By Laura McGuire
Vegetables taking a starring role on restaurant dinner plates may seem like an unusual phenomenon for some consumers. However, innovation around veggie-centric entrees in both chain and independent kitchens is growing, and chefs are demonstrating the culinary potential of these ingredients by swapping vegetables for meat or grains in traditional dishes.
Research indicates that vegetarian and vegan consumption has grown more than any other category over the past few years. Vegetable entrees increased 15 per cent on Canadian menus over the past two years, according to Technomic’s data, while specific mentions of “vegetarian” have had nearly identical growth (14.7 per cent) over the same time frame. “Vegan” mentions show more robust development, increasing 47.9 per cent over the past two years.
Further, consumers say they are more likely to have increased consumption of vegetarian and vegan options than meat, poultry and seafood proteins over the past year, according to Technomic’s Canadian Centre of the Plate Consumer Trend Report. Vegan and vegetarian substitutes particularly resonate with younger guests and women. The data also indicates that consumption of vegetarian and vegan items may continue to increase in the near future. A third of all consumers (33 per cent) say they would order vegetarian dishes more often at a restaurant if they were available, while 28 per cent say the same of vegan dishes.
Veggies add value
Why the strong growth of veggie-based entrees? One reason interest in veggies is on the rise is that operators and guests are learning more about the value veggies add to the menu. Veggies are generally cheaper to source than proteins and thus comparatively priced as more affordable menu options for guests. They also hold local, seasonal and nutritional appeal, and having vegetable options may eliminate the “veto vote” from vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or health-conscious diners. Further, operators and their guests are discovering that veggie entrees can be equally as filling and flavourful as meat- and grain-based counterparts.
New plant-based restaurant concepts popping up across the country are also generating interest in centre-of-the-plate veggies. These restaurants specialize in contemporizing vegan and vegetarian fare using gourmet preparations and artisan ingredients. Calgary’s Veg-In YYC restaurant specializes in vegan and vegetarian street food, including Veggitos (veggie burritos), burgers, poutines and signature flatbreads. Gluten-free and vegan-friendly offerings include a Veggito filled with potato, cauliflower and peas, and a Potato Cauliflower Flatbread on naan. Even food trucks are getting in on the action, with The Vegan Extremist launching in Toronto last spring. Its menu of Southwest Asian-inspired fare features a variety of meat- and dairy-free curries served with steamed rice.
Culinary experimentation is taking interesting approaches to substituting veggies in place of meats and grains, especially in regards to showcasing less-common veggies. These applications provide all guests—from vegetarians and vegans to meat-lovers—with new and better-for-you ways to enjoy favourite comfort foods. Here are some opportunities for using veggies as differentiators and traffic drivers on dinner menus.
New takes on veggie burgers
Garden and veggie burgers are garnering more attention at dinner, with incidence of these burgers increasing 6.5 per cent year over year, according to Technomic research. One reason for the broadening appeal of these burgers is that operators are replacing the standard grain- and black bean-based patties with novel veggie patties made with ingredients such as sweet potatoes, cauliflower and beets. The Latke Burger at Montreal’s Aux Vivres restaurant comes with a roasted beet and sweet potato patty, and Hard Rock Cafe’s Cauliflower Burger features a housemade patty created from cauliflower, garlic, egg, goat cheese, oregano and breadcrumbs.
Premium toppings and buns are also helping place veggie burgers in the spotlight during dinner occasions. Canyon Creek Restaurant embellishes its garden burger with aged Canadian cheddar, goat cheese and barbecue sauce, and the burger is served on a housemade bun. Meanwhile, Fatburger tops its California Veggie burger with guacamole, Swiss cheese, a fried egg, tomato, lettuce and mayo. Operators may also enhance appeal of veggie burgers by allowing guests to customize their toppings based on their dietary needs and tastes.
Popular grains get a veggie twist
Today’s veggie innovation is influencing new interpretations of traditional starch-heavy dinners at restaurants. Carrots, zucchini, beets and squash are among the veggies chefs are spiralizing into a noodle shape to replace traditional grain pastas. These veggie noodles are then heightened with sauce, cheese and other toppings before being served hot or cold. Fable Restaurant in Vancouver serves a “Tagliatelle” noodle made from zucchini, topped with mushroom Bolognese and Parmesan. Veggies can also be contorted into noodle shapes like spaghetti, fettuccini and manicotti.
Similar to pastas, veggies can serve as a substitute for rice. Cauliflower, in particular, is a veggie chefs are using to mimic the taste, look and texture of rice for dishes like risottos and casseroles. Beyond the obvious nutritional benefits, these veggie noodle and rice dishes simulate eating a comfort food without the gluten or carbohydrates. They also add a splash of colour to the presentation of a dish, depending on the veggie used.
Veggie take on a dinnertime favourite
Chefs can often use the same cooking techniques with veggies as they traditionally do with meat, like searing, braising and charring. And, increasingly, many chefs are preparing, shaping and serving cauliflower as a “steak” in place of beef at restaurants. Cauliflower is a highly versatile veggie that serves well in the centre of the plate because its flavour pairs with a variety of ingredients, its neutral colour acts as blank slate for plating and its heartier texture satisfies the appetite. Menu mentions of cauliflower in entrees increased 50 per cent year over year, per Technomic research.
Cauliflower veggie steaks can be complemented with sauces, marinades or other accompaniments to further boost flavour and provide an appearance similar to beef steaks. Vancouver’s Pourhouse Restaurant serves its Cauliflower Steak with stewed lentils, romesco sauce and crispy kale. Beyond cauliflower, other vegetarian ingredients that can also resemble steaks are eggplant and mushrooms, specifically portobellos.
What’s the future of plant-based dinner entrees at restaurants? While it is unknown whether this emerging trend will be a passing fad, consumer and menu research and the continual emergence of vegetarian and vegan restaurants suggests these options are on menus for the long-haul. Not every operator needs to roll out dinner menus devoted to veggie-focused main courses, but having one or a few of these options may interest and even excite veggie-loving guests. Operators who highlight craveable flavours, interesting preparations and creative presentations of these dishes will entice guests to step out of their comfort zone for dinner with a plant-based entree.
About the author:
Laura McGuire is Director, Shared Content Services, at Technomic in Chicago. Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. Its services include publications and digital products, as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry, Visit www.technomic.com.