Make your menu veggie friendly to ensure its widest possible appeal.
Chef Ron Pickarski, CEC, is president and research and development chef of Eco-Cuisine, the company he founded in 1991. Eco-Cuisine provides plant-based savory and dessert products to foodservice operations, including about 50 colleges and universities. He consults with companies on developing vegan/vegetarian menus.
Pickarski became a vegetarian in 1976, and a vegan in 1977 for health reasons. Prior to that, he was a certified meat cutter, and also served as a Franciscan monk. He began as a line cook at his family's restaurant in Petoskey, MI, and later won several medals at the International Culinary Olympics. Pickarski's culinary training is classical French, and he has translated many traditional dishes into vegan and vegetarian dishes. Pickarski resides in Boulder, CO, with his wife, Nancy Loving, a landscape designer who is not a vegetarian.
FM spoke with Pickarski to get his take on vegan/vegetarian menus.
One pitfall in creating vegetarian menus is thinking you have to create a whole new menu. Chefs should approach it by working with what they have. If you have a chicken cacciatore, you can make a vegan version at the same time. Hold some of the sauce back before you simmer the chicken in it, and add that to the alternative protein you are using. Any popular dish you have on your menu already, you can create a vegan version.
At a high-end resort in Colorado, I took a dish where venison was at the center of the plate and made it vegan. I used the same potatoes and vegetables and the same sauce, and made the protein a seitan filet.
Vegetarian and vegan dishes should have perceived value on the menu. If I'm going to eat a plate of pasta, I want more value, more excitement. Add some pine nuts, kalamata olives, asparagus, roasted peppers, truffle oil or fancy mushrooms.
Mushrooms are very useful on vegetarian menus. They have that meaty texture and the umami flavor profile that's so savory and rich. I like to take the gills off of portabella mushrooms and use them in espagnole sauce (the brown sauce that is one of the “Mother Sauces” used as a base for dozens of other sauces). I use that to deglaze a pan.
When you think about it, what really “makes” the meat dishes is the vegetables, the spices, herbs, condiments and wine that you cook them with. You don't have to lose the essence if you lose the meat.
Barbecue is always a hot menu item, and with vegetarian cuisine, tempeh and tofu are common items to put on the grill. There are many ethnic barbecue sauces to try.
Vegetarian meat analogues have always been fairly popular with mainstream vegetarians. Esoteric vegetarians will tell you that if they wanted meat-like products, they would eat meat. But the healthy-dining consumer segment is going vegetarian four to five times a week and will not sacrifice the taste. These people like meat analogues.
When offering both vegan and vegetarian dishes, the wise way to do it is to offer a vegan dish, then allow the option to add some dairy (like cheese) to it if someone wants vegetarian, but not vegan. You can add cheese and butter when you start with something vegan, and then build on it. Cheese and butter do add a lot.
A boring vegetarian menu to me includes pasta primavera. You want to be creative.
Making a sauce or broth vegetarian is actually faster than roasting bones for the same thing. Roasting vegetables instead takes a few hours, whereas using bones can take 24 hours.
Vegan Menu Ideas
A Mediterranean Dinner: roasted pepper and eggplant dip with focaccia and artisan breads; mushroom asparagus risotto; wilted greens with roasted garlic, white beans and sun-dried tomatoes; sliced citrus-scented with orange-blossom water; assorted biscotti and tea cookies
Snacks for Seniors: seasonal fresh fruit and popcorn, stewed fruit and corn bread, graham crackers with peanut butter and grape juice, mixed fruit juice cocktail and pretzels, rice pudding and orange slices, strawberry sorbet, peanut butter cookies
One-Dish Breakfasts: Tofu Scramble — scramble (in a sauté pan, griddle or in the oven) crumbled tofu with seasonal veggies and spices. Serve on its own or over steamed rice or hash browns. OR Breakfast Burrito — fill with mashed or whole beans, tempeh or crumbled tofu and serve with salsa and chopped onions, chili and cilantro.
Thanksgiving: butternut squash soup with herbed margarine; assorted crudités and dips; herbed lentil loaf with mushroom gravy; seasonal vegetable pie with mushroom sauce; baked, candied sweet potatoes with cranberry-walnut gravy; garlic mashed potatoes; glazed lemon carrots; broccoli and cauliflower medley; tofu pumpkin pie; apple cinnamon pie.