Veggies take center stage

Cutting back on meat is a cost-saving, healthful tactic for many operators.

Published in FSD Update

Kettering’s pappardelle with fall vegetables.

Vegetables are having their moment: In recent years, trendy restaurants have capitalized on the farm-fresh trend by filling their menus with leafy kale salads, creamy cauliflower steaks and gratins, sweet braised carrots, bacon-infused Brussels sprouts and more. Now, non-commercial operators are starting to bring vegetable-based dishes into the spotlight, too.

The movement is driven by a combination of healthcare changes, response to the aforementioned restaurant trends and the general desire by many to eat better, says Matthew Cervay, executive chef at Kettering Health Network, in Dayton, Ohio. “All these things are driving plant foods to take center stage instead of 18-ounce T-bones. Not to mention [with] the growing price increase for chicken and beef, operators are going to have to look for other alternatives to cut costs and remain viable,” he says. 

Cervay is creating a new menu that includes pappardelle with a medley of fall vegetables like pumpkin, butternut squash, red and golden beets and Swiss chard. The sweetness of the vegetables is tempered with tangy goat cheese, apple cider vinegar and a splash of white wine, and fresh scarlet runner beans and toasted pumpkin seeds add protein and crunch. And despite an impressive presentation, the dish is cost-effective. “Pasta equals pennies in cost, and root vegetables and legumes cost considerably less than traditional meat proteins,” Cervay adds.

Though pasta is certainly a popular way to add bulk to vegetable-centric dishes, it’s not the only option. Newton Medical Center, in New Jersey, serves a hearty cauliflower and green pea curry that packs a flavor punch with plenty of garlic, onion, parsley, turmeric, fresh ginger, cardamom and cumin. Taken from the book “The Fat Resistant Diet” by Leo Galland, M.D., the recipe has been a surprising hit. “The crowd here is very meat and potatoes, and really exotic, fancy stuff doesn’t usually go well,” says Food and Nutrition Manager Gregory Merkle. “But I was surprised to see that a lot of people who I didn’t think would even look at something vegetarian ended up liking it. About 30% of our population jumps on it.” 

Prized for their savory flavor and meaty texture, portobello mushrooms are the star vegetable of choice at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, in Illinois. There, Executive Chef Jim Roth gives them the gourmet treatment, first brushing the mushrooms with olive oil and roasting until tender. After setting the mushrooms upside down to drain (which keeps them from becoming waterlogged), Roth fills them with a rich, cheesy polenta. Then, he tops the whole thing with a sun-dried tomato cornbread panzanella and a fresh herb gremolata packed with fresh basil, oregano, thyme and lemon juice. 

Schools, too, are starting to get in on the vegetable action, though operators have the added challenge of dealing with children’s picky palates. But at Saint Paul Public Schools, in Minnesota, students clamor for the corn and black bean salad with red and green peppers. Served at the taco bar, students love using the corn and beans as the centerpiece in a taco salad or spooned straight into a tortilla, says Nutrition Specialist Angie Gaszak. “Kids are used to seeing things like this at Chipotle or Qdoba, so they really like it,” she says.

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