Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Flavor & The Menu
April 19, 2024

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Leyla Wheelhouse

Leyla Wheelhouse
Senior Culinary Director
Food & Drink Resources

Kitchen Collaborative is a recipe-development initiative formed by Summit F&B and Flavor & The Menu. To fuel flavor innovation, a group of talented chefs partnered with sponsor brands and commodity boards to create recipes that showcase the passion and potential of our industry.

Each time Leyla Wheelhouse rediscovers her own passion for Levantine cuisine, she bubbles over with excitement at the prospect of sharing it with others, testifying to the value of simple, historical ingredients and techniques made more impactful by the stories they convey. “Stories matter,” she says. “We unearth them by tapping into a rich heritage and passing down recipes, which leads to cross-cultural respect and understanding.”

Her affinity for Levantine cuisine first took root in her youth when she traveled through the region, as well as North Africa, with her father, who served as a Middle East war correspondent. “He taught me the power of stories, to look for meaning and to discover the mystery in things,” she reflects. “The shouks [markets] of Jerusalem, Istanbul, Cairo and Marrakech captured my curiosity and wonder early on, from the aromas of fresh breads baking in the ovens and meats charring on grills to the baskets of spices and dried fruits, each with a history that is over a thousand years old.” As an adult, she has come to value the area’s community-driven approach to cooking and eating together, shoulder to shoulder.

Wheelhouse is unsurprised by the growing appeal of this global cuisine among American diners. “The health benefits of these ingredients and this style of cooking are recognized as the best, most nutritious diet,” she says. “But the primary attraction is that the food is simple, bold, colorful and exotic, but approachable.”

She reminisces about a food tour of Israel that she helped organize: “We ate from food stalls in the Old City of Jerusalem and dined at modern restaurants in Tel Aviv. It was a five-day flavor quest that reignited my love for this style of cooking and is reflected in my Kitchen Collaborative recipes: Harissa Roasted Squash with Labneh, Chicken in Yogurt Sauce and Barilla® Chickpea Orzo Saffron Pilaf with Lamb.” But the best part, she says, was watching her travel companions display the same epicurean wonderment she experienced as a child.

Harissa Roasted Squash with Labneh

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

Perhaps it was kismet that of all the products available from Custom Culinary, Wheelhouse was specifically asked to work with its Harissa Sauce. “I was thrilled. I have a real passion for Levantine products like harissa,” she says. “Harissa is penetrating menus more and more with its complex flavor profile. It can be an accent or be the star of a dressing, marinade or finishing sauce.” In this Harissa Roasted Squash with Labneh, the chef uses it as a glaze for delicata squash prior to roasting. “It’s a bold, on-trend flavor combination,” she declares.

Wheelhouse adds olive oil, salt and honey to the Custom Culinary product. “The honey delivered a beautiful red hue and a caramelized flavor after roasting,” she reports. “I have lots of experience with harissa sauce in different formats, from powders to wet pastes, and I found this product exceptional, fully blended, featuring small particles that are easy to incorporate with other ingredients.” For this spotlight dish, the harissa-glazed squash is accompanied by black lentils seasoned with green onion, za’atar, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. “The lentils add a rich, earthy balance to this vegetarian dish,” notes Wheelhouse, pointing to the value of using lentils as a clean source of plant protein—an attribute enjoying ever-greater consumer demand.

A side of broccolini, plus a garnish of creamy, cool labneh with crunchy, salty roasted pistachios, completes the well-balanced flavor profile. “It’s an entrée that features vegetarian ingredients unabashedly seasoned for full flavor, texture, color and aroma,” Wheelhouse says.

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Chicken in Yogurt Sauce

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

“Chicken in Yogurt Sauce has traditional Lebanese roots, where the magic of cool yogurt and hot, roasted meat have a long heritage of complementing one another in epic meals,” says Wheelhouse. “Letting the ingredients speak is the essence of this dish.”

In this recipe, Wheelhouse roasts chicken thighs seasoned with a baharat spice blend in a skillet, then adds chickpeas, garlic and sumac. For service, the chicken thighs and chickpeas are topped with the cooling yogurt sauce—made with Chobani® Nonfat Greek Yogurt spiked with chopped garlic, lemon juice and zest and olive oil. Slivered almonds, pomegranate seeds and parsley serve as a textural topping with bright pops of color and flavor.

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Barilla® Chickpea Orzo Saffron Pilaf with Lamb

Photo: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

Wheelhouse sums up her inspiration for this Barilla® Chickpea Orzo Saffron Pilaf with Lamb in a single word: comfort. This is found, she says, in the dichotomy of the slow-cooked, baharat-spiced lamb shanks against the simple, tender orzo, served alongside a fresh, crunchy, citrusy fennel salad. She describes it as “restorative eating from the hearth.”

The dish features lamb shanks seasoned with coriander, cumin, cinnamon and salt. Date molasses drizzled over the meat prior to slow, low-temperature roasting further deepens the flavor. For the pilaf, Wheelhouse includes raisins, turmeric and saffron to the orzo. “Adding simple, fragrant spices to the recipe elevates it, creating an extra layer of elegance,” she explains.

The chef is decidedly enthusiastic about her impressions of the Barilla® Chickpea Orzo. “Its unique, supple qualities make it a coveted complement to any entrée as both the starch and the vegetable,” she says. “Here, it soaks up the rich flavors of the lamb sauce, but stands on its own as a sophisticated pilaf.” She also applauds its clean label, ease of execution and ability to retain its cooked texture for days. “Cooked to the manufacturer’s specifications, the orzo has an al dente bite with beautiful, distinct pieces that easily carry the addition of spices, chopped vegetables or marinades for a variety of cuisines in both hot and cold preparations.”

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Project Management: Summit F&B
Photography: Carlos Garcia // Food Styling: Peg Blackley

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