Higher 'vegetable IQ' to push veggies into spotlight

Higher 'vegetable IQ' to push veggies into spotlight

The explosion of farmer's markets and the steady obsession with local and sustainable produce has raised consumers' "vegetable IQ," pushing this humble food group to the top of the culinary food chain, says a trend-mapping report.

What used to play a supporting role to proteins like meat and fish as garnishes or second-fiddle side dishes is being given the star treatment by chefs and food magazines, says the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) in the US, in a report released last week with market research publisher Packaged Facts.

Veggies have moved to the ‘culinary forefront,' says the CCD, as consumers and chefs alike begin to develop a newfound appreciation for their nutritional power and gastronomic potential.

Chef René Redzepi, owner of what Restaurant magazine called the World's Best Restaurant -- Noma in Copenhagen, has become a high-profile champion of the vegetable food group and casts the spotlight on locally foraged, edible Danish plants in his dishes. The MAD FoodCamp event he organized last year also paid homage to the plant kingdom and aimed to improve 'literacy in ecology' among chefs.

Chefs polled by the National Restaurant Association in the US also named locally grown produce as the second hottest menu trend this year, after locally sourced meats.

In addition to gracing dinner plates as sides, vegetables are turning up for breakfast in green smoothies, meatless entrées, and even desserts.

Here are some of the vegetables that will be particularly popular in 2012:

Fried Brussels sprouts
Chefs are throwing Brussels sprouts into the deep fryer to give this traditionally unpopular vegetable a crispy makeover.

Savory baked goods
Vegetables are also being used creatively in baked goods, says the report, beyond standard issue carrot cake and zucchini bread. Think smoked white chocolate parfaits with fennel mousse and beet cake with fromage blanc frosting, for instance, a dessert that highlights the mild sweetness of vegetables instead of masking the flavor in kids' foods.

Sea vegetables
Sea vegetables include edible kinds of seaweed like nori, dulse and kelp and are being used for their salty, briny and umami flavors. They're being used as a seasoning, ground and added to spice rubs and spice blends to flavor rice dishes and stir-fries.

French chef Inaki Aizpitarte of restaurant Chateaubriand in Paris created a stir at Mad FoodCamp last year for his riceless risotto, made with samphire -- a type of coastal sea vegetable -- and butter, white wine and parsley.

The CCD predicts that kale will become the new baby spinach, bagged and ready-to-eat and a mainstream addition to weekly grocery lists.

Vegetable juices redux
Consumers, particularly Millennials, will turn to vegetable juice bars to get their five-a-day serving. Chains like Jamba Juice and Booster Juice are predicted to enjoy rising popularity this year. Starbucks has also followed suit with plans to open a premium juice bar this year.

Alternative grains like farro, also known as emmer wheat, will be found in pasta, bread, croissants, flatbreads, cookies, crackers and soup mixes to provide a bigger nutritional punch.

Sweet potatoes
Look for sweet potatoes to become a year-round food staple -- not just at Thanksgiving -- as they become a ubiquitous alternative to white potatoes as French fries.

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