Usually I am not one for food trends, particularly those which highlight certain ‘superfoods’ that are marketed as if they are the sole cure for not only every disease under the sun but also climate change, divorce, nuclear warfare, etc. Kale, I’m looking at you. Whilst avocados are filling, cauliflower is meaty and kale can provide a substitute for crisps, they are, according to all dietary professionals, no better for you than their less fashionable vegetable contemporaries. Of course, eat and enjoy, but blindly following food trends is essentially missing the point.
There is, however, a rising trend amongst chefs which I whole heartedly approve of: a focus on vegetables. No longer are vegetables seen as an obligatory side dish to a cut of meat, forever the supporting act, prepared in uninspiring, uncreative ways that show no care for the produce itself. Veggies can now, legitimately, be considered the main event. They are being used in experimental ways, they prove themselves to be versatile and an acceptable food group to eat in place of meat, even for a non-vegetarian or vegan.
When travelling the world, I often indulged in one of my favourite pastimes: market browsing. Spending hours at local food markets marvelling at the fresh produce available and quizzing vendors on how they would choose to cook them. I was often introduced to new fruits and vegetables that I had never heard of, or could have imagined, mash-ups of stone fruits, of tropical fruits, of potatoes and of corn. It was only then that I became truly enthusiastic about vegetables, not only was I eager to begin experimenting with the novel ones I was being introduced to, but also to revisit the ‘classic’ produce that I grew up eating: broccoli, peas, carrots, tomatoes. I viewed them with a new eye, and they became exciting for the first time.
Once I began to think about vegetables, I realised that I had been a fool. Wandering around the market, I questioned why I did not appreciate them sooner; they’re aesthetically pleasing with their vibrant colours, they’re of course healthy but they also offer varieties of texture and taste: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, creaminess. Now, instead of boiled broccoli I roast it in the over with chillies, garlic and olive oil. I pair my peas with mint and leeks and boil them into a fresh, summer soup. I glaze my carrots with honey and time until they are covered in a sticky caramel.
Of course, chefs cottoned on to this far before me. To reclaim your vegetable mojo, simply turn to chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, who has two cookbooks dedicated to only vegetables (‘Plenty’ and ‘Plenty More’) and entire chapters exploring the aubergine. Ottolenghi lights up his vegetables with a daring dash of spices and a generous addition of fresh herbs. He uses them as vehicles to house grain and legumes, as a burst of freshness against tangy yogurt dressings or nutty tahini. His dishes are full of colours, piled high with fresh produce that appears indulgent yet it also healthy. Or explore Bryn Williams’ ode to veggies ‘For the Love of Vegetables’, inspired by his desire to highlight one ingredient over a four course meal, which introduced him to the versatility of fresh produce.
It is important to note that these chefs are not vegetarian, nor attempting to be. They are simply aware of the beauty of vegetables and how they can be used in so many ways. Think, for example, of a carrot: when raw, it is crunchy, fibrous and sweet. When roasted it is tender, caramelised and sweeter. When boiled it is mild and soft. When mashed it is creamy and filling. When juiced it is sharp, fresh and earthy. The rising culinary interest in vegetable is not an attempt to replace meat, but rather bring the side dishes to the spotlight and assert them as worthy of being plated as a main dish, even in Michelin starred eateries.
There are a number of reasons for vegetables taking the foreground, aside from increasing chefs promoting them. Rising meat prices, questions over the ethics of the meat industry and hormones involved in animal rearing both contribute to the rise of plant based diets. Increasing ‘foodie culture’, encourages youngsters to think about their produce, to support farmer’s markets and request heirloom produce. A focus on saving the planet encourages people to not waste food, and thus use all parts of the vegetable, which proves enlightening. All excellent reasons to start looking a little differently at the vegetable drawer inside your fridge. You won’t look back.