A Surprising Way to Eat Vegetables: For Dessert

Arugula tops a pecan pear cake with blue cheese mousse at Gramercy Tavern.

Struggling to cut down on added sugar and get more vegetables into your diet? Take a lesson from some of the best chefs in the country and try eating vegetables for dessert.

Chefs are pushing the culinary boundaries of traditional desserts, reducing added sugars and experimenting with the natural sweetness of corn, carrots, fennel, squash, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. At the restaurant Gwen in Los Angeles, a deliciously sweet roasted artichoke, celery sorbet and green olives with crème fraîche cheesecake have appeared on the dessert menu. At Blue Hill in New York City last fall, diners delighted in the natural sweetness of a honeynut squash with ice cream, parsnip cake and naturally sweet carrot sorbet.

Credit...Blue Hill

“We’re shooting for a pastry kitchen that doesn’t gratuitously use any sugar because there is so much natural sweetness in the fruits and vegetables we use,” said Dan Barber, the Blue Hill chef and co-owner who works with the pastry chef Joel De La Cruz to create veggie-focused desserts. “We like looking at vegetables in a new way.”

At Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, pecan pear cake is served with arugula and blue cheese mousse. A grapefruit panna cotta includes cilantro and avocado, and a popular green curry ice cream sundae gets its kick from curry made with chiles, cilantro, lemongrass and other traditional Thai ingredients.

“We always want to use something that makes sense and adds a little different note to a dessert,” said Miro Uskokovic, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern. “And many vegetables — carrots, celery, beets, sunchoke — have so much sugar. You can manipulate them in such a way that it eats like a dessert.”

While it may sound far-fetched to serve vegetables for dessert at the family table, chefs say the lesson for home cooks is to recognize the high sugar content in many vegetables and cook them in a way that enhances the food’s natural sweetness. Too often, home cooks take a puritanical approach to vegetables in a quest to make them more healthful, serving them without butter or sauce and cooking them only briefly.

“It’s as simple as cook the heck out of root vegetables,” Mr. Barber said. “I like the idea of root vegetables simply roasted for a long time. You’re getting out all the water you can and caramelizing all the sugars. Add a scoop of ice cream, and it’s a great experience.”

For Blue Hill’s squash dessert, the honeynut squash — a smaller, sweeter relative of butternut squash — was roasted for several hours, scooped out and dried further on the stove top. “Every bite you are taking is squash times 800 percent,” Mr. Barber said. “If it was picked at the right moment, it bombs with sweetness. That’s true of parsnips, celery roots and beets as well.”

Although we tend to think of vegetables as a savory food, every vegetable has a natural range of sugar that can vary based on the soil and growing conditions, how recently it was picked and whether it was in the ground during a freeze.

A food’s sugar content is measured on a Brix scale (named after Adolf Brix, the German chemist who first measured sugar in plant juice) — the higher the number, the sweeter the food.

For instance, sweet corn can average about 10 on the Brix scale, but can go as high as 24, putting it in the same range as grapes, oranges, papayas and pineapples. Carrots can range from 4 to 18 — similar to kumquats, mangoes and raspberries. Bananas and melons can measure around 12 to 14 on the Brix scale, along with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, English peas, beets, broccoli, celery and cucumbers.

Brix scores are affected by soil conditions, weather, harvesting and storage conditions. Most experts agree that fresh vegetables sold at farmers’ markets are likely to have higher Brix scores than those bought at grocery stores. The website High Brix Gardens found that green beans picked from a home garden scored a sweet 6.2 on the Brix scale, compared to 4.2 for beans bought at a grocery store. In a 2011 Ohio State study, cucumbers collected from four Ohio farms had vastly different Brix readings, ranging from 2.2 to 5.4, showing how different growing methods and soil conditions can affect sugar content even in the same region.

During cold weather, root vegetables like carrots and parsnips convert starch to sugar to prevent freezing, resulting in a sweeter taste. As a result, a carrot or parsnip picked after a freeze will have a higher sugar content than those harvested before the freeze.

In an experiment at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., the farm harvested different sections of a carrot plot each week. Some of the carrots went through three freezes. The sugar content jumped from 3 or 4 Brix in the early batches to 7 in the later-harvested carrots. The restaurant created a “high-Brix” carrot sorbet served with parsnip cake or purple sweet potato sorbet.

Some home gardeners have taken to measuring Brix levels — in addition to sweetness, a high Brix reading is also believed to be associated with higher mineral density and pest resistance. A device called a refractometer, sold on Amazon for $20 to $30, can measure Brix levels from a drop of juice.

Chefs note that not every vegetable works alone as dessert. Recently during a master cooking class, Mr. Uskokovic tasted a dessert made with radicchio, simple syrup, macadamia nut cream and wild rose flavors. “It was beautiful and delicious, but I think it needed more sugar,” he said. “It was too borderline salad.”

Alex Stupak, founder of Empellón in New York, said that culture plays a role in our feelings about vegetables. Rhubarb, for instance, is a vegetable traditionally used in desserts, even though it can be bitter. By comparison, tomatoes (technically a fruit) and celery aren’t “dessert” foods, but they can actually be sweeter.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of rhubarb, but I’ve reached for celery over and over again,” Mr. Stupak said. “I think it has brilliant effects in the dessert world.”

At Empellón in Midtown Manhattan, diners have been served corn ice cream tacos (a more sophisticated version of the ice cream truck Choco Taco) and banana ice cream topped with a tuile ribbon of roasted parsnip. One of the signature dishes at Empellón is made with avocado, a savory fruit rarely used in dessert. Mr. Stupak’s creation is essentially a parfait glacé, a French iced dessert typically made with egg yolks, sugar, heavy cream and flavoring, but in the Empellón version, avocado purée replaces the cream, and the final dessert is shaped to look like exactly a real avocado, including the dark skin.

“I love tasting avocado in the sweet context,” Mr. Stupak said. “If you really eat an avocado and close your eyes and taste it, the flavors are subtly nutty and almost anise-like or fennel-like.”

Mr. Stupak noted that carrot cake, while popular, doesn’t really taste like carrots. “Something like a carrot sorbet or carrot ice cream gets much closer to transmitting the flavor,” he said. He said he once served a carrot ice cream made with carrot purée and many people thought it had the orange and vanilla flavors of a creamsicle. “I love that because they are tasting facets of a carrot they haven’t tasted before,” he said.

Mr. Stupak said he happily mashes and purées vegetables at home that he turns into cakes and cookies for his two young children. “It’s a very clever way to get someone to eat their vegetables,” he said.

And if you try cooking a vegetable for dessert and it’s not quite sweet enough for your palate, Mr. Barber has an easy fix. “For the home cook, I don’t have a problem putting sugar on vegetables for dessert,” he said. “The sweetness will still be a lot less than a conventional dessert.”

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