Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Ambassadors of Flavor On-trend menu builds that stand out with rich flavor stories

Crispy Pork Belly rubbed with salt, sugar, cumin and coriander, and roasted until the pork insanely crispy and layered with a Salsa Negra. Blistered guajillo, roasted poblanos, roasted garlic, cumin, coriander, allspice, salt and cider vinegar come together in this salsa.
PHOTO CREDIT: National Pork Board

Commodity boards spend a lot of time in the field, looking for patterns in dining behaviors and searching for menu innovation around their products. They spend even more time promoting dishes that showcase their ingredients while capturing those flavor preferences and menu trends. In a lot of ways, they can be a valuable secret weapon for a brand. Here, four commodity boards profile trend-forward menu builds that can inspire fresh, flavorful menu innovation centered around familiar ingredients.

Pork: Belly Up For Menu Distinction

The National Pork Board (NPB) holds an annual Pork Summit every April for chefs and foodservice media. At this year’s event, the NPB gave chef teams at the market-basket exercise a prompt to develop a new dish, two of which are described here. Mary Dumont, chef/owner of the new Boston restaurant Cultivar, answered the request for “new American fare” with Pork Belly Fries. Matt Jennings, chef/owner of Townsman, also in Boston, responded to an “original sandwich” challenge with a Latin-Style Pork Belly Bao Bun. The use of pork belly in both dishes is highly on trend: Pork belly has grown 156 percent over the last four years, according to Datassential MenuTrends (July 2016).

PORK BELLY FRIES

Poutine has surged on menus over the last four years, experiencing a 392 percent menu growth from 2012, per Datassential. This one stands out with big, porky flavor. “The savory Chinese five-spice and sweet-and-salty, hoisin-roasted pork belly provides rich umami that is complemented by the saltiness and starchiness of the fries,” says Gerike. “The velvety pork gravy is the cherry on top, adding an extra umami bomb.” The ultimate comfort food, different flavor applications tailor this dish for various cuisines, and adding ingredients like an egg could glide it seamlessly into a breakfast item.

Pork Belly Poutine

Pork Belly Poutine

  • Smooth Gravy: Pork velouté adds savory, craveable flavor, accented by colorful scallions and Peppadew peppers.
  • Hoisin Pork: Seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder, the pork is cooked low and slow, then sautéed in hoisin sauce for a beautiful sheen.

Onions: High-Impact Sandwich Companion

Available year round, it’s no surprise that onions are the most common vegetable on restaurant menus, with many operators using them in sandwiches. Technomic’s 2016 Sandwich Consumer Trend Report says that 36 percent of consumers think that chains offer very similar sandwiches, with almost half of Millennials noting little differentiation between chains’ sandwich menus. Aware of the pressure to create stunning sandwiches that make a concept stand out from the pack, the National Onion Association (NOA) commissioned chefs to develop sandwiches that incorporate onions in inventive ways, and bundled the results in its “Signature Sandwiches—Layers of Flavor” promotion. Two of those sandwiches, both developed by Blake Swihart and Kathleen Sanderson, chef/consultants with Foodservice Solutions, showcase the auspicious marriage of onions and sandwich.

UPTOWN GRILLED CHEESE

A condiment like sweet onion jam appeals to consumers who might pivot from a tried-and-true option in favor of a new, special item. For operators, a jam like this allows the kitchen to churn out a fairly simple item like a grilled cheese and still appeal to its guests in search of unique, flavorful dishes. The inclusion of a caramelized onion, as in this jam, also adds value to a menu. According to Datassential, items that describe onions as “caramelized” add an average of $1.80 per item. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can add a lot of value,” says Kimberly Reddin, NOA’s director of public and industry relations.

Uptown Grilled Cheese

Uptown Grilled Cheese

  • Gruyère upgrade: Thin slices of melted Gruyère provide an upgraded alternative to the classic cheddar or American.
  • Sweet Onion Jam: Sautéed yellow onions are the base for this sweet onion jam, with raisins and dried cranberries or cherries.
ONION-WASABI TUNA BUN

This dish features yellow onions in the aïoli and red onions in the relish, while capitalizing on consumers’ rising enthusiasm for global flavors like ginger and wasabi. Reddin notes that because consumers perceive red onions as special, they can drive up an item’s price point. They are less common, comprising just 8 to 10 percent of the American onion crop (85 percent of the crop is yellow and 5 percent is white). The versatile pickled relish could add a tangy crunch to other menu items, such as tacos or burgers.   

Onion Wasabi Tuna Bun

Onion Wasabi Tuna Bun

  • Ginger-Onion Relish: A pickled ginger-onion relish adds a bright, sweet-tart flavor to the sandwich.
  • Onion-Wasabi Aïoli: Mayo spiked with yellow onions, wasabi paste and soy sauce help kick up the heat level.

Grapes: Modern Techniques for Signature Flavors

Grapes can be used in a variety of on-trend ways, whether roasted, smoked, pickled or sautéed. Their sweet flavor is a brilliant complement to greens, seafood, meat and grains. Grapes are a terrific topping, as evidenced by two dishes suggested by the California Table Grape Commission. Pickled grapes add an on-trend profile to a burrata toast, developed by Ryan Pitt and Ben Graham, sous chefs of Citizen Public House in Scottsdale, Ariz. As a contrast, smoked grapes introduce an element of surprise to the Smoked Shorty Pizza, created by Erick Simmons while he was executive chef at Mohawk Bend in Los Angeles.

BURRATA WITH PICKLED GRAPES

Cheese and bread go way back, but adding spicy pickled grapes to the mix takes this on-trend toast to the next level. In this build, burrata, spinach and crispy bread are comfort-zone ingredients that provide a familiar platform for pickled grapes, basil-seed vinaigrette and a drizzle of Calabrian chile oil. “The use of sweet-sour pickled grapes provides a memorable accent and offers a contrast to the richness of the cheese,” says Courtney Romano, foodservice consultant for the California Table Grape Commission. “We’re watching to see whether they emerge as a snack in their own right.” From pickling to smoking, roasting and blistering grapes, chefs can remix this dish by using grapes on flatbreads, sandwiches or salads.

Burrata with Pickled Grapes

Burrata with Pickled Grapes

  • Pickled Grapes: Pickled grapes draw in diners with an on-trend profile.    
  • Basil-Seed Vinaigrette: Rice wine vinegar, garlic, shallot, basil, basil seeds and olive oil lend a bright, herb-forward flavor.
SMOKED SHORTY PIZZA

Smoking grapes is a clever way to introduce a sweet flavor to a savory dish like this cheesy, short-rib pizza. “The smoky sweetness of the grapes delivers a delightful surprise element,” says Romano. This particular dish showcases the versatility of grapes: They work as a topping, and they pair well with meat, cheese and bitter greens like watercress. Great as an entrée or shareable appetizer, the Smoked Shorty Pizza reflects the growing demand for interesting flavor combinations and global influences that take ingredients beyond their native cuisines. Because grapes offer a sweet, acidic balance to creamy sauces or spices, they can find a home in dishes across many cuisines.

Smoked Shorty Pizza

Smoked Shorty Pizza

  • Braised Beef Short Rib: The beef is braised with onion, carrot, celery, vegetable stock, herbs and IPA.
  • Smoked Red Grapes: These add unexpected bursts of sweet, smoky flavor to a pizza.

Honey: Sweeten the Narrative with Varietals

Honey tells a great story of place, carrying with it the benefit of clean, natural sourcing. Honey also provides a sweet opportunity to differentiate with varietals, from lighter clover honey to darker buckwheat honey. The National Honey Board items profiled here highlight honey’s potential to sweeten dishes with unique flavors. Showcasing the flavor differentiation of darker and lighter varietals of honeys, the savory Double Corn-Honey Fritters with Honey-Bacon Drizzle were developed by Marie Simmons, cookbook author and writer. The Honey-Orange Crush Spritzer, created by Kim Haasarud, owner of Liquid Architecture, for the 2016 South Beach Wine & Food Festival, answers the call for trending cocktail ingredients and a bright balance of flavor.

CORN-HONEY FRITTERS WITH HONEY BACON DRIZZLE

This dish demonstrates honey’s versatility by featuring it as both an all-natural sweetener in the batter and as a finishing drizzle, providing a welcome contrast to the salty bacon. It illustrates honey’s potential in both sweet and savory applications and encourages exploration of different honey varietals. The batter calls for lighter honey, like alfalfa, orange blossom or clover, and the drizzle utilizes a darker honey, like wildflower or buckwheat.

Corn-Honey Fritters with Honey-Bacon Drizzle

Corn-Honey Fritters with Honey-Bacon Drizzle

  • Fritters: Savory meets sweet, where a lighter varietal of honey is added to the cornbread batter for depth of flavor.
  • Honey-Bacon Drizzle: A warm darker varietal of honey, plus crisp bacon, gives an irresistible finish.
HONEY-ORANGE CRUSH SPRITZER

According to Datassential, honey increased on cocktail menus by 685 percent from 2005 to 2014. Catherine Barry, the National Honey Board’s director of marketing, points to the potential for honey varietals to further penetrate cocktail menus, from a buckwheat honey simple syrup in a margarita to an alfalfa honey in a gin-based drink. “In this spritzer, orange blossom honey combines perfectly with the fresh orange and lemon juices.” Honey simple syrup can be used in mocktails, lemonades, iced teas, desserts and more.

Honey-Orange Crush Spritzer

Honey-Orange Crush Spritzer

  • Orange Blossom Honey: An orange blossom honey syrup gives this drink a sweet infusion with a nice, long finish.
  • On-Trend Beverages: Prosecco and Aperol bring effervescence and an on-trend base build.
  • Bright Citrus: Orange and lemon juices combine to infuse this beverage with the bright, fresh notes of citrus.

 

About The Author

Laura Brienza

Laura Brienza is the author of "Discovering Vintage Washington, D.C.", and "New York’s Historic Restaurants, Inns & Taverns." She is a recent winner of the Lifetime Writers Project fellowship and lives in Los Angeles.