In a city like New Orleans, the opportunity to indulge in rich, delicious food is around every corner. Things like beignets, po-boys, and cochon de laits certainly make our mouths water, but they can also reek some serious havoc on our bodies. It's no secret that meat, dairy, gluten, and eggs are known to cause painful digestive issues and for many people avoiding them sometimes (if not all the time) is the only answer to living a normal, happy, and healthy life.
Fortunately many local restaurants are becoming more sensitive to the dietary needs of their customers. Vegetarian options seem to be popping up on menus left and right, while other dishes are executed so that they can be changed easily to accommodate vegan or gluten-free diets. The Conscious Palate will explore the menus at these restaurants in order to serve as a guide, research tool, and friend to those who have to eat a little more consciously than others.
To kick off this sultry month of June, I'd like to explore one ingredient that seems to grace the menus of nearly every restaurant in town: tomatoes. One of the South's most celebrated fruits, tomatoes earn mad respect in the kitchen by being not only gorgeous and tasty, but incredibly versatile as well. There's hardly anything you can't do with these vine-ripened beauties. From soups to curries, to sandwiches to salads, tomatoes manage to find their way onto our plates and into our hearts every summer.
The same way fresh fish needs nothing more than a squeeze of citrus to brighten its natural flavor, tomatoes shine when prepared with minimal ingredients.
One Restaurant and Lounge has mastered the art of simplicity with their Tomatoes 3 Ways. This vegetarian appetizer features heirloom tomatoes raw, sliced thick and seasoned with cracked pepper, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar; marinated bruschetta-style in olive oil, red wine vinegar, shallot, and basil; and, finally, oven-roasted and topped with a panko and parmesan crust. This delightful dish can easily be made vegan by leaving out the parmesan, or gluten-free by asking for the gratin sans the breadcrumbs.* Looking for something a little more decadent? Try Restaurant August's Tempura Fried Squash Blossoms filled with a Progress Dairy Spiced Ricotta over an Heirloom and Baby Squash Salad. To lighten the crust on the blossoms, August uses rice flour, making this artful dish both vegetarian and glutenfree. Or maybe meat is okay for you but gluten isn't, in which case Lilette's Braciola with San Marzano Tomatoes, Creamy Polenta and Parmigiano Reggiano is probably like music to your ears.
Soup is one of my personal favorite ways to enjoy tomatoes, and Capdeville's Tomato and Fennel Soup with Basil Pistou is hearty, vegan and easy to make. Simply sweat chopped fennel, onion, celery and carrots over high heat until their volume has reduced by half. Add garlic and cook an additional 5 minutes. Pour in canned tomatoes, a pinch of toasted and chopped fennel seeds, simmer for 30 minutes, and then puree in a blender. Add a few tablespoons of Herbsaint and some water to smooth it out, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot with crusty French bread or do like I did and enjoy it all alone. The mild licorice flavor from the fennel and tart punch from the tomatoes makes this soup worthy of its place at the table any time of year.
Lastly, you can't mention vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free food without giving a shout-out to the quirky Satsuma Cafe in the Bywater. Their Gnocchi Roma with Tomato- Kale Ragut, Egg and Parmigiano could send any veggie hater dancing down the street with a broccoli torch in hand.
Eliminating meat, gluten, dairy, or eggs from your diet should never mean you're doomed to a life of flavorless food. Even something as simple as a tomato paired with flavor-boosting ingredients and a bit of technique can transform itself into something rich, hearty, and incredibly satisfying.
So even if you're not a vegetarian, a vegan, or living a gluten-free life, I urge you to try some of these dishes and experience tomatoes in a whole new light.