Going vegetarian

Plant-based diets are growing in popularity for non-commercial foodservice directors.

Vegetarian pizza

It’s no longer enough to simply offer a commercially produced, frozen veggie burger as a vegetarian option. Today, successful operators are offering homemade veggie burgers in varieties such as sweet potato kale burgers, black bean burgers and quinoa brown rice burgers.

And the options don’t stop there.

With a growing population of vegetarians, coupled with an expanding group of healthy diners who are minimizing their meat intake, it’s never been more important to focus on plant-based cuisine.  

In fact, a recent Vegetarian Times study reports 10 percent of U.S. adults now follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.

“Customers are looking for healthier, made-from-scratch choices with non-meat proteins and creative flavors,” says Robert Landolphi, culinary operations manager at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. “But most of all they want choices, and they want vegetarian options at every station, whether it’s a quesadilla bar or pasta bar.”

Make it an entree

In the past, operators may have been able to get away with offering only vegetarian side dishes and salads. Not any more. Diners are now demanding substantial vegetarian options that make a complete entree.

To satisfy his customers, Aran Essig, executive chef at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo., offers a plethora of vegetarian options at stations—stir-fries, pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, soups and salads—and as part of the daily menu.

He’s even created a vegetarian-specific station that offers entrees with two types of vegetables—everything from sautéed green beans with curried apple to roasted Brussels sprouts—and two kinds of starches, such as Great Northern beans with artichokes, millet risotto, and quinoa with grilled corn and caramelized onion.

The key, Essig says, is changing the way you look at your produce. “There are endless dishes that can be created from a well-stocked produce selection, if you can get beyond looking at vegetables as side dish items or just ingredients to enhance meat proteins,” he says.

Just see his polenta-stuffed onions for proof. This simple dish becomes a main entree when polenta is mixed with Anasazi beans, stuffed into onions and served on a bed of tomato sauce.  He says the onions add a ton of flavor and offer diners a healthier option than tired old onion rings.

Creating vegetarian dishes that look as delicious as they taste is another big challenge for operators. Essig suggests layering ingredients as he does in his grilled eggplant napoleon, which is served on a bed of herb lentil rice, layered with ratatouille and topped with marinara sauce and fresh basil. “It looks nice on the plate and meets almost every specific dietary need we come across,” he says. 

Go global

Don’t be afraid to look towards ethnic cuisines for your vegetarian offerings, says Landolphi. He infuses flavors from around the world into his vegetarian plates including: Asian pakora, a type of fritter made with corn flour and cabbage; Middle Eastern falafel made with chickpeas and fava beans; Moroccan tagine, a stew filled with chermoula and root vegetables; Korean japchae, a dish of transparent glass noodles, mushrooms and asparagus; Indian curried chickpeas, and Brazilian stews filled with sweet potatoes, black beans and mangos. “If you can create exciting, vegetarian fare with big, bold flavors, customers are willing to try it, and they will enjoy it,” Landolphi says.

Other operators, such as Peter Testory, assistant director for support and culinary operations at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., steer towards international cuisines that are more vegetarian-centric than their U.S. counterparts. 

“Protein is typically the focus of most American diets, [but in] many other cultures, protein is an accompaniment to the rest of the items on their plate,” says Testory, who frequently relies on soy-based chicken and beef substitutes in stir-fry and pasta dishes.

So it’s no surprise some of Testory’s most popular vegetarian offerings are Asian grains and soups.

Here are three examples of what he offers:

  • Japanese ramen, a recipe consisting of vegetable broth, teriyaki-marinated tofu, corn, zucchini, broccoli, green onions and julienned carrots.
  • Vietnamese pho, a dish made with vegetable broth, sliced jalapenos, green onion, vermicelli rice noodles, tofu, shredded carrots, cilantro and Thai basil.
  • Korean bibimbap, an entree of diced tofu, sautéed spinach, cucumber, carrots, sautéed mushrooms and sticky rice.

Beyond tofu

Now that tofu and tempeh aren’t the only meat-free protein options, and customers are more willing to try new foods, Landolphi says cooking vegetarian dishes  is easier than ever.

“Customers are looking for more options in the form of nuts, whole grains and beans, like quinoa, bulgur wheat, wheat berries, farro, lentils, black beans and chick peas,” says Landolphi, who says his students prefer pea-based proteins as chicken and beef substitutes (instead of soy-based) that are gluten-free, non-GMO and vegan.

Another suggestion from Landolphi: when testing and developing any recipes, consider adding a vegetarian version.

For example, one of his best sellers is a buffalo chicken wrap, which now includes a vegetarian pea protein-based chicken strips option. Says Landolphi, “both wraps are very popular.” 

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