Veg-Centric Trend Reinvents the Meal

Veggie tacos

If you’re like a lot of restaurant owners, you’re hearing more and more of your customers ask for dishes with vegetables as main course.

Based on the research we’ve conducted in major culinary destinations across the country, you’re not alone. Veg-centric cuisine is emerging as a major macro trend. And, mind you, this is no passing fancy—veg-centric is an approach that will influence commercial menus for the next decade.

Vegetable sections with diverse, creative, and flavour-forward dishes were featured on the menus of more than a dozen restaurants we visited. One more sign of the vegetable revolution: Two New York restaurants have installed rotisseries specifically for vegetables.

And, because commercial trends jump to noncommercial menus quickly—and to healthcare menus even more quickly—veg-centric is a new food trend that is relevant to foodservice operations of all kinds.

Why vegetables?

Consumer dining patterns are changing. We’re seeing abundant signs of a turnaround as evidenced by greater variety, more flavours, and spreads of shared plates rather than a progression of courses. Colourful and flavourful, vegetables are playing a big role in this evolution and they’re a natural fit.

For chefs, the veg-centric approach makes sense in terms of both economics and flavour. Inherently low in cost, veg-centric dishes allow for generous portions that enhance perceived plate value and help improve margins. “Root-to-stem” cooking—an extension of the nose-to-tail movement that emphasizes using every part of an animal—reduces food waste and cuts food costs while adding eye appeal, texture, and nutrition to the plate. Chefs are pickling watermelon rinds, and radish tops. Potato and ginger peelings, corn cobs, and artichoke leaves are enhancing the flavour and complexity of broths. Roasted squash seeds, tender carrot tops and stems from fresh parsley, rainbow chard or cilantro are being used to add colour, flavour, and texture to salads.

One more reason why veg-centric is taking off? Vegetables are inherently seasonal. That spells year-round economies and opportunities to refresh menus and provide the variety that today’s dining consumers demand.

Not just for vegetarians

Bear in mind, the veg-centric trend’s focus is flavour; being meatless is secondary. Meat proteins are still in the picture, but they’re being used as more of a flavour enhancer. Examples: roasted Brussels sprouts with crumbled chorizo; caramelized cauliflower with balsamic-and-bacon breadcrumbs; or tender braised greens in ham-hock broth.

Veg-centric on menus

On recent trends tours in New York and Chicago, our team sampled many meatless sandwiches. They were unbelievably delicious and show that mainstream restaurants can offer boldly flavoured meatless options with a very high level of creativity that satisfy even the most devoted carnivores. But meatless doesn’t mean health-oriented; most are as indulgent as any meat-based sandwich.

At Chicago-based Parson’s Chicken & Fish, for example, the Vegetable Club pickled beets, radishes, cucumbers, and herbed cream cheese⎯provides plenty of indulgence without chicken or fish. This sandwich floored us. It was so delicious that we didn’t miss the meat. The real secret was the layering of different flavours. At Black Tree in New York, a good example of a unique approach to flavour layering is the winter squash sandwich that features four varieties of one roasted vegetable layered with toasted squash seeds, melted mozzarella, fresh herbs, and crushed potato chips in a split ciabatta roll.

Veg-centric entrées are increasingly common. At Cadet in Los Angeles, Belgian endives braised in chicken stock and white wine are served sandwiched between thin slices of country ham and melted Gruyère cheese. Put your own spin on classic veg-centric dishes—e.g., eggplant Parmesan—with signature crustings and sauces. Grill portobello mushroom “steaks.” Stuff bell peppers with quinoa or another on-trend grains. Slice zucchini into ribbons and serve with a signature pasta sauce.

And that’s the secret of the veg-centric trend: Vegetable-based dishes become stars because they are simply delicious and hold broad appeal for all diners. When the focus is on flavour, even a humble turnip can be a star.

Four steps to a veg-centric menu

Carefully thought-out flavour layering is key to creating craveability.

  1. Adopt a veg-centric mindset. Consider produce an equal-opportunity ingredient for the centre of the plate.

  2. Go bold. Pan-sear, char, wood-grill, oven-roast, and smoke vegetables to add enhance flavour and texture. Take the ABS (“anything but steam”) approach—steam does little to enhance the flavour or texture of vegetables.

  3. Pack in a little protein. Shaved prosciutto, a sprinkling of sausage crumbles, or a turn in a meat-based broth adds flavour and richness to vegetable dishes, and bits of smoked seafood add an umami boost.

  4. Layer flavours. Vegetables take well to assertive, global sauces, such as pesto, chermoula and chimichurri. In small doses, cheeses such as ricotta, Parmesan, and Romano all bring out the flavour of vegetables.

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