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Sides show: More Florida chefs are vegging out

Across Florida, chefs are putting more imagination and care into vegetable side dishes and giving them a new place in the sun on the menu.

The big chalkboard hanging over the kitchen at Blue Collar, the popular casual spot in Miami’s MiMo district, lists more than a dozen vegetable dishes, outnumbering by far the day’s three daily entrees, a braise, a parm and ribs du jour.

Chef Daniel Serfer glories in vegetables plain and fancy — from green peas with bacon and shallots and house-made pickles to roasted artichoke hearts with lemon aioli. “I don’t want the same vegetable every time,” Serfer says.

He’s taken veggie love to his newer and grander Mignonette oyster bar. The veggie list there includes roasted cauliflower with smoked trout roe and old-fashioned cabbage with bacon.

The new take on vegetables entails more than adding odd chiles and spices or popping them in a food processor.

Cooking in Germany and Provence taught Josh Eslinger, chef at Crush Eleven in Cocoa and the Fat Snook in Cocoa Beach, the basics of how to properly prepare vegetables — “things that people used to do.”

So he makes asparagus Polonaise, not Hollandaise, which means hard-boiled eggs, delicate fine herbs and lemon. Hay-roasting carrots has northern European roots. He adds lavender and local honey. The hay is from the feed store that supplies bedding for his chickens.

There’s more from Eslinger, from pretzel-dusted fried green tomatoes to trimmings of salsify grits with shrimp. Diners love his charred Brussels sprouts with maple sherry and fresh corn, off the cob, with bacon and Parmesan.

The new love for vegetables pays off in healthier eating for customers and savings for restaurants as prices of beef, fish and other center-of the- plate proteins rise.

And more vegetables feed vegetarian, vegan and low-carb appetites and easily fit gastropubs, farm-fresh proponents and gourmet spots.

The variety includes the truly seasonal like peaches and cherries, along with artichokes, fennel, Japanese kales and odd roots.

Most, however, have been in the pantry for centuries, unglamorous and ignored: Parsnips, Brussels sprouts, beans and peas, beets, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, radishes and winter squashes, revived by pickling, pureeing, roasting and flash-frying.

Vegetables have deep country roots in the Southern cafeteria tradition of “a meat and three” as well as Cuban steam tables. Top barbecue spots are also known for their sides as well as their smoke and sauce.

For instance, the Winter Park chain 4 Rivers Smokehouse musters up 15 classics from collards and okra to newfangled smoked jalapeños, with “five and a biscuit’’ as a dinner choice.

Naturally, Farmer’s Table in Boca Raton has a bumper crop of veggie dishes, from a stew of roast vegetables, corn, chickpeas, spaghetti squash and “meatballs” (chicken or vegan) to a long list of side dishes, including silky coconut boniato and a slaw of jicama and cilantro.

Pensacola’s Restaurant Iron, styling itself as refined Southern, makes maque choux, the old Cajun answer to succotash, spiked with an uptown splash of bourbon.

Vegetables can be quite elegant and contemporary, as sides and snacks as well as frilly accompaniments to brilliant entrees. At Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale, chef Lauren DeShields does both. She gilds snapper with crispy lentils and pickled shiitake, while serving $6.50 munchies of grilled green beans with beet-almond pesto or cauliflower with the anchovy punch of bagna cauda.

Internationally, great fruits and vegetables have always been part of world kitchens. At Miami Beach’s Sushisamba, there’s purple potato mash, Peruvian corn, black beans and coconut rice and chaufa of Chinese-fried quinoa.

Baoery, an Asian gastropub in Orlando, has as much fun with vegetables as with its bao buns and sake bombs. Greg Richie, who worked under both Emeril Lagasse and Roy Yamaguchi, serves up tangy macaroni and kim-cheese, carrots in five spice and fries fired up with togarishi.

Italian menus have long had a section for contorni. The category at MC Kitchen in Miami’s Design District goes beyond the typical. Broccoli raab, spinach and cauliflower are expected. Dena Marino’s heirloom lentils, mascarpone risotto and a hash of Brussels sprouts, apple and bacon are not.

While a la carte vegetables used to mean a big upcharge for a monster baked potato or a logpile of asparagus under melted cheese, today’s sides are often only $4 to $6 — and much tastier.