Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.
During a recent presentation to a group of produce industry leaders gathered for a virtual meeting, Bobby Stuckey, owner and Master Sommelier of Frasca Food and Wine Group in Boulder, asserted that restaurants can and do make produce a luxury ingredient. He gave the example of organic squash blossoms, whose price per pound matches or exceeds the meat and fish procured for his fine dining restaurant.
I was intrigued by this idea. I tend to associate luxury with ingredients like a dry-aged prime ribeye, lobster, or foie gras. But as I pondered this long after Stuckey’s one-hour presentation, I started to recall meals that produced indelible memories from incredibly flavorful produce, memories that come from fine dining as well as fast food chains.
I recall fondly the first time I was able to get two Cuties with my McDonald’s Happy Meal. Peeling back the loose skin emitted fragrant citrus aromas that perfumed my car and eased some of my work tension. That was an unexpected moment of produce as luxury.
One of my favorite produce items as luxury memories comes from the only time I ate dinner at the Chez Panisse Restaurant more than 20 years ago. My first course featured assorted baby vegetables stuffed with a mixture of herbs and breadcrumbs. The platter on which the vegetables were served came from Heath Ceramics, the vegetables and fresh herbs were grown on local farms, and the breadcrumbs came from bread baked in the Chez Panisse Café oven. This food had a great story as well as phenomenal flavors, textures, and colors to please my senses.
The most recent example of produce as luxury came during a fleeting moment in June, when restaurants in Sacramento opened briefly for outdoor dining. My husband and I secured a coveted reservation for the first evening in June that Mulvaney’s B&L offered outdoor dining. We got seated in the alcove between the restaurant and special events center, a hidden area with just four tables for two. We were socially distanced from other diners and well protected from cars driving past the patrons seated on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
All of us in the produce industry who care about elevating the value of vegetables on menus and in the minds of American consumers need to do more to shift perceptions of vegetables.
Our first course featured local peaches and basil served with burrata cheese made at the restaurant that afternoon. The aroma from the peaches was so alluring, and the combination of the peaches and basil inspired many meals prepared at home later in the summer when intense heat and/or smoke from local fires decimated the outdoor dining scene in Sacramento County.
My favorite moment of produce luxury for dessert happened after a PMA Foodservice Conference in Monterey many years ago when I stopped for dinner in Los Gatos on my drive home. California Café featured fresh raspberries served in a pool of dark chocolate sauce. The raspberries were perfectly ripe, sweet, and oh-so gorgeous placed in the thin layer of dark chocolate. I’ve never seen another restaurant offer such a simple, satisfying dessert, but I wish more would.
The final example I’ll share today comes from another local restaurant called Woodlake Tavern. They offer Delicata squash rings coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fat fried. At first glance they look like a stack of onion rings, but the texture and flavor offer a unique, craveable food experience. My mother-in-law calls them the “donuts of the vegetable world” and, for once, I think she may be right. Whenever I eat them, I feel both decadent and virtuous.
All of us in the produce industry who care about elevating the value of vegetables on menus and in the minds of American consumers need to do more to shift perceptions of vegetables. We need to stop using words like “humble” or talking about commodities. We need to start focusing more on, and talking about, flavor and other quality attributes that matter to the chef and the diner. This will take time and effort, but I’m confident that with the help of Bobby Stuckey and other restaurant industry leaders, we can shift consumer perception of vegetables to something we should eat to something we want to eat.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is consultant for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a member of the Texas A&M AgriLife External Advisory Board and a member of the Bayer Vegetable Seeds Horticultural Advisory Council. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on social media @AmyMyrdalMiller