When I was growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley—once commonly known as the nation’s breadbasket—local farmers grew a significant percentage of the fruits and vegetables eaten by people in the rest of the country. They still do. Today, the Vegetable Research & Information Center at the University of California, Davis, reports that the Valley produces more than 250 different crops.
But, despite being fertile ground for everything from tomatoes, lettuce, and alfalfa to peaches, strawberries, and carrots, I can’t recall a single friend or acquaintance renouncing meat and cobbling together a diet composed exclusively of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Even in this greatest of growing regions, becoming a vegetarian would have been regarded by locals as heretical and weird, possibly even subversive—a frank admission of outright hostility toward God, country, and Colonel Sanders. Almost no one had even heard of veganism, but, had we known of the practice, you can be sure some folks would have seen it as grounds for swift and permanent institutionalization.
Since then, a host of factors—time, tolerance, and a greater general attention to health and wellness among them—have made the practice of forgoing meat almost commonplace in some parts of the country. Data shows there is an increasing interest in meatless dining, even among those who don’t eschew meat altogether. Last year, a Gallup survey found that 5 percent of American adults self-identified as vegetarians, and an additional 2 percent said they followed a vegan diet. That may sound like a relatively small pool to go fishing in, but consider this: In 2011, the U.S. Vegetarian Resource Center reported that nearly 23 million Americans reported following a “vegetarian-inclined diet,” and that 5.2 percent of survey respondents said they were “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian diet in the future.
The fact that vegetarianism is now no longer a fringe lifestyle choice and that it is being followed or considered by an increasing number of consumers—including college students (12 percent of whom are now vegetarian, according to a Bon Appétit Management Company survey)—suggests the time may be ripe for many concepts to enhance or expand their non-meat offerings. The key, as always, is to understand that while dietary choices exert some influence on consumer behaviors, taste will almost always be the prime driver. Here are suggestions for getting started:
Explore the growing range of animal-protein alternatives. Time was, you had steak, and then you had frozen vegetarian “hamburgers” developed for those whose religion prohibited them from eating meat. Nowadays, if you’re looking for meat alternatives, the sky’s the limit. Soy options range from traditional tofu to yuba—a sheet of bean curd with the consistency of cooked lasagna—and tempeh, a fermented soy patty originally from Indonesia. But other proteins abound, from ancestral grains such as quinoa and bulgur to seeds and nuts, beans, lentils, cheeses, and wheat gluten.
What’s more, there are a vast number of established and emerging brands working to make it easier for restaurateurs to offer meatless entrées: Beyond Meat, Quorn, Gardein, and Tofurkey, for example, all offer substitutes composed of various combinations of vegetable and grain proteins.
It’s worth noting that there are two ways to employ a protein substitute. One is to formulate dishes that strive to replicate the taste and texture of various meats, like beef, chicken, and pork. This is a likable approach if the aim is to lure “flexitarians” or vegetarians who have made a conscious decision to break from meat.
The second way to incorporate meatless proteins into dishes is to appeal to that other, likely smaller, subset of vegetarians and vegans who are turned off by the taste of meat and want their proteins to taste and perform as little like animal flesh as possible. In these instances, finding combinations of seasonings that aren’t redolent of smoking, stewing, or searing is a better way to court the meatless among us.
Make vegetables the star of the plate. It’s not a new notion for chefs like San Francisco’s Hubert Keller, who has offered a 10-course vegetable tasting menu at Fleur de Lys, his fine-dining mainstay, for many years. But vegetables certainly don’t have to play a supporting role on the plate. In addition to taking meat’s place in sandwiches, stews, wraps, crêpes, and other applications, vegetables actually have marquee value, particularly when the offerings are fresh and seasonal.
At the nationally recognized Campo restaurant in Reno, Nevada, diners order the spicy oven-roasted cauliflower by the truckload. And much the same thing happens when other fresh seasonal staples with short shelf lives—from fava beans to fiddlehead ferns—make their appearance around the country. If a Portobello mushroom sandwich isn’t likely to find favor among your diners, you can always try more modest, obvious approaches, like topping burgers and sandwiches with fresh local tomatoes in August.
Tap into ethnic options. Given the number of popular international cuisines, whether Japanese, Indian, Greek, or Italian, that feature vegetables prominently, it may be worth scouring global menus in search of dishes and treatments that could transfer well to quick-serve settings, but with a Western twist. Such sharp, clean, and occasionally spicy flavors are a favorite of the Millennial generation, and there’s every reason to think that this still-emergent demographic would respond well to carefully cultivated vegetable-based dishes that cater well to their tastes.
Happy harvesting, friends.