Bar food and appetizers go crispy, healthful and indulgent
hile fried potatoes in tot and tangle fashion still have much to give on bar and appetizer menus, thank the superfood movement for giving other vegetables a chance at fried stardom with a healthful twist.
Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are current “it” vegetables—a trend that Michael Kornick believes is here to stay. He is executive chef/partner for DMK Restaurants, Chicago, operating 10 concepts. One of them, Fort Willow, offers crispy cauliflower with housemade serrano/poblano hot sauce—the No. 1-selling item on the bites menu, he says.
He believes cauliflower’s appeal as a mild-flavored non-starch with year-round availability in various colors is partly to credit for its widespread acceptance. “For us as chefs, if we can get guests to eat commodity-type vegetables so enthusiastically, we can keep food costs in line as labor costs increase,” he says.
Millennials drive the market
The dining habits of millennials also opens the door to crispy vegetable appetizers. Traditional meals, foods and flavors are less meaningful to this group than interesting, bold flavors, Kornick says.
A group might come in and want to try eight dishes containing items they’ve never had before, whereas 15 years ago, few would try something new. He adds that a chef’s job is to make a plate that is small, interesting and craveable, with a variety of tastes and textures. Bottom line, every dish must be attractive, aromatic, spicy in some way and intriguing. Fort Willow’s fried cauliflower is made crisp with a tempura batter applied after the florets are steamed al dente, dried and dusted with flour.
Millennials also look for something fun that they can share on Instagram, says Joe Cervantez, executive chef at Brennan’s of Houston in Houston. “What they see that’s cool or out of the ordinary—different, healthy or some sort of alternative—they like to share on social media.”
Whatever shows up on Brennan’s bar menu must go through the thought filter of memorable, authentic Southern Texas Creole. On offer are fried green tomatoes, as well as corn-fried pickled okra creole spiced with fire-roasted pepper sauce.
Cervantez has also featured tempura-fried green beans as a french fry alternative. Whatever the fried vegetable, it often arrives at the table on photogenic cast iron lined with parchment paper.
Different from the average cornmeal-crusted fried green tomato, Cervantez pickles the tomatoes for the popular pickled fried green tomato ravigote appetizer that also features jumbo lump blue crab, Southern chow-chow and charred lemon ravigote sauce.
“The sauce is citrus mayo or aioli-like, with lemon, mayo, capers and parsley. It pairs well with green tomatoes with a good amount of acid to cut through the fat of something that is fried,” he says.
He also pickles the okra before frying it with a cornmeal crust. As with any fried vegetable, the sauce presents the carrier for bold flavors. “We’ve done a few sauces, but we’re known for our housemade rémoulade with 16 ingredients,” says Cervantez. It’s a ketchup/mayonnaise-based sauce with citrus, celery, parsley and spices to give it a kick.
When he serves tempura-fried green beans, he pairs it with a cayenne avocado dressing, which is a vinaigrette-like blend of egg, olive oil, lemon, cayenne, shallots and blanched avocados.
Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are undoubtedly the trendiest vegetables to “crunchify,” with plenty of ways to approach them.
Big Easy Winebar & Grill, Miami, includes mini cauliflower samosas on its bar menu. Peas, diced carrots and roasted cauliflower are seasoned with a mild Cape Malay curry, encased in a samosa wrapper, fried, and served with green chutney similar to chimichurri with oil, fresh cilantro and parsley. The entire menu is inspired by the Western Cape region of South Africa (with its“Big Easy” nickname).
Bret Hessler, director of culinary operations for Miami-based Grove Bay Hospitality Group, which owns and operates the restaurant, says he includes cauliflower on the bar menu because that’s what the market wants.
“You put your signature on it. Cauliflower is popular. What can I do with my name on it or my concept’s name on it and stay tied in with what’s going on and what other people are doing?”
With the rise of heirloom tomato salad and fresh mozzarella salad, Hessler also notices the high demand for tomatoes in his market. He made a fried green tomatoes appetizer with tomato chutney, pork belly and chevre.
Atop the panko-crusted fried tomato slices, he includes the tomato chutney, similar to a compote with brown sugar and vinegar, as a bridge between the tomato, pork belly and goat cheese.
The earthiness of Brussels sprouts calls for flavor-balancing creativity as a fried-vegetable appetizer. Alex Becker, creative culinary director for Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, developed a Brussels sprouts with pear salsa and soy vinaigrette appetizer for Kuro, the property’s new-style Japanese restaurant.
Rather than serve the Brussels sprouts whole or halved, he pulls the leaves off, allowing the tops to get crispy while the bottom half has more chew. He tosses them in a honey/soy glaze with a bit of fish sauce.
“That glaze brings out a deep smoky/savory flavor,” he says. He fries them in a tempura-style fryer to golden-brown, squeezes out the excess oil with a paper towel and tosses them in the dressing.
He tops the leaves with yuzu-marinated Asian pear bits and chives. In the end, the appetizer has a dry-salad look presented in a shallow bowl with green and brown fall colors.
Survey all vegetables
All vegetables can be approached through different lenses. Consider the sweetness of corn, the slender fry-like shape of asparagus, the upscale reputation of artichokes and the popularity of avocados.
Kuro serves corn kakiage with furikake and ichimi spice. Becker describes the house-favorite fritter that combines corn, herbs, spices and sweet onions as a light and airy tempura-battered approach that brings forward the sweetness of the corn and onions. Its seasoning garnish of nori, black sesame seeds, salt, sugar and a little ichimi spice adds a savory element.
He thinks of fried vegetable appetizers as a way to bring something fun, lighter and more colorful to the table with an approachability not usually achieved by a side of vegetables. “In coming up with offerings, don’t count on protein as the workhorse on the menu,” Becker says.
Tempura asparagus is one of the top-selling appetizers at Temple Bar, Cambridge, Massachusetts, says executive chef Richmond Edes. “I’m pushing more toward plant-based dishes and eating as healthfully as possible.”
The light, crunchy spears lend themselves to his ramp aioli as sauce with the ramps he pickled from the previous year. With thoughts of salad, he tops the dish with cured egg yolk. “You could use a knife and fork, or use your hands if you want to,” he says.
Served at the DMK restaurants are such appetizers as artichoke fritters, avocado fries, portabella fries and fried ricotta-filled squash blossoms. Available at the group’s Marshall’s Landing in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart are artichoke fritters served with bearnaise sauce aioli, which is more shelf-stable than traditional bearnaise sauce, Kornick says.
The kitchen staff cooks baby artichokes in water with salt and lemon until tender, halves them, dusts in flour and dips in a spicy egg wash, rolls them in panko crumbs and deep-fries until crispy. The sauce is a shallot/tarragon reduction with white wine vinegar folded into aioli made with a combo of olive oil and grapeseed oil.
Avocado fries are also a hit on the menu. The secret is to use ripe but firm avocados. Cut them in wedges, lay them out on parchment paper and place in the freezer long enough to become firm, but not frozen.
Then, roll in flour, a spiced egg wash and fine-ground breading. The sauces vary, but any dressing that works atop avocados in a salad works as a dipping sauce. Chipotle ranch is popular, Kornick says.
DMK’s Ada St., Chicago, serves portabella fries—sliced and tossed to marinate for a half-hour in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and minced garlic and basil for the infused flavor. The breadcrumb coating includes finely chopped basil and parsley for the color specks. “We think it also reinforces that there will be herbs connected to the mushrooms,” Kornick says. The fries come with a pesto aioli.