Vegetables are no longer a second-class food group. We still love our fish and meat and, despite the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, few would be brave enough to dispense with them — but veggies are not just the understudies. They add colour, texture and flavour to menus and are slowly taking more limelight.
Matt Rickard of kosher caterer Food Story is fully behind the trend: “Great restaurants aren’t just serving meat and three veg on a plate any more. Vegetables (and fruit) are key and our menus reflect this. Today’s best food lets the produce shine.”
Influential in this move is the Ottolenghi effect — with its Middle Eastern-influenced salads and mezze dishes full of colourful fruits and vegetables — and a greater availability of heritage (or heirloom) vegetables — traditional varieties that may have different shapes and colours from the vegetables and fruits we have been used to and which may have fallen out of favour until recently.
Rickard’s chefs employ a range of unusual vegetables and cooking techniques in their mezze.
“We’re serving hay-baked and blackened celeriac; the hay brings an exciting depth of flavour to such a versatile but somewhat overlooked root vegetable. Throughout the seasons we have a fantastic selection of squashes and pumpkins, which are exciting in colour, sexy to eat and make for great vegetarian dishes too.”
When vegetables are the main event — for vegetarians and vegans — Rickard says they try to provide a dish equivalent to the meat or fish with no less impact and flavour. “Our beetroot carpaccio stands up against any beef carpaccio.”
Phillip Small, kosher events caterer, agrees: “The days of steamed carrot, baby corn and sugar snaps have gone. We’re using lots of baby vegetables, including beets, courgettes, parsnips, aubergines and Chantenay carrots and we use interesting varieties, like purple carrots and heritage tomatoes. We cook them differently too — pan frying, marinating and roasting.”
Small says vegetables lend themselves to sharing plates, currently in vogue: “Big sharing plates are something people love. Lots of rustic vegetables — the Italians cook a lot of rustic food — or the mezze which may include dishes like lovely roasted beetroots or roasted aubergines; sweet potatoes with pomegranate and sumac. It looks fabulous visually.”
Seasonality is crucial if you want to get the best from vegetables — and fruits. Many caterers now work directly with growers to find the heirloom varieties they want and ensure quality.
Rickard says “From a produce perspective, our clients and their guests are used to enjoying great-tasting seasonal produce sourced from specialist growers.
“David Swann, our executive chef, works hard to ensure we are getting great supply and we have recently changed suppliers to a wholesaler who is much more active in sourcing the best produce for our kitchen. The difference is phenomenal. When you can smell the zest of a box of lemons or the sweetness of tomatoes from the other side of the room, you know they’re going to be amazing to eat.”
Small also works closely with growers: “We’re lucky to have growers around the UK who produce what we want them to. In the summer, we work with various growers to source fruits like loganberries and fraises du bois — wild strawberries. We also source lots of edible flowers — the colours are phenomenal.”
True to form, kosher caterer Ben Tenenblat, while also using heritage vegetables and working directly with market suppliers to get the best produce, has taken things one step further and found suppliers who produce vegetables most of us will never have heard of.
“For one of our canapés, we use a majii [pronounced moo-jee] leaf, topped with king fillet of salmon and miso pearls. The majii leaf is fresh and juicy and tastes best when there is something sweet with it, which is why we use the miso pearls — which are produced by our chefs using molecular technology — to add that sweetness.”
Tenenblat also sources from the same producer another plant called a dashi button. “They make your whole mouth go numb. You need to try it with other flavours and it adds a tingle.”
He also uses a flower called a Venus case as a receptacle for shots — “you can’t eat it but it’s still classed as a natural leaf and adds a wow factor,” he says. Other plant products in his repertoire are salty fingers — these are sea vegetables, like samphire, which Tenenblat serves on a dish such as teriyaki salmon or blackened cod, to add a naturally salty flavour.
“We also use a lot of micro herbs for garnish and edible flowers,” he says. “Micro herbs add colour and flavour. We use a range including baby basil, baby mint, fennel, red amaranth, Szechuan cress and lemon balm — which we put on desserts.
“We make a sabiche salad which contains grilled aubergine, coriander, parsley, heritage baby tomatoes, pomegranate and lemon juice with a soft egg and our own tahini mixed with garlic and lemon juice. It’s a vibrant vegetarian starter.”
Currently in vogue is presentation of crudité vegetables on what looks like a garden with edible ‘soil’. Tenenblat crafts his soil from pumpernickel crumbs roasted with lemon, thyme and spices.
“We set the vegetables in there and serve them with a mini pail of aöli or other dipping sauces. You dip the vegetables in the sauce and then back in the soil,” he says.
Kosher caterer Celia Clyne has her own twist on the vegetable garden.
“Our take has become a bit of a signature,” she says. “We make a base from hummus and top it with a ‘soil’ of black olives. We use tiny heritage carrots, Romanesco cauliflower and other baby vegetables plus some edible flowers. They look so pretty, we dot them around at the party reception.”
The key with vegetables, says Tenenblat, is to keep it simple and seasonal. “If you try to do too much to them, they can over cook and ruin.”
However you serve them, vegetables are rising stars in their own right.