Vegetarian entrées needn’t be bland and boring. R&I offers inspiration with seven meatless meals anyone can crave.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
No matter how tasty pizzas, pastas or salads may be, most customers don’t want to order them every time and everywhere they dine out. Yet often, such dishes are the only entrées—aside from the ubiquitous vegetable plate—that restaurants have to offer vegetarians. (Note to kitchens: Calling a veggie plate a “chef’s choice of vegetables” doesn’t magically transform a random assortment of sides into a thoughtfully composed dish.)
Lately, though, some operators are making concerted efforts to develop creative, satisfying and, above all, delicious meatless entrées. Done well, the dishes attract both vegetarian and nonvegetarian fans.
“You go everywhere and there’s a risotto or a pasta or a mélange of vegetables ... but it just doesn’t really fit the bill,” says Executive Chef Eric Ottensmeyer of Southern-accented neighborhood restaurant Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Ga., where seared “veggieloaf” served with a salad of cauliflower, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes has become something of a cult favorite among guests. “This is a legitimate meal,” Ottensmeyer says.
Granted, meatless dishes aren’t often among menus’ top sellers. So why aim to do more? For many chefs, it’s a matter of pride—and a welcome culinary challenge. “We don’t want a dish that doesn’t sell or isn’t interesting to people,” says Russell Moore, chef-owner of Camino in Oakland, Calif., where one of the three daily changing entrées is always vegetarian.
Operators looking for a more-business-based reason to offer meatless selections can find motivation in recent consumer data: Although New York City-based Harris Interactive reports that 3% of Americans are everyday vegetarians, R&I’s 2010 New American Diner Study finds that 23% of consumers are eating more meatless entrées than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, 40% of nonvegetarians say they sometimes order vegetarian or vegan menu items just because they sound good.
Those figures add up to a much bigger market, and operators who don’t try to entice this crowd are more likely to lose out in a time when few dining rooms can afford to turn off customers.
“Most [operators] are creating their vegetarian options off of essentially leftovers, and you need to treat them like you would treat anything else,” says Louis Basile, chief executive officer of Wildflower Bread Co., a 10-unit bakery-cafe chain based in Phoenix. At Wildflower, instead of the typical grilled vegetable sandwich, roasted sweet potato headlines a unique assembly that also includes fig confit, arugula and marinated fennel. “You’ve got to want to wow the guest,” Basile says.
With that in mind, R&I scoured menus for ideas that illustrate the innovative, inspired ways chefs are making vegetarian meals craveable for the masses. The seven dishes that follow prove how simply—and how well—it can be done.
ARTICHOKE AND CHICKPEA BOUILLABAISSE WITH GRILLED BREAD AND ROUILLE
On point-of-purchase materials throughout its 8,500 U.S. corporate and academic cafeterias, Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group USA offers a simple suggestion to customers: “Once a week, skip meat.” To encourage this occasional-vegetarian approach, the contractor recently launched a “flexitarian” menu of more than 60 new meatless choices, including Artichoke and Chickpea Bouillabaisse, a hearty, healthful makeover of the traditional Provençal seafood stew.
Scratch-made leek-and-fennel broth is simmered with garlic, saffron and diced potatoes until the potatoes are soft. One-third of the mixture is puréed and returned to the pot to thicken the base, and then diced tomatoes, cooked garbanzo beans and artichoke hearts are stirred in. Fresh-squeezed lemon juice adds a bright finish.
Per tradition, the bowls of chunky stew come with crusty bread and rouille, a bread-based spread. Compass’ version features day-old sourdough bread puréed with roasted red peppers, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.
“I think if more choices were available that didn’t seem so vegetarian-like, more people would cross over,” says Polly Sang, one of the three Compass research-and-development chefs who created the new recipes. “And that is the goal with the flexitarian initiative—to offer vegetarian options without seeming overly healthy and granola-y.”
ROASTED SWEET POTATO SANDWICH WITH FIG CONFIT AND MARINATED FENNEL
Many meatless sandwiches lack a substantial base, but Wildflower Bread Co.’s Roasted Sweet Potato Sandwich gives diners something to sink their teeth into.
Tucked into herb focaccia that is spread with chunky fig confit, sweet potatoes—roasted simply with olive oil, salt and pepper—introduce a delicately sweet foundation of flavor that is complemented by peppery arugula, balsamic-marinated fennel, tomato and fresh mozzarella.
“These are all ingredients that people are familiar with or have heard of but may not have ever tried,” says Basile, “so the sandwich is a real effort both to serve vegetarians something really intriguing and interesting and to get people to try different foods.”
Though the vegetarian sandwich is a niche item, it has done well enough over the years to become a fixture on the menu. Basile estimates its sales at about a third of those of the average meat-based selection.
ROULADES OF PERSIAN FETA WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND CHLOROPHYLL COULIS
Chef-owner Shaun Hergatt admits that he had to “fumble through” a bit to create a winning vegetarian entrée at his fine-dining restaurant, SHO Shaun Hergatt, in New York City. “I wanted to create something that had more of a concept than just putting vegetables together on a plate,” he says.
His muse: cannelloni, reimagined with celery root shaved into pastalike sheets and boiled until tender. The vegetable’s earthy taste makes a good foil for the filling: baked potatoes with goat cheese, crème fraîche and Persian feta, an ironically named Australian cow’s-milk cheese with a creaminess Hergatt compares to that of mascarpone.
The roulades are crowned with fried Brussels-sprout leaves, celery-root foam and a coulis of puréed basil, spinach and tarragon. “We regularly sell it. I’d take it off the menu if it didn’t sell,” says Hergatt.
WILD MUSHROOM PIEROGI WITH ASPARAGUS, CARAMELIZED ONIONS AND CRÈME FRAÎCHE
A dressed-up rendition of a recipe her grandmother often prepared, the mushroom pierogi Chef Sue Zemanick serves at Gautreau's in New Orleans are popular with both vegetarians and meat eaters. “People like it so much I’ve been bringing it back,” she says of the on-again, off-again menu item. “It’s very comforting, and it’s rich and filling.”
In-season mushrooms (flavorful chanterelles are a favorite) and cultivated varieties such as honshimejis and shiitakes comprise the bulk of the filling. The mushrooms are sautéed in clarified butter and then mixed with shallots, garlic and thyme.
Zemanick adds mashed potatoes, a pierogi staple, to help bind the mixture, which is scooped onto circles of dough that are folded into half-moon shapes and boiled. To serve, the pierogi are warmed in boiling water and then browned in clarified butter. Vidalia-onion-spiked crème fraîche, asparagus and caramelized onions round out the elegant but homey dish.
PIONONO (SWEET PLANTAIN ROULADE OF SPINACH, ZUCCHINI AND MANCHEGO CHEESE)
Pionono is a classic Puerto Rican recipe of stuffed plantains, most often filled with picadillo (ground beef). But Chef Douglas Rodriguez tinkers with tradition, offering a variety of meatless versions at three of his restaurants: Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia and OLA and D. Rodriguez Cuba in Miami.
“[The number of] vegetarians [is] increasing, so we have to be able to please all our customers,” says Rodriguez. “This is a good way of putting a lot of vegetables on the plate in a Latin format with a lot of flavor.”
All sorts of fillings work well with the dish—various peppers, squashes, leafy greens and root vegetables—but among Rodriguez’s favorites is a combination recently menued at Alma de Cuba. The recipe starts with sweet plantains that are deep-fried, rolled thin between two sheets of parchment paper and sliced into rectangles. Creamy spinach—sautéed with onion and garlic and then mixed with a purée of yuca, cream and manchego cheese—is spread over the plantain squares, which are rolled into pinwheels and fastened with skewers.
For pickup, the pinwheels are dredged in flour, dipped in a light egg batter, browned in a hot pan and finished in the oven. The crisp roulades come draped in tomato sauce, with broccoli rabe on the side.
SEARED “VEGGIELOAF,” SALAD OF ROASTED CAULIFLOWER, SHIITAKES AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES, PECAN ROMESCO
“Whether more people are converting to vegetarianism or not, we definitely seem to have a call for vegetarian food,” says Ottensmeyer at Leon’s Full Service, where the kitchen staff makes 120 portions of its signature “veggieloaf” every week.
A protein-rich mixture of quinoa, lentils and bulgur wheat is the foundation for the recipe, created by Sous Chef Robert Lupo. The cooked grains are mixed with sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed onions and garlic. Breadcrumbs and Southern-style mayonnaise bind the hearty mixture, which is chilled overnight in loaf pans.
At service, thick slices of the loaf are seared and presented over a salad of roasted cauliflower and shiitake mushrooms tossed with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh herbs and red-wine vinaigrette. The romesco-style sauce that goes on top blends pecans, roasted garlic, red-wine vinegar, charred tomatoes and peppers and olive oil.
“It’s just got that umami to it, that savory sense,” Ottensmeyer says of the dish’s popularity. “There’s just something about it when it all comes together that’s really nice.”
BELGIAN ENDIVE GRATIN WITH WOOD-OVEN-ROASTED CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS, POUNDED HERBS AND AN EGG COOKED BY THE FIRE
At Camino, the careful thought that Moore puts into meatless recipes is evident in dishes such as Belgian endive gratin. The components are simple, but the chef—who previously spent 13 years cooking at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.—knows how to coax the maximum flavor from each ingredient.
Halved endives, seasoned with salt and pepper and drizzled with white wine, are nestled over sautéed onions and thyme in a foil-covered cazuela and roasted in the wood-burning oven. Once the endive is tender, the foil is removed and the endive is brushed with olive oil so it can brown next to the fire.
Meanwhile, thin-sliced chanterelles are roasted in olive oil with green garlic and bay leaves. Then, in another cazuela, Moore poaches an egg in juices taken from the cooked mushrooms and endive. The endive, mushrooms and egg are plated with a “purée” of parsley, chervil, chives and mint pounded with olive oil in a mortar.
“It’s a lighter dish,” Moore says, “but you have really good endive, the meaty mushrooms, and when the egg yolk pops, that thickens the juices on the plate, and the herbs make it all herby and delicious.”
DOING IT WELL
Chefs share helpful tips for making vegetarian meals more than a menu afterthought.
1) Find a focal point for the entrée and shape complements around it. The dumplings in Chef Sue Zemanick’s pierogi dish at Gautreau’s or the Belgian endive in the gratin at Camino are good examples. “Some people don’t get excited about doing [vegetarian meals], so they take a bunch of vegetables and put them on a plate with some sort of sauce and expect it all to work together, and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Zemanick.
2) Remember that no meat doesn’t have to mean no flavor. “When people try to do vegetarian food, they [often] try to make it too healthy and cut out a lot of fat, so the appeal keeps being shed away as you go to the extreme,” says Polly Sang, research-and-development chef for Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group.
3) Make sure to leave guests satisfied. At Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Ga., a slice of the seared veggieloaf weighs in at a solid 8 ounces. “Even my dad, who’s a very big eater, couldn’t get through a whole one,” says Executive Chef Eric Ottensmeyer.
4) Use the opportunity to spotlight special ingredients, such as uncommon fruits and vegetables. “We sell a lot of our vegetarian dishes because people are interested in [the ingredients] and want to try them,” says Russell Moore, chef-owner of Camino in Oakland, Calif. “Sometimes, the most interesting ingredients on the menu are on the vegetarian dish.”
5) Looks matter, too. Chef-owner Shaun Hergatt says an appealing presentation was part of his plan in developing Roulades of Persian Feta at SHO Shaun Hergatt in New York City. “I wanted a dish that had good form, was aesthetically pleasing and obviously, the most important thing is taste,” he says.
Textbook meatless meals rely on a standard set of constructs, with veggie lasagna, crêpes, pot pies and cassoulets among the usual suspects. Following are six less-common vegetarian vehicles, along with a host of inventive applications.
Pancakes: Think beyond the breakfast variety.
Other cakes: Grains, rice, beans and other ingredients form satisfying round packages.
Sushi: Fish isn’t the only ingredient that can be wrapped up in rolls.
Polenta: The creamy Italian staple has a host of hearty applications.
Beyond Pasta: Consider whole-grain “risottos” and spaetzle, the simple-yet-underappreciated dumplings.
Pastry: Lasagna is just one way to look at layers.