Eggplant Stuffed with Winter Wheat Berries

Quality and Value in Plant-Based Cuisine

There’s no doubt that the move to flexitarian dining styles and plant-based menu items is transforming the way many chefs cook. According to Datassential, nearly 22% of consumers are limiting their meat and/or poultry consumption, typically for health purposes, leading to a rise in plant-based eating and alternatives to animal proteins.

This is especially true with younger diners. The research company has found that 44% of Gen Z consumers say they truly enjoy the taste of plant-based foods, while 21% of Millennials specifically are increasing their consumption of plant-based products to support local farmers. Reducing meat portion sizes in favor of larger portions of fruits and vegetables, though, is of interest across all age groups.

However, some customers may view plant-based ingredients (fruits and vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts) as having less value and a less satisfying experience than meat and other animal products. Chefs and operators who want to communicate a commitment to flexitarian menu specialties—and make money on them—will need to create the same levels of flavor, presentation, ingredient quality, signature technique, and variety with ingredients that they bring to traditional menu items.

Here are some tips:

  1. So-called superfoods like ancient grains, flax seeds, pomegranate, berries, beans, leafy greens, walnuts, and yogurt emphasize the relative healthfulness of plant-based cuisine as a quality attribute.
  2. Showcasing fresh, seasonal ingredients such as stone fruits, heirloom tomatoes, corn, winter citrus, and root vegetables like parsnips and beets, help build a more exciting flexitarian menu and play a role in the quality/value matrix.
  3. Sourcing and calling out premium plants and ingredients such as farm-raised and heirloom vegetables, heritage/ancient grains, artisanal condiments, handcrafted and housemade products, farmstead cheeses, etc, sends a strong message of quality.
  4. Yes, there are “luxury” plant ingredients: artichokes, Brazil nuts, tropical fruits, and single-origin coffee and chocolate, as well as unusual varieties of produce and grains such as Lacinato kale, rice middlins, blue coco beans, and Blenheim apricots. Use them, and sing their praises on menu descriptions.
  5. Protein is important. There are plenty of plant sources that can be leveraged, including soy (tofu, tempeh, and edamame), lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, tree nuts such as almonds, quinoa, and hemp seeds, and dark leafy greens like kale.
  6. Be aware that many flexitarians may also be avoiding or cutting back on gluten, dairy, and refined sugar. Be sure to offer items that take that into account.
  7. Flexitarianism is about reducing meat, not eliminating it altogether. Using meat, fish, eggs, and dairy (especially cheese and yogurt) in lesser proportion to plants creates flavor, quality, and value.
  8. Take cues from global plant-based cuisines, such as Indian and Mexican, which have a long history of using less meat or none at all.
  9. Plant-based burgers and other “fauxteins” are huge in the flexitarian trend. When deciding to menu a burger, either choose (and call out) a well-known branded product or develop your own truly unique and delicious housemade patty. One precautionary note however: Diners need to understand that plant-based faux proteins may or may not be the “healthful” item that they are in pursuit of. The market now has several products that are based on soy and heme (a lab-derived ingredient responsible for the bloody appearance of certain products). As with all products, first review the nutritionals, looking at sodium levels and protein contribution to determine what product fits the demands of the target consumer.
  10. There are also ready-made plant-based bacon, ham, sausage, and crumbled products for use on top of pizzas, salads, and so on, as well as a growing selection of mock seafood and chicken analogs.
  11. Give plant-based menu items some wow factor with presentation: Serve vegetable cassoulet in an individual cocotte; use a spiralizer or mandoline to craft shapes like zoodles (zucchini noodles) or carrot curlicues; stuff a small whole squash or eggplant with a grain pilaf or ratatouille.
  12. Always treat plant-based selections to the same care and attention to detail used to make traditional menu items more craveable, such as:
    • Flavor layering with marinades, spice rubs, and pastes
    • Sauces and condiments
    • Flavor-building preparation methods such as charring, searing, and smoking
    • Interplays of texture and temperature
    • Multiple menu item components (center of plate, accompaniments, etc)

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Source: Datassential Foodbytes, Inspiration from the Garden, March 2018