Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Eliza Amari
August 18, 2019

One of the strongest food words is “grilled.” It promises a familiar culinary technique while conveying flavor-forward qualities like char, smoke and wood. Diners today also see that term as a marker of culinary expertise, a promise that someone is carefully and thoughtfully preparing food made just for them. It’s a pretty common word on menus today, with chefs taking full advantage of its benefits.

How do chefs level up with a cooking technique that is now extremely familiar to diners? We asked a handful of commodity boards to share creative, trend-forward builds from the grill. They answered with thoroughly modern dishes that harness the power of that word while answering today’s high expectations of flavor.

1 Grilling for Impact

Grilling unconventional ingredients is an easy way to offer up impact on a menu item. In this Philippine Grilled Watermelon and Pork Belly Salad (pictured above), the grilled watermelon forms the base of an on-trend build that incorporates the complex flavors of Filipino cuisine. “Grilling watermelon subtly changes its flavor and texture, bringing out a smoky twist and savory quality in the fruit,” says Megan McKenna, director of foodservice and marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

For the topping, pork belly is braised in a mixture of watermelon juice, soy, fish sauce and lime, then fried in peanut oil. Tossed with a sweet-sour watermelon adobo dressing and a refreshing watermelon rind relish, the salad comes together with scallion, shallot, Thai chile, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, cilantro, Thai basil leaves and sesame oil. “Grilling is a perfect complement to refreshing produce like watermelon, and the cross-hatch grill marks are easy to achieve,” adds McKenna.

To change up the dish, chefs can grill watermelon wedges with the rind and peel or use compressed watermelon. Compressing watermelon adds dimension, concentrating the flavor and intensifying the color. The texture of compressed watermelon is dense and slightly meaty when compared to airy fresh watermelon.

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2 Flavor in Detail

Chilean Salmon Marketing Council

Grilled Chilean Salmon with Cured Tomato-Olive Vinaigrette and Shishito Pepper

Delicate flavor notes risk being lost in grilling applications, overcome by the bold charring and smokiness. This Grilled Chilean Salmon with Cured Tomato-Olive Vinaigrette and Shishito Pepper ensures every flavor note shines through. The California-inspired brunoise of tomatoes, Kalamata olives, cucumber, lemon, fresh thyme and dill provides a fresh, crisp, bitter-salty-sweet counterpart to the buttery flavor of the grilled salmon.

“The grilling in this dish offers distinct, slightly bitter flavors with charring, but there is also an umami-laden deliciousness that comes from cooking seafood over high heat,” says Thomas Vaccaro, culinary consultant for the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council.

“Farmed Atlantic salmon has the perfect amount of subcutaneous fat to benefit from high heat—it creates silky textures and a rich deliciousness.” Charred shishito peppers provide a complementary smoky-sweet finish to the dish.

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3 Jiving with Java

National Turkey Federation

Javanese Turkey Satay

These succulent, spiced and perfectly grilled meat skewers highlight the essence of satay. In this Javanese Turkey Satay, turkey thigh is the star of the plate, cubed and brushed with a mixture of sweet soy, ground coriander, scallion and garlic that provides layers of flavor on the grill. “The dark meat of the turkey thighs soaks in flavor, and is an unexpected twist on the dish,” says Beth Breeding, VP of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation.

“Grilling sears in the flavors of this dish, adding a hint of smoke to amplify the profile.” The skewers are served over coconut rice seasoned with galangal, bay leaf and lemongrass and sautéed ong choy. A spicy peanut dipping sauce completes the dish. This build lends itself to a number of modifications: Swap out the rice for a rice noodle or long, flat pasta, or layer the skewers atop a bowl build. For a lighter take, swap the turkey thighs for turkey tenderloins.

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4 Hot Stuff

American Lamb Board

Lamb Scottadito

Lamb Scottadito, literally translated as “burned finger,” is an iconic Italian grilled lamb dish that gets its name from the idea that the lamb is so delicious, you can’t resist eating it piping hot from the grill, burning your fingers in the process. In this recipe, developed by Holly Smith, chef/owner of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash., racks of lamb are marinated with rosemary and lemon zest, then grilled to rare or medium-rare. Cut into chops after resting 10 minutes, they’re served with grilled broccolini tossed with mushrooms and peppers.

A savory roasted walnut and anchovy salsa is drizzled over the lamb and vegetables for added richness. “Grilling is the most popular preparation for lamb on fine-dining menus, according to a Datassential MenuTrends study,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “Cuts such as rack and loin, as well as lamb burgers and butterflied legs, work well on the grill.”

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5 Tropical Getaway

National Honey Board

Honey Coconut Colada

A riff on the classic piña colada, the Honey Coconut Colada combines aged rum, coconut milk, coconut water, and clover honey simple syrup for a smooth, tropical cocktail. As an eye-catching garnish, a stick of grilled pineapple imparts its distinctive sweet and caramelized flavors. “The fresh, grilled pineapple elevates this simple but delicious drink. It conveys a tropical vibe, while nothing says summer quite like grilling. Combined, it’s the perfect garnish for a summer libation,” says Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board.

In addition to being easily converted to a nonalcoholic version, this cocktail can be modified by swapping the grilled pineapple for a skewer of assorted grilled tropical fruits, or by substituting the clover honey syrup with another varietal, such as orange blossom honey for a floral note or regional wildflower honey to add a sense of place.

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6 Like Butter

Avocados from Mexico

Avocado Maître d’hôtel Butter

Maître d’hôtel butter is a mainstay in steakhouses, beloved for its herby, creamy finish to savory dishes of all kinds. Here, grilled steak is paired with an avocado compound butter, made from a base of avocados and butter with herbs, shallots, and lemon and orange zest. “Avocado not only adds a brilliant green color, but also a velvety, rich and super-creamy texture to the butter, lending a layer of wholesome decadence to the dish as it melts,” says Maira Isabel Morales, chef and foodservice director at Avocados From Mexico.

“Its bright, citrusy and herby flavor is a beautiful contrast to the smoky, bitter, charred notes from the grill. Additionally, it provides a delightfully smooth textural contrast to crispy, hot, fresh-off-the-grill items.” This butter presents endless possibilities for signature flavor upgrades. Morales suggests additions like lemon and basil, or the classic Mexican profile of cilantro, lime zest and chile.

7 Mango Goes Savory

National Mango Board

Grilled Mango and Goat Cheese Salad

This colorful Grilled Mango and Goat Cheese Salad explores the savory side of mango. While most chefs think breakfast or dessert for mango, the fruit’s dense texture and sweetness respond well to searing and grilling—making it a versatile element across all dayparts. Here, fresh ripe mango wedges are grilled to perfection and served alongside baked rounds of goat cheese coated with toasted macadamia nuts. Placed over organic greens and arugula dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette, the salad offers a delightful flavor build and mouthfeel with its sweet and savory, creamy and acidic elements.

“The surface caramelization concentrates the fruit’s sugars, making it ideal to pair with the creamy goat cheese rounds,” says Angela Serna, marketing manager for the National Mango Board. “Its sturdy texture makes mango a perfect candidate for grilling, and the application of heat intensifies the fruit’s natural sweetness. As mangos possess an awesome nutrition profile, and grilling is viewed by diners as a healthy-ish preparation, a grilled mango dish makes for an ideal seasonal limited-time offering.”

To modify this build, operators might try a Grilled Mango Toast. To keep the theme tropical, use Portuguese sweet bread as a base, spread with whipped goat cheese, top with a layer of greens, and finish with grilled mango slices and toasted macadamia garnish. Or, pump up the protein with chopped, grilled chicken, toss with chunked grilled mango, crumbled goat cheese, and toasted macadamia nuts to create a main course salad.

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