Dine: Vegetable dishes that have a bold, hearty kick

Vegetables are no longer for the birds or people who eat like them, as hearty vegetarian dishes with bold flavors steal the spotlight on restaurant menus and among the 30 or so veggie-centric cookbooks coming out this season.

Case in point: At Salt of the Earth in Garfield last month, chef de cuisine Chad Townsend served chicken-fried chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms on a biscuit slathered with seitan gravy.

He said a line cook supplied him with a bounty of the mushroom, which is tougher than most. "So we decided to fry it, and it turns out to be delicious."

The dish sells because it's colloquial and nostalgic, reinvented with a foraged ingredient. That it's for vegetarians is, well, gravy.

"People are already on the road to eating more vegetables," said Joe Yonan, author of "Eat Your Vegetables," a cookbook that came out in August. In the course of writing it, The Washington Post editor of food and travel became a vegetarian.

"The trend is in full bore right now, which is a funny thing to think about. It's not like it's the cronut."

With health benefits that can go along with vegetarianism and the proliferation of more satiating restaurant dishes and recipes, it's easier to understand how more people are deciding to forgo meat, or at least become flexitarian.

That term came into heavy play around 2009, when food columnist Mark Bittman practiced veganism for daytime meals at the advice of a doctor who warned him that his diet was leading him to poor health and the potential for diabetes. Mr. Bittman's "VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health ... for Good" came out in April.

But the food editor of a major metropolitan newspaper cutting out all meat was surprising news.

"I've been calling this my second 'coming out,' because it reminds me of the first time, when I was dealing with quite a different subject," Mr. Yonan wrote in The Washington Post in March. His decision rippled, with features on National Public Radio, Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and elsewhere.

"I was already going in the direction of vegetarianism for a while," he said. "I just wasn't talking about it."

He cited having to eat meat-laden meals in restaurants and how, on nights off, he would cook vegetarian. It may have started as penance, but he found that he was captivated by the possibilities. A yearlong book sabbatical on his sister's homestead in Maine cemented it. "Eat Your Vegetables" sheds light on his decision.

"My recipes are on the hearty end of the spectrum," he said. "I'm not a delicate salad kind of guy."

Many recipes are for gateway dishes that would seduce meat-and-potato loyalists, such as spicy kale salad with a miso-mushroom omelet, rife with cremini, oyster, hen of the woods and other meaty mushrooms.

"Thank God for mushrooms," he said. "They are my lifeline."

Like Mr. Townsend, the Texas native put together his take on chicken-fried veggies. Instead of mushrooms, it's chicken-fried cauliflower and a miso-onion gravy. It's not just the flavors he appreciates. He also likes that it's hearty enough that you need a fork and a knife.

"You miss cutting something up," he said, noting that so many vegetarian dishes don't require cutlery. "Meat eaters are used to using more than one utensil at a time."

In the recipe, cauliflower is first steamed in a skillet, then fried in a batter seasoned with salt, paprika and ground chile. When I made it at home, I was enthralled, though it doesn't plate like a mock meat the way Mr. Townsend's chicken of the woods rendition does.

Speaking of mock meats, Mr. Yonan had been against them. He bristled at the sight of vegetarian meats in quotation marks and compared mock meats to "Birkenstocks with socks."

His stance softened with seitan, particularly the product reintroduced in the late '90s by Seattle's Field Roast Grain Meat Co. Still, mock meat doesn't have a supporting role in the book, just a cameo appearance, as tofu sits in for "meat."

What about when diners and home cooks move past peak season for produce -- like, now?

"I have one word for that: pickles."

Rather than dedicating a section of the book to them, he threaded pickle recipes throughout.

Pickles also have been making a comeback at restaurants around town. They get special attention at Legume and Butterjoint in Oakland, where pickles of every sort claim their own library of jars on display in the recently revamped dining room.

This taste of summer will provide even more pleasure in the cold, gray months ahead.

"Pickles are really important in the wintertime," said Mr. Yonan. "They represent this high, bright note when everything else is on the earthy side."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198, mmccart@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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