There’s a lot of buzz these days about something called “plant forward.” What exactly does this term mean?
Simply put, plant-forward or plant-centric cooking and eating means to quite literally put plant foods in the center of, or as the foundation of, our eating plan. Plant foods include all vegetables; whole grains; legumes such as beans and lentils; roots and tubers; fruits; seeds such as sesame or green pumpkin; nuts, especially almonds, walnuts, and pistachios; fresh and dried herbs; and spices. In the plant-forward way of thinking and eating, meat, fish, eggs, and even dairy play a lesser role—that of the supporting cast.
There are numerous reasons why plant-centered eating makes sense. Let’s explore just a couple of them.
Supporting human health
For generations in the United States, meat has been the focal point of our daily home/work/school/restaurant eating experience. It has also been a symbol of our prosperity and abundance. As chefs, we were often trained to build the plate around the protein. While vegetables have substantive protein, we thought only of meat as that centerpiece upon which to build the “other” components on the plate. Potatoes, grains such as rice, and vegetables were those things on the side, meant only to embellish or support the meat and sauce at the heart of the plate.
Science has proven that consuming food with the mindset of abundance (or maybe even a sense of entitlement) has positioned our population on the brink of a national health crisis. Adults and children alike are burdened by obesity and obesity-related disease, including inflammatory conditions like coronary artery disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and countless food allergies and sensitivities. Consuming a balanced, plant-forward diet can prevent many of these diseases and in many cases also help reverse some of their symptoms.
Caring for the planet
When pondering plant-forward concepts, let’s also remember the impact on Pachamama—our home, planet Earth—and the environment in which we live. The monocrop techniques used by many commercial food growers, along with some of the methods used for raising domesticated meat and fish species, jeopardize our environment by way of air and water pollution, soil erosion and loss of soil biodiversity, and the excessive use of fossil fuels. Fostering a system of food and water security for future generations is upon our shoulders right now. We need to act swiftly.
So What’s a Cook to Do?
We’ve all heard the expression, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” How about considering a “Plant-Centric, Planet-Forward” way of selecting, acquiring, and preparing food? It is our duty as stewards of these resources to be conscious and mindful in our practices.
One way we can serve our families and our planet is by putting plants in the center of our creative culinary vision. A mindfully designed, plant-forward menu or meal would include plant foods that are sustainably and responsibly grown using organic, clean, or green principles.
Select nutrient-dense foods
Healthiest choices are foods that are dense in nutrients. A good food list to use is the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 1,000 based on nutrient content. ANDI scores are calculated by evaluating an extensive range of micronutrients—including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidant capacities—relative to calorie content.
Foods that rate among the highest on the ANDI scale are dark leafy greens such as kale and watercress, along with many other foods with intense, deep colors such as blueberries, beets, and broccoli. Of course, a plant-forward diet also contains whole grains, healthy fats such as nut and avocado oils, and very modest portions of fatty fishes, lean poultry, meats, and dairy.
Build and enhance flavor
You can easily enhance already nutrient-dense foods by using flavor-building cooking techniques such as roasting, limited amounts of grilling and smoking, or cooking in a pressure cooker or sous-vide style, which uses the natural juices of a food item as part of the cooking medium. Making intensely flavored salts, oils, and reductions infused with dehydrated fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices, and herbs packs a lot of flavor into small numbers of calories as well. You can also combine foods that are diverse in texture and color and complementary in flavor, and use fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, or Asian bean pastes wherever appropriate.
Above all, be creative. Re-imagine some of the classics without the use of meat or fish. As an example, Martin Matysik, assistant professor of culinary arts, created a signature dish called the Pangea Roll. Using his savvy know-how of flavors and techniques, Chef Matysik re-imagined a tuna sushi roll made with seasoned grated parsnip instead of sushi rice, and delicately flavored, umami-rich tomato concassé petals instead of tuna. With all of the visual appeal and flavor of traditional sushi without the use of fish, you can imagine the delightful surprise when his customers took their first bite!
You can read more about plant-forward concepts and strategies discussed at the Menus of Change conference, co-presented by CIA and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at MENUSOFCHANGE.ORG. Try our Red Salad.
Chef Katherine Polenz is a professor of culinary arts at the New York campus. A 1973 graduate of the college, she is the author of Cooking for Special Diets and Vegetarian Cooking at Home.