Strawberries bring a fresh flavor and creative spin to gazpacho, as in this version topped with jicama salad and goat cheese.
Summertime ushers in picnics and fireworks—and fresh produce like ripe, red strawberries and juicy watermelon. By winter, pears get their day, showing up in holiday sides and desserts. Other produce, such as avocados, aren’t tied to a season, offering fresh cues all year. Diners want to experience produce at its peak—as well as in new, creative ways. Commodity boards understand this, and they can provide operators with ideas of how to maximize the fruits of the season.
Beyond Strawberry Shortcake
Strawberry season is a big deal at Shari’s Cafes. The family-oriented restaurant chain based in the western part of the country is known for its comfort food and pies. Starting in May, diners flock to Shari’s for “Berry Season,” three months of promotions and LTOs centered on fresh strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. “Strawberry is the kickoff,” says Kevin Bechtel, Shari’s senior vice president of purchasing and menu development. “It’s a strawberry bonanza—pancakes, shakes and pies.”
Bechtel says that after Shari’s began discussions with the California Strawberry Commission about five years ago, the chain began to expand upon the annual strawberry promotion. “We sell pies, so it was not a real big stretch,” says Bechtel. The newer menu items branch out from conventional desserts and breakfast dishes. A seasonal salad featuring fresh strawberries, chicken, pecans and blue cheese has become an annual favorite. The Strawberry Chocolate Ganache Pie, introduced in 2014, is also a crowd pleaser.
“It’s been a true collaboration,” says Bechtel of the board’s input on menu development and product ideation. “We combine the culinary ideas with what’s operationally going to sell.” Promotions, such as radio ads, continue through the summer season. “We build anticipation around getting fresh strawberries—and people come.”
But even after berry season has peaked, Shari’s maintains enthusiasm for strawberries. “We do use strawberries year round for sundaes, waffles and pancakes. And we sell a ton of fresh strawberry jam—made in house—year round as well,” says Bechtel.
“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of success with promotions and partnerships for LTOs,” says Chris Christian, California Strawberry Commission’s senior vice president. The board identifies chains to partner with, providing culinary innovators with suggestions and directing them to the board’s website for concept ideation and functional information about the fruit.
California strawberries are available year round, with peak season from mid-March through the end of August, which defines the time period for operators to promote LTOs. But fresh and frozen strawberries are available all year and are a burgeoning opportunity for exploration. “There are new kinds of strawberries that are consistently flavorful year round. And there’s been an explosion in beverages, sauces and toppings that use frozen strawberries,” says Christian.
“We try to share unusual menu ideas, such as California strawberries in crab tacos or tuna poke. You can cook strawberries and make a savory sauce, then serve it with pork. We’ve seen an increase in savory applications,” she adds. “We’ll pair strawberries with different ingredients, such as balsamic, soy sauce or cheese.”
She says that strawberries suit the current better-for-you movement among chefs looking to use more whole foods and natural sweeteners or acidifiers. “The number of salad items with strawberries increased 72 percent from 2009 to 2012,” says Christian.
Salad led to the California Strawberry Commission’s biggest success story: Wendy’s began working with the board four years ago to develop a viable strawberry salad. For half a year, the board helped Wendy’s understand supply and distribution logistics, even producing a training video. “Strawberries are unique—they’re highly perishable and have to be cooled after coming from the field,” says Christian. “Everyone who worked at Wendy’s saw that video.” Wendy’s rolled out the Berry Almond Chicken Salad in 2011, and sales have merited bringing the salad back each year since. And in the summer of 2014, a new Strawberry Fields Chicken debuted on Wendy’s menu as a seasonal LTO.
At California Pizza Kitchen, diners can also find strawberries all year, but with certain seasonal specials. The board has lent support to CPK in its marketing. Brian Sullivan, head of culinary innovation, developed a strawberry cheesecake that he rolled out in late spring. Because of its success, he then introduced strawberry shortcake made with a cream drop biscuit, housemade strawberry purée and lemon topping. “We ran a Strawberry Fields Salad for one year, which is now on the permanent seasonal menu,” says Sullivan.
He also finds cocktails to be a good opportunity for strawberries. He uses a fresh strawberry purée in CPK’s Strawberry Basil Martini—“I want to serve them when they’re really at peak.” But one item stays on the menu the entire year: The Fresh Strawberry Mango Cooler, rolled out in 2014, includes fresh strawberries hand-shaken with Fresca and Monin South Seas, featuring flavors of mango, guava and ginger. Next, Sullivan plans to introduce a Strawberry Margarita and Strawberry Mojito.
Ways with Watermelon
If there’s anything that says “summer,” it’s watermelon. “Seasonality is something you don’t get away from with watermelon,” acknowledges Stephanie Barlow, director of PR and social media for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB). January is low season and July is high for watermelon, yet the fruit is versatile enough to hold its own year round.
To educate operators and foster more partnerships, the board recently issued a new foodservice guide on all things watermelon. It promotes watermelon’s sweet, juicy flesh and delicate textures, illustrating creative menu applications like aguas frescas and gazpachos.
Chris Garcia, executive chef of catering at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, recently collaborated with the NWPB on a photo shoot to showcase a vacuum-sealing technique for compressed watermelon. “The effect is a deepening in both color and flavor, making every bite of the watermelon even juicier,” says Garcia. “For this particular project, I vacuum-sealed it with fresh ginger water for the salad we were doing.”
At Red Rock Resort, Garcia combines the compressed watermelon with feta cheese in a salad that is featured in the NWPB’s guide. He also finds all manner of uses for the melon: grilled watermelon skewers, soups and carved fruit displays.
Other operators are finding the natural sweetness and rehydrating effect of watermelon to be a great fit for today’s cocktails and smoothies—offering healthy cues and pure, fresh flavor. Chevy’s serves a Watermelon Fresh Fruit Margarita that has earned a loyal following. Chili’s has seasonal watermelon-themed drinks, including a popular Watermelon Cooler of vodka, lemonade and fresh watermelon purée.
And chefs are finding that watermelon adds differentiation to salads. LongHorn Steakhouse’s Grilled Watermelon Wedge Salad combines flash-grilled fresh seedless watermelon brushed with honey, romaine, kale, quinoa and goat cheese in a lemon vinaigrette.
Also gaining year-round traction is the use of watermelon instead of tomatoes in salsa. That, in turn, connects watermelon to cooler weather eating, such as chips and salsa during football season.
Many of today’s trends apply nicely to watermelon, extending its use throughout the year. “Chefs are playing with food, doing things like pickling and dehydrating,” says Barlow. Pickled watermelon rinds cross over into savory foods and accompany global flavors well, particularly Asian or Mediterranean cuisine. Similarly, watermelon meat or rinds work well in relish or chutney.
Pear It Up
Consumers don’t have a defined sense of when pears are in season—perhaps because different varieties show up throughout the year. Bartletts from the Northwest start in August and September, while other Northwest varieties stretch from November through February. Red and green Anjou pears are available through June and July. “Pears are practically available year-round, but people think of them during winter months for menus,” says Kathy Stephenson, marketing communications director for USA Pear’s Northwest bureau.
USA Pears recently asked 45 food developers to create unique pear-poaching methods, based on three simple steps: Select a poaching liquid, prepare the pear, then poach. The ideas that emerged included: Chai-Spiced Poached Pears with Chai Sorbet; Pumpkin Ale Poached Pear in Salted Caramel Sauce; and Creamy Coconut Milk Poached Pear with Star Anise.
Stephenson says the biggest challenge for most operators and chefs is procuring pears at their perfect ripeness for the application. “Pears are picked unripe and move successfully through the produce supply chain in refrigeration temperatures,” she says. “We are working with distributors to understand how to condition and how to determine the perfect ripeness for pears.” Part of the solution is to know what technique matches what ripeness. Poaching and baking are better with a firmer pear. A perfectly ripe pear is best for slicing and salads. Overripe pears are just right for soups or smoothies.
Checking the ripeness of a pear is still widely misunderstood. “Only 16 percent of the population knows how to check a pear for ripeness,” says Stephenson. USA Pears is trying to educate operators and consumers to “check the neck” for ripeness, rather than judge by the color. “If the pear is slightly soft at the neck, you are most likely to have a sweet, soft, creamy and juicy pear to enjoy.”
In case you haven’t heard, avocados are in the news. A recent Penn State University study found that an avocado a day keeps the bad cholesterol away. Even without the scientific backing, avocados have become an “it” food in recent years for their flavor, versatility and health benefits. According to recent Technomic research: Between 2014 and 2019, the fresh avocado category in the foodservice market is expected to grow 8.1 percent annually in poundage, driven by expanded usage in both restaurant and beyond restaurant segments.
Avocados from Mexico (AFM) represents the largest share of fresh avocados going to the U.S. foodservice market today, says Mark Garcia, AFM’s director of foodservice marketing. And their avocados are consistently available year round, due to Mexico’s rich volcanic soil and growing conditions that allow trees to bloom multiple times per year. “That means you can count on freshness, flavor and consistency from January to December,” says Garcia.
Of course, avocados are most often showcased in guacamole. Avocados from Mexico recently worked with the culinary team at Freebirds World Burrito to develop an extensive year-round guacamole program.
The avocado’s unique texture also enhances sandwiches and salads. “Using avocados in winter salads brings a bright flavor to the cold, wintry months,” suggests Garcia. “Our Sicilian Salad is the perfect example, utilizing fresh avocados from Mexico, orange rounds and a citrus vinaigrette.”
Moving beyond the obvious applications: Use avocados instead of mayo, cream or butter; purée them for a dip; blend them into smoothies and desserts. An Avocado Mousse can fold together puréed avocado and chocolate for a sweet, creamy, yet unexpected dessert.