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Sexy and Summery Veggies

Refreshing crudité with addictive dips star on menus

Fashions come and go in food just as they do in clothes. What we once called carrots and celery, as Nora Ephron wryly observed, became crudité. That was about the same time we fell in love with Julia Child and embraced brie and baguettes. And weren’t we sophisticated to be calling humble vegetables by a French name! As time marched on, crudité trickled down to supermarket packages of pre-sliced carrot sticks and celery spears with the occasional broccoli floret and cherry tomato. Cutting edge, they were not.

But now that vegetables are moving center stage, a whole new world of crudité has opened up. It’s as if everyone suddenly woke up and said, “OK Mom, we’ll eat our vegetables.”

Refreshing crudité presentations, including uncommon vegetables such as lovage, Treviso, broccoli rabe, kohlrabi, and Harukei turnips snuggling up to pedestrian carrots, are showing up on menus everywhere—sometimes as bar snacks, sometimes as appetizers, sometimes as a communal dish for the table. And the spreads at weddings are not your grandmother’s buffet. Who knew from kale? Then there are the dips where chefs really let it rip whether they are updates of classic dressings or riffs on exotica like Muhammara or hummus.

Caterer and cookbook author Ted Lee, who imparts a taste of Southern summers, with his butter bean hummus dip, sees this “as the third wave of crudité. They are no longer an afterthought. People are really paying attention to seeing that the vegetables are fresh and chilled and the dipping sauces are amazing. It’s a good test of whether there’s intelligence in the kitchen.”

Santina, a New York City restaurant from the same group that revitalized red-sauce fare at Carbone, is so enamored of its supersized Giardinia crudité for the table that it’s pictured on its home page with its three sauces—one red, one white, one green, just like the colors of the Italian flag. One can almost think of it as a terrestrial version of the French plateau des fruits de mer.

At Acme, a contemporary bistro in New York City, diners might be treated to an amuse of tiny raw vegetables with a smoky onion aioli or they can order a larger version of this treat as a bar snack. John Fraser, at his new vegetarian restaurant NIX in Manhattan (which just received two stars form the New York Times), calls a spade a spade and offers a snack of “raw veggies” with a choice of dips such as red pepper and walnut or labneh and marinated cucumber. Chef Graham Dodds at Wayward Sons in Dallas does an all vegetable riff on a charcuterie board with artfully sliced root vegetables mimicking cured meats, pickled turnips, house made giardiniera pickles, sunchoke pate, and potato leek terrine. Real men eat these vegetables. The garden “charcuterie” has become one of his most popular appetizers.

Achim Lenders, global vice president of food and beverage for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, recently served a refreshing all green bouquet of Persian cucumbers, fennel, mint, and sugar snap peas wedged into a beautiful bowl of crushed ice. He flavored a dip of crème fraiche with grated freeze dried white truffles and white truffle oil. It was summer in a bowl. On another occasion, he even redeemed the carrot. He shaved ribbons of multi colored carrots on a mandolin and tossed them over a few others cut in chunks. The dip was a carrot puree. Carrots squared.

Lenders believes the new crudités are part of the movement to celebrate heirloom vegetables. “People are taking a different approach and making the presentations more modern and youthful. We’re doing more in our restaurants and events to showcase the products,” he says.

Few chefs have done as much to celebrate fresh from the farm vegetables as Dan Barber at his Blue Hill restaurants both in the city and at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. He cleverly impales perfect baby radishes, Hakurei turnips, squash, fennel—whatever is popping up in the garden at the moment, on a “fence” of stainless steel spikes on a wooden block made exclusively for Blue Hill. He sprays them lightly with a lemon vinaigrette and serves them as a passed hors d’oeuvre.

“In the past people may have needed convincing, “says Blue Hill vice president Irene Hamburger. “We don’t have to do that sell anymore. People understand the work and effort that goes into raising the vegetables and then making them look beautiful. When people choose to have an event at Blue Hill, they’re expecting that they get to showcase the farm to their guests as well.”

The fence, she says, is always part of a wedding. But “especially at Stone Barns every meal begins with a variety of vegetables in their own form–everything from baby fennel with pistachio nut crust to tiny white Hakurei turnips thinly sliced less than a quarter inch served with poppy seed puree and a sprinkle of poppy seeds on top. It’s all part of the first onslaught of vegetables.”

Caterers, such as The Cleaver Company, are finding increased demand for lavish vegetable displays both at weddings and corporate events. Mary Cleaver has long been an ardent supporter of sourcing from local farmers and celebrating their produce. But, she says, “vegetables are indeed on the upswing and we are pushing them hard. One of my favorite salads is what we call the Farmers Market Salad, which is essentially a crudité of shaved vegetables with a whipped yogurt dressing on the plate. The vegetables and flowers change according to the season.”

Great Performances chef Mark Russell says that for him “crudités are the in-between bites that refresh. Plump, ripe, raw vegetables clean the palate and subtly stimulate the taste buds, preparing you for what may come next.” He has the good fortune to receive most of his produce from the company’s Katchie Farm in Kinderhook, NY. “Peak season is peak flavor,” he notes, “here crudité is all about highlighting the unique textures, colors, and tastes of the season’s best produce.” He waxes poetic over “gangly asparagus and plump tomatoes in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, and nuances; lettuce and greens, some spiked, some soft, some crisp; radishes sharp and peppery.”

Why now? Probably for the same reason that vegetable focused restaurants like Dirt Candy and Nix can be showered with stars. That farmers’ markets are flourishing everywhere. That tomes celebrating vegetables like John Folse’s “Can You Dig It?” and Michael Anthony’s “V is for Vegetables” are flying off the cookbook shelves.

“Vegetables in their purest form are the most beautiful. Over the last few years chef’s have taken a much greater appreciation for vegetables and want to showcase great, seasonal produce,” says Jesse Schenker of The Gander in New York City. Chef Lisa Giffen of Brooklyn’s newly opened Sauvage agrees: “This dish is so popular now because the produce is so incredibly fresh that they are absolutely delicious raw, and require very minimal accompaniment.” 

At New York City’s NoMad there’s a stunning bowl of crudité on ice with chive cream but executive chef James Kent also takes the idea of crudité one step further by spotlighting a single raw vegetable–butter-dipped radishes with fleur de sel.

“The radishes are a wonderful dish, in our opinion, because they are something so traditional and simple, but we’ve tweaked the execution, sourced some impeccable product, and I like to think we’ve elevated them to something really delicious,” says Kent. “They are very popular at the restaurant–I believe the guests appreciate them for those same reasons, as well as the intention and care we put into sourcing the best produce we can.”

Instagram worthy presentation is crucial and chefs pull out all their artistic instincts whether potting their veggies in black olive “soil” or displaying them on shimmering beds of ice. And yet one has the sneaky suspicion that the more caloric dips may often be the real draw. Mark Russell suggests choosing “dips that have big flavors and compliment the produce. A fennel frond vinaigrette accents batons cut from the bulb and utilizes the whole plant. Olive oil adds spice. Goat cheese, slightly warmed, bathes with a subtle acidity. Pair vegetables with contrasting yet complimentary flavors, for example, peppery radishes with something creamy and smooth; sweet sugar snap peas with something savory.”

Many chefs find that flavored aioli works well. Jason Stanhope at Fig in Charleston whips up a basil scented aioli for his early summer vegetables. Mike Lata at The Ordinary in Charleston accompanies shishito peppers with a benne and paprika aioli.

Variations on traditional dressings and vinaigrettes also abound. Paul Reilly at Beast + Bottle in Denver concocts a green goddess dressing for baby zucchini and roasted beets. Almost anything resembling a vinaigrette works well. Hugh Acheson (The National, Athens, GA) accompanies green beans with tomato fenugreek sauce; kale and kohlrabi with Vidalia vinaigrette but few chefs have gone to the lengths that Eduard Frauneder (Freud, New York City) has with his deviled bone marrow emulsion. What? It’s roasted bone marrow whipped with mustard, guajillo chilies, fermented turnip juice and grilled beef stock. It has a texture like a thick vinaigrette.

The dips are as fashion forward as the vegetables they’re dressing whether they’re incorporating outré ingredients or reimagining the classics.

If there’s one place where food and fashion are sure to intersect it’s Ralph Lauren’s Polo Lounge in New York City so it’s no surprise to find crudities, there both as a snack and a vegetarian appetizer. But Ralph, always on the lookout to nod to the spirit of the West, serves ‘em with a homemade Ranch. Buckle up your concha belt and dig in.

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