Canadian Pizza Magazine

Profiting from plants

Laura Aiken   

Features In the Kitchen Ingredients

Take your vegetable toppings to the next level

Considering the explosion of gluten-free food in the market, one would
be inclined to think it is the leading health claim at limited-service
restaurants (LSR) today.

Considering the explosion of gluten-free food in the market, one would be inclined to think it is the leading health claim at limited-service restaurants (LSR) today. But, it’s not. Vegetarian is actually No. 1.


Vegetable consumption in restaurants is growing, particularly in the quick-serve/LSR and fast-casual segments, according to Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager for Technomic. LSR menus saw a 6.11 per cent year over year growth in dishes containing vegetables (source: MenuMonitor).

Statistics from Technomic’s 2013 Canadian Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report indicated that on average, respondents estimated 20 per cent of the meals they consume at home and away did not have any meat, poultry or seafood in them. The 2012 Canadian Healthy Eating Report by Technomic showed that next to burger chains, pizza had the highest prevalence of items listed as vegetarian on LSR menus. The top three health descriptors at full-service restaurants (FSR) with varied menus were gluten-free (246), vegetarian (89) and healthy (55). Although vegetarian claims didn’t lead the pack, they experienced a 22 per cent growth from 2011 to 2012. Italian restaurant chains received special mention in this category for having a high number of healthy descriptors, including gluten-free, vegetarian and nutritious (source: MenuMonitor).


Technomic has singled out vegetables and vegetarian options as a 2013 foodservice trend to watch in Canada. Going forward, we expect the menu trend toward vegetarian claims to continue, exemplified through more locally sourced, in-season fresh veggies as side dishes and also more vegetarian entrées. As more consumers take a new “flexitarian” approach to dining – enjoying meat on some occasions and avoiding it on others – operators will continue to emphasize veggie preparations as healthy choices. Some trendy vegetable ingredients to watch include kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots and cauliflower,” reads an excerpt from the 2012 Canadian Healthy
Eating Report.

“In general, I think this sounds like a big opportunity for pizza concepts and right on track with a lot of trends we are seeing: towards consumers seeking better-for-you options that toe the line between healthy and indulgent to get that balanced diet they are looking for, a greater use of vegetables in general and widening of perception that meat is not necessarily integral for every meal, and movements to more high-quality, fresh fare in a customizable format,” shares Weikel in an e-mail to Canadian Pizza magazine.

Considering there is an interest in vegetables by meat and non-meaters alike, are you giving your vegetable toppings the attention they deserve? Pizza restaurants are well poised to appeal to an interest in vegetables, and it’s time to consider that the palates of your market may be ready for more sophistication than you are
giving them.

“I do think this comes into play with consumers in terms of their perception of value/price and that, especially if the menu items come at a premium price point, they are looking to operators to make vegetable dishes taste better/be more flavourful than raw vegetables/vegetables they can make at home. I think prep style, like roasting, wood-firing, etc., is an effective way to do it because it gives the item a point of differentiation since a lot of the time they either can’t or don’t want to take the time to do this on their own at home and it maintains the healthfulness of the food,” writes Weikel.  

When it comes to jazzing up your veggies, the sky is the limit. The website can be a great resource for creating new recipes. The website is a database of flavour compounds that connects foods sharing complementary profiles in a visual tree, and is designed to serve as a source of inspiration. For example, you can click on cooked Italian eggplant as a base ingredient and quickly see it is complementary to yellow pepper, tomato, cooked fava bean, olive oil, dried black pepper powder, ginger and lemongrass. You can discover that bacon is a friend to carrots or that asparagus pairs with poppy seeds and roasted peanut. It’s a veritable playground that’s attracted the likes of famous chef Heston Blumenthal, and although many of the ingredients read a little haute couture, there is plenty of inspiration to be found using toppings you already have in your kitchen. 

Marina Rondinelli, two-time Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year runner-up and 2011 Inspired Chef recipe challenge finalist, knows a thing or two about taking vegetables up a notch. Recently retired from the pizza game, Rondinelli shared some of her favourite ways to take veggies to the next level and sound financial reasons for doing so.

Rondinelli’s four principal reasons for putting extra effort into vegetables are to improve perception (you can jazz up your menu with descriptors), to improve looks (even adding spices changes the look of your pizzas), to improve taste, and to improve the bottom line (you can charge more). 

The pizza veteran typically roasted her vegetable toppings, which allowed them to be prepped in advance and extended the shelf life of the produce by a couple of days. She recommends cooking the toppings until they are just done and “not dead.” Some of her favourite standbys are super simple: roasted red peppers in sea salt and olive oil, mushrooms in garlic, and red onions in merlot or sautéed in beer. 

Rondinelli cut her veggies into large chunks so they wouldn’t disintegrate and found it made the pizzas look more appealing (plus it was easier to charge more). She made use of herbs such as basil, sage, rosemary, chive, cumin, chili flakes, paprika, garlic and ginger (fresh or dried), but suggests you make use of what you already keep and use in the kitchen so it stays cost effective. Lemons and limes also will bring out of the flavour of vegetables.

Rondinelli is known for using lots of alcohol in her cooking, particularly vodka and beer. Italian dressing served as a good all-purpose marinade, and sweet chili sauce is marvelous with zucchini, asparagus or any other thicker vegetable. She’s pan-fried veggies in bacon fat, and seasoned sweet potatoes in cayenne and cinnamon for a kick of “sweet-heat.” Soy sauce pairs well with mushrooms or broccoli. She also liked dipping broccoli in an egg wash and rolling it in parmesan cheese. 

“Anything you can do with meat, you can do with veggies,” says Rondinelli. “[But] I leave them [vegetables] alone unless they pay for it. Try it out for a month…You can jazz up your vegetables to make yourself different from your competitors.”

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