As a vegetarian, I’m willing to reveal a truth about my diet: In the winter, it only rarely includes vegetables. During the colder months, I’d rather hole up in a warm and casual French joint to grub on lentils and too much bread, or eat my way through skillet after tiny skillet of truffled mac and cheese.
But nobody — carnivore, vegetarian or that wishy-washy oddity known as the flexitarian — wants to eat like that when the temperature hits an oppressive 90 degrees, as it so frequently does during July and August. That’s when we all feel a certain tug toward healthy fare. You know, green things.
The heat is spectacularly rewarding in this one regard: It provides bounty. By late July, squash have painted Virginia and Pennsylvania fields bright orange with their edible, hibiscus-like blooms. Tomato plants are heaving with bright-red fruit. Corn . . . well, the only thing to do with corn is peel it from its husk and throw it on the grill with lime and chili powder every day till the season is done.
Chefs know as much. Across the region, many have reworked their menus to suit our summertime tastes, and their own. They’ve chilled their soups (and even their ramen), made use of what close-in farms provide and let the season dictate what they’ll serve.
If you’re looking for meat-free fare to keep it light for the next month, there’s no better time. Here are nine vegetarian dishes to try now.
The Dish That Ate New York isn’t yet a thing in Washington, but all it takes is one bite of the toast at Duke’s Grocery to foresee an avocado bubble ahead. At Duke’s, the plate that looks conspicuously like rabbit food is, in fact, decadent enough for even the diner who approaches vegetables with a gimlet eye. Chef Alex McCoy has been piling a mountain of creamy avocado atop a diet-busting wedge of buttered multigrain bread for months. But in the summer, he counters the avocado’s richness with a sprinkling of greens, a heat-seeking smear of vinegary bird’s-eye chili sauce and biting raw radishes the size of thumbs. (Hint: It’s easiest to eat the radishes on their own.) If you’re feeling a little more like a flexitarian, get yours the way McCoy intended: topped by an egg cooked to rich, runny perfection.
1513 17th St. NW. 202-733-5623. www.dukesgrocery.com. $9.
Laab, the sour salad that’s a staple of Thai and Laotian dining, is rarely intended for the vegetarian set, as it’s typically prepared with chicken or beef and gets its unmistakable funk from fish sauce. Doi Moi’s more inclusive take has been available since spring and uses house-made tofu — fried, then minced to resemble its meaty counterparts — tossed with mint, cilantro and shallots and a mushroom-soy dressing in place of fish sauce. (Lemongrass, ginger and lime add the extra punch.) But eating this refreshing salad is never better than in summer, when the restaurant adds crisp greens, including, on occasion, watercress. It’s one of the highlights of Doi Moi’s handy vegetarian and vegan menu. (Be sure to ask your server for it.)
1800 14th St. NW. 202-733-5131. www.doimoidc.com. $10.
Squash blossoms, the crepelike male blooms of squash plants, are a favorite plaything for chefs this season. For one thing, they’re plentiful. Perhaps that’s why Etto, the nook of a 14th Street pizza hotspot, is particularly generous when it scatters the flowers across its summertime special. The soft pie — slightly nutty with a uniquely rustic wheat-spelt crust — is simple: tomato sauce; cherry tomatoes so tender from their time in the oven that they practically melt in your mouth; and grassy-tasting slivers of squash blossom. It’s a pizza for salad lovers, or at least it would be if not for the quivering hunk of fresh burrata or buffalo ricotta plopped in the middle. Consider that your reward for eating so healthfully.
1541 14th St. NW. 202-232-0920. www.ettodc.com. $23.
Edible blossoms are just one sign of summer at Alba Osteria. Chef Amy Brandwein’s weekly Chef Bar tasting menu — which pairs six off-menu courses with wine and mini-cocktails of the chef’s design — goes vegetarian once a month, giving the chef a chance to deliver veggie wonders of Italian origin. One course this month features summer melon, a staple across Italy; another will feature carrots that are roasted, shaved, pickled and fried, paired with a cool, creamy yogurt. But Brandwein’s talent lies in rich pastas, so the dish to look forward to is her chitarra. Sliced with a guitar-like pasta cutter to facilitate maximum sauce absorption, the noodles are served with trumpet-shaped chanterelles, crunchy roasted wheat and a sprinkling of those sunny edible flowers known as nasturtiums; the chef is even pairing it with an in-season cocktail she’s calling Peaches & Herb. The next vegetarian Chef Bar is Thursday; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
425 I St. NW. 202-733-4454. www.albaosteriadc.com. $80 per person.
Bread, tomato, a nice olive oil and an impolite amount of garlic are all that go into pan con tomate, the Catalonian treat that no one in town seems to do better than Mockingbird Hill. The secret to the sherry-and-ham (and coffee) bar’s preparation, we’ve deduced, is the bread, which is soft and crunchy in equal measure. But in the summer, the highlight of the snack is something else entirely: With tomatoes in prime season in late July, Mockingbird Hill uses local roma and heirlooms for the year-round dish, sweetening it and offering a prime reason to skip the ham altogether.
1843 Seventh St. NW. 202-316-9396. www.drinkmoresherry.com. $4.
Ramen is everything. But because hot soup is the last thing you want to eat in the purgatory of Washington in July, Daikaya has quietly iced its wintertime staple, transforming a nourishing warmer into one of the most refreshing lunches in town. The Chinatown restaurant cooks its chewy, golden-hued noodles as usual, but quickly places them into an ice bath before they arrive at your table as the firm base for a cool summer salad. Swimming in a citrus-soy dressing is a mix of arugula, cucumber, sesame-cooked bean sprouts, corn, nori and cherry tomatoes. If you’re vegetarian, be sure to leave off the bamboo and egg (both are simmered in Daikaya’s meaty ramen stock) and slices of pork, and swap in shiitake mushrooms for a heartier meal.
Lunch at Daikaya’s second-floor izakaya, 705 Sixth St. NW. 202-589-1600. www.daikaya.com. $14.
Kitchen, Frederik De Pue’s six-seat mini-restaurant inside Menu MBK, introduced its first vegetarian-themed, multicourse dinner this month, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Each course heralds the bounty available only in summer: Basil, sweet corn, tomato, mushroom and zucchini all get a turn in this modernist dining experience. The highlight is the tomato course, which features the fruit fried, raw and frozen, plus a joyous burst of pure tomato from a squiggle of clarified tomato gel that weaves everything together. Make reservations at email@example.com.
405 Eighth St. NW. 202-347-7491. www.menumbk.com. $65 per person.
You can find elote at Garden District, Nationals Park, El Chucho, El Rey and a half-dozen more Washington-area eateries; each offers a slight tweak on the blackened, Mexican-style street corn rubbed with lime and chili, slathered in mayonnaise and sprinkled with cotija cheese. But when corn hits its summer sweet spot, every kernel on the gargantuan cob is a juicy little flavor bomb. That’s what gives Taco Bamba’s elote the edge: It’s traditional. No brown butter, no chiffonade of cilantro, all the better to highlight the sweet corn hiding within.
2190 Pimmit Dr., Falls Church. 703-639-0505. www.tacobambarestaurant.com. $3.50.
There are now at least two places where you can sup on this vintage Virginia soup, but their preparations couldn’t be more different. At Shaw’s Southern Efficiency, the soup is warm and rich, earthy with mushrooms and onions. America Eats Tavern’s tribute to George Washington Carver is the polar opposite: chilled, modernist and singularly peanutty, from first slurp to last. Summer is ideal for this kind of light dining: Thin peanut milk is poured over a bowl of crushed peanuts, a smear of peanut butter, green sprigs of mace and, more seductively, a few thick slices of perfectly ripe fig. The floral notes of the fruit linger long after the soup is gone.
1700 Tysons Blvd, McLean. 703-744-3999. www.americaeatstavern.com. $8.