Baby corn has long been a stir-fry staple, and those so-named baby carrots have become the obligatory sidekick to hummus. But small vegetables only seem to betting bigger — at least in supermarkets and restaurants. Earlier this year, California’s Shanley Farms introduced “single-serving” avocados (trademark name: Gator Eggs) sold in clever packages reminiscent of egg cartons. Produce titan Green Giant sells Little Gem Lettuce Hearts, a lettuce hybrid that resembles romaine in miniature. Not to mention the countless iterations of baby broccoli — in fact, a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale — that appear in grocery stores everywhere. Are bitty vegetables merely an eye-catching novelty or are there culinary benefits to downsized produce?
At least for chefs, the most desirable baby vegetables are generally the ones that are indeed babies — that is, harvested young. “When grown well and picked fresh, baby vegetables eat beautifully,” says Aimee Olexy, chef and owner of Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily, in Philadelphia. “Often tender and sweet, they require less overall cooking and retain a more perky mouthfeel and appeal on the plate. Young baby peas and beets are almost always wonderful, and a dainty little treat worth the work,” she says.
Because some baby vegetables are a bit delicate, “handling and plating them can be a bit more challenging,” says Mark Gaier who, with Clark Frasier, runs the kitchens of Boston’s MC Spiedo and other New England restaurants. In particular, the chefs love incorporating baby bok choy with garlic and chicken stock into Asian-inspired dishes and roasting baby beets and turnips in butter to serve alongside grilled meat. “For the most part, you don’t need to prep or cut baby vegetables, just make sure they are fresh, clean and vibrant,” Frasier points out.Tortellini with baby vegetables at Parallel 37.
At Yunnan Kitchen, in New York City, chef Doron Wong pairs chamomile flowers, spring pea puree and black rice vinegar with grilled baby ramps, baby carrots and petite radishes. While he highlights this array of tiny vegetables because “the flavors are concentrated in smaller bites,” he notes that guests are also “fascinated to see smaller versions they cannot buy in supermarkets.”
Michael Rotondo, chef of Parallel 37, at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, sees his customers smitten by the sight of diminutive veggies on their plates as well. Rotondo weaves baby carrots into carrot tortellini, spikes a chickpea and saffron bouillabaisse with baby fennel and brightens a salad of Asian pears, pecans and aged balsamic with baby lettuce. These dishes, he says, often elicit an oh-how-cute reaction from patrons. “Most people grow up eating overgrown carrots, beets and lettuces — which sometimes translates to a starchy texture — so when they see a petite vegetable the size of a silver dollar, it’s pretty exciting.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer who covers the intersection of food, drink, travel and design. She launched her career by opening boxes of Jamie Oliver books as a Food Network intern.