CARROTS ARE THE NEW PORK BELLY. Cauliflower is the new steak. Kale salad is the new burger: There is one on every menu in town. Vegetables, so long supporting players of restaurant meals, are finally landing the starring role. After years of glorifying charcuterie, bacon, and hefty chops, chefs are beginning to push produce.
“Vegetables really are the focus” of these new dishes, says Michael Scelfo, chef-owner of Alden & Harlow in Harvard Square, one of the new restaurants putting vegetables first. “Components are being paired to the vegetable itself, treating it like you’d treat a protein. More people are eating small plates-style and communal-style, and that lends itself to vegetables.”
The trend has been a long time coming. Food prognosticators began forecasting the rise of the vegetable several years ago. Boston has seen flashes of it: charred romaine lettuce here, roasted shishito peppers there, house-made pickles everywhere. But heading into this year’s growing season, vegetables are truly getting their due. Their prominence is buoyed by the interest in local and seasonal produce, the spread of farmers’ markets, and the evolution of farm-to-table dining from novelty to status quo — not to mention pure and simple pork-fat fatigue. A couple of years ago, Scelfo says, there was a lot of talk about focusing on vegetables. “Now there is actual follow-through.”
For Scelfo, this is something of a departure. His menus as executive chef at Russell House Tavern and Temple Bar were meat-centered, heavy with charcuterie, riffs on beef Wellington, and pork trios. Alden & Harlow’s menu, on the other hand, offers dishes like grilled carrots, purple and orange varieties plated with yogurt, honey, and granola. Squash is grated into thin ribbons and served with pecorino cheese, raisins, hazelnuts, and brown butter. And, titled with a wink, there is Ubiquitous Kale Salad, fresh and crisped leaves with thin slices of fennel and creamy pistachio dressing.
One of his favorite of the mostly small plates on Alden & Harlow’s menu, Scelfo says, is among the most simple. Charred broccoli is combined with a hummus-style spread made from squash and cashew tahini, with montasio cheese and cashews crumbled on top. “I don’t think I’ll ever take it off,” he says. “People seem to really love it. And I love to send it to people, because they say they never would have ordered it themselves.”
For a vegetable dish to open diners’ eyes that way, it needs to have the right balance of flavors and textures, Scelfo says. “I like a lot of acid. I’m really into texture. That’s what makes vegetables exciting to eat. You need creamy richness, crunch, and acidity for it to make sense. Otherwise vegetables can run mute on your palate.” In building a new dish, he thinks about how to incorporate each element. “We bring these things in and play with it. It’s fun because we’re not talking about a pork chop, a pork belly. We’ve done that. This is new.”
The chance for exploration is a big part of the appeal vegetables hold for chefs, who have focused for so long on meat preparation. Produce offers a new paint box to play with. “That whole offal and charcuterie, nose-to-tail thing, nobody loves it more than me,” Scelfo says. “But to be able to do something different that’s truly a departure from that is super satisfying. You’re playing in a different field almost. No pun intended.”
IN SOMERVILLE, SARMA is another restaurant putting vegetables front and center. Chef and co-owner Cassie Piuma began planning her spring menu by writing down every vegetable available, then went from there, thinking about what flavors and ingredients would pair well with each one. “They are not only the focus but the building blocks of every single dish,” she says. “The vegetable is the showstopper. I build the dish around it.”
For instance, the pork skewers on Piuma’s menu at Sarma came about as a way to showcase spring onions, charred and served with romesco sauce. “The pork came as an afterthought,” she says. Sugar snap peas appear in a dish inspired by the Middle Eastern eggplant spread baba ganoush. The pods are blanched bright green and coated in a thick pistachio tahini sauce, then garnished with pistachios, fried garlic, and fried quinoa. “It’s crunch on top of crunch,” Piuma says.
One of her favorite spring dishes consists of asparagus with avgolemono, the traditional Greek egg-and-lemon sauce. The asparagus is roasted to concentrate its flavor, and the avgolemono gets an asparagus infusion from stock made with the fibrous ends of stalks. The asparagus is served with black truffles and an egg coated in kataifi, which is shredded phyllo dough, then fried. The asparagus was Piuma’s inspiration, her building block. The other elements fell into place around it.
“I love food that’s drenched in flavor,” she says. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel . . . but I really like to reinforce flavors and reinvent vegetables and give people new food memories. With vegetables, a lot of people had some pretty shoddy food memories in their life. People have been bummed out about Brussels sprouts. I love when they come in here and get excited.”
And, like Scelfo, Piuma says vegetables are worthy of excitement — as a diner, but also as a chef. “I love vegetables for obvious reasons — the healthful benefits of them and the way they taste — but from a cooking perspective, I love the versatility,” she says. “Each vegetable has a unique quality to it that’s so different from every other vegetable. Texturally, they bring a lot of different, exciting qualities and challenges. Sweet, spicy, earthy — every taste sensation that exists is out there in a vegetable.”
Piuma is not new to vegetable-centered cooking. Sarma is a collaboration with chef Ana Sortun of Oleana, where Piuma was previously chef de cuisine. That restaurant highlights vegetables, perhaps no surprise as Sortun’s husband, Chris Kurth, operates Siena Farms in Sudbury. “It’s very natural for us to include a lot of vegetables on the menu,” Piuma says. “Coming from a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food background, it’s such a big part of the day-to-day cuisine and food culture. We’re not trying to be trendy or fashionable.”
The tastes and priorities of diners seem increasingly aligned. “I think people are becoming more aware of their health and wanting to make strides to live a little better, to know where their food is coming from,” she says. “People are starting to be more aware of farmers’ markets and local produce and forming relationships with farmers. I’ve felt a responsibility to get the best possible products. The everyday consumer is starting to feel the same way. They want to give their families the best possible food.”
AT WEST BRIDGE in Kendall Square, chef-owner Matthew Gaudet is on board with reducing meat consumption, both from a taste and a health perspective. “We still love meat,” he says, “but I think vegetables now are where it’s at. They deserve a lot more focus. A 2-ounce piece of bacon with a bunch of vegetables in Europe is totally OK. We’re over here throwing down a 32-ounce porterhouse. It’s silly sometimes. It’s great for a moment, but this was the staple way we ate in this country for a long time.”
Cooking this way has been an evolution for Gaudet. Once he might have started with rack of lamb or chicken and figured out what vegetables to put with it. Now it is the other way around. “We work seasonally, so we try to think about vegetables and what’s great and how they can promote themselves at the center of the plate, and then garnish with meat and fish if it’s necessary,” Gaudet says.
So although the food may be vegetable-oriented, it is not vegetarian. Impressing that upon diners is one of the biggest challenges West Bridge faces, Gaudet says. “We are lightening it up, making things fresher for people,” he says. “Spring especially is exciting. When we go into winter, we think, ‘How are we going to manipulate a turnip into something awesome?’ ” Or, in spring, what are they going to do with beautiful white asparagus from France? The answer: Make it the star of the plate, complemented by sardines and tangy sauce gribiche, a cousin of mayonnaise.
Gaudet, too, stresses the importance of texture, maximizing the innate flavor of each ingredient and incorporating crunch, creaminess, sweetness, and acid for contrast and balance. “If it’s missing something, it needs more vinegar. That’s my motto,” he says. For a twist on eggplant Parmesan, the kitchen roasts eggplant and covers it with a layer of kataifi to mimic the crunch of breading. A relish made with raisins and sundried tomatoes, similar to the Basque dish piperade, takes the place of tomato sauce. And for the cheese, there is tofu whipped with black cardamom and yuzu juice.
West Bridge has had cauliflower dishes on the menu since it opened two years ago, the heads always cut into thick, steak-like slices. Currently, they’re seared and lacquered with apricot puree, served with shaved raw cauliflower, parsley and tarragon, and grapes with tart verjus, spicy sambal, and rich hazelnuts. An earlier version incorporated bone marrow, harissa, and sherry vinaigrette. “The idea,” says Gaudet, “was to replicate a steak. It’s the simplest thing. It’s one piece of cauliflower dressed up a little bit.”
The rise of vegetables in restaurants wouldn’t be possible without the increased availability of high-quality local produce. Alden & Harlow gets many of its ingredients from operations such as Verrill Farm in Concord, MacArthur Farm in Holliston, Blue Heron Organic Farm in Lincoln, and The Food Project in Dorchester. Sarma relies heavily on Siena in season; other purveyors include Verrill, Equinox Farm in Sheffield, and Sparrow Arc Farm in Copake, New York. West Bridge also works with Verrill, Siena, and Sparrow Arc, as well as L’Espalier chef Frank McClelland’s Apple Street Farm in Essex and Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth. All buy from wholesalers — such as Baldor, Katsiroubas Bros., Russo’s, and Specialty Foods — that offer produce from local growers.
“The independent farm resurgence in the last years has done something great for us as chefs,” Gaudet says. “When I was a wee kid in the ’70s, our parents’ generation in a middle-class family in Lynn wasn’t exactly connected to farms. Their knowledge of freshness went by the wayside . . . . Now we have a lot more farms. You see a lot of restaurants with their own farms. It gives us something to work with. It keeps us challenged.”
5 MORE RESTAURANTS PUTTING VEGETABLES FIRST
This incredibly welcoming Washington Square restaurant in Brookline showcases vegetables in small plates with Eastern European and Mediterranean flavors — think cauliflower with capers, raisins, and anchovies, or a potato cake fried in duck fat with yogurt and paprika.
1704 Beacon Street, Brookline,
Frank McClelland, chef-owner of this elegant French-inspired restaurant, is also a farmer. He operates Apple Street Farm in Essex, and L’Espalier’s menu showcases its produce — the likes of greens and sprouts early in the season, more as the weather warms. There is also a glorious vegetarian tasting menu.
774 Boylston Street, Boston,
Siblings Andy, Irene, and Margaret “Mei” Li began operation with a food truck, then added this restaurant. Examples of their “creative Chinese-American cuisine”: corncakes with sriracha aioli, red curry with vegetables and rice cakes, and hand-pulled noodles with almond yogurt, turnips, and greens.
506 Park Drive, Boston,
Chef Will Gilson began cooking as a teen at the Herb Lyceum, the restaurant on his family’s Groton farm. At Puritan & Company in Cambridge, he riffs on New England fare with dishes like cod or scallops with pancetta, spring succotash, and grilled lettuce.
1166 Cambridge Street, Cambridge,
At this Newton bistro, chefs David Punch and Lydia Reichert serve French-, Spanish-, and Italian-inspired fare that does justice to vegetables. You might find baby artichokes and carrots a la grecque with buffalo mozzarella or spring vegetable paella featuring fiddleheads and ramps.
755 Beacon Street, Newton Centre,
617-244-4445, sycamorenewton.comDevra First is the Globe’s restaurant critic. E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.