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Valerie Phillips: Give your veggies star treatment at dinnertime

Published: Tuesday, March 29 2011 4:41 p.m. MDT

If you've been grocery shopping lately, you already know the price of vegetables has gone up.

But don't bypass the produce aisle. Instead, prepare your veggies with similar respect usually given to steak or seafood.

Same-old steamed broccoli or the usual tossed salad can get pretty boring, making it easier to ignore all those veggies in the fridge until they go bad. In fact, a 2002 University of Arizona study found that on average, American families toss a half-pound of produce per day.

It pays to borrow a few ideas from restaurants that give veggies star treatment.

One of those is Caffe Niche, at 779 E. 300 South, which has a small plates menu featuring vegetables. These aren't the usual peas and carrots your mom used to nag you to eat. You'll find green, wrinkly Bloomsdale spinach, sauteed with Napa cabbage to give it crunch and texture. And strips of roasted yams with piquant chimichurri — a more sophisticated treatment than the sweet potato fries found in so popular in quick-casual dining spots.

There are crimson piquillo peppers stuffed with melted goat cheese and a bright purple beet and goat cheese salad. Spring rolls are stuffed with shards of fresh carrot, asparagus, red pepper and avocado, and served with a miso dipping sauce. Brussels sprouts are sauteed in butter until golden and caramelized, and fingerling potatoes are crispy on the outside and creamy, almost buttery, on the inside.

There's plenty of meat and seafood on Caffe Niche's menu. But it's tempting to just order the vegetable plate, which gives you six veggie combos artistically positioned on a narrow, rectangular white platter.

"A lot of our focus is on healthy eating, and vegetables are so fun, people have lost touch with them," said owner Ethan Lappe.

Prices are a bit higher than your usual chain restaurant, but Lappe points out that he uses as many local and natural ingredients as possible. And he adds that "A lot of people just come in and order the small plates of vegetables, which are around $6. You can order a bowl of chili for $5 and a small plate for another $5, and that's a $10 lunch."

A "niche" is defined as "a position particularly well suited to the person who occupies it," and Caffe Niche (pronounced by its staff as "Neesh") is indeed, finding its niche after a few years of deciding what it wanted to be. Salt Lake Magazine recently named it "Best Neighborhood Restaurant."

Many people remember the location as the Grunts and Postures Vintage store. In 2007, Jeff and Tara Southard, owners of the adjoining Dexterity Salon, opened it as a cafe serving breakfast and lunch.

Lappe, a Culinary Institute of America grad, bought the place last June, expanded the hours to include dinner, and upgraded the menu. The clientele is eclectic — you can find a couple chatting over coffee at one table, someone eating a sandwich while using his laptop at another table, and a foursome ordering hundred-dollar dinners with wine.

Lappe and chef Adrian Alvarado first met while working at the short-lived small-plates restaurant Zola, where Alvarado was the sous chef. When Squatter's closed Zola, Lappe and Alvarado were both moved to open another Squatters' venture, the Roadhouse Grill in Park City.

Lappe went on to work as a kitchen manager for the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns a number of chain restaurants, including Houston's steakhouses. Alvarado became the executive chef for the Whole Foods stores in Utah.

Both of them have an interest in local and natural products, and some of their suppliers include Ranui Farms, Snake River Farms and Shepherd's Dairy.

"I find the quality and care is a lot more assertive, and I can build a relationship with those suppliers," said Lappe. "Anybody in the industry knows the trend is local, and it's better to be on the cusp of the trend than chasing it."

Here is the restaurant's recipe for roasted yams and Chimichurri Sauce.

Caffe Niche's Roasted Yams and Chimichurri Sauce

Makes 3 cups of yams

Ingredients:

5 yams

3/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1/3 yellow onion, chopped

3 tablespoons minced garlic

3/4 bunch of parsley, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons dried Turkish oregano

3/4 teaspoon chili flakes

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

5 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade

3/4 cup champagne vinegar (substitution: white wine vinegar)

Cut yams into steak-fry size. Place on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast yams in a 400-degree oven for 1 hour, or until soft. Cool until ready to use.

To make the chimichurri sauce, in a food processor, add the onion, garlic, parsley, oregano, chili flakes, fresh basil, vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper. Process until the consistency is chunky. Cover yams with chimichurri and roast in a 400 degree oven until browned on top. Makes about 3 cups of yams.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com