How vegetables ditched their reputation for boring
Evolving tastes of health-conscious Canadians mean more — and different — produce on our plates
At his southwestern Ontario farm, Antony John has developed a small army of followers for turnip.
This turnip is not, he hastens to add, that "orange muck" that is sometimes dropped onto dinner plates at Thanksgiving.
Instead, customers at his vegetable farm are craving his baby yellow turnips, which can be transformed into something "glazed and golden and sweet and caramelly" when cooked according to a recipe from a renowned French chef, which John happily shares.
John has been farming for nearly 22 years in the fertile soil of Perth County, just west of Stratford. And over those two decades, he's had an up-close-and-personal exposure to the evolving tastes of increasingly health-conscious Canadians, and the increasing popularity of a foodstuff that has often been considered the height of culinary boredom: vegetables.
"The biggest change I've noticed is in the home consumer, the sophistication of their palate," says John.
"I'm not sure if it was driven by the restaurants or driven by food shows on the Food Network, but either way we've seen a great increase in our market stalls."
So many varieties
Today's consumers, it seems, want their nutrient-rich broccoli or Brussels sprouts to be more than just a secondary side dish to a big helping of meat. And they definitely don't want all the life boiled or steamed out them.
"Vegetables may be good for you, but now they're sexy," says author and culinary activist Anita Stewart, who was appointed the University of Guelph's first food laureate in 2013.
"There are just so many different preparations and there also are so many different varieties of vegetables."
Vegetables are also finding greater favour as buy-local campaigns flourish and as an aging population of baby boomers — and also their sons and daughters — are looking to make healthier choices in their food.
Another factor contributing to the popularity of everything from Chinese cabbage to okra is coming from those new Canadians who are bringing some of their favourite veggies to their new home country.
Researchers are even finding that some of these new crops can flourish in Canadian conditions.
"It really wasn't that long ago when Ontario did not have crops like sweet potatoes," says Stewart.
"Now we have a great number of growers largely because of the work of researchers who perfected the growing of this particular crop here."
Kale for breakfast
Grocery stores have also seen increasing demand for vegetables of all types.
"People are trying to get them into more meal occasions," says Gillian Kerr, vice-president of brand marketing for Sobeys.
And that means earlier in the day, with more vegetables showing up at breakfast.
Farmers are responding to new demands coming from ethnic communities and other Canadians.- Serge Desroches
"Many people are adding fresh greens right into a smoothie that might also contain almond milk, bananas, strawberries and throw some kale in there," says Kerr.
Consumers, says Kerr, are asking "how can I add another nutritional dimension to that same meal and have it more power-packed for me and do it naturally?"
Beyond breakfast, Sobeys has seen consumers interested in more imaginative salads, including ones with warm ingredients.
That could mean roasting broccoli or cauliflower, getting a caramelized flavour from that, and adding nuts and seeds for a different take on something that is often served plain and steamed.
Sobeys, which has 1,500 stores across Canada, won't reveal sales figures for vegetables. But Kerr says they have increased noticeably, especially for kale and some of the Chinese greens.
"Those have gone way way up in that particular segment," she says.
Figures from Statistics Canada show farmers' sales of vegetables hit $914 million last year, up 3.6 per cent from 2013.
For Chinese cabbage specifically, sales have risen from $6.4 million in 2001 to $35.7 million in 2014.
"Farmers are responding to new demands coming from ethnic communities and other Canadians," says Serge Desroches, an analyst in the agricultural division at Statistics Canada.
While revenue for farmers has been rising, that income is coming from a smaller total area of land in production for vegetables. And all this is happening as demand for vegetables seems likely to grow even more.
More yield, fewer hectares
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph, says demand is expected to increase four per cent year over year the next three to four years.
"Demand is likely driving prices upwards," he says. "We import more and more vegetables, and Canadian-based producers cannot compete."
"Greenhouses, particularly in Ontario, are becoming more prevalent. Hence the reason why yields are increasing but not the number of hectares" under production for vegetables.
At John's farm near Stratford, 32 hectares (80 acres) are in production. Half of them are certified organic.
"At any one time, 20 of those acres are into hay, which rejuvenates the soil and puts nitrogen back into the soil and the other 20 acres are for our vegetables," he says.
All the familiar vegetables — the peas, beans and carrots — are there.
"But we tend to focus on the varieties that have the best flavour," says John.
"So yes, we grow cauliflower, but we grow a variety called romanesco. It's an heirloom and it has much sweeter taste, it's much nuttier-tasting than regular cauliflower."
Not just great taste
It also looks nice even before it's cooked.
"It's so beautiful," says John. "It looks like a fractal geometry diagram and sometimes I can sell them on looks alone. People will say I have to have that for a centrepiece."
John also has his eye on the future, seeing potential in newer vegetable varieties such kalettes, an intriguing cross between kale and Brussels sprouts that carries the sweetness of the kale, and forms a sprout on a stalk.
"People have been clamouring for those … they look beautiful. You can cook them whole. That's the great thing."
Chefs love them, too, he says.
"We were dropping them whole, deep fried, and then tossing in an Asian peanut sauce dressing."
John also sees potential in producing dried peppers and Mexican chilis.
"Mexican food has undergone quite a surge in popularity and we're trying to grow some of the harder-to-find chilis and drying them to sell through the winter."
He also wants to see the idea of terroir — that something grown is a reflection of the soil and climate where it is produced — extend to vegetables.
"A carrot from California versus a carrot from our farm — whether it's organic or not — you shouldn't even call them the same thing, but there's this prejudice amongst people that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot and it couldn't be farther from the truth."
Not just a simple side dish
Consumers are finding different ways to savour vegetables, using them in recipes that take them well beyond a simple side dish of boiled or steamed greens. Click on the links below from Sobeys for two recipes featuring kale.
Caramelized turnips — from Antony John:
- 1 pound baby white or yellow turnips (golf-ball sized)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3⁄4 cup chicken stock
- salt, pepper to taste
Cut the turnips in half or, if larger, quarters. In a sauté pan with a tight lid, add the butter, sugar and turnips over moderate heat, uncovered.
Season with salt and pepper. Cook slowly, turning the turnips from time to time, until the surfaces are nicely browned, five to 10 minutes.
Add 1⁄4 cup of stock, cover and continue cooking over moderate heat until much of the liquid has been reduced.
Continue adding stock in increments and cooking down until all the stock has been used up and the turnips are soft, golden brown and meltingly tender. As an option, these can now be tossed in a little tamari and sesame oil, or added to curry.