Like the Parthenon, a Bach fugue and a Chanel suit, a healthful diet has symmetry and perfect proportions. First Lady Michelle Obama agrees. Inspired by her anti-obesity initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently introduced nutritional guidelines for a balanced daily diet in the form of MyPlate, a pie chart divided into four wedges—red for fruits, green for vegetables, orange for grains and purple for protein—along with a small blue side dish for dairy products. Chefs in some of the city’s finest restaurants know how to prepare and present these basic food groups in complex, innovative ways.
Whether they’re raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, dried or dehydrated; whole, chopped or mashed, vegetables comprise a food supergroup that can reduce heart disease and protect against certain cancers. Consuming two and a half to three cups per day is suggested. Many chefs think that broccoli, beans, cauliflower and all leafy greens have always deserved a front-and-center place on the plate. “We treat vegetables no differently than we would a piece of foie gras or a truffle,” says Paul Liebrandt, executive chef/owner of Corton (239 W. Broadway, 1-212-219-2777). Elements of his Green Market vegetable salad, each meticulously prepared before plating, might include parsley meringue, a miniature spinach “boudin” stuffed with garlic and sorrel, creamy sunchoke glazed with black-olive paste and a mélange of freeze-dried tomato grains and bits of toasted marcona almonds. The dish changes with the seasons, segueing into pumpkins and squash in autumn, root vegetables in winter.
Some cuisines have historically emphasized vegetables for religious reasons. In Lebanon, for example, “about half the population is Christian. During Lent, you don’t eat meat, eggs, butter or milk,” says Elias Ghafary, executive chef/owner of Al Bustan, (319 E. 53rd St., 1-212-759-5933). Hence, dishes like his kibbet lakteen bill saniyah, made of cumin-scented, baked pumpkin puree and cracked wheat layered with spinach, onions, walnuts, chickpeas and saffron. It’s meat-free, but with enough hearty protein to fortify the devout during their period of prayer and penitence.
Growing up on a farm in Queensland, Australia, helped forge Chef Shaun Hergatt’s fresh vegetable-driven cooking philosophy at Sho Shaun Hergatt (40 Broad St., 1-212-809-3993), where he likes to use one veggie in a variety of ways. His Garden Beets Roulade includes a crunchy beet puree and hibiscus powder tuile filled with beet mousse, roasted beets in a citrus dressing and horseradish whipped cream with a sprinkling of beet dust.
Naturally low in fat, sodium and calories, while chock- full of fiber, essential minerals and vitamins, fruit is an immune-system booster and favorite among many chefs. “In Italy, we never finish a meal without fruit,” says Nino Selimaj, impresario of Nino's Restaurant (1354 First Ave., 1-212-988-0002). A perfectly ripe pear is his personal preference. As a boy growing up in Trieste, he would stash immature pears in piles of hay in October, then fish them out mid-winter, when they were ripe (and slightly hay-scented). In his restaurant’s voluptuous pera e prosciutto, sliced and lightly salted ripe Bosc pears are roasted over an open fire, wrapped in 24-month-old San Daniele prosciutto (naturally, it’s made in Selimaj’s home region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia), wreathed with chunks of fresh Parmesan-Reggiano and finished with truffled honey.
Pears are also precious at Toqueville (1 E. 15th St., 1-212-647-1515), where Chef Marco Moreira turned a beloved signature salad of caramelized Bosc pear and cheddar cheese into a satisfying winter soufflé. He folds Calvados-flambéed diced pears into a nutmeg- and cayenne-spiked béchamel sauce and uses cheddar cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Conn. An aromatic huckleberry sauce, served on the side, is perfumed with spices such as toasted star anise, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and coriander. Sommelier Nick Adams Robinson suggests pairing this savory dish with a 2007 Georges Brunet Vouvray Sec from the Loire Valley.
At Le Bernardin (1 55 W. 51st St., 1-212-554-1515), the ingredients of Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis’ apple confit could not be simpler, yet the final product is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s all in the technique, which involves baking layer upon layer of whisper-thin apple slices and intensely aromatic, caramelized cinnamon-sugar dust into a whipped cream-and-egg-based confit, accompanied by a red wine caramel sauce. The creamy parfait and red wine sauce employ the same flavors in different form; the result is the essence of autumn on a plate. “A lot of my staples don’t really have a season, so it’s really up to fruit to give a sense of time and place. Fruits are the core of virtually every dessert I do,” says Pastry Chef Laiskonis. He prizes the first fruits of any season, including the “sugar bombs” that are early spring greengage plums and rhubarb, which hint at “the promise of brighter things to come.”
Contrary to popular belief (and some dietary fads), cutting out bread and starches isn't required for healthy eating. Not all carbs are created equal, though: Whole grains—those that retain their fiber, iron and vitamins—are the way to go. At Copacabana Supper Club (268 W. 47th St., 1-212-239-2672), “we’re trying to do dishes that are exciting, not typical,” declares Chef Alex Garcia. To that end, he’s adapted an exotic creation of grain, flowers and cheese he discovered in Oaxaca, Mexico. For his version, dubbed huarache floral, he mixes his own corn dough, flattens it into huaraches (“sandals” in Spanish), then presses flowers—zucchini blossom and whatever else the market offers, including orchids—into one side. After grilling, the tortilla is topped with a salsa of fresh corn, huitlacoche (a corn fungus) and zucchini flower, and finished with crema, Mexico’s version of crème fraîche.
“I still believe that every dish needs some sort of starch,” declares Michael Vignola, the chef at Gravy (32 E. 21st St., 1-212-600-2105). He loves cooking with grains, from Vialone Nano risotto (for gumbo fritters) to black-eyed peas (for hummus) to cornmeal (to coat fried green tomatoes). In his signature entrée of scallops and honey grits, Chef Vignola riffs on classic shrimp and grits, pairing plump seared scallops with a Savannah honey-thyme-shallot reduction folded into Anson Mills grits. A little corn relish, lobster-and-black-garlic barbecue jus, and a topping of marinated arugula finish the dish, which, true to Gravy’s style, is innovative yet reflective of Southern culinary traditions.
THE POWER OF PROTEIN
Meat is so synonymous with “main course” in many minds that it’s surprisng to learn that adults require only six ounces of it a day—and the leaner, the better. It helps to remember that while all meat is protein, not all protein is meat. The USDA reminds us that beans and peas (pinto, black, black-eyed and chickpeas) count as protein, too.
Diners can get a sophisticated sampling of the vital nutrient in alternative form with the quenelles made by Chef Laurent Manrique at Millesime (92 Madison Ave., 1-212-889-7100). The Paris-trained toque starts with ground pike, binds it with egg whites, poaches, then bakes the dumplings in a classic Mantua-style sauce, built from lobster-head stock, cognac and cream. The result is almost soufflé-like. Manrique loves legumes—he grew up in a tiny village in Southeast France eating lots of them—but says that as the father of young children, “it’s important for me to give them protein, as well as vegetables.”
Chef Carmen Quagliata’s Berkshire pork chop is a beloved staple on the menu at Union Square Cafe (21 E. 16th St., 1-212-243-4020). Sourced from Brooklyn-based Heritage Foods USA, the chop is brined in a mixture of salt, sugar, spices and water, then pan-roasted. For fall, Chef Quagliata adorns it with harvest fruits: He broils figs with a bit of sugar, salt and balsamic vinegar, adding grapes for the last 30 seconds of roasting time, then places them on and around pretty rings of roasted green and cream-colored delicata squash. Sautéed red Russian kale rounds out the hearty dish. His own favorites, however, are humble cuts, such as lamb shoulder, which he braises “until they’re all gooey and tender.” It takes “patience and a bottle of wine,” he adds, the latter for both the dish and the cook.
Sometimes, though, nothing but good old beef will do. The secret to Ben & Jack’s Steakhouse’s (255 Fifth Ave., 1-212-532-7600) popular porterhouse for two—44 ounces of New York strip steak and filet mignon on either side of a massive T-bone—is that it is aged for 28 days, seasoned well and allowed to rest at room temperature before being fired on a scorchingly hot grill to achieve a thick, delicious char. It’s served sliced on a hot, tilted plate, for easier spooning of its flavorful jus, according to Executive Chef/part owner Jack Sinanaj (who eats steak—sometimes a well-marbled rib eye, sometimes sirloin—six days a week).
People do need their dairy—milk, cheese and yogurt are key sources of calcium, which builds and maintains healthy bones and teeth—but, as with meat, fat-free or low-fat varieties are preferable.
Toques are taking note. At Brasserie 8½ (9 W. 57th St., 1-212-829-0812), Chef Julian Alonzo has “evolved with the times.” A passionate dairy devotee, he now tries to use heavy cream “only for pastry,” he says, admitting, “I still use butter because I think it’s awesome. Just not as much.” One dish in which he doesn’t stint, however, is his goat cheese croquettes, made with butter-rich béchamel sauce, smoked paprika and accompanied by an Espelette aioli. He’s made a variety of appetizer croquettes over the years—codfish brandade, mushroom, foie gras—but these are the ones that keep patrons coming back.
Executive Pastry Chef Jansen Chan of Oceana (120 W. 49th St., 1-212-759-5941) makes a traditional stove-top rice pudding, but with extra milk and a little gelatin to create a gorgeous hybrid: a rice pudding panna cotta. The dessert is studded with almost-frozen pools of sour-cherry pudding and partially dehydrated yellow peaches, topped with tangled strands of sour-cherry tuile and accompanied by peach-skin cookies. Dairy products are central to pastry chefs’ repertoire, says Chan, but cutting back is “a little easier in Asian-style desserts,” such as his blueberry mochi-rice-flour cake with coconut milk crème anglaise.
At Bistro Lamazou (344 Third Ave., 1-212-481-8550), Chef Abdel Makdad’s creamy, well-balanced cheese fondue combines Emmentaler, white cheddar, Muenster and Parmesan. Spiked with a little chardonnay and finished with Kirschwasser for a touch of sweetness, it makes the perfect dairy cloak for hunks of baguette, gougères and a variety of vegetable accompaniments: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini and squash. It’s a year-round menu item at this fromage-focused restaurant, says Chef Makdad, because even in summer fondue can serve as an appetizer or a light meal.
“We can’t live without vegetables, and we can’t live without meat,” declares Jack Sinanaj. Actually, we can’t live without any of the five basic food groups. Happily, as these chefs and their dishes demonstrate, eating right has never been so easy—or so enjoyable.