Vegetarian dining isn't about sacrificing. It's about doing more using different ingredients.
First off, a vocabulary lesson. When talking about one of the haute cuisines to hit kitchens this year, the term is "vegetable-based." That's the P.C. way to refer to the nouveau vegetarian meal. Today's chefs are using that terminology to attract serious foodies who care about food and wine, but who may be turned off by the rice-and-beans reputation of old-school vegetarian eats.
"'Used car' is now 'pre-owned.' The same thing is going to happen with food," believes Robert Gadsby, executive chef of Noé Restaurant and Bar, which has locations in Houston and Los Angeles. Gadsby has created seven-, nine-, 14- and 21-course vegetable-based tasting menus, including two for the same client on two consecutive nights—without repeating a dish.
Most of the chefs who are immersing themselves in all things vegetable aren't vegetarians themselves. In fact, James Beard Award-winning Shawn McClain, owner of the predominately vegetarian eatery, Green Zebra, also owns a steakhouse (only in Chicago would such dichotomy fly). When asked if he is a vegetarian, Steven Sponder, co-owner of Fort Lauderdale's Sublime Restaurant and Bar, answers, "a little bit."
A generation ago, being "a little bit" vegetarian was akin to being a little bit pregnant: just not possible. But in the culinary world today, it just goes to show how much vegetarian dining has expanded to include restaurants, menus and chefs that are acclaimed regardless of whether there is meat on the plate. Chefs and owners at this next generation of gourmet vegetarian restaurants—from Counter Organic Wine and Martini Bar and Vegetarian Bistro in New York to Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco—estimate that just half of their clientele are true vegetarians or vegans (defined as diners who eschew all animal products, including dairy). While both the chefs and their clientele may support some of the reasons people turn to a vegetarian diet—such as for purported health benefits or animal rights advocacy—those in the kitchen say they're intrigued more by the pull to create something unusual, and they think their diners benefit from their quest.
If, for example, Sponder wanted to put cheesecake—with all the dairy products vegans avoid—on his dessert menu, "we have to come up with ways to replace ingredients so that it tastes exactly like a cheesecake. It is an interesting process that is hard for other people to duplicate," says Sponder, whose Sublime restaurant, a regular stop for ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, is vegan as well as vegetarian. Yet a local newspaper names his "meatloaf" the best in town, pitting it against many recipes that actually include meat.
"It might take a bit more to please the mainstream palate, because there is no big centerpiece on the plate. It is a little bit more work, but I get to draw from influences all over the globe," says Eric Tucker, executive chef and co-owner of Millennium in San Francisco, perhaps the country's best vegetarian restaurant. "Before the industrial revolution a lot of indigenous cuisines were vegetarian. We pull from all those influences."
For others, it is a celebration of the tastes from the earth, as many neo-vegetarian menus also boast organic and locally produced ingredients (and wine lists), with an emphasis on seasonal harvest.
"For some people, the idea of vegetarian cuisine is frightening. They expect to have it be ascetic [or] monastic, where there is no pleasure in the food," says Magdiale Wolmark, chef and co-proprietor of Dragonfly Neo-V, a 6-year-old upscale vegetarian restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. "But I think what it is all about is enjoying vegetables. Vegetables are extremely delicious and they are wonderful ingredients in incredible cuisine. It is my profound belief that vegetables taste better than animal-based ingredients."
While Noé's Gadsby clearly likes a challenge—he was spurred to innovation when a vegetarian customer extolled the virtues of vegetable-based meals she ate at French Laundry and Charlie Trotter's—he also thinks vegetable-based cuisine is good business. Fears of avian flu and Atkins backlash may be leading people to a more vegetable-based diet, at least on the nights they don't eat at a steakhouse or sushi bar, and he wants them to experience the same kind of gastronomic experience, regardless of where the protein on their plate comes from.
While some restaurants, like Sublime, use seitan, tofu and other meat substitutes to achieve a meat-like texture in their dishes, many others, such as Dragonfly Neo-V, don't, instead allowing the natural textures and flavors of the ingredients to do the heavy lifting, as seen in Counter's Cauliflower Risotto (for the recipe, click on winemag.com).
"I get people who say, 'If that is how vegetarians eat, I would not mind being vegetarian,' " Gadsby says. "I find there is so much to do with vegetables. With meat, a New York sirloin is a New York sirloin; it is just how it is seasoned."
Reds with beets, whites with fennel
If your oenophilic education began with the maxim, "red with meat, white with fish," Eric Tucker, executive chef and co-owner of Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, has a word, or three, for you: "no, no, no."
"Roast off some mushrooms and pair them with your best Bordeaux. Then, you'll see that this is a myth that you can't pair red without meat." In general, Tucker pairs Cabernets, Zinfandels and Syrahs with roasted, grilled or smoked vegetables, saving the light reds for bean and grain dishes.
Chefs, sommeliers and diners are embracing the idea that vegetable-based dishes need the same attention to pairing that more traditional menus do.
"If you are not having a bottle of wine here [at Dragonfly Neo-V] while you are having your dinner, then you are not having the full experience," agrees Wolmark. He began hosting Friday night tastings at his restaurant, where the tab averages $50 to $75 per person, to help bring his point home.
"Whenever I see a complex vegetable dish coming my way, and I want to pour a French wine, I reach for Roussannes from the Rhône Valley," says Belinda Chang, director of wine and spirits at Cenitare, a restaurant company with four high-end restaurants in the Chicago area. In fact, Chang likes the flexibility vegetable-based dishes afford her. Culinary Director Rick Tramonto adapted his black truffle and lobster risotto recipe from his renowned restaurant Tru to black truffle risotto with vegetables for the new restaurants, and Chang thinks its adaptability makes it a winner. "This is one of those fun dishes that shines with both the right white and the right red, a sommelier's dream, because it can fit in with whatever the guest wants to drink, or wherever the chef wants to sneak it into a tasting menu."
For Noé's Robert Gadsby, pairing wine with vegetable-based dishes is simply more fun because there is more room for experimentation. "If you have a red meat, then you already know how a Malbec will work. With vegetable dishes, you can try things. For some people, 1+1=2. For others, 1+1 is 11."
Gadsby recommends thinking about the texture of the vegetables and the mouthfeel of the wine. For rich dishes, try a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or a Chianti. For mushroom-intensive, medium-rich dishes, look for a Pinot Noir. For spicy dishes, consider a Riesling or Gewürztraminer. When in doubt, though, you're usually safe with Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, arguably the most versatile and food-friendly wines.
The important thing is not to veg out—give it some thought, be willing to experiment, and never fail to have fun.
Yellow Finn Potato Gnocchi
Eric Tucker, author of The Artful Vegan: Fresh Flavor from the Millennium Restaurant (Ten Speed Press) and executive chef at Millennium, hosts monthly dinners with winemakers to educate his guests—and staff—about the ways in which his dishes pair with wines, many of which are local. The following is a favorite of his, excerpted from The Artful Vegan.
For the gnocchi:
6 large yellow Finn potatoes, peeled
1 Russet potato
2/3 cup unbleached flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon salt
For the roasted beets:
4 small red beets, peeled and quartered
4 small Chiogga beets, peeled and quartered
2 teaspoons canola oil
1/3 cup vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the beet-Merlot reduction:
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
6 shallots, halved
1 red beet, peeled and quartered
1 fresh thyme
1/2 sprig rosemary
1/3 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups roasted vegetable dark stock or mushroom stock
2 cups Merlot
1/4 cup dried cherries
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
fresh ground black pepper
For the gnocchi, part two:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
6 tablespoons chopped walnuts, toasted
6 teaspoons tarragon oil, for garnish
1 tablespoon drained green peppercorns in brine, for garnish
To make the gnocchi: Preheat oven to 400Â°F. Prick the skin of the potatoes with a fork. Bake for 40 minutes, or until tender when pierced. Let cool to room temperature.
Scrape the flesh of the potatoes into a bowl and mash. Add the flour and the salt. Knead for about two minutes to form a soft dough.
Cut the dough into quarters and roll each piece into a 1-inch-thick rope. Cut each rope into 1/2-inch long segments and pinch in the sides of each piece of the dough so that it looks like a bow tie. Place the finished gnocchi on a floured pan. Repeat with remaining dough. Freeze for at least 1 hour.
To roast the beets: Preheat the oven to 400Â°F. Toss all of the beets, canola oil, vegetable stock, allspice, ground clove and salt together in a bowl and place on a roasting pan. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the beets are just tender.
To make the reduction: Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté for 10 minutes, or until lightly caramelized. Add the beet, thyme, rosemary, salt and porcini and sauté for 1 minute. Add the stock and wine. Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, or until reduced by half. Strain mixture into another saucepan, add the dried cherries and simmer for 15 minutes, or until reduced by a third. Add the vinegar and whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Add salt and pepper to taste. The sauce should be just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
To cook the gnocchi: Boil at least 1 gallon of salted water. Add half of the gnocchi. Cook for 5 or 6 minutes, until the gnocchi float to the surface. Using a slotted spoon, transfer
the gnocchi to a plate. Toss with a little extra virgin olive oil to prevent sticking. Repeat with remaining gnocchi.
Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the gnocchi and sauté, shaking the pan often to prevent sticking, for two minutes, or until the gnocchi start to brown. Remove from the heat, add the parsley and toss together.
To serve: Divide the gnocchi among four large dinner places. Spoon 1/4 cup of reduction around the gnocchi on each plate and place 6 to 8 segments of roasted beet around the plate. Sprinkle the gnocchi with 1 tablespoon of the chopped walnuts, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the tarragon oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the peppercorns.
Wine recommendation: A California Merlot, such as the version from Frog's Leap Winery in Napa Valley, hits all the right notes with this composition. Its lush texture matches the silkiness of the gnocchi, while the red fruit and subtle oak shadings complement the beet, cherry and toasted nut notes in the finished dish. Serves 6.
Potato and Almond Milk Soup with Raisins and Pumpkin Seeds
Robert Gadsby, executive chef of Noé Restaurant and Bar, in Houston and Los Angeles, says that his personal preference is to pair this relatively simple soup with sweet wines, but a dry Spanish or German white wine will also complement it.
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
Potato and Almond Milk Soup
3 tablespoons salt, plus more to taste
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
Almond oil (available at specialty stores)
6 ounces California raisins, a mix of dark and golden
4 ounces toasted pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Potato and Almond Milk Soup
In a large saucepan over medium heat, sauté onions, season with salt and stir to coat with olive oil. Add the chopped potatoes and continue stirring until potatoes are warmed. Add the milk to cover the potatoes to about 1/2 inch cover, add 1 and 1/2 tablespoons almond oil and simmer until potatoes are completely tender. Drain the potatoes, reserving the cooking milk liquid, and puree in a blender, adding enough liquid to form a silky smooth potato soup, taste and correct the seasoning with salt, sugar and white pepper.
Reheat soup. Divide the raisins and the toasted pumpkin seeds among serving soup bowls and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on the raisin pumpkin seed mixture. Pour the soup into the bowls, place a dollop of the almond whipped cream (see recipe below) near the rim of each bowl, and drizzle a little of the almond oil on the cream. Sprinkle the soup with chopped chives and serve.
Almond Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons almond oil
Salt and sugar to taste
Season the cream with a pinch of salt and a sugar whip with an electric beater. Add the almond oil when the cream is almost done beat for 10 to 15 seconds more set aside and refrigerate until needed. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: The almond flavors in this soup evoke hints of Spain, so you might try pairing it with one of the great Albariños suggested in "A Very Different Spain." Alternatively, a dry German Riesling will have the same floral nuances, moderate alcohol levels and crisp acidity to successfully contrast the creaminess of the dish.
Margaret Littman is the author of VegOut Vegetarian Guide to Chicago. As much as she loves vegetable-based dishes, she hopes to never see another barbeque seitan sandwich as long as she lives.
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