By Sue Mah
“Anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals.”
That is Amanda Cohen’s mantra. The Ottawa-born chef is owner of Dirt Candy, a restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. No stranger to creative cooking, she’s been a chef for almost 15 years and was the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America.
Cohen’s menu at Dirt Candy focuses exclusively on vegetables — which she proudly describes as “candy from the dirt” — and is the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name. With an award-winning restaurant and recognized by the Michelin Guide for five consecutive years, Cohen is definitely on the cutting edge of a health and culinary trend.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants. In a report earlier this year, the World Health Organization estimated that 6.7 million deaths worldwide were attributable to inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption. Nutrition and health experts recommend fruits and vegetables to help reduce the risk of chronic health problems including cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and perhaps even obesity. Plus, research published in the British Journal of Health Psychology cites the first evidence to hint that eating fruits and vegetables is correlated with greater feeling of well-being and higher levels of curiosity and creativity.
Gone are the days of meat and potatoes. Fruits and vegetables are taking centre stage on today’s menus. For example, berries, from açai and blueberries to goji and raspberries, are still right on trend and are easy add-ons to salads, sauces, salsas and desserts. Keep your eye on two Canadian-grown berries: the haskap berry (also called the blue honeysuckle or honeyberry) which has a sweet, tangy flavour described as a cross between a blueberry, raspberry and black currant; and the sea buckthorn berry which is tart, somewhat like a sour orange with notes of mango.
When it comes to vegetables, Cohen admits that you really have to work to make them taste good. “Vegetables are tricky because unlike meat, they have no fat, so you have to add it yourself,” says Cohen.
Another challenge is to get rid of the high water content of vegetables when cooking. And finally, “vegetables have a pretty uniform texture throughout,” says Cohen, “so a big chunk of, say, eggplant, doesn’t have the different flavours and textures that a big chunk of steak does.”
According to Sue Lewis, director of market development at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), kale still ranks high in popularity and “we’ve also seen a rise in cauliflower as chefs are finding increasingly innovative ways to prepare it.” Other up-and-coming produce ingredients are kohlrabi, jicama (HEE-kah-ma), turnips and beets. Kohlrabi is a type of cabbage with a texture similar to turnip and a flavour somewhere between a cabbage and broccoli stems. Jicama, a root vegetable popular in Latin American foods, has a flavour and texture similar to a cross between an apple and a white potato.
Canadians missing out?
Although we all know how good fruits and vegetables are for us, we’re still not eating enough. A recent study commissioned by the CPMA found that Canadian adults are only eating between 3.5-4.5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. That’s not even close to the 7-10 daily servings recommended in Canada’s Food Guide. So in January of this year, the CPMA teamed up with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society, and the Canadian Public Health Agency to launch the “Half Your Plate” campaign. The message for consumers is simple – instead of counting serving sizes or numbers of servings (which can be confusing), just fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack. It’s a concept that’s also embraced by Health Canada. This past summer, they launched an “Eat Well Plate” tool that helps Canadians visualize food proportions so that fruits and vegetables comprise half of their plate.
Be a champion of change!
At the very least, it is going to take education, marketing and some culinary convincing to get Canadians to up their fruit-and-veggies intake. As restaurant and foodservice professionals, you’re in the perfect position to be a champion for this change. Here’s how:
- Think variety. Different coloured fruits and vegetables offer different nutrients and benefits. Consider offering a rainbow of colours on each of your menu items.
- Think versatility. Carrots get top marks for versatility from Cohen because they can be used in either savoury or sweet dishes. Eggplant, cauliflower and portobello mushrooms are super for giving dishes a meaty texture.
- Think proportions. Take a second look at your dishes. Do fruits and vegetables make up half the plate? Try serving a calamari appetizer over a bed of greens. Include fresh fruits or veggies as the default side with a meal. Offer more vegetable toppings such as fiery salsa, roasted corn kernels and grilled peaches for burgers and sandwiches.
- Think outside the box. How can you be innovative in the kitchen using fruits and vegetables? Cohen spent about four months trying to perfect her popular Broccoli Dogs which are grilled and smoked broccoli, sautéed in broccoli oil, and served on homemade Japanese milk bread buns along with a side of house-made broccoli kraut and broccoli rabe chips. She has experimented with 38 different doughs for the buns, and is still tweaking them.
- Think about getting involved. Come 2016, the CPMA will be exploring ways to get foodservice and restaurants to implement the Half Your Plate program. If you’d like to work together to help Canadians reap the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, contact Vanessa Sherry, Manager of Communications at CPMA, tel 1-613-226-4187 x225.
About the author:
Sue Mah, MHSc., RD, is a registered dietitian and president of Nutrition Solutions Inc., a company specializing in creative communications for health and wellness. She is a recognized media spokesperson and consultant to national and international food companies, working with marketing teams, advertising agencies and PR firms to develop nutrition strategies, educational campaigns. As co-founder of the training and consulting program NutritionForNonNutritionists.com, Sue is a nutrition trends expert and dynamic speaker. Contact Sue at www.NutritionSolutions.ca or Twitter @SueMahRD.