“Is there some kind of law that every restaurant in Aspen has to serve kale?” a friend recently asked me. A reasonable question, considering that you can find kale salads everywhere, from steak houses to pizza parlors. But I had to tell her that she hadn’t seen anything yet. This summer, local chefs are showcasing vegetables as never before.
“Simply put, our once pork-obsessed populace is realizing these things can actually taste good,” says Mark Fischer, whose new Town restaurant in Carbondale has an entire menu section devoted to vegetables.
Fischer is not the first local chef to get hip to vegetables. Last winter, Robert McCormick at the Little Nell’s Element 47 offered a spectacular salad that looked like a stage set for a mini-vegetable musical. (The summer version now changes practically daily.) And for the past couple of years, Martin Oswald at Pyramid Bistro, upstairs at Explore Booksellers, has been delving into a “plant-based diet” with creative vegetable offerings such as irresistible “kale krunchies” and a roasted beet “tartare.” Currently, his summer salad mixes quinoa with corn, chard, snap peas, and asparagus.
By now, Aspen chefs of all persuasions are aware that, on a national level, vegetable-focused restaurants and cookbooks are generating tons of buzz. Places such as Manresa in Los Gatos, California, and Oxheart in Houston do their best to elevate vegetables to sainthood. The trend is abetted by irresistible recent cookbooks such as Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi, Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison, and Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy (named for her highly creative vegetable restaurant in New York).
One interesting distinction is that none of these books or restaurants are hard-core vegetarian or vegan. Rather, they are all celebrating vegetables, and if a little butter or chicken stock or pork fat will boost the pleasure quotient, sign them up. “I’m especially enthused about using truly fresh, local vegetables when they’re well-prepared, with an unfettered dependence on butter, cheese, crispy bread crumbs, and our deep-fryer,” notes Fischer.
Back in Aspen, at Justice Snow’s there are no fewer than five salads on the menu this summer, including such creative gems as beet and kale, a Cuban chopped salad, and roasted acorn squash with curried chickpeas and quinoa stew. Peach’s Corner Café, home of quinoa sushi, has salads of tasty, ultra-tender baby kale. Michael Beary, at the Latin-centric Zocalito, is using some of the fourteen types of heirloom tomatoes he grows in his home garden—check out his three-salsa sampler to taste his handiwork. Chefs are greening it up on the slopes, too. Jim Butchart, executive chef of the Aspen Skiing Company’s on-mountain restaurants, has long been a leader in supporting local farmers, such as Eagle Springs Organics in Silt. His goal is, as he puts it, to “find the perfect beet, radish, or tomato.”