STYLE

Led by chefs like April Bloomfield and Hugh Acheson, veggies move to the centre of the plate

05/13/2015 09:12 EDT | Updated 05/13/2016 05:59 EDT
April Bloomfield is a wizard with a pig's ear and a lover of kidneys, trotters and all the so-called "nasty bits" that animals have to offer. What many people don't know is that she also has a mean way with a carrot.

"I'm really passionate about vegetables," says Bloomfield, a seriously top-shelf chef and restaurateur whose new cookbook, "A Girl and Her Greens," moves broccoli, beets, watercress and their ilk squarely to the centre of the plate. "I love peas, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, sprouts... I want to show people how delicious and how versatile they are."

Driven in part by America's ever-expanding waistlines, the popularity of farmers markets and, in many cases, the rising price of meat, Bloomfield and other name-brand chefs have spent the past few years raising the profile of vegetables (Kale, anyone?). But the trend of courting veg-loving carnivores — a population dubbed "vegivores" by New York magazine — may be reaching critical mass as a bumper crop of veg-centric cookbooks and restaurants hits the market.

"The drivers behind this new look at vegetables include supply," says Kara Nielsen, culinary director at the Boulder, Colorado-based brand consultancy Sterling-Rice Group. "There's never been more interesting vegetables being grown by farmers... Heirloom varieties, the Romanescos, colored carrots. As soon as there's supply, chefs start getting creative."

At the moment, veggie love appears to be a niche trend, largely confined to farmers market devotees and hip restaurants.

The number of farmers markets has grown more than 75 per cent since 2008, hitting nearly 8,400 this year, according to federal data. But vegetable consumption among the general population actually has shrunk, according to the latest available USDA figures, slipping from an annual high of 424 pounds per person in 2004 to 395 pounds per person in 2012. Chefs, however, remain undeterred.

"This is the way people want to eat," chef and restaurant mogul Jose Andres said via email. "We have been consistently adding more vegetable dishes to the menus at our restaurants because we are seeing the demand from our guests." Andres debuted his own new vegetable-centric restaurant, Beefsteak — named for the tomato — in Washington, D.C., in late March. A second Washington location is scheduled to open later this year.

A focus on healthier eating and the recipes that accompany it also drives demand. A diet that is heavy in produce not only can trim the waistline, advocates say, but also can promote a healthier environment.

"We're beginning to cook more seasonally again, and when you cook more seasonally there's less reliance on the giant piece of meat in the centre of the plate," says Hugh Acheson, owner of four acclaimed restaurants and author of "The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits." ''You want to try new things and not get pigeonholed in your meals."

Vegetables are not only trendy, they're economical. The price of sirloin has risen from $5.83 per pound in 2010, according to USDA figures, to more than $8 in 2015. Ditto for hamburger, which has risen about 80 per cent to more than $4 per pound. Even the price of eggs is up. More and more, vegetables help chefs serve attractive meals to price-conscious consumers.

"Vegetables for me are the saviours," says Cedric Maupillier, executive chef at Washington's upscale Mintwood Place. "You can create a lot of flavour with eclectic vegetables and people will find the food enjoyable. As a business owner, you look at vegetables as a revenue point. The cost of serving a quantity of vegetables compared to serving the same quantity of protein, there's a huge separation."

Restaurants that spotlight vegetables are flourishing across the country. Though some parts of the nation may be slower to embrace broccoli burritos, many chefs say they are confident that an evolution has begun. And that when it takes hold, the country will not only eat healthier, it will eat more beautifully.

"We diluted food for a long time," Acheson says. "We're trying to reclaim some beauty on the plate. And a lot of beauty on the plate is veg centric."

___

PATATAS BRAVAS

"There are two main versions of patatas bravas, the common Spanish tapas dish that features crispy fried potatoes: one that's drizzled with aioli and another that's topped with sweet, smoky tomato sauce," April Bloomfield writes in her new cookbook, "A Girl and Her Greens." ''I prefer the second. To me, the first is just chips and mayonnaise, not that there's anything wrong with chips with mayonnaise, especially when the potatoes are tossed in the sauce and eaten straightaway, before they lose their crunch. They make an impressive side dish all by themselves, though fried eggs on top turn them into a proper meal for four."

Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour active)

Servings: 6

For the sauce:

1 1/2 pounds red bell peppers (about 3 medium), halved lengthwise, cored and seeded

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a good drizzle for finishing

1 large Spanish onion (about 1 1/4 pounds), halved and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

Scant 1/4 pound moderately spicy fresh red chilies (such as Dutch or Fresno), halved lengthwise, stemmed, seeded and roughly chopped

4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons Maldon or other flaky sea salt

1 teaspoon sweet smoked Spanish paprika

3 pounds tomatoes, peeled

Small handful marjoram leaves, roughly chopped at the last minute

For the potatoes:

3 pounds Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled, cut into irregular 1-inch pieces, and rinsed well

Kosher salt

Rendered duck fat, pork fat or peanut oil, for deep-frying

Maldon or another flaky sea salt

To make the sauce, peel the skin from the bell peppers using a vegetable peeler and a gentle sawing motion. Cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces. In a wide, heavy medium pot over high heat, heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil until it smokes lightly. Add the onion, chilies, garlic and salt. Have a stir and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions wilt a bit, about 3 minutes.

Add the bell peppers and paprika, but don't stir until the onions begin to brown, about 3 minutes more. Now stir and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom often, until the onions and peppers are tender, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and keep stirring and scraping until everything is very soft and sweet, 12 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, core and quarter the tomatoes, then put them in a large bowl and gently squeeze to release the juice and seeds. Transfer the tomatoes to a second large bowl, leaving the liquid and seeds behind, shaking the tomatoes over the first bowl so any liquid caught in the crevices spills out. Set a strainer over the second bowl with the tomatoes (the strainer should sit over the tomatoes) and pour the liquid through the strainer, smooshing to make sure you extract as much liquid as you can and discarding the solids in the strainer.

Add the tomatoes to the pot, stir, then cook at a steady simmer, stirring now and then, until most of the visible liquid has evaporated, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in the marjoram. Keep cooking, stirring and scraping the pot often, until the sauce starts to stick to the bottom of the pot and the mixture is very thick, a bit like jam, about 10 minutes more. Take the pot off the heat and set aside.

To fry the potatoes, put the potatoes in a medium pot, pour in enough water to cover and add enough kosher salt to make the water taste good and salty. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes well in a colander, then gently shake and toss them just until the potatoes get a bit fluffy looking on the outsides. The rough sides will get especially crispy when the potatoes are fried. Let them sit uncovered until they've cooled to room temperature.

Meanwhile, pour at least 3 inches of fat or oil in an electric deep-fryer (or into a Dutch oven with a deep-fry thermometer clipped to the side) and heat to 300 F. Working in batches to avoid crowding, fry the potatoes until they develop a creamy texture (they shouldn't be browned at all), about 5 minutes. As they cook, shake the fry basket or gently stir occasionally to prevent them from sticking together. Use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a bowl and give them a gentle toss so they have another chance to go fluffy.

Bring the fat or oil temperature to 350 F. Line a bowl or tray with paper towels. Fry the potatoes again in batches, stirring occasionally, until they're very crispy and deep golden brown on the outside, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer them to the towels to drain and immediately add a light sprinkle of salt.

Just before the potatoes are done, bring the pepper-tomato sauce simmer.

The key to the next step is doing it seconds before you serve the dish, so the potatoes stay a bit crispy. Add the fried potatoes to the sauce, stir briefly but well, then transfer the sauced potatoes to a plate. Add a good drizzle of olive oil and more salt if you fancy. Serve straightaway.

Nutrition information per serving: 470 calories; 200 calories from fat (43 per cent of total calories); 22 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 540 mg sodium; 64 g carbohydrate; 11 g fiber; 18 g sugar; 9 g protein.

(Recipe adapted from April Bloomfield's "A Girl and Her Greens," Ecco, 2015)

___

SAUTEED PARSNIPS WITH COUNTRY HAM, PARSLEY AND BASIL

"This is a melange, a flavour mix, a stack of edible Legos. Vegetal + salty succulence + herby crisp + herby tender," writes Hugh Acheson in his new cookbook, "The Broad Fork." ''When you cook you have to think in this way, of how things work together. This is a simple dish that will make you realize how easy it is to make great food. In a matter of minutes."

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 parsnips, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick disks (2 cups)

Sea salt

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1/2 cup julienned country (or other cooked) ham

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar

In a large saute pan over high, heat the olive oil. When the oil comes to a light smoke, add the parsnips. Reduce the heat to medium-high, add a few pinches of salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Add the shallot and cook for 30 seconds. Add the ham, basil, parsley and vinegar. Stir to combine. Adjust seasoning with more salt if needed, then serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 150 calories; 70 calories from fat (47 per cent of total calories); 8 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 430 mg sodium; 13 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 7 g protein.

(Recipe adapted from Hugh Acheson's "The Broad Fork," Clarkson Potter, 2015)

MORE:cpStyle