Contemporary vegetarian entrees unapologetically put vibrant, fresh vegetables in their rightful place at the center of the plate.
The new vegetarian cuisine is all about attitude. “Yeah, it's vegetarian. You got a problem with that?”
In 2010, for bright young chefs like Juan Duboué, a student at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, TX, it's almost a nonissue that vegetarian entrees can — and should — be just as good as a dish with animal protein at the center of the plate.
“Vegetarian cooking has already made a spot for itself,” Duboué says. “Demand for vegetarian meals is increasing and creating business for chefs who can take that type of cooking to the next level.”
The next level is getting easier and easier for chefs to reach, with the rise in popularity of sustainable farm-to-table initiatives at foodservice operations and their communities all over the country.
Duboué walks into a farmers' market and picks his vegetables — lots of meaty mushrooms for Japanese-inspired vegetarian dishes — and also picks up inspiration there.
“A trip to the market gets me excited about the possibilities, seeing a bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables — maybe even some that I've never tasted,” Duboué says.
Providing healthy vegetarian meals that are never less than delicious makes good business sense in just about every setting, and naturally leads to chefs topping expectations with of-the-moment recipes.
“With vegetarian cooking, we are always going to be pushing the envelope because of the demand from customers,” says Peter Alfaro, executive chef at Biola University, La Mirada, CA, a Bon Appetit account. “Vegetarian food is healthy food that people want, but you must never compromise the flavor.”
Alfaro created a striking entree, Avocado Carpaccio Salad, for the California Avocado Commission, with the simple idea of “presenting something fresh.”
The Creamiest Vegetable
The avocado, such an ugly little guy on the outside, can make the most beautiful, rich and creamy vegetarian dishes.
“Avocados are just so versatile,” Alfaro says. The carpaccio salad incorporates citrus and red onion, two flavors that compliment avocado very well.
“The key is being able to balance the flavors of the vegetables with the herbs and other ingredients you use to compliment them,” Alfaro says.
Go online to find these recipes for great vegetarian main dishes and more at:
Duboué recently won first prize in a Chilean Hass Avocado recipe contest for culinary students. The $1,000 recipe? Duboué's Avocado Charlotte, an ambitious, dramatic dish with a lot of swagger made from avocado slices fitted into a ring and then filled with avocado mousse, goat cheese and roasted garlic (the original recipe also includes smoked salmon, which Duboué omits to make the dish vegetarian..
Duboué garnished the dish with pico de gallo and served it on a black bean ancho chili sauce.
“I was raised on black beans,” he says, referring to his childhood in a Cuban household. He added red corn tortilla chips to the charlotte “because they are red.” Using bright color on a vegetarian plate is a reliably bold move.
A spinach, red pepper and feta cheese quiche at Bloomington Hospital, Bloomington, IN, uses bright colors and gets rave reviews, says Amy Dillman, cafeteria supervisor.
“We get positive feedback on all of our vegetarian entrees,” which also include vegetarian stuffed peppers, black bean chili and spinach broccoli enchiladas, Dillman says.
The Meatiest Vegetable
Mushrooms are another vegetarian center-of-the-plate stalwart, but for completely different reasons than those of the creamy avocado.
Mushrooms — especially portabello — are meaty, and are often leaned on to take the sensory place of meat on the plate. Their fleshy caps and gills are full of that dark, meaty, mouth-watering flavor known as ‘umami,’ for one.
“Just like meat, mushrooms have the perfect texture for lightly marinating in olive oil and herbs before placing on the grill,” Alfaro says.
For a wildly popular vegetarian main dish at the university, he does just that with big portabello mushrooms, sliced thin as possible crosswise to make rounds, and uses the mushroom slices like a crepe.
“Then we fill the ‘crepe’ with salsa, asparagus, roasted bell peppers, and spinach,” Alfaro says, adding that another version features roasted tomato coulis. Those fillings make the dish vegan. If the dish is to be vegetarian, “we can add blue cheese.”
Cheese is a wonderful component that many chefs rely on to add amazing dimension and flavor to vegetarian main dishes.
“As long as chefs have the passion, vegetarian dishes will be as good as a prime rib platter,” Alfaro says.
Respecting the Old School
As vegetarian cuisine grows bolder and fresher, there is a growing nostalgia for its roots: old school 1970s vegetarian cooking, born from a lack of availability of a wide variety of fresh vegetables, a lot of heavy breads, a ton of lentils, sprouts, tahini and stir fry, and plenty of enthusiasm.
Updates on old school vegetarian classics are showing up in the hippest places.
A Village Voice food blog describes the Old School Vegetarian Sandwich at Birdbath Bakery in New York’s East Village as “a thumbnail history of hippie cuisine.”
The sandwich is described as “two slices of whole grain bread cradl[ing] a filling of shredded raw carrots, mixed sprouts, and ripe avocado, which is spread with a knife right on the bread like some manic green mayonnaise.”
First Prize Chilean Hass Avocado Charlotte
Noodles with Tofu and Thai Yellow Curry Sauce
Spicy Onion Panini with Basil and Roasted Red Pepper
Veggie Lasagna with Fresh Mozzarella and Creamed Zucchini
Avocado Carpacchio Salad
Warm Lentil Salad with Grilled Portabella
Grilled Vegetable, Red-Onion Curry & Quinoa Pizza
Tuscan Potato Salad