Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Produce Transformations

Pickled grapes deliver a delightful sweet-tart taste sensation when a tangy vinegar brine, often with spices, combines with the sweetness of grapes. Photo courtesy of california table grape commission. Fruits and vegetables are already menu showstoppers—amping up the craveability through technique and flavor innovation pays off even more

By Joann Whitcher

Across the culinary spectrum, chefs are using a range of preparations and ingredients to elevate produce from a mere afterthought on the plate to a craveable sensation. Innovative culinary techniques are transforming vegetable or fruit into food unexpected and previously unimagined.

Operators are using fruits and vegetables to help drive traffic, improve overall profit margins and increase overall sales. Eighty-two percent believe produce will be more important to their operation in the next few years, while 68 percent believe produce is important to creating interesting and appealing items, revealed Datassential in a presentation at the recent Produce Marketing Association foodservice conference.

Chef Paul Gerard, who serves up New Orleans-inspired cuisine in his New York restaurant, Exchange Alley, morphs the humble lemon, more typically used as a garnish or to layer in citrus or acidic flavoring, into an object of desire in its own right. Offered as a side or as an accompaniment with fresh cod, Lemon Rings—sliced ¾-in. thick, blanched in a simple syrup, seeds removed, coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and deep fried—have all the satisfaction and crunch of an onion ring with the delicious sweet tartness of a Lemonhead, and have become one of the restaurant’s greatest hits.

At Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., one of the concept’s most popular items—and a mainstay on the Meatless Menu—is a grilled cauliflower steak, hearty enough to tempt even the most ardent carnivore. Cauliflower is poached whole and sliced, seasoned like a steak with housemade barbecue sauce, salt, pepper, cumin, ground ginger, and finally grilled with all the proper marks. Its current accompaniments include butternut barley risotto, grilled broccolini, arugula pesto and crispy onions. Or, it can be served like a traditional steak with mashed potatoes and grilled broccoli with an apple cider glaze.

The addition of fresh produce can also bring a more subtle change to the consumer’s culinary experience. At California Pizza Kitchen, an everyday pizza becomes something bold and unique when topped with julienned or hand-torn purple spinach, grown in California.

Intensifying the flavor profile through technique also makes proven economic sense. In a menu survey sponsored by the National Onion Association, entrée items that included caramelized onions averaged $1.80 more per item than onion entrées menued without a noted preparation method. 

Along with innovative ingredients and preparation, menu descriptors are helping to create intrigue and craveability. Diners may not spend $6 for an order of “beets,” but offer instead Blackened Beets with walnuts, goat cheese and chives, on the menu at Exchange Alley, and consumers are on board.

The vegetables and fruits that diners crave clearly are not the sides of days gone by. Steamed broccoli with a simple pat of butter may be tolerated at home, but when dining out, consumers want their sides to have the nuance of flavor and texture associated with pork belly or steak.

“Steamed vegetables are on the decline because the process does almost nothing to enhance either the visual appeal or the taste of the items,” says Maeve Webster, senior director for Datassential. Roasting and grilling, on the other hand, have visual impact, textural impact and taste impact. 

Datassential’s numbers show just how popular these methods are: 99 percent more restaurants are menuing roasted butternut squash than four years ago, 51 percent roasted mushrooms, 33 percent roasted corn, 9 percent roasted bell peppers, 10 percent grilled asparagus, 19 percent grilled peppers and 14 percent grilled pineapple.

Founding Farmers’ substantial Grilled Cauliflower Steak can serve as a meal, along with butternut barley risotto, grilled broccolini, arugula pesto and crispy onions. photo courtesy of founding farmers

A key aspect of developing big flavor in produce is seasoning vegetables like you would a protein, says Michael Vucurevich, Principal of Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (VSAG), a restaurant and hospitality consultancy. “For example, layer flavors using dressings, marinades and seasonings. The next step is to cook the ingredient in a way that brings out the peak of its natural flavor, whether it be grilling, pickling, sous-vide, etc.”

The caveat is that produce isn’t easy. Unlike protein, which is readily available year-round, the seasonal offerings of produce are constantly changing, requiring the chef to be flexible and to think on his or her feet.

“A lot of young chefs are pork crazy, but you know what you are going to do with meat—you basically have five or six options—and then you spend a lot more time figuring out what goes around it,” says Exchange Alley’s Gerard. “I find I am always spending more time focusing on the vegetable; roasting a pig is simple by comparison.”

At Founding Farmers, produce takes center stage, if not always center plate. It ties in directly with the brand’s emphasis on freshness, and its sense of self—after all, farmers are the concept’s owners.

“Produce is a greater challenge to manage on a daily basis,” says Joe Goetze, chef of the Founding Farmers concept, which has restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and is owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union. When menuing with an eye toward seasonality, “you need to have a well-managed produce program to make it work.”

The upside is that it’s well worth the effort. The sheer bounty provided by nature ensures that neither guest nor chef need ever get bored. For the last couple of years, kale has been the darling of the culinary world; next year it might be fennel or cauliflower. VSAG, which helps its clients in menu development, is heavy into carrots, and is currently developing a Carrot Hot Dog, seasoned and brined just like the traditional meat version, for Founding Farmers.

“Since we brine the carrots in the same way we do for our meat hot dogs, the vegetable takes on all the spices and flavors of a traditional hot dog,” says Vucurevich. “The Carrot Hot Dog will be served on our brioche hot dog buns, which are baked in-house and topped with mustard and housemade relishes, and with the option of adding any of our other available toppings [ketchup, cheese, onions, etc.].”

Current favorites at Exchange Alley tap into the American obsession with all things grilled, as well as the growing consumer demand for added heat. Charred Kale is prepared with cayenne vinegar and Burnt Broccoli with chiles and garlic. Peaches, soaked in jalapeño agave, are grilled and put back in the marinade, which adds depth and balance to the char grill flavor and also brings out the natural sweetness of the fruit. The grilled peaches are served with fresh yogurt.

Chef Ris Lacoste makes onions shine with the right combo of technique and seasonings, like her thoughtfully layered Rice Pilaf with Spiced Caramelized Onions. photo courtesy of national onion association.

In the Washington, D.C., kitchen of Ris, where Ris Lacoste is owner/executive chef, caramelized onions are a staple. For her Rice Pilaf with Spiced Caramelized Onions, Lacoste cooks sliced onions in butter over medium-low heat for nearly a half hour, layering in allspice, cinnamon and cloves. The flavor profile is further lifted with orange zest and juice, dried tart cherries and toasted pistachios. Caramelized onions served with steak are cooked over a higher heat, adding crunch to the texture.

At California Pizza Kitchen, produce is interwoven into 80 to 90 percent of the menu. “It’s critical to what we do,” says Brian Sullivan, senior vice president of culinary development. “There are very few menu items that are just meat and cheese.”

This past spring, the chain rolled out a Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese Salad, layered on a bed of red watercress, tossed with housemade lemon vinaigrette and pistachios. “Red watercress is a visually stunning vegetable, with really succulent flavor and beautiful texture—it’s grown only four months of the year,” says Sullivan, who is constantly on the hunt for the new and unexpected in the produce kingdom.

While kale has been a staple on California Pizza Kitchen’s menu for a couple of years, Sullivan just recently procured some baby kale. “It’s just beautiful,” he says. “It has the essence of kale when you taste it but it’s a little bit more tender in the chew; its bite is softer and it is easier to digest. It’s not as strong as a fully mature kale.” The baby kale is used in salads, or sautéed with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and red chiles as a side to accompany main dishes.

Back at Ris, the late summer menu takes note of the abundance of tomatoes, starring in Gazpacho, Fried Green Tomatoes and Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad with Greek feta, preserved lemon and oregano dressing. For the gazpacho, “fresh tomatoes are shredded, and cucumber, squash and diced peppers are julienned to add texture and visual beauty, which also enhances the flavor,” says Lacoste. She tops the soup with housemade tomato granita.

On the trend fast track right now is pickling, which has moved way beyond cucumbers. Pickling is a great way to work around vegetables’ high water content—released when cooking and causing reduced flavor, says Vucurevich. The pickling process creates strong flavors and great textures.

Executive Chef Grace Nguyen of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Asian Box menus pickled vegetables—a staple in Asian meals—as a “box topper” for the fast-casual eatery. The simple recipe calls for carrots and cucumber or daikon in water, white vinegar, sugar and salt.

Founding Farmers’ Pickled Potato Salad skips the mayo and layers potatoes, red onions, olive oil, garlic, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower florets, asparagus stalks, celery hearts, relish and red wine vinegar for a refreshing pop.

At New York City’s Boulton & Watt, chef David Rotter menus nine different housemade pickles, served tableside in jars. The Pickled Pineapple, with habanero, mint and basil, delivers simultaneous sensations of sweet, cool and spicy. Chunks of pineapple are combined with the habanero, basil and mint and then infused with the strained pickling liquid, made from a host of spices—star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, coriander seed, mustard seed, thyme, chile flakes, salt—along with distilled vinegar, water and sugar.

Produce is indeed seeing major transformations on today’s menus. Grilled, roasted or pickled, fruits and vegetables are making a major flavor statement.

About The Author

Joann Whitcher

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