Meatless Evolution: Vegetarian cuisine leaves its salad days behind

Vegetarian cuisine – bean there, done that, right?

Not quite. On menus and off, meatless dishes have proliferated during the past few decades for reasons relating to health, economics, sociopolitics – and, oh yeah, taste. By and large, they’ve settled comfortably into the culinary consciousness.

At the same time, though, such dishes continue to challenge and inspire top chefs throughout the area. And that, in turn, should inspire and delight diners.

Deepening Demand
“At The Crossing, we do eight-course tasting menus almost every night,” noted owner Jim Fiala, “and the number of people that have asked us to make it a vegetarian eight-course tasting menu and to do that on the spot has probably tripled.” (Regarding that challenge, Fiala added, “I always have plenty of vegetables around because every dish at The Crossing is unique – we don’t use one vegetable on every dish. I just use my vegetables and come up with creative dishes. Also, I make eggless pasta, too, so I can make a vegan pasta quickly.”)

Josh Galliano, executive chef at Monarch Restaurant and Wine Bar, has noticed a similar increase in requests for vegetarian cuisine – enough that he offers his own vegetarian tasting menu nightly. The fourth course of that menu, in fact, features a dish in which he confessed to taking extra pride, a sunchoke and truffle gratin. “I grow a lot of sunchokes,” Galliano related, “so we always have ’em around. Did a gratin, just thin slices of the sunchoke with thin slices of Himalayan truffles and a nice ring with a Parmesan crust to it.”

And late last year, chef Carl McConnell started opening his acclaimed yet tiny Stone Soup Cottage on Wednesday evenings for a multicourse vegetarian prix fixe tasting menu. “It’s a gamble,” he admitted. “I’m committed to it, though. It’s not like I’m gonna drop it in two months if it doesn’t take off.”

What prompted the gamble? “I had a lot of clients that come in here that said, ‘Well, I’m a vegetarian – what can you do for me?’” McConnell replied. “I think that there’s a need for it here in [Cottleville] – someplace that people can go to who are vegetarians as part of their lifestyle, and we want them to feel like they’re having a truly elegant fine-dining experience here.”

Amy Zupanci, chef and owner at Fond in Edwardsville, concurred. “With our tasting menu,” she said, “we require full-table participation, so it’s not unusual for someone to say, ‘Oh, we both want to do it, but can she do a vegetarian one?’ Not a problem. And my goal through that whole dinner, without shortchanging the meat-eater, is to make the vegetarian [menu] better, almost make the meat-eater wish they had the vegetarian [dishes].”

To achieve that goal, she focuses tightly on presentation. “Food and cooking are very sensory, so I start there,” Zupanci said. “When the vegetarian option hits the table, the scent has to be the first to be noticed, so I tend to make very aromatic vegetarian dishes. Then it has to be visually interesting. After that, when the diner takes a bite and it tastes delicious, they generally voice that to their dining companion. … It’s that aim, to touch on all of the senses.”

Culinary Challenges
Beyond tasting menus, chefs relish the creativity of vegetarian cooking in general. “It’s a challenge, plain and simple,” Galliano said.

Brian Hardesty, executive chef at Terrene in the Central West End, agreed: “If somebody doesn’t want a vegetarian dish on our menu, and they just want me to create something for them on the spot, then that’s when I have the most fun, pairing stuff up and seeing what’s gonna work. Of course, the only drawback is that I don’t get to spend all day on it – I have to come up with it in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Zupanci also cited the pleasures of experimentation. “I rely pretty heavily on charmoula for a lot of different things,” she said, referring to a heavily spiced ragout usually composed of carrots, celery, onions and raisins and often used in Arabic cuisines. Zupanci called hers more of a North African version, with ginger, garlic, cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, citrus, olive oil and hot peppers. “It’s a Middle Eastern pesto. It’s a great vegetarian option. It’s completely vegan, it’s ridiculously flavorful, it’s a little unusual for this area. And it just heightens the flavor of vegetarian dishes so much.”

Similarly, Galliano mentioned carrageen and related thickeners whose use in vegetarian cuisine has broadened his own horizons: “I understand a lot more different cooking techniques now that can allow me to basically manipulate textures and flavors that create more interesting dishes.”

Innovations, in Time
“When I worked in an Italian restaurant in Chicago at one time, we cooked different vegetables one way,” Fiala recollected. “There was one way we cooked radicchio. There was one way we cooked cipollini onions. There was one way we cooked so many different vegetables.

“And when I went to work in New York, in one month at [Restaurant] Daniel, I cooked carrots 12 different ways, and all of ’em were fantastic. And now those 12 different ways are expanding in many different ways that you wouldn’t even recognize were possible 10 years ago.”

Regarding farm-to-table partnering, meanwhile, Galliano mentioned how much area farmers have galvanized chefs: “The cool thing is that we can get the same seed catalogs that they buy from. So generally, by the time they come in, we’ve already been flippin’ through it like the Sears catalog – ‘I want this for Christmas!’”

Fiala echoed Galliano. “Justin [Leszcz] over at Yellow Tree Farm is bringing all these heirloom carrots and different vegetables that we’ve never seen grown in St. Louis that are just unbelievably exciting. I think that’s inspiring the chefs to be more creative, too, because they’re getting stuff, like getting locally grown escarole, and then doing something with locally grown escarole is fantastic.”

Whimsy tinged his voice: “Two years ago we didn’t have locally grown escarole. Now we do. And we don’t have it year-round. We have it for a moment in the summer – and we use it and love it.”

In addition to pleasures, preparing vegetarian dishes can involve pitfalls, of course, and Hardesty mused on one. “Everything on the plate needs to be there for a reason,” he said. “It needs to add something to the dish. It can’t just be thrown on.” Like meat-eaters, vegetarians “appreciate flavor profiles that make sense, not just a bunch of vegetables thrown together on a plate. That’s just lazy.”

“You don’t need to get crazy with 10, 15 different ingredients,” McConnell agreed. Vegetarian cuisine “should allow your really fresh produce and your legumes and your mushrooms and your cheese to stand on its own. It should stand on its own. It should be uninhibited by multiple ingredients that you’re putting in your food.”

“It’s just focusing on cooking the vegetables perfectly,” said Hardesty, “pairing them well with the other things on the plate, the starch and … mock protein like tofu or seitan or whatever’s on the plate.”

Often, he added, cooking vegetarian dishes will start with subtraction instead of addition: “I imagine the tofu as not being there. And then I’ll put together all the vegetables, and once the vegetables are the correct flavor profile that I’m looking for, then I’ll manipulate the tofu to fit in with that. Meat, real meat, you start with your meat and then build around that.”

Sleeper Ingredients
All of the chefs to whom we spoke longed to innovate further with vegetables they consider underappreciated. Fiala, for instance, cited “the winter vegetables and the late-fall vegetables like chicories, broccoli rapinis and stuff like that – that little bitter aspect. In the summertime, if I get something like broccoli raab or rapini, [I like] to sauté those and then hit it with a little bit of summer tomato, and it just comes out wonderful flavors.”

Crosnes – crosnes, plain and simple, crosnes,” said Galliano. “I love ’em. Also known as knotroot, also known as Chinese artichoke. I love the damned little things. They’re awesome as pickles, like a quick pickle, an acid pickle. When you roast them – I like to roast them with butter – they take on a really great, nutty flavor.”

McConnell, meanwhile, named wild mushrooms. “You don’t see them on menus to the extent that I would like. I mean, jeez, Missouri has a huge range of mushrooms. In the springtime, you have your morels; in the fall, you have your ground mushrooms, like your coral mushrooms; in the winter, it’s tree mushrooms, wild oyster mushrooms, porcinis as well. They’re all over the place out here! I love to play with mushrooms. I do this wild-mushroom cassoulet. I take those wild mushrooms and combine them with garlic and shallots and olive oil and just a touch of cream and some white wine and cannelinni beans, and just bake that off and finish it with some shredded Gruyère.”

Amusingly, sometimes a dish can surprise even its creator. Hardesty mentioned Terrene’s popular tofu tacos, which he noted will soon return to the menu. “That was the most popular vegan dish I’ve ever made at Terrene,” he said. “It’s small, it’s satisfying, it’s got tons of flavor, and even people [who] eat meat love it.”

Similarly, in season, Zupanci touted Fond’s mushroom lasagna. “It’s a freeform lasagna that we assemble to order,” she said, “and it’s a mix of wild mushrooms, smoked celery-root purée. It varies on the fondue that we serve on the side – it’s either a goat cheese or a Parmesan or Gruyère. We put it in an espresso cup, and that fills up, and then we do a mushroom foam so it looks like a little cappuccino on the side … with Parmesan just to top it off.”

A note of mortification entered her voice as she continued. “One of our regulars, her son came in, on his own, with his wife.” Later, in conversation with his mother, “he was like, ‘Oh, my God, Mom, it was better than your lasagna!’ And she told him he better not ever say that again.”

Zupanci’s modest comment to the mother on hearing about that conversation? “‘Tell him for my sake not to ever say that again!’”