The New Meat
A hip New York chef calls them “sexy.” Food writers say they’re “hot.” No, they are not talking about succulent patés or sinful chocolate soufflés. They are talking about vegetables. Yes, sweet little veggies.
Pulling itself off the list of side dishes and taking a seat underneath the Entrée heading, vegetables are becoming the new meat. One reason for the shift? Consumer awareness has spiked on what’s in our food and how it’s produced. Issues such as the health and environmental hazards of mass-produced meat have noshers looking to the nutritional perks of plants. “Vegivores”—one term for these ethically minded, health-conscious, not-quite-vegetarians—have yet to overtake traditional meat-eaters in these parts, but these exurban epicures are helping to redefine our menus and our diets—at home and at area restaurants.
Leslie Williams, a partner at The Perennial Chef in Bedford Hills grows all the vegetables for the business’s two retail stores—the other is in Ridgefield—which sell restaurant-quality prepared food to take out. Williams observes that aesthetics are a big part of a veggie’s appeal. “Michael Pollan says to eat a lot of greens, eat better food, and eat less of it,” she says of the author of In Defense of Food. “Adjusting to eating smaller quantities means finding food with better quality and taste, which may be attracting people to the vegetable part of the healthy-food movement,” she says. Take lettuce: “In a typical grocery store, you find maybe five kinds of head lettuce, and they all can be jumped on a few times and be just fine, because they are shipped long distances. But the ones that travel well, do you really want to eat those?” says Williams, who grows a host of tasty, vitamin-packed greens with names like claytonia, minutina, and broadleaf cress.
“Foods have to be fun and taste good,” argues Mark Wilkins, of the Whole Foods’ Health Starts Here program, which educates customers about how to choose and cook healthy foods. Though any food can be faddish—kale is now au courant, for instance—Wilkins views the growing yen for vegetables as the beginning of a long-term lifestyle change in which people slow down to cook and savor food together. Like Williams, he sees variety as a key component of the aesthetic experience. “You can’t live by kale alone,” quips Wilkins, whose new favorite vegetable is imo, a sweet, pale-yellow Japanese yam. Many Whole Foods stores, including the new one in Fairfield, have a salad bar with dishes featuring unusual vegetables and grains—freekeh, anyone?—aiming to tempt customers into new territory with flavor and eye-catching presentations.
In Litchfield, James O’Shea, co-owner of the subtly chic West Street Grill, notes an emotional element in the trend: “Farmer’s markets have gotten people very excited,” says O’Shea, a lifelong vegetarian. “Picking up vegetables directly from the source is new and thrilling for most people, whether at a farmer’s market or at a CSA farm,” referring to community-supported agriculture. Vegetables play a complementary but significant role at the West Street Grill, where Chef James Cosgriff pairs them with meat, poultry, and fish dishes, and features meatless entrées such as faro (wheat) risotto and pasta with basil, tomatoes, garlic, sea salt, and parmesan.
Analiese Paik, creator of the online Fairfield Green Food Guide, also envisions a boom in farmers’ markets as both an outcome and a driver of the vegivore trend. “People are finding vegetables new to them, like garlic scapes, and the farmer can tell them what they are and how to cook them, so you’re not afraid,” Paik explains. “Then someone standing next to you says, ‘Oh, I make garlic-scape pesto—here’s what you do.’”
Even the likes of the adventurous Paik, however, occasionally meets a vegetable that stumps her. “Once I brought home a North Georgia candy-roaster squash the size of a baseball bat. I had no idea how to cook it, but it looked so intriguing. My Korean relatives were visiting, and they are used to some really strange vegetables, but they just looked at this thing and said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘Well, first, I’m going to get a really big knife.’”
Inspired? Click here for a delicious Kale Waldorf Salad recipe!