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Digging Up New Varietals New, unusual and versatile produce varietals making their way onto menus

Finger limes “give you a lot of bang for the buck,” says chef Ian Boden. He sprinkles the “citrus caviar” atop creative dishes like this buttermilk panna cotta with apples.

Two years ago, kale took America by storm. It was the culinary version of a Cinderella story; once relegated to decorating outdoor mall planter boxes and fruit platters, kale attained superstar status, finding favor in salads, shakes, sandwiches, wraps, on pizza, in gazpacho, with eggs, as a snack or as a side. A favorite of celebrities both in and outside the culinary milieu, it debuted on menus of white-tablecloth restaurants then migrated to full-serve multi-units, including California Pizza Kitchen and The Cheesecake Factory.

All superstars need to make way at some point for the new wunderkinds. Here, we turn the spotlight to new produce varietals hoping to follow kale’s pathway to popularity.

Ooh Lolli-Lollipop
Given the dominance of kale, it’s no wonder that the new kid in town is lollipop kale, also known as kale sprouts and BrusselKale—a hybrid varietal combining Russian red kale with Brussels sprouts (which are enjoying their own day in the sun).

Out in the field, lollipop kale resembles Brussels sprouts, with four to five “sprouts” per stalk, each sprout popping out a few two- to three-inch greenish or bluish leaves with crimson veins. The sprouts are cut from the stalk, creating fork-sized bites.

While kale sprouts haven’t quite reached fever pitch on the East Coast as they have west of the Mississippi, where chefs in California and Colorado are knee deep in using the varietal, it is on the fast track to becoming a star item. “It started in California, and is now all over the menu in Denver,” says Chris Casson, Denver-based Shamrock Foods’ Enterprise Produce Sales and Marketing Manager. “The culinary community is a tight one—chefs are always going out to see what their peers are doing, so it may start with two to three restaurants offering it, and within a month it’s on the menu at over two dozen restaurants.”

Kale sprouts are easy to work with. Unlike the unwieldy leaves of other nutrient-rich greens like collards and Swiss chard, not to mention kale itself, this varietal is comparatively petite in size and brings a delicate look to the dish. It also has a boost of nutrition—double the amount of vitamin B6 and vitamin C in Brussels sprouts.

A main use for kale sprouts is in salads, with chefs excited by the sweet peppery flavor it brings. It’s a milder profile than either Brussels sprouts or kale, and, texturally, it offers a crisper bite than kale’s tough, fibrous leaf.

At the expanding Red O Restaurant by Rick Bayless, in Los Angeles and a newly opened location in Newport Beach, Calif., kale sprouts get star billing in the Lollipop Kale Salad. The salad also includes avocado, cucumber, ruby red grapefruit and pomegranate seeds, tossed with toasted panko and orange-habanero vinaigrette.

Salad, though, is only one of its many uses. Lollipop kale doesn’t shrink during cooking, and it retains its purple reddish color. These attributes make it an interesting addition to main entrées, served with protein. It shows up in Red O’s classic Mexican offerings, as part of Lamb in Mole Negro—lamp chops, lollipop kale, caramelized onions, squash blossom quesadilla and three-nut crunch—and as a Red Chile Kale side dish, with guajillo chile sauce, local potatoes and añejo cheese.

Bayless is known for his utilization of unique varietals of seasonal produce to support his authentic Mexican flavors. Red O’s menu is no exception, with items like Mexican knob onions, runner beans and microgreens, which are also seeing widespread growth as petite and versatile flavor-builders across all menu sections.

Uncommon is Good
Chef Ian Boden of The Shack in Staunton, Va., has discovered crosnes, a relative of the sunchoke or the misnamed Jerusalem artichoke. A twisted, knobby tuber, crosnes have a crunchy texture and earthy flavor, says Boden. Similar to a Jerusalem artichoke in taste, they provide a nutty sweetness reminiscent of jicama. “They look like grub worms,” he explains. “They are small and not inexpensive, but the flavor packs a wallop. I just roast them in butter and olive oil, and they become sweet and soft and gooey on the inside and crunchy and nutty on the outside—like a cross between an apple and a potato.”

“When I have a new varietal, I look at how many ways I can implement it, how far I can take it. The ultimate goal is how I can use it to make a memorable meal for my guest,” says Boden.

Dean James Max is chef, owner and operator of DJM Restaurants, concepts that are focused on farm-to-table, local and sustainable cooking. His focus is on using what grows nearby and what is in season, so each restaurant has its own unique produce slant. “We use things that our growing around us, or we are growing ourselves,” says Max. “We always develop relationships with our farmers, and our menus are product driven, so we only invent after we buy.”

Because Max’s restaurants—which include seven restaurants across the country and in the Caribbean—deal in fresh product, heirloom produce is particularly important, he says. While heirloom carrots, beets and peas are used whenever in season, the restaurants also use varietals not quite as ubiquitous—radish varieties, for example. These include the watermelon radish, black radish, Easter egg radish and striped radish. While all these radishes have a peppery flavor, they range in bite depending on the type. The watermelon radish has a mild pepper flavor, while Easter egg radishes have a hint of sweet along with the pepper.

Max appreciates the flavor subtleties and contrasts achieved by creative produce usage—heirloom tomatoes with pickled green strawberry, for example. “With duck, I serve heirloom carrots harvested very young and served with their tops and a purée of larger sweet carrot, cumin and brown butter,” he says.

A Burst of flavor
Known as citrus or lime caviar, finger limes have been in the United States for several years, but they haven’t really taken off, says Shamrock Foods’ Casson. Part of the reason is logistical: Up until five years ago, finger limes were strictly available as an Australian import. They are now grown in California, although in limited quantities. Full production is not expected for another several years.

Finger limes are not directly related to the more familiar—and less pricey—Bearss and Mexican limes. From the outside, they resemble gherkins, but when sliced in half, tiny caviar-like beads—little pearls of tart, lemon-lime crunch—ooze out. These beads of crunch are often called citrus Pop Rocks, partially because of their size, but mostly because of the burst of flavor they add. They also introduce a strong textural element.

“The price restricts regular use by many chefs, but they are very fun, and we sell them to many customers,” says Casson.

At The Shack, Boden uses finger limes fairly regularly. He first heard of them through one of his distributors. “I had no idea what I was getting,” he recalls. “But I fell in love with them. I’m a big acid fan, and this was right in our wheel base.”

Boden, who uses finger limes to make vinegars, has also used the “citrus caviar” in a clam ceviche: Northeast clams, chopped and marinated in blood orange and lime juices, spiced with chiles and served in a bit of broth with fresh trout roe then garnished with the finger lime beads. “I love the juxtaposition of the salty, briny roe and the acid of the finger lime,” says Boden. “They have a similar texture, but the flavor is completely different—one gives you a pop of salt and the other a pop of acidity.”

Although expensive, Boden notes “it is one of those ingredients that gives you a lot of bang for the buck. For the amount you need, it’s very affordable. The flavor is so intense that you get a big acid punch using just a little.”

New Uses for Old Standbys
At Ellary’s Greens, a Greenwich Village café that offers healthy, gourmet options, founder Leith Hill and chef Alex Oefeli are having fun finding new uses for familiar produce— including as a replacement for fats to create nutrient-dense fare.

The restaurant doesn’t use any butter or cream, relying instead on produce such as avocado and celery root. As an example, avocado works as the catalyst in the restaurant’s popular Raw Chocolate Mousse, delivering the necessary creamy texture.  “All the fat in our chocolate mousse is avocado,” says Hill. “The mousse is gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan.” Additional ingredients include espresso powder, coconut sugar, coconut water, maple syrup, vanilla and sea salt. It’s topped with coconut whipped cream and strawberries.

“Celery root is great because it has its own flavor but also can carry the flavor that you put with it,” says Hill.  “It reminds me of jicama—it has a light crisp taste so you can eat it raw, or you can mask it as a mashed potato.”

Oefeli uses it as a potato substitute in soups, and it is also blanched and served whole as part of a dish of roasted Brussels sprouts, with orange zest and pecans. The Roasted Crispy Organic Chicken Breast with fresh herbs sits on top of celery purée, which is so creamy customers swear it is made with butter and cream, says Hill.

“We try to find things that are nutrient rich, flavorful and have great versatility, and we don’t want to waste any part of the vegetable,” says Hill. “We were using the heart of the celery root in our Brussels sprout dish, and we were looking for something to add to our chicken. We came up with the idea of a wonderful celery root purée.”

Perhaps most intriguing is how Ellary’s Greens utilizes celery to cure bacon. Oefeli wanted to add bacon to the menu, but Hill couldn’t get past the nitrates, necessary for curing. Researching the dilemma, Oefeli discovered celery has enough naturally occurring nitrates to cure bacon. “We bring in the most beautiful bacon, and we get organic celery from our cooler, run it through our juicer, mix it with juniper and spice, and create a paste,” says Hill. “We rub it over the bacon, cure it for six days, and smoke it in-house. Eastern European customers tell us it reminds them of bacon they ate as children.” The bacon and chocolate mousse have proved so popular, Ellary’s Greens had to increase production twelve-fold on both, says Hill.

Making the most of produce is the message here, whether by creative applications of tried-and-true varieties or by experimenting with new and unique produce offerings. Both strategies will ultimately enliven a dish and create a more memorable flavor experience.

About The Author

Joann Whitcher

Joann Whitcher is a Long Island, N.Y.-based foodservice writer and editor.