Sometimes, a Brussels Sprout just wants to be heard.
“Treat vegetables with the same respect you would a nice cut of meat or poultry,” says Tom Barton, campus executive chef, Northeastern University. “Knowing how to cook them and which seasonings might enhance them is critical.”
Whether it’s a deeply golden-brown Portobello mushroom destined for a veggie burger, roasted corn and chiles for a quinoa-chipotle salad or sweet-as-candy Brussels sprouts zesty with lemon, Barton features vegetables across all dining stations.
Like other onsite chefs featured here, he has found ways to leverage the farmer’s bounty into satisfying vegetarian main courses or side dishes that really stand out.
Here are some flavor-amplifying cooking methods, herbs, spices and sauces from chefs who are amplifying veggie volume.
• Market Mushroom Taco
• Roasted Vegetable and Couscous Salad Recipe
• Hearty Vegetable Sandwich
• Caramelized Brussels Sprouts and Dried Cranberry Salad
• Roasted Asparagus with Gremolata and Almond Star Dust
Dry heat can bring out the best in vegetables.
“The naturally occurring sugars are browned while roasting (caramelization), and that brings out a new sweetness,” says Andrew Cox, general manager and director of sustainability with Sodexo at The Hotchkiss School, a boarding high school in Lakeville, CT, where every meal includes two vegetable options like Coriander-Cumin Roasted Carrots or Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Fennel.
“You have to know how to treat the vegetables,” Cox says. “With Brussels sprouts, you can serve it so right, but you can also serve it so wrong.”
At Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Burlington VT, roasted vegetables are the jumping-off point for savory pasta dishes, Moroccan stews, quinoa or lentil salads and more. Pre-roasted vegetables, like zucchini and summer squash, are kept on hand for cook-to-order success in a pan at lunchtime.
“It’s important to cut vegetables uniformly so they cook at the same rate,” says Kelly Allen, line chef, who also recommends covering a roasting pan with foil for most of the cooking time to keep some moisture in the vegetables.
In addition, like vegetables should be roasted together (i.e. a pan of carrots, a pan of diced squash), as cooking times will not be the same from veggie to veggie.
Allen has a favorite way to further elevate oven-roasted vegetables: “Splash some red wine in the pan,” he says. This gives the vegetables a layer or richness, and by the time they come out of the oven, a rich burgundy color.
Grilling, Marinating and Seasoning
The Grilled Vegetable Banh Mi sandwich at NEU begins with roasted zucchini, summer squash and red pepper. The veggies are sliced lengthwise, dipped in a mixture of ginger, garlic, sweet chili sauce and fish sauce, then grilled until perfectly charred and tender. They’re the ideal components for a vegetarian version of this very trendy sandwich, which gets slathered with sriracha aioli and topped with thin raw jalapeno slices.
When grilling Brussels sprouts, Barton finds that blanching them first (just a bit), can make them tender and still allow them to get an amazing char, halved and face down on a grill, with some olive oil and lemon pepper.
As summer stretches out into late summer and students start coming back to class, Justin Bauer, executive chef, Bridgewater College, Bridgewater, VA, for Parkhurst Dining Services, takes advantage of Shenandoah Valley vegetables at their peak.
“For ‘welcome back’ events, I boil corn with Old Bay or Jerk seasoning, and then finish it on the grill for some great caramelization—just a fantastic flavor,” he says, adding that grilled corn on the cob is available to students as long as it lasts.
As with roasting, onsite chefs can use grilling as a time-saving technique: grill vegetables beforehand, and have them ready for cook-to-order sandwiches, pasta and sides.
“Marinating creates layers of flavor and adds a little variance,” Bauer says, further explaining his favorite grilling techniques. “It adds appeal by making vegetables more interesting with sweet or sour or savory flavors.”
Bauer grills vegetables (which have been marinated in olive oil, vinegar and fresh herbs), tosses them with a light cream sauce and serves over pasta, making for a vegetarian main dish with punch.
Seasoning with Herbs and Spices
While there’s no denying the wisdom of keeping things simple in terms of seasoning vegetables, sometimes just one or two added spices can take things over the top—but in a good way.
“Simple salt and pepper and minimal oil to enhance vegetables’ natural flavors is preferred,” says Barton of NEU. “But aside from basic seasoning, it’s important to understand other seasonings and flavors that might enhance them.”
Barton, who likes to roast cauliflower with paprika, compares this to understanding which additional flavors work best to bring out the flavors in chicken or beef.
Here are some of Barton’s favorite vegetable/herb/spice pairings:
• Ginger works really well with orange vegetables—
carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash
• Basil (fresh) can enhance just about any vegetable, usually added raw at the end of the recipe, chiffonaded.
• Cardamom brings out the flavors of vegetables cooked in a curry.
• Cinnamon plus winter squash equals balanced flavors.
• Cumin is great on fresh-picked summer veggies such as green beans, corn, tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash.
Saucing and Pairing with Grains
Chimichurri comes up often in conversation about amplifying veggie volume. No wonder: it’s one of the most vibrant sauces around. Argentinean in origin, chimichurri is a zesty combination of chopped parsley, oregano, red chiles, garlic, lemon zest, vinegar and olive oil.
“We toss roasted vegetables with chimichurri, and it’s become a menu item that vegetarians really appreciate and have come to expect,” Barton says.
Switching things up a bit, Bauer of Bridgewater College actually uses grilled vegetables as a sauce. Charred, pureed poblano peppers become a light cream sauce that goes wonderfully on angel hair pasta. A grilled sweet Vidalia onion vinaigrette becomes a signature salad dressing or a topping for…yes…grilled vegetables.
Pairing with Grains
Portobello mushrooms almost call out to be stuffed with whole grains, says Michael Clancy, Flik Independent School Dining Executive Chef for The Rivers School, Weston, MA.
“We par cook the mushroom caps, then fill them with buckwheat groats, millet, beans and lentils,” Clancy says, adding that the ‘shrooms can also be filled with onions, peppers or squashes in a small dice. The whole mushroom gets roasted, and makes a cool “one cap” meal.
• Roasted Vegetable Salad with Chimichurri Sauce
• Grilled Vegetable Banh Mi
• Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Fennel
• Eggplant Caponata
• Coriander Cumin Roasted Carrots
• Crusty Caramelized Onion Polenta