The Secret to Better Vegetables? Treat Them Like Meat

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It’s still a common problem for many vegetarians — getting to a restaurant and having to cobble together a meal out of side salads, appetizers, and the other non-meat options. Vegetarian entrees at many restaurants often feel like an afterthought, either a serviceable but boring pasta dish or a meat dish without the meat. Luckily, more people are realizing the benefits of a vegetarian diet, or are just realizing that vegetables are delicious. But how do you turn a vegetarian dish into something truly noteworthy? We asked Chef Christopher Cipollone of the Michelin-starred Piora about getting the most flavor out of vegetables and legumes.

Use the good vegetables.
It may seem obvious, but quality matters when choosing vegetables. In fact, it may be the difference between an outstanding dish and one that goes in the trash. I speak from experience — for years I thought I didn’t like tomatoes, only to realize that what I don’t like are weak, mealy hothouse tomatoes. “Go to the farmers market and talk to the people who grew those vegetables. Quality is key, just like a passionate chef, there are passionate farmers,” says Chef Cipollone. He also recommends staying in season, and while that may sound difficult during winter, there are lots of options. Brussels sprouts, winter squashes, cabbage, and leeks are all available.

Avoid the pile of veggies.
While a bowl of roasted vegetables or a mixed vegetable soup is certainly satisfying, the flavors can start to run together. Instead, Cipollone suggests picking one as the focus. “That's where the creativity can shine, using a star vegetable or legume as the start.” For instance, on Piora’s menu right now there’s a romesco cauliflower, and angolotti stuffed with parsnips. Dishes like that let one flavor really stand out.

Treat it like meat.
Since every cuisine uses some type of vegetarian ingredient, you’re completely unlimited when it comes to flavor pairings. However, many people assume that vegetables need to be seasoned and cooked delicately, and that doesn’t need to be the case. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with vegetables. “If you are making pasta, fill it with pureed fava beans; if you are in the mood for Asian cuisine, roast some broccoli and pair it with sticky rice; and if you are in the mood for American BBQ, dry rub an heirloom carrot and slowly roast over charcoal and wood,” says Cippollone. A plant-based diet may be healthier for you, but with meals like this, it may just taste better too.

Romanesco Cauliflower with black garlic, pear, lime, peanuts, and mint

Serves two

Ingredients 

  • 2 heads baby romanesco cauliflower
  • 1 head black garlic
  • 4 bosc pears
  • 2 meyer lemons
  • 1 tbsp gochugaru pepper powder
  • 1 lime
  • 1 cup peanuts
  • 2 tbsp powdered sugar
  • sea salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 10 mint leaves

Directions 

For the Cauliflower:

  1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add the cauliflower heads whole. Blanch until the stems can be pierced with a knife easily. Shock in ice water and reserve.

For the Puree:

  1. Cut the bosc pears in half and scoop out the cores. Roast at 350 degrees skin-side up on parchment paper until completely tender and let cool.
  2. While pears are cooling, peel the black garlic and transfer to a blender. Scoop the pear flesh into the blender and puree on high speed. Add the juice of the two meyer lemons, the gochugaru pepper powder, plus salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.

For the Peanuts:

  1. Toss peanuts with a neutral oil such as canola just to coat. Then toss with sugar and bake at 300 degrees for about 10 minutes or until browned. Cool, then chop the peanuts finely.

To execute:

  1. Split the cauliflower in half and oil with a neutral oil. Season with salt and grill until nicely charred all over and cooked through. Squeeze the lime juice all over the cauliflower. Place a circle of the puree on a plate and place the cauliflower on top. Top with the chopped peanuts and garnish with mint leaves.