Planting a New Habit on Leap Day

Leap Day is Monday, February 29 and on this rare occasion, the food marketer asks oneself: are there any food traditions associated with this quadrennial holiday? A cursory Google search reveals a few punny recipes for frog-shaped cookies and such, but no real evidence of a traditional way to eat in observation of the extra day added to February every four years.

I’m rather surprised that we haven’t seen enterprising (and publicity-savvy) winemakers or artisan cheddar cheese producers create a special product that’s aged for exactly four years and unsealed for celebratory tasting specifically on each February 29. Bonny Doon, this would be right up your alley.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, “Restaurants are trying to … [use] the day as an opportunity to promote special menu prices or treats for people born on this most rare of dates.” Hmmm. That’s not very inspired. Do consumers really jump at the chance to order a second mediocre pizza for 29 cents, just because they can?

At least Arby’s is using the occasion creatively by “offering the company’s first ever vegetarian menu, highlighted by Arby’s signature sandwich lineup, minus the delicious meats that make them sandwiches.” Wait, what? That’s just condiments on white bread! That’s what a lot of carnivores probably think vegetarianism is about, and therefore no wonder the dietary lifestyle is often derided. That sounds boring.

So I find myself on the advent of Leap Day thinking about vegetarian food. Sadly, to some consumers that prefer such a diet, and tOo plenty of restaurateurs who attempt to cater to this preference, “vegetarian” is more about the absence of something (animal flesh) rather than the celebration of the presence of something (plant-based ingredients). I’m happily an omnivore, myself, but I opt for plant-centric meals fairly regularly when there are good options available – partially because that’s a generally recommended dietary direction and partially because here in Los Angeles there ARE so many delicious options now.

Plants (more of them than just white potatoes) can taste wonderful. That is still a news flash to a lot of Americans. Vegetarian meals do not need to contain elements that try hard to imitate the flavor and texture of meat. Treated right by a culinarian who knows what they’re doing, veggies on their own can. be. good. Period.

Acclaimed British chef Yotam Ottolenghi has done tons in recent years to elevate and celebrate garden ingredients that shouldn’t be just “sides.” They’re stars. I’m hoping to get a seat at one of his restaurants when I visit London this spring.

So my challenge to you this Leap Day is this: try a vegetable or fruit that you haven’t before, or one that you previously thought that you didn’t like, and give it a fair new chance. There are some fabulous things waiting to be (re)discovered. I’ll start the confessions and then you go. Me, I once thought I didn’t like Brussels sprouts. They are a cruciferous vegetchable, which means they give off a sulfur smell when cooked. Bleah, right? But roasted in a high-heat oven instead of steamed or boiled, with maybe a splash of maple syrup or balsamic vinegar and then finished with some pecans? Caramelized heaven!

In the category of flat-out new discoveries, I’ll evangelize a moment about cherimoyas. These funky geometric-sided green globes called out to me from a seasonal display at Whole Foods a couple years ago, and curiosity finally won me over. After reading on the internet about how to scoop out the creamy flesh and avoid the toxic seeds, I tentatively dipped a spoon into this unfamiliar fruit and was rewarded with a taste of tropical paradise. It really is like a banana, pineapple and mango had a love child, and sooo worth seeking out when in season.

Vegetables and fruits are our friends, and not just once every four years. Celebrate them today, and on February 29, and on every day. You might be surprised at the diverse ways they make us happy and healthy.

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