.”
And this chef creativity hasn’t gone unnoticed by diners. “There is growth in many winter vegetables compared to last year, including potatoes and sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, beets, cauliflower, leeks, kale and turnips,” says Mann, with mentions of all increasing 1 to 7 percent on menus. Kale, not surprisingly, has seen the most growth, making appearances on 40 percent more menus, she says.
While the growth of this winter green might have started at fine-dining and casual-dining independent restaurants, chain operations are getting in on the trend, too. Olive Garden, Panera and Starbucks have all recently menued kale and butternut squash, according to Mann.
Think outside the salad bowl
Winter veggies aren’t just appearing in the salad section of menus either, although that’s a great starting point for operators who are looking to expand their offerings. Winter produce is showing up in all menu categories—from appetizers to entrees, complementing proteins or as stand-alone sides. “Operators are creating more inventive vegetable items that can stand on their own or mesh perfectly with proteins,” says Mann.
What’s more, these hearty veggies stand up to a variety of prep methods, such as roasting, braising in soups or stews or even grilling. They’re also ideal for catering and takeout applications, and can often help offset high food costs. “Fresh veggies can have exceptional taste and texture, but preparations like roasting, smoking and pickling bring out true flavors, too,” says Mann.
At Chicago’s uber-popular Girl & the Goat restaurant, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard says putting the spotlight on vegetables was part of the plan from the get-go. “For us, it happened because we decided to make a section just for them on our menu,” she says. “The pressure was then to make the vegetable section as good as the others.”
And that’s exactly what’s she’s done—no matter the season—with dishes ranging from the restaurant’s signature green beans with a fish sauce vinaigrette to roasted cauliflower with pickled peppers. The extra attention has paid off. “Our vegetables have become some of our most popular [items],” she says.
To introduce customers to some of the more unusual winter produce, operators can pair them with familiar flavors or ingredients. “Combining these lesser-known veggies with other veggies—in pasta, as part of a soup, or a sandwich—allows for safe experimentation for consumers,” says Mann. “They can try something new while still [remaining] in their comfort zone.”
This post is sponsored by Foothill Farms