Commendably, most Charleston restaurants list at least one all-veg plate on their midday menus, no counting the DIY assemblage of sides that’s typically available. But I’ve frequently found myself wishing that the plates amounted to more than meatless heaps. Even when restaurant vegetables taste great, they don’t look very pretty.
I put the problem to my friend Joe Yonan, who’s in town today promoting his new book Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook. I’m admittedly biased, but the book’s been a hit with my vegetarian roommate and her usually-carnivorous boyfriend. (I gave her the book as a peace offering soon after we met, suspecting she assumed someone who worked as a food critic would harshly judge her dietary choices.)
Yonan agrees that even chefs who’ve come around to the idea that dishes without animal flesh can be imaginative, compelling and nutritious often fail to appreciate the visual opportunities presented by produce.
“Even now that more chefs are paying attention to vegetables, what often seems to lag behind is the presentation,” Yonan says. “I was recently at a popular vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, for instance, and after a couple of good starters, we were served what I can only describe as a study in beige. It was mushrooms over a grain risotto, and honestly it looked like a big bowl of gruel. Not appetizing.”
The “bowl of gloop” approach is especially confounding because vegetables represent an array of shapes and colors, Yonan adds.
“I think the problem still is that when too many chefs conceive of a dish, they think of it always in terms of a protein at the center of the plate, with a starch and a side dish and maybe a sauce,” he says. “Thankfully, I do think the small plates trend has helped break chefs – and diners – free of that mindset.”
Still, Yonan says it shouldn’t require a tremendous amount of forethought to honor vegetable aesthetics. He cites a napoleon that the chef of Mintwood Place in Washington D.C. created “on the spot,” featuring layers of yellow and green beans, cauliflower and broccoli florets, perfectly trimmed and arranged on puff pastry smeared with romesco. “A thing of beauty,” he says.
He’s also fond of what he calls “an exaltation of radishes” at Philadelphia’s Vedge.
“I recently cooked with Vedge chef Rich Landau , and he made a dish from their new cookbook: large carrots, cut in half lengthwise and roasted, over a pool of black lentils surrounded by a bright green version of harissa,” Yonan continues. “You can imagine how glorious that looked. In fact, it looked good enough to eat. So I did.”
Yonan will sign books today at Southern Season, 730 Coleman Blvd., from 4 p.m.-6 p.m.