Root for the Underdog

Common and not-so-common fall vegetables are dominating menus.

Since opening in Philadelphia five years ago, Vedge has become the poster child of crossover appeal among the meat-eating public. Part of its success lies in understanding the attributes, flavor profile and potential of any given vegetable—not just the pretty or popular ones.

Today, vegetable underdogs are having a moment. Simple yet underutilized ones like rutabagas, turnips, parsley root and certain greens are proving they can stand on their own in the most creative fashion—often with cost benefits.

They’re headlining first courses, appetizers and the center of the plate, creating legions of we-don’t-miss-the-meat fans in their wake. 

Are Vegetables Cheaper Than Proteins?

It’s easy to believe that vegetables cost less than protein. But it’s more complicated than that when it comes to overall food costs. Chefs sound off.

 “There’s a misconception that vegetables are cheap. Bad vegetables are cheap. If you want really good vegetables grown by people that care about them and aren’t mass-produced, you have to spend some money. We try to work with as many farmers as possible, and that adds up.”

- Chef-owner Richard Landau
at Vedge

Parsnips are “a perfect complement to the luxury items, like caviar and truffles. It allows us to offer a range of dishes to our guests and keep our menu one of the most accessible in fine dining.”

- Chef de Cuisine Nick Pfannerstill
at Dovetail

“We portion our vegetables just as conscientiously as our meat because
if we overdo the portions, our food
cost can be off. It’s easy to overlook
that with vegetables.”

- Chef Beverly Kim at Parachute

Mind Over Meat 

Treated right, root vegetables can make clever references to meat, with similar shapes, textures and flavors. That type of experimentation explains how Vedge Chef-owner Richard Landau wins over the carnivore crowd with rutabaga. 

After applying nutritional yeast to a shaved and roasted rutabaga salad, he noticed the root took on an almost cheesy character. That led to a rutabaga rarebit whipped with beer, Worcestershire and mustard, eventually evolving into his biggest seller: rutabaga fondue. Roasted and pureed rutabaga is whipped with miso, nutritional yeast and tofu mayo, served with housemade pretzels, pickles and charred onion ($12). “It’s cheesy, creamy and rich with a cheddar color,” he says.

Parsnips are just as versatile. Chef John Fraser developed the “barbecued” glazed parsnip rib in the early days of Dovetail in New York City. They’re roasted, glazed with a tamarind-ginger sauce on the grill and then paired with a Brussels sprouts salad. The result delivers big flavor, along with big profits.

“You can source really high-quality parsnips at a low price, so the food costs are surprisingly low,” says Nick Pfannerstill, Fraser’s chef de cuisine.

Chef Aaron Woo, of the recently shuttered Natural Selection in Portland, Oregon, takes his parsnips in a more abstract direction, playing up as many textures as possible. He confits parsnips overnight in olive oil, purees and plates them, adds shaved baby parsnips and blanched and fried parsnip chips tossed in cider reduction before drizzling with a watercress, parsley and lemon puree.

Raiding the Root Cellar 

As the variety of local produce diminishes in certain parts of the county, root vegetables have staying power. 

“We like to work in tandem with the farmers,” says Chef Daniel Eddy of Rebelle in New York City. “They’re pulling them out of the root cellars where flavors develop over the course of time—sugars are heightened, starches diminish.” 

Eddy carves baseball-sized turnips into hockey puck shapes, chars and braises them in honey, orange and lemon juices, and reduces the liquid to a glaze. In the bowl, he covers them with a puree made from sunflower seeds and the turnip trimmings, finishing the dish with a vegetable consomme.

Chef Beverly Kim goes local for her turnip dish at Parachute in Chicago, where she chars hakurei turnips until caramelized, plates them on top of Meyer lemon puree and garnishes with mizuna and toasted pumpernickel crumble ($13). 

(GET THE RECIPE)

“Most of the reason we utilize vegetables is we want a balanced menu. It’s mostly to utilize what we have locally here,” Kim says. 

Salt Baked 

Pack everyday vegetables in salt and roast them so they stay moist and the flavor penetrates through, says Justin Cogley, executive chef at Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. They make an arresting presentation after Cogley encases leeks, thyme, bay leaves and pearl onions in a 50-50 salt-bread dough and roasts them before serving to his guests. 

“When you open it at the table, it gets all steamy, and the dining room smells great,” he says. Back in the kitchen, they’re removed from the dough and plated with a caramelized onion sauce and pickled raisins.

Fraser reassembles separated onion petals with sliced truffles and maple butter, packs them in salt and bakes them, then cracks them open and garnishes with chopped, toasted hazelnuts, flowers or leaves, radish slices and thin slices of green apple.

At Peck’s Arcade in Tory, New York, Chef Nicholas Ruscitto makes a celery root carpaccio by baking the vegetable in salt seasoned with cumin, coriander and fennel seed, and then smoking it for 45 minutes. Cooled, the celery root lands on a deli slicer for the thinnest slice before it’s plated with braised mustard seeds, sauce gribiche, pickled raisins and salt-cured radishes ($8).

Chef Brandon Baltzley swaps out salt for coffee grinds to give beets their due beyond the typical at 41-70 in Falmouth, Massachusetts. After baking the beets in the grinds—a mixture of 95 percent coffee grinds and 5 percent salt—and allowing them to rest for three days, they’re removed once they’re thin and dehydrated.  

“You should end up with an aromatically earthy, concentrated beet slice,” he says. “We pair this with ricotta, made at the restaurant from goat’s milk, and grilled thyme leaves.”

Odd Ones In

At Eleven Madison Park in New York City, Chef Daniel Humm cooks with celtuce, a stem lettuce more often used for its stalk than its leaves. “It’s obscure to many but pretty widely known in Asian cooking,” he says. “It is very versatile, and we use the entire vegetable—the greens and the stalk—and you can prepare it raw or cooked. When prepared, it almost has the aroma of cooked rice, and I like to say it has a texture similar to cucumber and celery.” He’s shaved it into ribbons, pickled it and used it raw.

Benjamin Sukle, chef at Birch Restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, is also proving that a vegetable has applications beyond the obvious. He takes advantage of his farmer’s fall bumper crop of mustard greens by pressing them with salt for months until they’ve fermented. They’re braised with field peas and paired with pork shoulder. “It adds a lot more character, a lot more backbone to the dish,” he says. “It tastes like sauerkraut and greens combined.”

If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a local fruit or vegetable like Baltzley, it can be used during various stages of ripeness. Take, for instance, the beach plums that grow on small trees and shrubs along the Cape Cod shoreline. Baltzley uses them when they are less ripe and more acidic for raw fish preparations. 

“When they are finally deep purple and ready to pick, we make it into jam, pickle them and serve them raw with beef, mushrooms and other hearty mains,” he says. “A lot of wild yeast covers their skin, so it’s very easy to make nice natural vinegars out of them too.”