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    3 Tips for Making Vegetable Sides the Stars

  • Three sly ways to make vegetable sides as exciting as the main course.

    Thinkstock / sveta_zarzamora
    Cauliflower pizza crust with pesto, yellow tomatoes, zucchini, mozzarella cheese and squash blossom.

    In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threw a rotten tomato at Americans’ paltry fruit and vegetable intake. In a pre-Thanksgiving edition of the agency’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report”—always a festive read at the holidays—the CDC reported that only one in 10 adults meets the federal government’s guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. U.S. adults are advised to eat at least one-and-a-half to 2 cups of fruit and 2–3 cups of vegetables per day. Yet, the agency notes, just 9 percent of adults met the intake recommendations for vegetables in 2015, while only 12 percent met the recommendations for fruit.

    As menu-development professionals, we have the ability to help millions of consumers make better, healthier choices. And I would argue that we can do it without upending our existing menus, revamping our kitchens, driving our food costs to unimaginable heights, or dismantling and then reassembling our supply chains.

    Datassential reports that more than 50 percent of all restaurants—from quick serves to fine-dining establishments—offer side salads on their menus. What this tells me is that these small servings of fresh vegetables are adding to companies’ bottom lines, and that the salad and side-vegetable categories are therefore ripe for further exploration, if you’ll pardon the awful pun. Here are three specific suggestions for introducing more vegetables into your menu mix.

    1. Hide ’em

    Ever have trouble convincing a 10-year-old to wolf down a mouthful of french fries, tater tots, onion rings, or hash browns? How about a 20-, 30-, or 60-year old? I thought not. And that deep-rooted, abiding love of deep-fried potatoes, onions, and other super sides may just represent one of the most promising channels available for getting consumers to opt for more veggies in their diets. Some operators offer potato-based sides that contain bits of broccoli or cauliflower. Others combine sweet potatoes with chickpeas and red peppers. Still others are offering carrot fries, white-bean-and-onion rings, kale-and-herb fries—the list goes on.

    That “stealth health” approach is one way to make vegetables more appealing for meat ’n’ potatoes types; another is the use of frying batters. I’m talking about things like tempura-fried carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, broccoli, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, and even fruit-and-vegetable combinations. Dip those babies in a light coating of batter, fry ’em up, offer a range of condiments and dipping sauces to sweeten the deal, and it’s a delicious and painless way to increase one’s intake of nutritious foods.

    And while sustainability isn’t typically top of mind when people speed through the drive thru, batter-frying and tucking vegetables into existing sides also helps with what’s known now as “upcycling.” That’s the practice of finding applications for perfectly good fresh fruits and vegetables that may not meet consumers’ highest cosmetic or aesthetic standards. This works well in applications where their outer appearance isn’t relevant or observable, like in sauces, gravies, dressings, and shakes or smoothies.

    2. Pickle the stuff

    If it seems to you that you’ve seen a whole lot of those pink pickled onions strewn over burgers, sandwiches, salads, and other dishes in recent years, you’re spot on. What accounts for their popularity? From their attractive hue to their acidic, palate-cleansing properties to the healthful probiotics they boast, pickled versions of onions and other veggies are clearly going mainstream. You can pickle darn near anything—eggs, kumquats, chilies, escarole, beets, ginger, carrot, radish… I could go on. Pickling is simply an ancient form of food preservation, but different cultures have their own pickling formulas, herbs, and spices. Depending on the vinegar, sugar, and seasonings used, there are endless variations.

    3. Leverage the cauliflower as a substitute starch

    You’ve probably observed cauliflower serving as a stunt-double for mashed potatoes for a healthy alternative on many menus. You may have seen it grilled as a substitute for steak. But did you know cauliflower can also be used in pizza crusts, pie crusts, hot pockets, empanadas, and a whole host of other carrier applications? It can look and behave like rice in a risotto or stir fry. It can be dehydrated and used as a popcorn-like snack. And all make for great side dishes.

    In other words, friends, we need not limit ourselves to steaming, sautéing, roasting, or baking when it comes to vegetable side dishes today. With some creative thinking and a bit of trial and error, we can turn some of our most nutritious fare into something delicious enough to hold its own with our best menu items.

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