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Thursday, April 12, 2018 12:01 am

Vegetable-forward cuisine

Vegetables make their way to the center of the plate

 

Last month I was in St. Louis on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon. I was sitting in the covered patio of Vicia, a new restaurant in the Central West End. Several of the window panels had been removed, allowing the warm sunlight and fresh air to intermingle with the smoke wafting from the large wood-burning oven. I was clutching a calendar and a gift bag containing bottles of old apple cider vinegar from the basement of my farmhouse and a bottle of maple syrup I had made from the sugar maples in my back yard. I had an appointment with the restaurant’s chef/owner, Michael Gallina, to ask if I could do a stage at Vicia (work as an unpaid apprentice in order to acquire skills and knowledge).

I was a bit nervous because I am a 64-year old-dentist with a bad back and I was about to try to talk my way into the kitchen of a place that had just been named the #2 best new restaurant in America by USA Today, one of the “Top 50 New Restaurants 2017” by Bon Appétit, one of the “Top 12 best New Restaurants in America” by Eater, and was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant 2017.” When a server told me that the chef would be with me shortly and asked if I would like a glass of wine, I hesitated, wondering if it was appropriate to drink wine during a job interview. “Should I?” I asked the server. “I think you should,” he replied.

He returned with a glass of a “natural biodynamic” wine and a bowl of cut-up raw watermelon radishes, turnips and purple carrots with two dips: a vegetable top pesto and a whipped goat cheese. “This dish is called Naked Vegetables.” I looked at the bowl of root vegetables cut up like pyramids and prisms and obelisks and thought “I should be able to handle this.”

I saw Chef Gallina enter the patio area and look around for his interviewee. The server tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to me. I could see he was momentarily taken aback, probably expecting to see a 20-something aspiring chef. “My name is Peter Glatz. I’m a part-time dentist and food writer and I drive around in a converted school bus pursuing culinary education. I am especially interested in increasing my skill and knowledge of working with vegetables.” He smiled and nodded his head. “Do you have your calendar?” My available days were colored in with yellow highlighter. Looking at April, he said “I’m doing a dinner in New York on Monday. Then I’m doing something with Food & Wine magazine on Tuesday. I’m back Wednesday, so you can come Wednesday and work through the week.” I thanked him and presented him with my vinegar and syrup.

To understand what all the hoopla is about, it is necessary to look at food trends of the last couple decades. Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters championed the farm-to-table concept in the 70s. Restaurant menus started listing their farmer producers. Pasture-raised chickens and grass-fed beef became popular. In 2004 Fergus Henderson published The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating and urged us to eat all parts of the pig, not just the ribs and chops; pig ears and beef hearts started showing up on upscale menus. In 2008, Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto wrote: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and vegetables began taking a starring role on many progressive restaurant menus. Visionary chefs such as Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, and chef/owner of New York’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barn, a famous restaurant/farm/education center on the Rockefeller estate in New York, started serving “vegetable-forward” cuisine, utilizing all parts of the plants.

Dan Barber is one of the world’s most influential chefs and is on a crusade to get us to change the way we eat. He is an advocate for minimizing food waste in the kitchen and works with farmers to bring back Old World seed varieties that sustain, rather than deplete the soil, and works with them to develop new hybrids that emphasize flavor rather than shelf life. Michael Gallina, a St. Louis native, was Dan Barber’s protégée and before he moved back home to open Vicia, was the executive chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barn.

I became aware of Dan Barber and his crusade from his TED Talks and his book The Third Plate. My son used to live near Blue Hill before he moved to Vermont and I had always wanted to apprentice there, so I was very excited to learn that its executive chef, Michael Gallina, was opening a restaurant with a similar concept closer to my home.

Vicia is the Latin word for vetch, a leguminous cover crop planted to replenish nutrients into the soil. This expresses the restaurant’s philosophy of serving foods that support and build up – rather than deplete – the soil. “We really wanted to select a name that invoked what goes on not just above, but within, the soil and how important soil health is to the overall quality and experience of everything we work with.” Vicia also strives for zero food waste. This is expressed in one of its dishes – Juice Pulp Falafel. Rather than discarding the vegetable pulp left behind in the juicer, Middle Eastern spices are added and the would-be-wasted vegetable pulp is transformed into delicious fritters.

I’ve always assumed that the green carrot tops were inedible and thrown them away. In accordance with Vicia’s no-waste philosophy, the tops are made into a delicious pesto. I too am now utilizing the carrot tops to make something delicious and nutritious to dip my carrot sticks into.  

Carrot Top Pesto
Recipe from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
Makes about 2/3 cup

Ingredients:
• 1 cup lightly packed carrot leaves (stems removed)
• 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 large garlic clove
• ¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
• 3 tablespoons walnuts
• ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a blender, combine the carrot leaves, oil, garlic and salt. Process until finely minced.

Add the walnuts and pulse until finely chopped.

Add the Parmesan and pulse until combined.

Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Use immediately or cover and refrigerate up to two days.

Vicia is located at the Cortex Innovation Community Center at 4260 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis.

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