When we think of the typical American meal, we likely think about one built around meat: A steak, potatoes and salad; chicken, rice and broccoli; or salmon, carrots and quinoa. No matter what foods we enjoy, a meat main dish is usually the star, vegetables and grains the supporting cast—even vegetarians can fall into this trap, searching for meat substitutes to be front and center. Yet vegetables offer a wider range of flavors and textures than meat, and with creative cooking techniques, they can replace meat as the backbone of meals. Along with the health benefits of consuming more—and a wider variety of—plants, eating plant-based meals is lighter on the environment and more affordable than eating protein-based meals.
Everything in Balance
While we might think of meat and potatoes as conventional eating, Lenny Russo, owner and chef of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, Minnesota, says eating mainly vegetables is actually a turn toward tradition in many cuisines. “I’m from an Italian immigrant family,” he says. “We ate mostly vegetables—meat was an addition. At home, on any given night, I might be eating vegan—not because I don’t eat meat, but because that’s how Italians cook.”
Before the advent of industrial food, meat was harder to come by and more expensive than vegetables, noodles and bread, so meat was often used as a luxurious addition, not as the major source of calories in a meal. Plus, plant foods offer the most excitement, Russo says. “Meat doesn’t have a wide range of flavors—not the way vegetables range from sweet to bitter. We need vegetables to make meat taste good.”
To maximize vegetable flavors and textures, we can tray various cooking techniques. While steaming is perfect if you want a crunchy vegetable to accentuate fatty meats and sauces, when vegetables are the star we might want them to taste sweeter (try oven-roasting) or heartier (aim for a smoky flavor). “We like applying a technique [to vegetables] that you think of for meat,” says Kate Jacoby, co-owner with her husband, Richard Landau, and pastry chef of Vedge in Philadelphia. “We do a smoked carrot Reuben where we lightly roast carrots, coat them in pastrami spice, then grill them over wood smoke for a steaky, meaty flavor.” Didi Emmons, caterer and author of Vegetarian Planet, loves roasting vegetables. “I just toss them with garlic, olive oil and salt, and roast; then put them on anything from pasta to pizza to salad. Let them speak for themselves or you might ruin the flavor.”
The best dishes incorporate layers of texture and flavor. “In each dish, I try to wake up all your senses—with creamy, roasty and crunchy textures; hot, room temperature and cold temperatures; and salty, sour and sweet tastes—all in balance,” says Aaron Woo, owner and chef of Natural Selection in Portland, Oregon. Think about pickling vegetables to bring acidity to dishes, puréeing them to make a flavorful sauce, frying them to lend crunch or baking them to bring out a meaty texture. Because veggies are so lean, sauces can help give them rich qualities and make them feel more like a main dish, Emmons says. She tops hers with everything from romesco and harissa sauces to pestos and tapenades.
Veggies with Pedigree
Of course, particularly beautiful and flavorful vegetable varieties are easy to elevate to star status. Think about meal planning at the same time you consider garden planning: What varieties will inspire you in the kitchen? And keep your eyes peeled for superstars at the farmers market, too. Russo sits down with his farmers in March to pick varieties from seed catalogs. “I’m drawn to heirloom varieties, foraged native plants, wild berries and fruits,” he says. So when you pick up a plump eggplant or crisp bunch of greens, think beyond the steamer. Can you guide your precious harvest to stardom, with the flavor of smoke, the tang of a pickling bath, or a bright herbal sauce? Let your inner chef play, and please your palate with an inspired vegetable dish.
7 Ways to Show Off Vegetables
1. Grill, roast and smoke to amp up veggies’ meaty qualities.
2. Pickle vegetables to enhance sweet and acidic flavors and crunchy textures.
3. Rather than conceiving meals as a meat main dish and vegetable sides, flip that notion on its head: Vegetables are the star and meat is a supporting ingredient. For example, go Italian and sauté a little prosciutto with your greens, or think Southern and put a ham hock in simmering vegetables or beans.
4. Wake up the senses by combining a variety of textures, temperatures and taste sensations in one meal. Try making a soup with roasted winter squash, some puréed and some left whole, then garnish with crisp kale chips and quick-pickled onions.
5. Add sauces to vegetables to deepen their complexity. Try a tangy tomato romesco sauce, a flavorful herb pesto, a bitter and sour tapenade, or chermoula or tzatziki sauces over roasted root vegetables or to top quick-seared snap peas or mushrooms.
6. Seek out unusual varieties, or look for wild-foraged specimens.
7. Serve veggies in large pieces. For example, cut a head of Romanesco cauliflower into four “trees” and blanch, then grill and drizzle with a flavorful sauce. Cut cabbage into thick steaks to roast with garlic, oil and spices. Roast large beets whole and serve with steak knives, seared mushrooms and sauces.
Robin Asbell is the author of Gluten-Free Pasta: More Than 100 Fast and Flavorful Recipes with Low- and No-Carb Options, New Vegetarian and The New Whole Grains Cookbook.