With restaurant menus having moved on from meat-free Mondays, and hippie-inspired vegan restaurants now considered a cliché, Chefs need to offer something more in the growing space of hero vegetable dishes. It’s a seed which has grown to become more than just a trend. Underutilised produce, experimenting with equipment and developing ideas from scratch will help a clever Chef take advantage of the meat-free movement.
Brent Savage, executive Chef at Sydney’s Bentley Group (Monopole, Cirrus, Yellow, Bentley Bar), has long been ahead of the curve offering hero dishes that just happen to have vegetable as the main component.
- Savage is regularly challenging vegetable growers, and paying them, to come up with fresh produce that had previously been ploughed in, be it pumpkin or broad bean leaves and their tips.
- He also sees giving ingredients, once seen as pretty additions to a plate – baby veg and micro leaves - a bigger role as they deserve to be seen front and centre on bar snack menu.
- In addition to limiting food waste, and utilising previously underutilised produce, Savage says different techniques such as pickling, char-grilling, smoking and baking can add a powerful punch to a veg which was once seen as one dimensional.
With a variety of equipment available, be it sous vide machine, Josper, char-griller or portable smoker, and deep-fryer, there is no reason why proteins should claim all the glory.
Prime examples include intensifying flavour by cooking sous vide carrots, or charring greens, be it asparagus spears, or green beans on the charcoal grill. Or you can get super charcoal intensity with Josper-baked artichokes – tops removed, and slathered in olive oil and salt and pepper.
Chargrilling green stems such as broccolini and serving with a gentleman’s relish made with smoked eggplant, or capsicum-charged romesco sauce is another good start.
While every Middle Eastern-influenced restaurant or bar worth its salt – plus garlic, tahini and lemon juice – has hummus on the menu, forward-thinking Chefs are making their own hummus without chickpeas and using vegetables instead. Try red lentils and roasted carrot, roasted butternut pumpkin or blitzed beetroot as an alternative and see the surprise in the punters’ eyes.
Pickling produce has been a clever way to add longer life to seasonal vegetables for centuries, so look to offer tang to a bar menu with jars of pickled beans, radish or carrots to dip into that carrot or beetroot hummus. Or give cauliflower rice a try as arancini or use thick, crumbed deep-fried eggplant strips with tomatoey dips.
Raise the bar, as reinvention is only limited by your imagination.