In a controversial article by The New York Times this week, a reporter assigned to Kansas City insisted that there was nothing for a vegetarian to eat in the Midwest. Are local vegetarians forced to spend their winters eating nothing but iceberg lettuce and toast? Food critic, Minnesota Monthly's Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, says no.
Tom Crann: So, there are no vegetables but iceberg lettuce around here in January?
DMG: Hardly. Last week we talked about turning to other cultures for veggie-heavy meals, but there are dozens of local restaurants doing creative, outstanding, delicious things with vegetables.
In north Minneapolis there's a little restaurant called Victory 44 run by a young chef named Erick Harcey. He has a lot of buzz right now because he was named by the James Beard foundation as having one of the top ten dishes in the country for last year, alongside superstar chefs like Wylie Dufresne of New York City's WD-50. It's one of those restaurants where the chefs are also the waiters, and everything is very complicated, and very affordable — a five course tasting meal is $30 (a typical plate might run $7 to $10).
But they will make anything on their menu vegetarian, so you could experience something like what they call "nose to tail" beets, which is literally a plate that has ten components of beets on it, red beets, candy-striped beets, beet-and-olive caramel, a pickled-beet gel, red-beet-and-walnut granola, beet meringue, beet greens cooked into a torchon with onions, and even this complicated arrangement of pickled beet stems paired with liquid-nitrogen frozen fresh mozzarella which is coated with olive oil and pureed black olives. Complicated, but fabulous stuff, and completely vegetarian.
Crann: That's a lot of beets.
DMG: They also have a dish with five versions of eggplant. You could have fifteen versions of vegetables before you even get to the soup.
Crann: But it's not just the new chefs on the block who have discovered vegetables?
DMG: No, one of Minnesota's most significant chefs of the past thirty years is Lucia Watson, of Uptown Minneapolis' Lucia's. She was locavore before it was a word, she'd literally seek out farmers to grow the vegetables she wanted.
I talked to her this week and she told me that when she thinks vegetables in winter, she always thinks soups. "You can tell what season it is by what soup you're eating. You wouldn't eat a sweet corn chowder now.
But she has been serving a triple-celery bisque, made with the herb lovage, which has a celery-like flavor, celery, and mashed celeriac. Braised root vegetables like rutabagas and celeriac make a flavorful stew, and Lucia even told me she makes a vegetarian chopped salad this time of year with grated parsnip, carrot, and beets with a citrus vinaigrette.
Crann: Citrus — that's not local. But I suppose it is January.
DMG: Most of the locavore chefs aren't too dogmatic about it — even Lenny Russo at Heartland, in St. Paul, our most rigorously local chef, makes room for coffee and chocolate. Heartland does a three-course vegetarian menu every night; it's $35 right now, of all local foods — today the menu is a gorgonzola custard, blue potato gnocchi with chanterelles in a winter squash cream, and pawpaw fruit semi-freddo.
Crann: That's all local?
DMG: Shockingly, almost entirely all local. Despite what you might think on a cold day like today, Russo told me that January in the upper Midwest is a fine time to eat local vegetables, because the root cellars are still full of all the fall harvest, the beets, carrots, apples, potatoes, squash, and so on. It's actually March that's difficult, because that's when the root cellars start to empty out.
Crann: So we had better get to eating those local vegetables before they're gone.
DMG: Don't believe everything you read in the New York Times, it's a great time to eat vegetables in the Midwest.
Dara's list of great restaurants for vegetable-heavy meals:
2203 44th Ave. N., Mpls., 612-588-2228, victory-44.com
Lucia's and Lucia's To-Go
1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., 612-825-1572; lucias.com
Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market
289 E. Fifth St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536; heartlandrestaurant.com