by Karen Caplan/Special to The Shelby Report
Once upon a time, vegetables were served as a side dish or in a side salad. They were something you cooked to go with your meat. I even remember a time when fresh kale was used solely as a garnish!
This is no longer the case. For the past few years, vegetables have been replacing meat as the main attraction everywhere, from restaurants to dinner tables. The 2015 food trends reports have been right all along. Whole roasted root vegetables, cauliflower “steak” slices and a plethora of ideas on how to fix Brussels sprouts are on menus and re-pinned on Pinterest.
Vegetable-centric was one of the most prominent trends discussed at the recent annual Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Foodservice Conference. Both Chef Jet Tila of Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef of Gordon Food Service, ended their presentation with a prediction of next big vegetable trend: carrots and cauliflower. The aforementioned cauliflower steak and root-to-stem carrots are taking over plates from coast to coast.
And it’s not just whole roasted vegetables; salads are spinning their way onto center stage, too. They’re not just a flourish of lettuce around featured meat either—they’re hearty, filling mixes of fresh and cooked vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains with just enough meat to keep your palate interested.
As I listened to these presentations about veg-centric cooking, I started thinking that perhaps the produce industry’s focused push to educate and increase fruit and vegetable consumption was working. Public campaigns such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move,” PMA’s “eat brighter!,” Produce for Better Health Foundation’s “Fruits & Veggies—More Matters,” ChooseMyPlate.gov, Meatless Monday and the brand new Partnership for a Healthy America’s FNV are making a difference in how people shop, cook and eat.
There also are environmental reasons for this shift. The ongoing California drought has brought attention to sustainability issues in both the produce and meat industries. Did you know that, on average, a vegan—a person who eats no animal products whatsoever—indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats a typical American diet? While it sounds counterintuitive, eating more vegetables and less meat will actually contribute to saving water.
However, the reality of the popularity of the vegetable-centric trend is more basic than that.
After hearing other speakers at PMA Foodservice talk about the veg-centric movement, Chef Hugh Acheson, one of the hottest chefs in America, offered the real catalyst behind the shift: the cost of protein.
Acheson pointed out that protein costs are on the rise. Chefs aim to keep their food costs around 30 percent. Due to the increasing cost of protein, chefs had to get creative in order to avoid having to raise prices on their menus. Instead of serving an 8- or 10-oz. steak, they now serve a 6-oz. steak and make a large variety of prepared vegetables center stage on the plate.
It comes down economics after all. But as a bonus, our health and the environment win.
Whatever the reason is for vegetables becoming the center of the gastronomic universe, I’m happy about it!
Karen Caplan is president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, California, a leading distributor and marketer of unique and exotic fruits and vegetables to supermarkets and food service distributors in North America since 1962. Follow Karen on Twitter @karen_kiwi or her blog at Friedas.com/KarensBlog.