Sponsored by Blount Fine Foods
Gone are the days when restaurants half-heartedly menued “token” vegetarian soups that were watery, flavorless and lacked the richness provided by long-simmering, protein-based stocks.
These days, however, flavorful plant-forward, meatless soups represent a growing trend that is being fueled by a lifestyle revolution focusing on more health-centric eating habits. An article published in Forbes lists three benefits of plant-based foods that match what millennials and Gen Zers are looking for: health benefits, lower costs than animal protein and a sustainability profile that has a less-negative impact on the environment than the production of meat protein.
In another article the banking firm Chase identifies plant-based protein as one of seven “Foods of the Future,” agreeing that they are more healthful for people and for the environment.
Plant-based protein can be found in soybeans, garbanzo beans, lentils and kidney beans; vegetables like avocado, spinach and kale; nuts and seeds such as cashews, sesame seeds and almonds; and whole grains like quinoa and oatmeal.
A soup stock revolution
Still, while health benefits and sustainability represent noble pursuits, if the food doesn’t taste good the trend will go nowhere. Fortunately, chefs are creating delicious dishes that appeal to vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians — and everybody else.
The possibilities are endless, experts say. “I see magnificent soups being built on robust, long-simmered stocks made from roasted, caramelized veggies,” says Karen Malody, owner and principal of Culinary Options. “I also see stocks made from smoked vegetables, grilled vegetables and house-crafted dehydrated vegetables, whose essence was caught at the peak of flavor.”
Nor are plant-forward soups being featured only as appetizers. Malody sees entrées being transformed into hearty soups and stews, such as eggplant Parmesan or squash blossom enchilada soup. “Anything that exists in a center-of-the-plate form can be translated into a liquid meal,” she says.
Solving the soup-labor issue
However, one trend that can exert a negative impact on the kitchen is the scarcity of trained labor. In the soup category, however, there is an easy solution: high-quality premium prepared soups. For example, Blount Fine Foods provides a portfolio of prepared plant-forward soups that can take the labor issue off the table.
Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Blount, says that from the restaurant perspective, having prepared soups in the refrigerator or the freezer allows the kitchen to offer great-tasting products without incurring extra labor costs.
Blount’s organic soups also satisfy consumer demand for authenticity by having them certified. “It’s a way for our customers to offer organic products that are certified,” Sewall says.
In the last six to eight months, there has been a growing demand for vegan soups, Sewall notes. Vegan — and vegetarian, as well — are top of mind with an increasing number of customers. Once occupying a lonely space on the menu, as Malody points out, they are now also ordered by carnivores who are looking for healthful — and tasty — additions to their dining choices.
Sewall says that of the 50 or more plant-forward soups produced by Blount, the favorites are organic coconut lentil, organic harvest bisque, tomato zucchini and the trusty American standby, tomato soup.
And there are many more recipes on the drawing board at Blount. “We’re constantly coming out with new and different recipes. It’s almost a weekly thing,” Sewall says. He finds that diners are not necessarily making these products at home, so they love to order them in a restaurant. “You have to give them what they want,” he says.
Plant-based soups firmly on the menu
Research firm Datassential recently published a plant-based eating study showing a number of plant-forward soups ranking high on its menu penetration scale. The items with the highest percentage increase in a four-year trend are butternut squash, gazpacho and tomato soup with broccoli cheese ranking not far behind.
Datassential’s marketing coordinator Joe Garber points out that soup and chili are the top dishes when the recipe calls for using legumes. The four most menued items are black beans, chickpeas, edamame and lentils. “All these have grown by double digits over the past four years,” he says. Legumes possess a mouthfeel that is a great substitute for animal protein.
Garber suggests that chefs also “consider global influences when offering plant-forward dishes, such as Indian curries or Asian noodle soups.” Agreeing with Sewall, he adds that plant-based recipes can offer dishes that are difficult to replicate at home, giving the consumer a treat when eating out.
Malody also cites the importance of incorporating global influences into a restaurant's soup selection. “The ethnic influence is making a huge impact on this category,” she says. “Asians are, and have been for centuries, presenting palate-pleasing combinations such as tofu, eggplant and shiitake mushrooms.”
In fact, the combinations are seemingly endless. “Add to the flavor possibilities of soups with an array of tasty vegetables and or to the texture and heartiness with barley, brown rice, bulgur and other grains and legumes, and a person could eat well to the end of their days without touching an animal protein.”