How Broccoli, Cabbage and Eggplant Made the Health Food A-List

Explore the rising popularity of these nutrient-dense vegetables

Some commoners are poised for royalty. Humble vegetables served at home or rooted in peasant cooking – broccoli, cabbage and eggplant, among others – are the most underrated and overlooked in the walk-in. But now that vegetables are more popular than ever and increasingly called out for their nutritional attributes, they’re gaining upper echelon status, especially those with lower costs.

For Sean Pharr, broccoli has been prevalent throughout his career, whether in the form of the Alain Ducasse broccoli mousse, a filling for agnolotti or a broccoli cheddar fritter at an after-hours bar. At his produce-forward restaurant Mint Mark in Madison, Wisconsin, he's determined to make broccoli a craveable marquee attraction.


“Many childhood dinner atrocities of over-boiled broccoli have left my customers wary of center-of-the-plate vegetable features,” he says. His crispy parmesan broccoli with Calabrian chili crisp is his secret weapon for getting adults to eat their veggies. This spicy, savory dish is a flavor bomb – a sharp contrast to tasteless, mushy broccoli from a school cafeteria.

Hello Monty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, uses a similar flavor profile for fire-roasted broccoli with parmesan crisps, chili oil, parmesan dressing and almond citrus crumble. Co-owner Rob Gentry imparts a smoky flavor with Mibrasa coal ovens after marinating the broccoli for 12 to 24 hours with garlic oil, gochugaru and salt. “We take the broccoli out of the marinade and partially roast it in our ovens, hold it cold, then finish it again over fire. This two-step process allows us to achieve a nice color and reduces cooking time.”

While some chefs have long featured cabbage, the humble vegetable is making a big splash on menus, thanks in part to its lower cost as well as the popularity and healthy elements of kimchi. But, like broccoli, charring the vegetable and pairing it with unlikely ingredients makes it a go-to dish. At Lillia in Brooklyn, New York, Chef-owner Missy Robbins separates the leaves, chars them over a wood fire to impart a pleasant smokiness and serves them in a caraway-infused brown butter showered with crispy shallots.

Cabbage also lands at Harry’s Fine Foods  in Seattle. Savoy cabbage is roasted and paired with muhammara, Oregon hazelnuts and pomegranate molasses, while in Denver at Sap Sua, the vegetable is charred but gets a salty umami blast with anchovy breadcrumbs.

“Texture is really important, as well as finding opportunities for pops of flavor,” says Chef Lena Ciardullo at New York's Union Square Cafe. She lays roasted broccoli florets mixed with cherries, candied pecans and sliced jalapeños over seasoned Greek yogurt to create a crunchy and creamy contrast, topped with more pecans, cherries and drizzled black garlic balsamic vinaigrette. Using broccoli and other lower-cost produce “allows us to use additional ingredients that are more expensive such as black garlic and pecans to make it nice.”

Eggplant is known for its Middle Eastern and Italian American heritage, but the nightshade is venturing beyond tradition (think baba ghanoush and eggplant parmigiana, respectively). “Pops of flavor” come into play at Le Farfalle in Charleston, South Carolina, where eggplant is pickled to accompany octopus carpaccio, roasted tomatoes and fett’unta (bread). The inventive Italian restaurant also turns eggplant into chips to add texture to buccatini with tomato, chili and ricotta salada.



Texture is especially important with eggplant. Cooked well, it can be whipped, like at Sifr, self-described as a modern Middle Eastern restaurant. The Chicago establishment doesn’t refer to it as baba ghanoush, but rather Tunisian eggplant. Creamy and light, the dish begins with a layer of whipped eggplant followed by yogurt, herbs and pine nuts for crunch.

Increasingly, eggplant stands in as a healthier French fry. House-cut fries are the standard at Steven Satterfield’s Miller Union in Atlanta, but the chef-owner also features crispy eggplant frites. Otium Grill and Greens in Seattle also follows that route but with a different preparation method. They’re dipped in a tempura batter, fried and served with Mama Lil's Peppers and spicy chili sauce.



Cabbage can be hearty, depending on the way it is prepared. Nancy Silverton and her team at Chi Spacca in Los Angeles slice cabbage into thick cone shapes and stuff them with ‘nduja, served in a pool of taleggio fondue surrounded by a bright green ring of scallion oil.

In Baltimore at Venezuelan-inspired Alma Cocina Latina, Eggplant Takari is lauded by diners as a stellar COP dish. Award-winning Chef Héctor Romero serves it fricassee-style in a Trinidadian curry with a smoky aji dolce and eggplant frites. A tangy garam masala-spiced goat yogurt and basmati rice accompany the dish.  

At Hill Street in Door County, broccoli appears on the menu three times, including crunchy charred broccoli served as a sandwich with soy and honey peanut sauce. “Broccoli has some tooth, so you get a primal sensation when you bite into it,” co-owner Karin Watts says. “Even meatheads don't feel like they're missing anything with this sandwich, which speaks to broccoli's often-overlooked status as a top dog vegetable.”

Executive Chef Chris Jung wanted to make a broccoli dish feel substantial at Maxwells Trading and riffed on a steak dish, treating broccoli as a protein while serving it with a puree and a sauce. “Maintain the natural sweetness and earthiness of the broccoli while still using it as a delicious vehicle for stronger flavors,” he says. Jung begins with a buttery, cheesy broccoli puree, then doubles down with blanched and grilled broccoli stems and braised shiitake mushrooms before finishing the dish with gremolata and crunchy breadcrumbs as a garnish.

“I also recommend blanching broccoli before adding direct heat,” Jung says. “Too much direct contact on high heat will destroy the texture of the broccoli before the center is fully cooked.”