Vegetarian Variety

Non-commercial kitchens produce nontraditional and healthy vegetarian sandwiches.

As more people look to eat more healthfully, vegetarian cuisine is gaining larger acceptance. This includes the sandwich category, where cheese is often the lone vegetarian alternative.

At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Michael Campbell has opened a new retail location to satisfy the desires of vegetarians and customers looking for more healthful options. On its menu, The Gathering Place features many meatless sandwiches, in addition to smaller portions, lower-calorie dishes and gluten-free foods.

Campbell has seen a growth of vegetarian diners among the patients, 3,000 students and 10,000 employees at the 450-bed hospital. He’s striving to meet those customers’ needs whether they’re eating in a facility or grabbing a sandwich on the run.

When the location opened in June, Campbell was selling 15 sandwiches a day. “Now we are up to close to 50 sandwiches, and they run out,” he says.

The Gathering Place’s veggie burger is smaller than the meat rendition sold in the main dining hall. For an added health benefit, the burger is served with baked sweet potato fries instead of the fried potatoes offered at the cafeteria.

Instead of a traditional egg salad sandwich, Campbell offers one with a touch of Parmesan cheese at the Gathering Place. The concoction is served on dark pumpernickel bread, setting off the filling’s yellow color.

Vegetarian dish for meat eaters: Chef Salvatore Cantalupo of Corporate Image Dining Services, based in Westport, Conn., upgraded the common panini by creating a vegetarian Tuscan basil sandwich. The rendition is Cantalupo’s most popular sandwich. Along with fresh herb leaves, the panini includes housemade focaccia, pesto sauce, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and tomatoes.

The sandwich’s ingredient list is short, but Cantalupo says, “People go gaga over it. Non-vegetarians like it as well.” While the panini is a featured sandwich once a month at Corporate Image’s five accounts in Fairfield County, Conn., because the ingredients are on hand every day, customers can ask deli workers to build the Tuscan basil panini whenever they want.   

Cantalupo says one thing his employees need to be aware of when serving vegetarian customers is food handling procedures. Vegetarians often ask that employees use separate tongs and for workers to change their gloves after they’ve handled meat, he says.

One sandwich for three diets: At the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center/Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore., Chef Brian Seto has created a brown rice and vegetable wrap that meets the dietary requirements for vegans and for patients with kidney issues and gluten intolerance. The sandwich is wrapped in a brown rice tortilla and finished with a housemade harissa vinaigrette. Since kitchen space is limited, Seto looks for foods that fit with multiple menus, especially gluten-free diets, for which he is hearing more requests.

“We wanted something that was low sodium and has a lot of flavor,” Seto says. The wrap’s warm rice and cool raw vegetables—red peppers, yellow peppers and shredded carrots—meet those requirements.

For a cold vegetarian sandwich, Seto pairs a housemade rosemary bun with a housemade huckleberry and red onion marmalade, tomatoes, green leaf lettuce, fresh spinach, provolone and herb cream cheese. Huckleberries, a well-known wild berry in the Northwest, give the dish a local feel that Seto says diners appreciate.

Hyper-local: St. Philip’s Academy, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Newark, N.J., also is using local products in its vegetarian sandwiches. The students at this secondary school grow their own herbs, vegetables and fruits both in a hydroponic system in the dining room and on a rooftop garden, which is part of a gardening and food project the school calls EcoSPACES. Thai basil, corn, figs, cucumber and sage are a few of the items grown.    

The students are encouraged to create their own vegetarian sandwiches from the produce offered at the salad bar. The produce is offered in its raw form and goes well with spreads such as a black bean avocado hummus with garlic and cumin. The spread was created by Vanessa Parker, who oversees St. Philip’s salad bar. The hummus became a fast hit for nonmeat-eating staff and students, according to Frank Mentesana, director of St. Philip’s food gardening project, EcoSPACES.

“We teach our students where food comes from,” Mentesana says. He adds that students are more likely to try new items if they’ve had a hand in growing them.
Mentesana says the gardens have helped students broaden their produce knowledge. When the gardens were planted five years ago students didn’t know radishes from tomatoes, he says. Now they know what edamame is.

“Hitting home runs:” Foodservice staff at the Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas also have seen a change in the healthfulness of their customers’ dining patterns.

Tony Davidson, retail services manager for nutrition services, says when he started 18 months ago the hospital’s dietitians didn’t eat in the cafeteria because they didn’t think there were enough healthy choices. So Davidson added dishes geared for people looking for those more healthful options.  

“The people who work here are healthy and they want real food,” Davidson adds. “We’re hitting home runs right and left, so now people are paying attention.”

One of the new dishes Davidson is most proud of is a vegetable panini on herb flatbread that was developed almost by mistake. The chef went into the creation process thinking of preparing a new chicken sandwich recipe. He started loading on spinach, tomato, lettuce, cilantro, feta cheese and avocado dressing and decided to try the sandwich before adding the meat. He liked it as is, and his diners—and dietitians—are also happy with the non-meat sandwich.

Beyond Grilled Cheese

Hospital develops vegetarian sandwiches from cooks’ global expertise.

 At Parker (Colo.) Adventist Hospital, vegetarian sandwiches are offered every day, and the same dish is rarely served twice. That’s because the staff of 17 cooks has a diverse background from which to draw menu inspiration. The team also takes ethnic sandwiches that traditionally contain meat and reworks them to be vegetarian.

“I encourage our cooks to be creative,” says Nutrition Manager and Executive Chef Daniel Skay. “I ask for the cooks’ input. That’s how they get engaged. I have people from all over the world in my kitchen.”

For example, Skay’s staff prepares hummus based on a recipe that hails from the Middle East, but the team adds large white beans rather than the customary chickpeas and finishes the spread with roasted red pepper. The hummus is sandwiched on naan or pita bread. The hospital’s cooks also take the same hummus formula and select edamame for the base bean, to which they add Asian seasonings and use it as a sandwich spread.

Another ethnic creation is a Mexican-style caprese sandwich that features heirloom green tomatoes, chipotle-rubbed mozzarella that is twisted in house, roasted red tomato, epazote pesto, cilantro and a drizzle of toasted cumin oil served on toasted ciabatta bread.

The team has retooled a classic banh mi, making it vegetarian by trading the typical ham and pâté for chili-garlic infused house-pulled mozzarella. Fresh vegetables, such as cucumbers, cilantro, garlic, pickled yellow and orange carrots finish the Vietnamese sandwich, which is served with mayonnaise on a traditional baguette. For an Italian Indiavolato, Skay also wanted to rework the sandwich, which traditionally includes cold cuts like salumi.

“I figured pickled vegetables would give the same kick as salumi,” Skay says. He assembles hot giardiniera with smoked provolone cheese, organic arugula and roasted garlic aïoli on triangle-shaped pieces of flatbread that are topped with black sea salt. The sandwiches are baked in the cafe’s hearth-style display oven.

Skay purchases pizza dough from a local bread maker for the flatbread. Baking in house adds to the experience and aroma, he adds. Display baking also helps market the unusual sandwich, which, because it isn’t found in a typical deli, some diners are reluctant to order.

“Sandwiches always vary depending on seasonal ingredients,” Skay says. Parker Adventist Hospital’s staff cook what’s on hand and aim to make use of fresh locally harvested ingredients, including those grown in their own garden, a half-acre plot that is next to the café.

Skay’s garden is too small to supply main ingredients for the 1,000 to 1,200 lunches served on a typical day at the 150-bed hospital, but it’s ideal for ingredients that add a punch of flavor and can grow in a small space, such as costly herbs. 

Nonmeat Muffuletta

Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef for Swedish Health Services in Seattle, doesn’t have to look far for feedback on the vegetarian dishes he develops. Eisenberg is the only meat eater in his family. Eisenberg’s wife and two sons inspire him to create meatless sandwiches with full flavor, nontraditional ingredients and interesting textures, such as a vegetarian muffuletta that is based on the New Orleans’ specialty, which is normally packed with meat.

“The vegetarian muffuletta tastes a lot like a muffuletta. But I prefer to eat this one.Normally a muffuletta would have prosciutto, salami and pepperoni. It can leave your mouth with a fatty feel. You really get an over richness. Instead, the portobello blends with the manchego and smoked provolone to bring in the smokiness that you would normally get in a cured meat like salami. The serving size is intended to be one serving, instead of this big thing that you get yourself sick on [like with a traditional muffuletta].

There is more and more of a demand for vegetarian and vegan options. You don’t get as many flavorful options [when you are] a vegetarian. This sandwich has a way different flavor profile.

From a vegetarian’s standpoint, everything is the same. That’s one of the reasons why I want to provide food that is flavorful and textural. When my son has this sandwich he’s like, ‘Holy moly, this is amazing.’ My wife loves to have something instead of bland meat substitutes like textured vegetable protein and tofu.

For vegetarians, this is such a welcome option. You have to have a sandwich that is not a cheese sandwich or an egg salad sandwich. This is something different for a vegetarian.”

Vegetarian Muffuletta 

4 servings

4 kaiser rolls or round Italian bread
Extra virgin olive oil for dressing bread
4 green leaf lettuce leaves
4 slices smoked provolone
4 portobello mushrooms grilled, thinly sliced
2 oz. thinly sliced manchego cheese
1⁄2 cup tapenade spread, including rough-chopped olives

  1. Cut bread in half lengthwise and drizzle top and bottom with olive oil.
  2. Lay lettuce leaves on bottom bread and layer with provolone, portobello and manchego.
  3. Spread tapenade on top.


More from our partners