By Amy Myrdal Miller
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Produce Business magazine.
As a consultant, I’ve been blessed with many wonderful clients and projects the past three years, but I recently worked on a project that made me a bit crazy.
The client wanted me to take recipes created by chefs and make them “consumer-friendly.” They were taking recipes from a campus dining operation, including student dining and campus catering, and creating a cookbook for students.
At first glance, this seemed like a perfect project for me, but the more I got into it, the worse it become. Why? The recipes used so little produce.
As a recipe writer, I strive to use as much produce in all forms as possible. The chefs who created these recipes specified putting large portions of meat, poultry, and seafood on every plate, but they were still using produce like a garnish, not an integral part of the recipe or meal.
One recipe for eight portions used 1 cup of canned peaches, providing just 2 tablespoons per serving. Another recipe called for a half a baby carrot, cut lengthwise with tops left on, to garnish each plate. The photo for this recipe was beautiful, but the amount of produce was paltry. Clearly the message to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” has not reached these chefs or had any influence on their work.
The more recipes I reviewed the angrier I became. What was apparent to me is that the chefs working at this campus were classically trained. When creating dishes, they think protein, then starch, and produce becomes a distant afterthought. This needs to change.
When I worked for The Culinary Institute of America, we created a program called “Produce First,” designed to motivate chefs to think about produce as the starting point for any new menu item. Today’s plant-forward eating and cooking trend is starting to impact how some chefs think about menu ideation, but there are still too many culinary professionals out there who think meat first. They agonize over the cut, the cooking technique, the pan sauce or reduction to pair with it. And then they steam some mixed vegetables and toss them on the plate.
One interesting conversation I’ve had with chefs about using more produce is the issue of credit, specifically for which forms of produce will they receive credit. If the consumer believes fresh is best, will a restaurant or foodservice operation get credit from their diners for using processed produce?
These same chefs talked about preparation techniques. If they are getting criticized by public health leaders for not offering healthful food, but they’ve learned that techniques like deep-fat frying drive sales of items like crispy Brussels sprouts, should they stop offering that menu item? There’s nothing wrong with deep fat frying if the oil is an unsaturated vegetable or seed oil. The traditional Mediterranean diet, heralded for its many proven health promoting properties, is made up of more than 40 percent calories from fat. Fat quality matters much more than fat quantity in a healthful diet.
What else describes the Mediterranean diet? Right, it’s the fact that it contains abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables!
Okay, so back to the issue of “getting credit” for using more produce. We need to start training chefs about the power of produce when it comes to creating healthful, flavorful recipes. And we need to start training home cooks, too.
Mars, the makers of Uncle Ben’s rice products, did some interesting work in Australia to see if they could move the needle on produce consumption. Based on data from a 2014 Mars consumer study showing 89 percent of shoppers follow the on-pack recipe instructions, they increased the amount and variety of vegetables in their on-pack recipes. Retail sales data on the products with the new recipes showed the potential for 13.3 million more vegetables servings in 2015 in Australia. That’s an impressive increase for a single product category, like a ready to heat and eat rice-based meal.
A day after finishing the cookbook project, I got approval for a new project, one that is making me very happy. I was asked to create 10 consumer-friendly recipes for a company introducing a new produce item to retail this spring. What’s my strategy? I’m using the produce item in new yet familiar ways, and I’m incorporating other types of produce to create easy, healthful, and appealing recipes for busy home cooks. At least half of the ingredients for each recipe are produce items.
Little by little, we can increase produce sales and consumption in this country. More really does matter. But we need partners to do so. If you’re working with a chef, planning an event for your company, or even ordering lunch for your office, stay focused. Ask for more produce in your recipes, meals, even your cocktails. I can never get enough vegetables in my spicy Bloody Mary at Sunday brunch. Cheers to more produce!
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.