Portabellinis and yellow beets haven't made it into most supermarkets yet, but they may soon have their day in the retail sun.
Industry sources, including some retailers, say that's a near certainty. They see a direct connection between what's hot in the restaurant world and what grocery shoppers will eventually put on their shopping lists. A number of vegetables that had their debut in top restaurants, on televised cooking shows or at the local farmer's market have since become mainstream retail items. Take portabello mushrooms and mesclun greens, for example. Not too long ago, the average supermarket customer saw portabellos as oddities and might have regarded mesclun as a bunch of weeds.
Items found today on chefs' menus, and soon to be nuzzling their way into the supermarket arena, include very young versions of old standards, such as baby lettuce and baby artichokes, micro sprouts and shoots, mini edible flowers and baby root vegetables. Vegetables with a different look, such as purple potatoes and red and white carrots, albino beets and also items that have intense flavor such as heirloom tomatoes and log-grown mushrooms are hot these days, some of the nation's top chefs told SN. The emphasis is on mini, locally grown, seasonal and, above all, great, great taste, they said.
Supermarkets may not start out with log-grown shitakes, but their produce selection nowadays does reflect their customers' growing awareness and sophistication, retailers said.
"People are eating out more and they want to duplicate what they've enjoyed in a nice restaurant at a lot less cost. A great salad with trendy greens might cost $7 or $8 out, but they can buy the ingredients from us and make the same thing at home. They can buy mesclun greens from us, and elephant garlic. Pearl onions and jicama have become mainstream, and our display of fresh herbs has grown from one linear foot five years ago to about 12 now," said Bruce Von Oehsen, produce buyer, at Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
Little by little, America's chefs, serving up their fare in restaurants, or smiling out from the TV screen, have educated consumers about out-of-the-ordinary vegetables and are showing them what to do with them.
"The Food Network is the best thing that ever happened to our business. It would cost us thousands upon thousands to do anywhere near that kind of educating," said Tony Mirack, produce buyer/merchandiser, at McCaffrey's Markets, a four-unit independent based in Yardley, Pa.
At the same time, chefs at upscale restaurants are training their customers' taste buds to want the best, so consumers are seeking top quality and top taste wherever they go, SN's sources said.
"Log-grown shitakes, for example, have a much truer mushroom flavor. I make a ragout of locally grown mushrooms that includes those shitakes and our customers love it. We're also getting locally grown artichokes now that have wonderful flavor," said Todd Gray, chef/owner at the renowned Equinox Restaurant, Washington.
Gray is putting a bigger variety of greens on his menu this summer. Dandelion greens have been added, and different-colored chards. He said he's also using a lot of baby pea tendrils and chive blossoms. Meanwhile, chef Robert Waggoner at the upscale Charleston Grille, Charleston, S.C., is doing a saute of red, white and orange carrots and making big use of micro sprouts and baby lamb's lettuce. While the baby vegetable trend continues, other mini items such as tiny sprouts and blooms are growing in popularity as well.
"I'm using baby corn, ears two-and-a-half-inches long, and purple basil sprouts, no more than half an inch high and sunflower sprouts. Our supplier grows sunflowers to only about seven-days old, so the sprouts are only a couple of inches high," Waggoner said.
Gray makes a salad of flowering pea tendrils and he's using mini, mini chive blossoms to pretty up other dishes.
"I lightly wilt the tendrils in extra virgin olive oil and garlic. And the chive blossoms are beautiful. They're tiny purple flowers so small you could set half a dozen on your fingernail. I mix them into salads."
Gray is participating in a "Virginia Grown" campaign the Virginia Department of Agriculture is kicking off this month. He'll participate hand-in-hand with supermarket operators in that effort.
In fact, Gray and his wife, Ellen, who's general manager and co-owner of Equinox, believe strongly in bolstering a positive tie between restaurants and supermarkets because they said it benefits both parties.
"When we serve something unique and different, we know customers will go looking for it at their local market. And the more they learn about good food, the better restaurant patrons they make. We, and I think, most restaurants, love to work with retailers," Ellen Gray said, adding that Equinox often does chef demos in area supermarkets.
"The customers just about always take the recipes and usually they buy every one of the ingredients in that store," she added.
Some of the things mentioned, like chive blossoms -- very much specialty items with a shelf life as tiny as their size -- don't appear to be good candidates for the supermarket produce aisle, but Tony Mirack at McCaffrey's Markets, said such items, even if short-lived, are great to add pizazz to the department. He went on to describe a particularly esoteric item probably seen only at multi-star restaurants in his area before he brought it into McCaffrey's.
"We've just begun carrying blanched corn sprouts. They're tiny, maybe an inch long, and they're white because they're grown in the dark. They're a point of interest. We bring them in and out. Do we sell a lot of them? No, we can't pay our bills selling corn sprouts."
But he brings in 10 or 15 packages, in the same small clamshell packages that most fresh herbs are packed in, for the weekend. He gets them from a local grower that also services the area's upscale restaurants.
"I consider we have two separate segments of customers. Those who shop Monday through Thursday -- mostly the housewife who wants to get in and out in a hurry. But on the weekend, shoppers have a little more time to look around. That's why I bring these and a micro green mix -- baby leaves -- in just on the weekends. We put the literature out telling customers what these items are and how to use them."
Schnuck Markets, too, is helping its customers become acquainted with some of the less common vegetables that are available. In all its produce departments, the 103-unit chain is selling "The Purple Kiwi Cookbook" by Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's Inc., a Los Almalitos, Calif., distributor and marketer of specialty produce. In fact, last month, the chain hosted a book signing and cooking demo by Caplan.
In addition to getting more adventurous with their choices, Americans are just eating more vegetables these days, chefs told SN.
One chef at a restaurant in the New York suburbs, said, "I have customers who tell me they don't want to see a starch on their plate. They tell me they just want a lot of sauteed vegetables with maybe grilled shrimp, and sometimes they order an extra side vegetable."
A side of escarole at his restaurant is $6.
At one of the most expensive restaurants in New York City -- Alain Ducasse -- a vegetable entree has been added. It's "a timbale of fresh vegetables from Lee Jones' The Chef's Garden." Jones is an Ohio specialty vegetable grower, dedicated to sustainable agriculture, who supplies chefs across the country.
In some cases, the quest for greater flavor has led chefs to buy many of their vegetables locally, and that has meant featuring what's in season. That may have spurred the emergence of root vegetables as a cool choice, SN's sources said.
One vegetable lover, Peter Howard, a chef and native of Australia, who has authored 11 cookbooks (his most recent is "Barbequed!") said he noticed when he visited New York this summer that diners were more interested in vegetables than they were when he was in the United States six years ago. He noted that in some of New York's finest restaurants, diners were hankering after root vegetables, quite a departure from the past.
"When I was at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago in '96, I made a beet terrine and nobody would touch it. But last night at Artisanal, two out of the four people I was with ordered the beet salad. Another night, at dinner at Gramercy Tavern, I was glad to see a bowl of creamed rutabaga at the next table. It reflects what's happening on an international basis. Restaurants are putting emphasis on vegetables and charging a lot of money for an extra one," Howard said.
"I find the attention to vegetables very refreshing. I even see the marvelous old classics like creamed spinach."
In fact, greens of all kinds are getting big. Different types of chard, and collards, are getting attention at upscale restaurants like the Charleston Grille and at Cafe Brenda, a vegetarian restaurant that's prospered in Minneapolis for 25 years. Brenda Langton, Cafe Brenda's chef/owner, said, "Nobody's throwing away beet tops or even carrot tops."
At Palamino Restaurant in Cincinnati, executive chef Andre Leger leaves the tops on the baby carrots he serves in a vegetable melange that also includes roasted button mushrooms and grilled asparagus. Leger, like his counterparts, is emphasizing vegetables as never before. Last month, when he was guest chef at Kroger's flagship store in Cincinnati, his main assignment was to demo Alaska salmon, but he chose to present the grilled fish with fresh, sauteed vegetables.
"I put the salmon on a bed of warm, vine-ripened Roma tomatoes and some nice, sweet, yellow tomatoes infused with fresh arugula. I used baby, edible orchids as a garnish."
Consumers' demands have driven supermarkets to obtain better-quality vegetables, SN's sources said.
Chef/author Peter Howard said the quality of vegetables he saw in supermarkets on this most recent visit to the United States is way above what he saw six years ago, and he believes that's because consumers have become more discerning.
"They travel more, eat out more, watch food shows, and they're definitely looking for top quality and good taste. We're spoiled in Australia. We've always had a good supply of medium-quality vegetables, but here [in the U.S.] a few years ago, the tomato was the most abused piece of fruit around. This time, in New York, I had one of the best tomatoes I've ever had. It was from a salad bar. I don't know where it came from but it had a good acid balance and great flavor."
Taste is everything, but convenience of preparation is also showing itself as a plus, one source said.
"Years ago, I sat in Castroville, [Calif.], with several chefs and growers, and the chefs were asking for baby artichokes because they would be easier to handle. They have no chokes, and you can cut them in half so they can be used in different ways. Finally, they got them. Growers got together and responded. And they're doing the same with some other varieties," said Elizabeth Schneider, author of "Amaranthe to Zucchini -- The Essential Vegetable Book."
Portabellinis, a small, tender version of the portabello, is another example that lends itself to flexibility on the menu and on the plate. Its sales are growing fast in some divisions of Houston-based Sysco, the country's largest food-service distributor, according to a source.