Years ago, when I was a full-time vegetarian living in the South before vegetarianism was an accepted thing, I got accustomed to ordering the vegetable plate when going out to dinner. At many diners and home-style restaurants, the vegetable plate is usually a plate of three or four sides, often accompanied by a roll, biscuit or piece of cornbread. It was offered because no one knew how to do vegetarian entrees back then, at least not in non-ethnic restaurants in the South.
I actually enjoyed the vegetable plate a lot, because it enabled me to sample several different sides, which can make for a more interesting dinner. Now that I do eat meat (but not a lot of it), I find myself gravitating back toward the vegetable plate — but as a way of eating at home, usually for lunch, rather than when I go out. I enjoy the variety of flavors, textures and colors on one plate, and I feel virtuous for eating my vegetables. (Well, they taste good too.)
It can seem onerous to the home cook to make four side dishes for a weeknight meal. The idea behind the home-based vegetable plate is to cook one or two dishes a day that will keep well and can either be reheated or served cold. As the week goes on, the options for the vegetable plate increase. I also try to prep and pre-cook plain vegetables ahead of time so I can quickly assemble a full plate when I’m ready to eat.
Salads of all descriptions are a natural choice for the vegetable plate, especially non-green salads. Homemade salad dressings usually keep for a week or more in the refrigerator, and can be used to quickly assemble a salad from any pre-cut or grated vegetables on hand. Surprisingly, cooked greens like spinach and kale make a great cold salad when dressed with some lemon juice or vinegar.
Roasted and grilled vegetables reheat well or make tasty ingredients for cold salads. If you’re firing up the grill or preheating the oven anyway, throw on more cut-up veggies than you think you can possibly eat. Gratins also reheat well, and a little cheese makes everything taste better.
Vegetable soups are another option. Of course, they must go in a bowl instead of on the plate, but they are easy to make ahead in quantity and often taste even better reheated. Combining a vegetable soup with a salad or two makes a very satisfying meal.
It’s usually nice to have some crusty French or sourdough bread in the house to accompany the vegetable plate. I also plan to experiment more with incorporating whole grains into my made-ahead options, such as farro or wheat berries. Pasta salad is a natural addition, but I am trying to reduce my pasta consumption these days in favor of whole grains.
Since I started doing this, I feel like I am eating better and taking more advantage of seasonal vegetables as they appear in the markets. I don’t feel like I am cooking that much more, but it seems like I am throwing out spoiled vegetables far less often, because I am eating a little bit at every meal, rather than trying to use it all up on one meal. It’s also fun to try different vegetables and different ways of preparing them.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the vegetable plate. I think it’s making a comeback.