Before I start ranting, let me be clear: I'm not a vegetarian. I like eating meat and have no moral problem with eating meat. But for me, meat's not the main thing. I love vegetables, too. I believe they're under-served in restaurants and that dining out would be more interesting and enjoyable if vegetables played a bigger role.
Don't get me wrong. Many places do a good job with vegetables. But I have a beef with the assumption chefs and restaurants too often make, especially in the upscale dining realm, that when we go out to eat we're craving something like this: seared or pan-roasted (cut of meat) over (buttered or cheesy potatoes or grits) with (rich stock reduction sauce) and a side of (token buttered vegetables).
Isn't that formula getting a little tired?
I wonder, with the variety of ingredients available these days, why does this meat-centric setup dominate the choices at so many high-end restaurants? I realize that many of America's food traditions come from Northern Europe, that the history of agriculture in the United States is relatively new, and that our cuisine is born of a time when meat was cheaply plentiful, work was hard, and many calories were required. But times have changed, and vegetables are being overlooked.
Old countries with a history of poverty like China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, and even Italy have varied cuisines that celebrate colorful beans and lentils, grains with interesting textures, dozens of varieties of flavorful greens, root vegetables, citrus fruits, spices, and fresh herbs. Can't vegetables be featured more often at the high-end, too?
What about burritos and tacos filled with an array of local beans, greens, chiles, cheeses, spices, herbs, and perhaps some meat, too? What about stir-fries, casseroles, and stews starring eggplant, squash, turnips, celery root, or potatoes? What about simple sautés with some meat, but also with a variety of vegetables like peas, mushrooms, corn, and cauliflower? More pastas with artichokes, lemon, fennel, asparagus, or leeks? What about an array of crisp, crunchy, light vegetables on the side to balance out and enhance the rich and indulgent qualities of meat?
Do chefs focus on big cuts of meat on potatoes because it's easy? Is it because they think customers don't like vegetables? Whatever the reason, vegetables need to take up more of the plate. So the next time you're faced with five meat-on-starch options at your favorite high-end restaurant, ask why there aren't more vegetables. It'll be good for us all.