Growing up in the South, vegetables weren't seen as necessarily something to be enjoyed but rather a tonic for both your medical and your spiritual health. "Eat your veggies" was a constant refrain heard by a generation of children who would do just about anything to avoid green leafy things. But who can blame them, faced as they were with platefuls of vegetables with every last bit of texture and flavor boiled out? Restaurants haven't helped things any with the way they tend to treat vegetables. "Veg" has long been the unpleasant but necessary afterthought to an entrée, apparently chosen primarily for color and the ability to hold up well for hours on a steam table.
In the last few months, my own vegetable aversions have steadily been evolving into passions. As the weather grew colder last fall, the available fresh vegetables shifted from corn and peas to the staples of winter: greens and root vegetables, cabbage and pumpkin. And somewhere along the way I looked past the meats and cheeses and noticed that some of our local chefs are doing some very interesting things with vegetables.
Like giving them respect. Like spending as much time thinking about them as they do about "proteins" and sauces. Like letting them move out of the supporting role and take front and center as standalone dishes.
It's the fallow season, and the tender lettuces and strawberries of spring are still months away. But that doesn't mean you have to skimp on veggies during the winter. Considering what some of our local chefs are doing with root vegetables and greens, now is the perfect time to discover your inner vegetarian. These vegetables might actually be good for you, but you don't have to tell anyone.
Mustard-Braised Brussels Sprouts ($4)
Brussels sprouts: what vegetable has sent more chills down kids' spines and inspired them to slip forkfuls to the dog on the sly? (And the dog won't eat the nasty things, either.) Leave it to a chef like Anthony Gray who knows his way around a whole pig to know what to do with Brussels sprouts, too. Gray's are braised in a tangy mustard broth and doctored up with a little parsley and crème fraiche. They are tender little cabbage-like orbs that fall away into savory slices under a knife. The flavor is dark, smoky, and rich — a fitting partner to the venison with which they're served, but plenty good enough to be a dish unto themselves. You can order the Brussels sprouts on their own, in fact, along with a tempting array of veggie dishes that currently include honey-whipped butternut squash puree, roasted cauliflower, sautéed Swiss chard, and sautéed cremini mushrooms. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself writing in a year or two, "Chef Anthony Gray is famed for his fresh, succulent vegetable dishes, but few diners may realize that he actually knows a thing or two about meat, too."
Roasted Beets ($10)
Any survey of local veggies has to include McCrady's, since the restaurant has its own full-sized farm that supplies the kitchen with truckloads of fresh produce year-round. This winter chef Sean Brock has been dishing up heirloom squash, sweet potatoes, roasted cauliflower, and mushrooms from Mepkin Abbey. Root vegetables step up into the leading role with McCrady's roasted beets ($10). Half a dozen purple beet slices and a single disc of golden beet are layered among a few leaves of petite sorrel, and next to it is a big ball of housemade burrata cheese. Brock doesn't marinate the beets or drizzle them with a sauce but rather lets the earthy, slightly sweet flavor of the vegetables shine through. The rest of the plate adds one complementary flavor after another. The burrata — a buffalo milk cheese similar to mozzarella — is nothing short of miraculous: creamy inside, chewy outside, the ball still holding a noticeable swirl from the cloth in which it was wrapped and squeezed. The tiny aromatic flowers sprinkled over the top give a sharp, basil-like bite, and the sorrel adds a mild, bitter base note that's offset by droplets of saba vinegar reduction, so sweet it tastes almost like molasses. The sum of all the parts is a dish that is creamy, chewy, earthy, bitter, and sweet all at the same time, a strong demonstration of the power of the beet to anchor a tasty plate.
Butternut Squash Soup ($6)
Chef Jeremiah Bacon at Carolina's is passionate about bringing in fresh fish from the Atlantic and fresh vegetables from local fields. Even during the recent January cold snap, Bacon says, the produce selection from local farmers was "pretty decent," and he's had plenty of winter options to work into his menu. Recent favorites have included salsify (which Bacon braises in court bouillon), parsnips (used in parsnip soup and served with braised oxtail, too), and savoy cabbage (browned and blanched in chicken stock). Bacon regularly serves braised collard greens, which he gets from Fields Farms and cooks with bacon, Texas Pete, and a little soy, plus a touch of gastrique to add sweetness.
For my money, the best way to highlight winter veggies is in soup, and Bacon's recent butternut squash soup shows how, if treated properly, winter veggies don't need a lot of assistance to make a warm, filling meal. Bacon describes it as "a very straightforward soup," and he uses no chicken stock and no sugar. He starts off with a mirepoix and the butternut squash, which is blended very, very smooth. Coconut milk — about half a can to a gallon of soup — adds a little body and sweetness, and a splash of cream tops things off. The result is a beautiful bowl: egg-yolk yellow with a single cross of green chives laid over the top for garnish. It's very rich and very filling, and you can't even detect the coconut milk — it's just there under the surface making things silky and smooth. It's a delightful way to start off a large meal, but hearty enough by itself to be a nice light supper on a cold winter evening.
A tempting array of vegetables are weaved throughout the menu at Trattoria Lucca, from the golden beets, eggplant, and local peas and beans on the assaggini (first course) section to the asparagus and butter beans that accompany pasta and fish. Perhaps most striking of the selection is the warm cauliflower sformatino, a small but delightful vegetable dish. It's a soufflé-like concoction of cauliflower that's cooked until soft then pureed with butter and milk and baked in a small mold. The creamy, white sformatino is turned out over a soft-boiled organic egg, some strips of guanciale (an Italian bacon), and, for good measure, a little parmigiano, too. Slow cooked and delicate, the cauliflower is transformed into a smooth, creamy treat — almost (if it's not too heretical a comparison) like tender white grits, but even softer and more delicate in flavor. The guanciale and a little black pepper provide sharp and salty punctuations, but the cauliflower is front and center and carries this delightful appetizer. And it's light years ahead of that mushy steamed cauliflower that used to stand between you and dessert.