(June 3) If you want something brand new on your menu, go to the culinary cradle and pick out a few babies. Vegetables, that is.

While they aren’t new to the industry, they are new to customers who aren’t used to seeing tiny versions of asparagus, artichokes, root vegetables and greens.

That babies are cute, no one can deny. On the plate, they are elegant and clean and look better than chunks of the larger vegetables, says Christophe Vessaire, executive chef of the French restaurant LeFontainebleau in San Diego’s Westgate Hotel.

Not only does the size of baby squash, carrots, potatoes and beets surprise guests, the miniatures are more flavorful, he says.

Since the average dinner costs $120 at LeFontainebleau, Vessaire feels he must give customers a culinary show.

Beyond the aesthetics, baby vegetables are easier to deal with, says Gary Feldman, owner of Keepsake Farm and Friends, Hopewell Junction, N.Y. The wholesaler grows some of its own vegetables and specializes in small greens and grows baby brussels sprouts that are a quarter of the size of conventional brussels sprouts, he says.

Baby vegetables usually require less cutting and cleaning. “It’s fairly manicured as it comes in. Once you get it in, especially baby greens, you can practically use it out of the box, … and some of it has great shelf life,” he says.

Hotels tend to buy baby vegetables to liven up the plate for large parties, says Charlie Eagle, vice president of customer development for Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla. Among other things, the company offers baby squash, carrots and corn.

He believes babies are popular at foodservice because grocery store shoppers don’t usually see them at the store, he says. The company supplies a few broadliners with baby vegetables.

Think of the ways you can dress babies for public display.

CARROTS

LeFontainebleau’s Vessaire uses whole 1-inch baby carrots, including the leafy top. He likes to fry the tops and use them as a garnish when he serves ginger soup with a touch of lemon grass on top. Deep fried carrot tops are crunchy.

Joseph Panarello, chef at the Century restaurant in the Cleveland Ritz Carlton Hotel likes to blanch baby carrots and serve them with ginger vinaigrette, he says. He also likes to top salads with them.

Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., has an idea for carrots as salad toppings. The company, which sells baby peeled carrots, has a smaller size called Petites that it urges foodservice operators to use as salad toppers, says Lisa McNeece, vice president of foodservice.

The Petites come in 5-pound vacuum or resealable packs in 10- or 20-pound cases. Each carrot is 1-inch long with an approximate diameter of three-eighths of an inch. McNeece encourages foodservice operators to include the carrots on the salad bar line.

POTATOES

LeFontainebleau’s Vessaire has created several baby potato recipes. He likes to blanch fingerling potatoes in stock for three minutes, dry them, then sauté them quickly in stock with a little garlic and parsley and serve it on the side with mushroom tuille.

He also makes potato soup with creamy yellow Russian banana potatoes. He pan sears scallops and places them in a shallow dish, pours the potato soup over the top and drizzles a little truffle oil on top of the soup.

Artichokes.

The baby thistles are easier to work with. After trimming the outer leaves and cutting off the thorns, you can cook them and eat the entire thing, says Tony Baker, executive chef at the Montrio restaurant in Monterey, Calif.

He likes to sauté baby artichokes with other vegetables and pair them with fish or meat. “They offer a great contrast in texture. With soft, flaky fish, you want texture in your vegetables,” he says.

Baker created a baby artichoke risotto recipe in which you boil trimmed baby artichokes in a mixture of red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and dried crushed oregano leaves for about 15 minutes. The complete recipe is on the Web site www.oceanmist.com. The site is operated by artichoke grower-shipper Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif.

The company’s baby artichokes are available in April and May and later from the end of October to the end of December, says Maggie Bezart, vice president of marketing and sales.

Ocean Mist recently introduced a smaller 10-pound box of baby green globe artichokes for foodservice. The company previously shipped in 22-pound boxes, she says.

ROOT VEGETABLES

Using baby parsnips, carrots, turnips and other root vegetables, Kelly Courtney, chef owner of the single restaurant Mod in Chicago, likes to make pickles to use with appetizers.

She spreads a cracker with homemade mayonnaise, smoked fish and pickled baby vegetables.
The common denominator for her pickles always is brine, pairing sweet with salt. Then she adds such aromatics as dill, peppercorn or toasted fennel. She leaves as much integrity in the vegetable as possible, not wanting to overpower the natural flavor of the vegetable, she says.

LeFontainebleau’s Vessaire likes to make salads with baby gold, red and white beets. He tosses them with cucumber, cilantro and a pinch of ginger and serves them with rosemary vinaigrette. He uses the leaves from beets in soup.

For a unique vinaigrette, he places baby beets in the juicer with white wine, vinegar, truffle oil and a teaspoon of mustard and serves the vinaigrette on the side with pan-seared halibut and potatoes.

FACE THE CHALLENGE

You don’t know how great babies can be until you have some of your own. But you will have challenges to overcome.

Vessaire affirms the cost is high. He receives two shipments of baby vegetables each week. A one-pound container of baby carrots costs $25 and contains 25 to 30 carrots.

He gets his shipments from The Chef’’s Garden Inc., Huron, Ohio, which supplies fine dining chefs with specialty produce.

Lee Jones, a partner with The Chef’s Garden, notes the tradeoffs for price. Conventional produce, which may cost 30% less, sometimes is shipped from offshore to a receiver, then reshipped to a wholesaler where it is stored and then shipped again to the restaurant or a warehouse. Product may be 10 days old by the time the restaurant gets it. Some of it goes bad and can’t be used. The Chef’s Garden hand picks product in the morning and has it to the restaurant overnight with no waste, Jones says.

The company offers hundreds of varieties of baby vegetables, including six baby carrot, five beet and 14 squash varieties. It has made a science out of growing baby vegetables, he says. He goes through hundreds of varieties to select the best one. The company also has mastered effective cultivating techniques and soil conservation methods, he says.

Jones understands the value of the delicate babies to upper-end restaurants. “Unlike going to Saks Fifth Avenue when you spend $250 for an outfit you can wear over and over again, when customers spend $250 at a restaurant, they walk away with an experience,” he says. The restaurant provides entertainment. “Folks choose to spend three or four hours in a fine dining restaurant in lieu of going to the theater. Babies are part of offering the unique presentation. That’s why we go with different sizing.”

Because of the price, the restaurant at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul, Minn., only includes baby vegetables in the high-end dinners, and then just a few on each plate, says executive chef Kelley Flynn. He serves a few spears of grilled baby green and white asparagus with Maine lobster or rabbit loin, he says.

His bigger challenges are training the staff in the proper use and preparation techniques and consistent availability of the babies.

Eagle with Southern Specialties admits that consistent availability can be a problem because of the tender nature of baby vegetables and their susceptibility to weather conditions.

For the best care and handling, Panarello at Century leaves the baby vegetables in the box they come in to avoid overhandling, he says. He’s also careful not to overcook them.

Jones with The Chef’s Garden warns against keeping an inventory of baby vegetables in the cooler. It’s better to order fewer of them more frequently.

“We don’t want chefs to bring in 100 pounds and inventory them for the next two weeks,” he says.