A Surprising Way to Eat 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.

“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.”

A popular green curry ice cream sundae at Gramercy Tavern gets its kick from chiles, cilantro and lemongrass.

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.

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