BATTLE GROUND — Cauliflower has been showing up on East Coast menus since 2013. Thanks to a Culinary Institute of America conference that local restaurateur Russell Brent attended a year ago, it’s now making a splash on the local culinary scene, along with a bounty of other produce.
The “Menus of Change” conference advocated healthier choices, sodium reduction and the addition of plant-based proteins. Brent, owner of Mill Creek Pub in Battle Ground, challenged his chef, Michael Borges, to create plant-forward additions to the menu that weren’t just good for diners but entrees they’d come back for again and again.
Using cauliflower as his inspiration, Borges took the rather benign vegetable to a new level. It now appears as a carbless substitute for rice, potatoes and pasta. Cauliflower “steak” is where this Vitamin C packed cruciferous shines. After seasoning the superfood, Borges oven roasts and grills it. Upon presentation, the “steak” has actual grill marks and is topped with a house-made marinara sauce and balsamic reduction which gives it meaty and savory notes. It’s so substantial that it even holds up to red wine — a Maryhill Winery 2012 Winemaker’s Blend, to be exact.
“This is not the bitter cauliflower your mother used to make,” Brent said. “It really tastes and feels like you’re eating a steak.”
Moving through the menu, cauliflower turns up again as a rice bed for the gluten-free beef tenderloin tips instead of the traditional mashed potatoes. Lacking the starch of potatoes or rice, cauliflower develops sweet and nutty notes as natural sugars are released during the roasting process. For carnivores, this is the best of both worlds: an opportunity to try a vegetable that mimics the texture of rice while still enjoying high-quality meat.
Expanding on his desire to bring the freshest ingredients to the Mill Creek kitchen, Brent planted a garden on his Woodland property last spring. He’s been harvesting Scots kale for several weeks and will move to the heirloom tomatoes, heirloom peppers, eggplant and Romanesco broccoli for use in the restaurant as each crop ripens.
The new, gluten-free kale, apricot and almond salad spotlights this leafy green brimming with phytonutrients that makes another appearance in a few other menu items. Toasted almonds, dried apricots and the orange vinaigrette all soften the sometimes astringent kale and brings a combination of smoky, vanilla and sweetness to the dish.
Another carbless creation is the Warm Zoodle Salad, featuring zucchini and yellow squash “noodles” mingled with a garden bounty including roasted mushrooms, peppers, Brussels sprouts and kale simmered in vegetable stock. Briefly cooking the ingredients retains their vibrant colors while bringing out the naturally sweet and earthy flavors that are sometimes hard to pick up when eaten raw. The result is a warm and satisfying dish reminiscent of pasta primavera.
Burger fans have not been forgotten.
A collection of handcrafted burgers, emphasizing what Brent calls “stealth health,” is at the heart of Mill Creek’s new menu. Russell’s Brussels Burger is an example of their approach; made up of 50-percent ground beef, the addition of a roasted vegetable mix that includes Brussels sprouts, garlic and red pepper increases bulk without sacrificing flavor. It’s seen again with the Bridge Tender Salmon Burger–and its blend of capers and dill; the Spicy Chicken Burger–highlighted by cilantro and chipotle peppers; and the Hula Hula Burger–one of the top two most popular menu items right now.
“You don’t have to tell people it’s a healthy item,” Brent said. “Parents aren’t telling their kids there’s Brussels sprouts in the burgers. They’re just picking it up and eating it and loving it.”
Looking for a little more animal-based protein? Guests can choose from chicken, salmon, prawns or steak to add to salads, vegetable entrees and the Cauliflower Mac–another carbless dish made with roasted cauliflower nuggets in place of the traditional pasta.
The big key here is greater choices and more realistic animal protein sizes. Lettuce wraps are available for the burgers; sodium-heavy feta cheese has been switched out for goat — a decrease of nearly three times the amount; most cheese is served on the side; and guests can experience plant-forward cuisine that offers real variety.
“Through partnerships that we made at “Menus of Change” we learned that healthy food can taste good and make really colorful presentations,” Brent said.