Glenn Bunger, a 38-year-old teacher from Manhattan, was driving in rural Pennsylvania last month when he saw a roadside farm. Screech! Mr. Bunger had been seeking a plump pumpkin into which he could carve the Barack Obama sunrise logo, but as he perused the crates of fresh produce, something more impressive caught his eye: an enormous, perfect-looking butternut squash, placed on a table between pots of mums and some perennial herbs.
“I just knew I had to try it,” he said, still sounding a bit awed.
Back in the city that evening, Mr. Bunger, who is decidedly not a vegetarian (he’s from Texas), roasted the squash, which had cost $3.50, with brown sugar and butter. Then he made a purée with the leftovers. It was a veritable feast, he said.
Only 10 years ago, Manhattan was gripped with meat fever: stockbrokers chomping on steaks; chefs competing to see who could offer the most unusual offal; magazine editors slavishly following the diktat of Dr. Atkins (some getting bad breath in the process). These days, the opposite is true. In some of the city’s finest restaurants, vegetables are getting more room on the dish, at times even taking center stage. The corner butcher gently guiding a housewife through her first pot roast now seems quaint; these days we have a legion of househusbands prowling the farmer’s markets, gawking at the cauliflower and palpating the parsnips.
Could it be that vegetables are the new meat?
“I like the sound of that!” said Alex Paffenroth, owner of Paffenroth Gardens, said to have the best produce at the Union Square Greenmarket.
It was a frigid Wednesday morning in mid-November, and Mr. Paffenroth, a burly man of 64, was standing at the back of his box truck in the market’s northeast corner, flipping through pink carbon-copied receipts of vegetable orders from restaurants including Five Points, Telepan, Savoy, Blue Hill and Gramercy Tavern, whose purveyors had already stopped by to claim the day’s bounty. His daughter, 32-year-old Deanne, of Williamsburg, was ringing up customers in front of a portable space heater.
“The real rush will start around lunchtime,” she said.
The place was filled with real men, not bloodless hippies in hemp shirts.
Gary Liliean, 48, a farmer’s market regular wearing a black coat and a baseball cap, placed a plastic bag filled with 3 pounds’ worth of fingerling potatoes (a side dish for Thanksgiving dinner) down on the scale.
“It’s fun!” said Mr. Liliean, who runs a lighting rental department, of his weekly trips to the greenmarket. “You wander around. It’s like impulse shopping.”
Standing nearby with a sizable parsnip in each hand was Joe Beshenkovsky, a 32-year-old TV editor who lives in the West Village. Mr. Beshenkovsky still eats meat, but started making vegetables the cornerstone of his diet about three years ago. He said he wanted to eat more healthfully, and preempt becoming “egregiously fat.” He visits the farmer’s market twice a week to stock up on produce.
“These puppies?” he said, proudly holding up the two tubers as if to show off his catch, “I’ll either bake ’em for dinner or toss them in the microwave for a snack.”
POWER BROKER ON THE PLATE
A 2004 survey conducted by the city health department found that 90 percent of New Yorkers eat fewer than five servings of vegetables or fruit per day, a spokeswoman for the bureau pointed out.
But 2004 was also the year that Thomas Keller’s Per Se burst on the scene, with its forest mizuna and field mushrooms. In his four-star review, New York Times critic Frank Bruni praised the restaurant’s nine-course vegetable tasting (now $275)—“of all things,” he marveled, adding, “Lobster is easy; potato salad is hard.”
Meanwhile, “locavorism,” which posits that everyone should eat food produced within 50 to 100 miles of their homes for environmental reasons, has gone mainstream; The Oxford American Dictionary named “locavore” its word of the year for 2007. Initially perceived as a way of life for patchouli-soaked do-gooders, the movement has gotten a considerable PR boost from food-world notables like journalist-author Michael Pollan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”) and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse—yes, the same man known for his testosterone-soaked “BAMS!”
Last spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation issuing 1,000 permits for produce-only food carts in low-income areas where fresh vegetables and fruit are not easy to come by. Marcel Van Ooyen, executive director of the Council on the Environment of New York City, said that about 20 of the organization’s 46 greenmarkets just opened in the past three years. And the number of farmer’s markets statewide has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture.
“People are looking for more rare and exotic produce,” said Ms. Chittenden. “So we’ve seen an increase in the diversity of produce our farmers are growing; more heirloom varieties and things that may not have fit a niche back when people were just looking for the roundest, reddest tomatoes.”
Top New York chefs agree.
“People are more aware of what’s going on with the local veggie scene,” said Bill Telepan, owner of the Upper West Side restaurant Telepan. “It’s become more popular to buy from the greenmarket than it ever has been, and because the greenmarkets seem to be getting bigger and better, now chefs are able to have veggies play a more prominent role.”
Indeed, there’s plenty of room for them on Mr. Telepan’s menu, which includes fried artichokes, autumn vegetable bread soup, roasted cauliflower, chickpea pancakes, beet green and ricotta pierogis, and buttercup squash gnocchi.
“This consciousness about, ‘Who’s growing what? Where’s it coming from? What variety is it?’ These are questions people weren’t asking 10 years ago,” said Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, whose Web site lures diners with images not of sizzling meat, but colorful vegetables sprouting from soil and vine. Blue Hill’s fall menus include entrees and/or tastings of cauliflower steak, brussel sprouts and pistachios, Bloomsdale spinach, celery root, Orion fennel and Forono beets, to name a few.
Mr. Barber, whose “almond carrots,” foodies will recall, were all the rage last year, said that because the farm-to-table movement has made people “more interested about what’s going on their plate,” chefs have become more confident about veggies being the star.
“It’s brought about the rise of the vegetable as a power broker on the plate,” he said.
BEET ME, DARLING
Of course there’s a more obvious reason to opt for veggies when dining out: In an economy where even well off New Yorkers are cutting back on their morning trips to Starbucks, it never hurts to save a few bucks.
“Restaurants are looking for a way to put less expensive items on their menus,” said Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, founder and co-owner of Craft, which, he noted, offers an array of vegetable-based courses priced below their meaty counterparts. “You can come in and just order vegetables and make a meal out of it. We will see more of that.”
At Gramercy Tavern, the popular contemporary American restaurant Mr. Colicchio co-founded in 1994 but is no longer affiliated with, the vegetable tasting menu, which currently includes heirloom cauliflower, Jerusalem artichoke soup, fennel and lemon risotto and a butternut squash and kale-based ravioli, will run you $92, as opposed to the meat-heavy autumn tasting menu ($112).
“It’s very satisfying to see a rising number of sales of the vegetable tasting,” said Michael Anthony, Gramercy’s executive chef.
There is a happy medium between these high-end places and, say, DoJo, the longtime Village refuge of cheap carrot salads. The menu at the downtown comfort food joint Westville East recently enticed Alexis Saarela, a 29-year-old publicity manager from Queens, when she met a friend there for a post-work dinner. For $13 she got cauliflower, pesto mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and artichokes (there are about 20 veggies total; diners may choose four).
“It was really tasty and they were vegetables I wouldn’t normally think to buy or cook with,” said Ms. Saarela, who has no problem eating meat. “It’s nice to have an option where you feel like you’re getting fresh seasonal ingredients.”
New York carnivores squeamish about handling a bloody slab in their own kitchens, meanwhile, can now comfortably explore the cooking craze using vegetables alone, with no stigma. No longer is the bachelor cook expected to inflame his lady with a sizzling steak Diane.
Back at the Union Square Greenmarket, the entirely macho Michael Coury, 40, who works as a “concept chef” for OTG Management, was rifling through a crate of black Tuscan kale to accompany the chestnut flour pasta, Jerusalem artichokes and beets he planned to cook that evening for a romantic dinner back home in Jersey City with his fiancée.
“I think we’ve started to come back to more of a European palate in the way that we go out to the market to find what’s best for right now. For tonight,” he said.
Those without the patience for such foraging can join community-supported agriculture groups, or CSAs: networks of individuals who buy shares in a farm in return for a weekly delivery—usually to a central neighborhood location—of fresh vegetables and fruit (and yes, in some cases meat). You never know what you’re gonna get.
Williamsburg resident Angela Gaimari, 26, joined a CSA last June. Previously she’d been eating a bagel for breakfast, a cheeseburger or sushi for lunch and maybe pizza for dinner.
“It was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t eaten vegetables in a really long time!’” she said. “I just started craving leafy greens.”
Ms. Gaimari, a copywriter for a high-end New York department store, said her most recent shipment (also the last of the season) included dinosaur kale, mustard greens, brazing greens, white radishes, various roots, garlic, sweet potatoes and fingerling potatoes. The cost for 11 such shipments with some fruit and flowers thrown in for good measure: $500.
“Cooking and having people over is a lot more fun to me than going out to some bar in Williamsburg,” said Ms. Gaimari. “I take a lot of pride in picking out vegetables.”