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With health-conscious Millennials beginning to take over as major drivers of the early 21st century economy, and with older Americans looking to extend the length and quality of their lives by adopting better diets, it was probably inevitable that vegetables would get their day in the sun.
Along with a growing interest in local, sustainable, and artisanal foods—particularly among Millennials and younger “Generation Z” consumers—positive health benefits have driven vegetables from the outskirts to the center of the plate. Market research firm Technomic has reported that the number of vegetable offerings on U.S. restaurant menus jumped 11 percent between 2010 and 2013. The company also published a survey indicating that two-thirds of Americans thought a vegetarian meal could be as satisfying as one made with meat.
The downside historically has been that, for all their nutrients and attendant healthful effects, vegetables aren’t conceived by consumers as terribly tasty unless they’re saturated with sauces, smothered in seasonings, or slathered with salad dressing. Now, though, an increasing number of high-end restaurants, midscale eateries, creative start-ups, and other establishments are working overtime to make vegetables as desirable as meat- or starch-based menu items. As my team at CCD Innovation wrote in its Vegetable Chic Trend Report last year: “Spurred by the farmers’ market movement, fresh produce at stores like Whole Foods, and a growing awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet, chefs are playing with produce in inspired ways. And customers are ordering these dishes not just because they’re good for them but because they are quite tasty, too.”
Many of the most interesting vegetable trends we’re seeing today have significant potential for successful translation to quick-service and fast-casual environments. Consider these, for example:
Give ’em the meat treatment.
The Arizmendi Bakery cooperative on 9th Avenue in San Francisco has turned its pizzas into minor works of art through an incredibly creative deployment of nontraditional doughs and sauces, as well as through a range of vegetables so satisfying that they utterly eliminate the need or desire for meat toppings. This past October, its seasonal, ethnically eclectic creations included a pie topped with roasted mushrooms, scallions, and miso dressing; another with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, mixed greens, Dubliner cheese, olive oil, chives, and parsley; and yet another with roasted squash, red onions, goat cheese, and thyme oil. Treating vegetables as treats on a par with cured meats is working beautifully for Arizmendi.
Sautéeing, roasting, and grilling are also useful techniques for developing vegetable dishes capable of holding their own at the center of the plate. Treating veggies more like meats tends to yield end products that are less off-putting to those who favor flesh over flora. Grilling a cauliflower steak and saucing it like a T-bone is one technique we’re seeing more frequently; grilled romaine lettuce has gone downright mainstream, and charred carrots, smoked potatoes, and yams aren’t far behind.
Tap into ethnic influences.
While the U.S. has a longstanding and hard-won reputation as a nation where meat ‘n’ potatoes reign supreme, many other inhabitants of planet Earth enjoy cuisines where vegetables are the star attraction. Adopting flavors, dishes, signature herbs, spices, sauces, and seasonings from these exotic locales is another way to make vegetables more exciting for diners who normally lean carnivorous.
Some establishments have done a particularly great job of this. Dirt Candy in New York serves pickled and jerked carrots with peanut mole sauce on carrot waffles, in a true testament to this humble root vegetable’s remarkable versatility. LYFE Kitchen offers a Thai red curry bowl replete with broccoli, eggplant, peppers, peas, wheatberries, and Thai basil, all served in a coconut curry sauce. And Beefsteak in Washington, D.C., has distinguished itself with its Kimchi-wa, consisting of rice, corn, carrot, cabbage, edamame, bok choy, roasted garlic, and yogurt sauce, all topped with scallions, sesame seeds, corn nuts, kimchi, and soy-ginger dressing.
Get ahead of the “next kale.”
There was a time, believe it or not, when grocery produce sections weren’t covered in kale. Now the so-called superfood is near ubiquitous, and this has foodies around the country wondering where the next big veggie trend might come from.
Women’s magazines and other mainstream publications are awash in recipes containing arugula, broccolini, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and heirloom potatoes, so the quick-serve concept seeking to get in on the ground floor of a newer trend may have to dig a little deeper. Kohlrabi, fiddlehead ferns, shiso, and sea beans are just beginning to gain traction in white-tablecloth establishments. A little further down the road to mainstream acceptance are heirloom eggplant, rapini, broccoli rabe, and Romanesco cauliflower. And well on their way to broad recognition and appreciation are shishito peppers, beets, turnips, and kalettes, a kale-Brussels sprouts hybrid.
With vegetables ascendant on restaurant menus and top-of-mind with more health-conscious consumers of all ages, this is a great time for quick-serve and fast-casual chains alike to take a long look at how they can capitalize on a growing trend. I’ll look forward to hearing your success stories at [email protected].