Creative Vegetable Presentation
As Americans become increasingly aware of how what they eat affects their overall health, vegetables are rising in popularity. Vegetable offerings at restaurants have grown 11 percent just between 2010 and 2013, and the trend does not appear to be slowing.1 Some industry experts have partially attributed the trend to millennials, who often post their meals to social media. Vegetables not only showcase their healthy eating habits, but the bright colors also make for attractive photos that grab the attention of their followers. Many restaurants are taking advantage of this trend by featuring more meals that focus on the side dishes, rather than the meat, which has led to chefs looking for new ways to cook and present their vegetables.
There are many ways to shake up the traditional vegetable plate, whether by turning a common style of cooking vegetables on its head, or using produce that is a bit less usual.
Twisting the Traditional
French fries have long been a staple of the side dish and starter menus, but why limit yourself to potatoes? Any vegetable that can be sliced into long, thin pieces with a knife or dicer, and can be deep-fried or baked, can make an alternative type of fry. Broccoli stems (which are often otherwise wasted), green beans, carrots, zucchini, and avacados all lend themselves well to this style of cooking, which can be enhanced with a light coating of seasonings, bread crumbs, or parmesan cheese. The long, thin shapes these vegetables are cooked in also lends itself well to inventive displays, such as being served in lined buckets or tall, thin glasses.
In this same vein, most vegetables can be run through a mandolin slicer and turned into a chip, either by frying or baking in the oven. Chips offer a great opportunity to mix colors and flavors in one dish to add variety. Some vegetables, such as kale and spinach, are already thin enough to crisp up on their own.
Grilled vegetables are a great way to get some color contrast on the plate with char marks, and customers love the charred, smoky flavor that the grill imparts. The vegetables can be marinated briefly, or served with a dipping sauce, but the grill really brings out the natural flavors of the vegetables. Be sure you allow them to take center stage by not overwhelming the dish with other flavors. Almost any vegetable can be grilled, including romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, sweet peppers, zucchini, broccoli, and artichokes, giving you lots of options for pairings and blends to complement your main course.
Looking at traditional overseas dishes can inspire modern interpretations that open up many possibilities. Rösti is a Swedish dish similar to American hashbrowns. For traditional rösti, potatoes are coarsely grated, then fried or baked in a circle. This same idea can be applied to any root vegetable, such as beets and carrots. The simple idea of the original premise leaves interpretations up to your creativity; garnish with bacon, mix in herbs or a vegetable of contrasting flavor and color, or add a twist and use a spiral cutter instead of a grater on your vegetables.
Mashed potatoes are one of the most common side items to be found, but nearly any dense vegetable can be turned into mash, giving you a wide variety of colors and flavors to choose from. Beet or carrot mash is a great way to add a splash of color to a meal. Nearly any root vegetable can be boiled, then run through a food processer to make mash. Cauliflower is another popular choice; merely steam the florets, then run them through the food processor before adding herbs, spices, cheese, meat, or any other additions to make it your own.
Sweet vs. Savory
Jams are no longer solely the domain of sweet fruits and berries; vegetables can be cooked down into savory jams that beautifully complement toast, sandwiches, and meat. They can even be stirred into soup or pasta for an extra kick of flavor. Garlic, onions, tomatoes, and peppers all make great jams, and can be combined to make a limitless number of variations. To make a jam, these vegetables are cooked in a sauté pan with whatever you choose to complement their flavor (which can include sugar, salt, honey, vinegar, citrus, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, sage, and much more) until they cook down into a thick, spreadable paste. A savory jam could potentially be paired with another vegetable, serving as a dip for a chip or fry, or a topping for rösti.
One of the last things that comes to mind when you think of vegetables is dessert, but with a little creativity, vegetables can be worked into dessert in new and surprising ways beyond carrot cake or pumpkin pie. Some vegetables have a naturally sweet flavor that can be taken advantage of; sweet corn, for example, has become popular as an ice cream flavor. Some varieties of carrots are naturally sweet, and lend themselves well to pies, muffins, and more. On the other hand, some desserts can benefit from the addition of a savory or spicy element. Jalapeños and other peppers have been used in ice cream and chocolates for centuries, and customers love the kick they add to traditional desserts.
In addition to cooking common vegetables in new and unusual ways, you may also wish to introduce some different vegetables to your menu. Celery root, rhubarb, ramps, garlic shoots, yucca, and dandelion greens are rarely seen in restaurants, and so give you the opportunity to offer your customers something novel. Many of these can be prepared in some of the methods mentioned above, or the fact that they are so rarely used may prompt you to come up with an inventive new way of presenting them.
1. Vegetables Shift to Center of the Plate USA Today. Accessed September 2015.
2. Heating up the Menu with Grilled Vegetables Restaurant Hospitality. Accessed September 2015.
3. Savory, Not Sweet Table Matters. Accessed September 2015.
4. 10 Weird and Unusual Vegetables We Bet You Haven't Tried Hellawella. Accessed September 2015.