Vegetable-centric. Flexitarian. Vegetarian with benefits. Whatever name you give it, the meaning is still the same. More and more people — yes, even in this meat-crazy town — are turning toward vegetables as they seek out a healthier diet, both for themselves and for the planet. But don’t worry, no one’s suggesting we give up animal protein completely. In fact, some of the most spectacular vegetable dishes around can be found in restaurants that are willing to give garden goodies their due without shying away from meat (locally and sustainably raised whenever possible, of course).

To that end, these are not your grandma’s green beans, poured out of a freezer bag and cooked beyond recognition. Instead, we’re talking heirloom varietals, locally grown, and lovingly prepared. You’ll find them charred, grilled, roasted, pickled, steamed, puréed, sautéed, and flash-fried; they’ve become the focal point of a dish rather than a mere garnish. Inspired by our local farmers markets and producers, these endlessly inventive chefs and restaurateurs are keeping pace with our shifting attitudes toward food and healthy lifestyles. We got to the root of it all with chefs at some of the city’s freshest spots.

Ēma

74 W. Illinois St., Chicago, 312-527-5586

Ema’s Toasted Almond Dip with Olives (Photo by Christina Slaton.)

With a focus on all things light and fresh, Chef CJ Jacobson has brought a bright-and-sunny Mediterranean feeling (think spreads, dips, mezze, and small plates) to this River North pleaser from Lettuce Entertain You. “I think I put an influence on vegetables simply because I’m used to eating them,” says Jacobson, who moved from Orange County to Chicago a few years ago. “Coming from California, [where] the growing season is longer and the amount and quality of vegetables is unmatched.” Consequently, a walk through the bounty of Chicago’s Green City Market or other local markets can inspire delicious ideas, such as the Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower ($10) with house-made yogurt and local honey or the Toasted Almond & Garlic Spread ($9) with tahini, Castelvetrano olives, and fresh herbs.

Most versatile produce in your arsenal? “The eggplant — wow, what a wonderful vegetable! I really had no idea it could be cooked so many ways with such an infinity of flavorful results. At Ēma, we roast it whole, char it whole, grill it, and pan-fry it. My favorite method is slowly cooking it on the stovetop for two or three hours until it’s well caramelized.”

Piece of equipment you can’t do without? “We probably couldn’t live without our Rational Oven. It is in charge of cooking 50 percent of our product!”