Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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From Soup to Nuts

White rice is still the favored variety for menu applications like Thai Coconut Shrimp Rice, although usage of brown and wild rice is increasing. Photo courtesy of usa rice federation. Marketing groups have every part of the menu covered with commodities that match consumer preferences and operator trends

By Karen Weisberg

The economy may be in stagnation mode, but savvy operators know that innovation — a bit of thinking outside the box — can keep their bottom line from a similar fate. It’s not really true that there’s nothing new under the sun; taking the raw materials that Mother Nature provides — the proteins, fruits, vegetables, nuts and all — and serving them up in uniquely flavorful way creates something new, exciting and different that adds value to the menu.

Various commodity boards, marketing groups, councils and the like offer a plethora of innovative ideas grounded firmly on preference and trend data they’ve culled from surveys of consumers and chefs across the country. When new varieties or strains are grown, or manufacturers introduce new products, commodity groups are typically among the first to provide availability info as well as potential menu applications.

Following is a rundown of what several commodity boards are focusing on to help your menu planning avoid stagnation and get on track with innovative dishes.

The USA Rice Federation recently conducted proprietary research among 500 chefs and operators to learn more about the role of rice in foodservice. It found that nearly 90 percent of respondents use rice in their operations, with white rice claiming 85 percent of rice used in foodservice, while brown rice and wild rice blends have increased to 15 percent in the past four years.

Many point to rice’s low price as a way to help control food costs and provide a healthful menu option. It’s also a fit where there’s increased demand for allergen-free menu options — rice is naturally gluten-free — and where “locally sourced” is a priority.

“In addition to enriched white and whole-grain brown rice, recent offerings in the marketplace — including sprouted brown rice — add new choices for chefs seeking unique and healthful ingredients,” notes Judy Rusignuolo, the federation’s director of national consumer education and foodservice marketing.

“Sprouted rice is brown rice that is allowed to germinate by soaking or exposing it to moist heat before it is dried and packaged. The sprouting process, well known in Japan, increases the content of a non-essential amino acid known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), said to promote calmness and lower anxiety. The attributes include mild flavor and tender texture, slightly faster cooking time than whole-grain rice and nutritional value similar to brown rice.”

There’s jasmine rice, and now there’s “Jazzman” rice, developed by Louisiana State University Agricultural Center’s Rice Research Station. It’s certainly a good fit with the strong consumer interest in globally inspired foods. It has the appearance, aroma and taste of aromatic jasmine rice that was, until recently, only available as an imported variety.

USA Rice is promoting menu-development inspirations through new chef-created recipes, available online at www.menurice.com.

Highlights include Tequila Sunrise Red Rice (white rice seasoned with orange juice, grenadine and tequila) at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.; Lion King Sushi Roll at Aqua Blue, Roswell, Ga.; and Crisp Fried Saffron-Pumpkin Arancini (fried rice balls with mozzarella, sage and hazelnuts) at Marzano on Park, Oakland, Calif. Further inspiration can be found through its Foodservice Recognition Program, which credits chefs menuing rice in creative applications.

Fresh avocado has moved beyond guacamole and is showing up in traditional sandwiches, salads and appetizers and as a healthy-ingredient addition elsewhere on menus. Photo courtesy of avocados from mexico. RIB-EYE CAP IS A HIT
“It’s too good to keep secret,” asserts Dave Zino, executive chef for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). He’s proudly referring to the rib-eye cap, that highly marbled, super-tender layer of meat wrapped around the rib-eye, which is showing up more and more often on the menus of innovative chefs around the country.

Zino cites The French Laundry, where “grilled calotte de boeuf” (the French name of the cut) is paired with seasonal vegetables. Ad Hoc, The French Laundry’s more-casual cousin (also in Yountville, Calif.), has featured the rib-eye cap alongside lobster and slices of roast rib-eye on a family-style “surf-and-turf” platter.

“The rich, beefy flavor of the rib-eye cap stands up well to intense sauces and earthy flavors, the way it’s served at Vetri Ristorante in Philadelphia,” Zino says. “There, it’s roasted and paired with sofrito and trumpet royale mushrooms.

“When a patron goes to a restaurant for the steak-eating experience, they’re going for quality, and they’re going to get it through prime steak — the most marbled,” he points out. “Since the rib-eye is in the center of the animal, there’s no locomotion of the muscle; the middle cut is naturally tender and therefore perfect for dry-heat cooking methods like grilling, roasting and pan-searing.”

The NCBA has created a step-by-step YouTube video (funded by The Beef Checkoff) demonstrating the versatility of the cut. The flat, oblong muscle can be cooked in one piece as a roast, cut into individual steaks, or rolled, tied and cut into medallions; it also can be utilized in stuffed and rolled presentations. (Visit www.youtube.com, then search “Rib-eye Cap Steaks” to view cap removal; search “Cutting the Rib-eye Filet” to view steak-cutting procedures.)

Talk to Bob Coyle, National Peanut Board (NPB) marketing team leader, and he’ll enthusiastically point out that, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, total peanut mentions on the menu among the Top 500 Chains have increased 44.4 percent from 2006 to 2010.

“We’re also seeing chefs incorporate peanut flour into their preparation of sauces and soups,” Coyle says. “One manufacturer, Montebello Kitchens in Gordonsville, Va., is just now launching peanut-flour-based dry mixes in foodservice packaging for chains and independent restaurants, incorporating flavors like piri piri that can be used in an African peanut-flavored soup or sauce; Thai curry with lemon grass; and traditional Virginia Peanut Soup.”

Working with chefs, the board has proven peanut flour’s versatility and applicability on the menu. The flour is a flavorful foundation for flatbreads and pita breads and is also an excellent base for gluten-free options.

Using peanut flour, the board offers gluten-free recipes that span dayparts, ranging from Peanut-Butter Pancakes (accompanied by an inventive syrup of peanut butter and agave nectar) to Pan-Fried Chicken with a gluten-free peanut-flour coating. Chef Tom Grey at Bistro Aix in Jacksonville, Fla., created a recipe for gluten-free Peanut-Flour Crêpes, to be served as an appetizer.

The NPB also has been lending its support to creating several authentic artisanal concepts utilizing a peanut-butter-grinding machine. The board has been working on placing grinding machines at the university level and recently completed a project with Cornell University.

“The machine is also at Penn State,” Coyle adds. “Foodservice staff package the peanut butter and sell it in tubs, but it’s also available at a station where students can add healthy and/or indulgent toppings, create sandwiches, or just grind out different peanut butters such as honey roast, chocolate, etc. It’s really an ‘exotic retro’ concept!”

The California Walnut Board points to Michael Tuohy, executive chef of  Grange Restaurant at The Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, Calif., as a fine example of an operator who consistently pushes the envelope in creatively menuing California walnuts. “They’re especially good to use after harvest in fall and winter menus for a heartier flavor,” Tuohy says.

Currently, his menu boasts a salad of Brussels sprouts (blanched) with candied walnuts and dried cranberries tossed in a mustard vinaigrette or in a walnut vinaigrette of walnut oil, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, shallots and cracked black pepper.

“We also have several dessert items on the menu, including a Cranberry Walnut Tart as well as Fruit and Nut Strudel that’s basically ‘mincemeat’ wrapped in phyllo,” he says. “The dessert menu changes about once a month; it’s all according to inspiration.”

With the “eat more fruit for good health” message disseminated far and wide, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture surprisingly reflects a slight decline in U.S. per-capita fruit consumption overall, but fresh blueberries provide a strong exception. Agnes Perez, an economist with the USDA Economic Research Service, attributes this increase to year-round product availability through imports; meanwhile, domestic production has grown from 125 million pounds to a whopping 226 million pounds annually.

“Of course, Chile is a primary source of blueberries throughout the winter, and, as acreage increases and new plantings mature, that will continue to increase,” notes Jason Stemm, associate vice president, strategic food communications, Lewis & Neale, on behalf of the Chilean Blueberry Committee, which works closely with the Chilean Fresh Fruit Exporters Association.

Sweet potatoes are getting a lot of play on menus today, and culinary contests are challenging chefs to create innovative recipes for all dayparts. Photo courtesy of north carolina sweet potato commission. The USDA’s Perez also cites the U.S. per-capita increase in the use of avocados — up from 3.1 pounds in 2004 to 4.1 pounds in 2009. Imports from Mexico are viewed as having contributed to the increased consumption.

A survey from Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Michoacan, working with Datassentials Research, reveals that of the 350 U.S.-based chefs and operators polled, most are using fresh avocados in non-Mexican menu applications. The majority of fresh avocados are sliced into salads and sandwiches or mashed into guacamole; many see potential for fresh avocados on upscale burgers and sandwiches, in “healthy” menu development and in innovative appetizers.

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Marketing Cooperative recently partnered with Restaurant Associates (the New York-based contract management company, an operating company of Compass Group North America) in a month-long focus on sweet potatoes. To kick off the campaign, chefs were challenged to create innovative sweet-potato recipes that could be used in their respective corporate dining cafes.

Top prize went to Holly Dominguez, executive chef at the UBS café in Chicago, for her Sweet Potato Gelato with Pecan Lace Cookie, Salted Caramel and Marshmallow Cream. Ryan Becze, executive chef at the Hearst Corporation in New York, earned second place with his Sweet Potato Parfait of Steamed Sweet Potato Cubes, Gingerbread and Tart Cranberries.

Recipe cards of the winning entry were distributed at all RA locations; the promotion allowed diners to enjoy sweet potatoes in dishes ranging from breakfast items to salads, entrées and sweet desserts.

According to a 2010 study from Menu Trends Direct, onions are the most-mentioned vegetable on today’s menus, with approximately 92 percent of all foodservice operations including them.

“Onions are most often menued with entrée dishes, but onion appetizers and side dishes remain prevalent as well,” notes Kim Reddin, public relations director for the National Onion Association.

“Breaded onions remain an important use for onions on casual, mid-scale and QSR menus. Plus, many operators are menuing onion rings with a twist — adding a special spice to the batter, a particular thickness or a signature dipping sauce,” she adds.

Not surprisingly, the study shows that dishes featuring golden, caramelized onions tend to command a higher menu price.

Meanwhile, red onion popularity is on the rise, along with production.

“Red onions are only about 9 percent of total U.S. onion production today, but menu mentions have increased more than 50 percent since 1999,” Reddin points out.

Recently menued items featuring red onions include Bertucci’s Parma Pizza with marinated red onion; Bruegger’s Roast Beef and Veggie Melt with roasted red onions; Coco’s Restaurant and Bakery Italian Sub Sandwich, featuring house-made pickled red onions; and Mimi’s Cafe BBQ Chicken Sliders with grilled red onions.

With commodity boards offering on-trend, proven ingredients, innovative recipes and marketing support, there’s no reason any operator’s menu should stagnate. Board-sponsored products offer cost-effective, flavorful and healthful ways to keep customers coming back.


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