Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Spicing It Up

Whether fresh, dried, crushed or emulsified, herbs and spices take on different characteristics that enhance foods and drinks — both in flavor and in texture. Photo courtesy of mccormick for chefs. Herbs and spices can be the most versatile tools you have to boost a dish’s appeal

By Joan Lang

Just a light dusting … that’s all it takes to grace menu items with tasty herbs and spices. Items can either be dusted before cooking or after they come off the fire. The first technique fuses the flavor onto the surface, helping in caramelization or adding a bit of color. Delicate ingredients like scallops, shrimp and other seafoods, as well as neutral chicken breasts, are often dusted with a bit of complementary spice so as not to overwhelm their own flavors.

Sprinkling freshly cooked foods with herbs and spices lights up their aroma as the surface heat releases volatile oils. The popularity of specialty fries and other fried items showcases this technique — instead of sprinkling foods fresh from the fryer with salt alone, a spice blend or finely chopped fresh herb can be applied like pixie dust to add flavor, color and even the ability to support premium pricing.

> Cardamom-Dusted Scallops with squash risotto, honey cap mushrooms — Ella’s American Bistro, Wayne, Pa.
> Country Burger with jalapeño pimento cheese, bacon, pickles and Old Bay fries — Lowcountry, New York City

Toasting spices in a dry pan or a hot oven is a time-honored technique for boosting their flavors, releasing volatile oils and mellowing yet intensifying aromas and taste. Cinnamon takes on a woodsy characteristic that’s not apparent in an untoasted stick, while cumin becomes less bitter.

Spices can be ground after toasting — many Indian and Mexican recipes call for this initial step. They can also be used whole; fennel seed becomes crunchy when it’s toasted, adding appeal to an item that can be unpleasant in its raw state. And star anise takes on a complex flavor that is apparent in the broth for Vietnamese pho.

Spice rubs take on more flavor if the whole spices (such as mustard seeds, peppercorns, coriander and so on) are first toasted before being ground. Ground spices can also be toasted: Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and monitor closely so they don’t burn.

> Pistachio-crusted goat cheese and beets with pancetta, toasted fennel-seed vinaigrette — Dudley’s on Short, Lexington, Ky.
> Spice Fairy Sangria made with jalapeños and toasted black peppercorns — Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, New York  City

The growing craft cocktail movement has created a trend of using rimmed glasses as part of the flavor experience (it used to be that only margaritas and sidecars were served in rimmed glasses, garnished with salt and sugar, respectively).

Bloody Marys, micheladas and sangritas are good places to start the experiment; these drinks are often served with a salted rim. Substitute celery salt or a complementary seasoning blend (i.e. Lawry’s, jerk seasoning or Clamato Rimmer), or try a blend of chile pepper and salt. You can also make your own celery salt by blending kosher or sea salt with oven-dehydrated celery leaves.

For sweeter drinks, fine sugar can be combined with “warm” spices such as ground cinnamon or nutmeg.

> Lowcountry Bloody Mary: vodka, bacon, Old Bay-rimmed glass — Lowcountry, New York City
> Number Five: vanilla vodka, crème de strawberry and pineapple, with a vanilla-sugar-rimmed glass— Bar Divani, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Emulsification is a time-honored technique that familiarizes at least two different ingredients with one another, and usually changes them into something quite different — think of classic mayonnaise or hollandaise and how the emulsification process transforms fat, egg and acid into a cohesive, luxurious whole.

Not surprisingly, herbs and spices can be blended into these mixtures, which are often utilized as dressings or sauces. Emulsifying a cold dressing before using it on a freshly cooked ingredient offers a temperature contrast and helps it hold together once it hits the heat. With warm emulsions, an ingredient like mustard or sour cream can be used to help the other players bind together.

Aïoli and beurre blanc are two popular emulsified sauces that can be flavor-boosted with the addition of herbs and spices; so is a plain old pan reduction sauce. Adding herbs and spices multiplies these options considerably.

> Millbrook Farm Chicken under a brick with refried cannellini beans, seared avocado, fire-roasted jalapeño pepper, cilantro-lime emulsion — 51 Lincoln, Newton Highlands, Mass.
> Parisienne Gnocchi: pearl onions, autumn vegetables, fingerling potato, Dijon mustard-herb emulsion — Tula, New Brunswick, N.J.

Garlic-herb chimichurri dresses up steak and differentiates it from more familiar treatments. Photo courtesy of christopher ranch. 5. RUBBED
The rising popularity of grilling and regional barbecue styles has led to a boom in spice rubs.

Familiar rubs include everything from herbaceous herbes de Provence (thyme, sage, savory, basil, marjoram, dried lavender, rosemary and/or fennel seeds) to Montreal seasoning (black pepper, red pepper flakes, salt, coriander and dill). Fresh herbs can also be rubbed into foods so that they adhere.

Regional rub styles abound, like the classic Carolina-style formula of salt, sugar, cumin, chile and cayenne used for the state’s traditional pulled pork. There are also wet rubs, mixed with the likes of liquid smoke or adobo sauce to create a think, adhering paste.

Foods can be dry-marinated (also known as dry-brining) in spice rubs then cooked immediately or up to a few days later. The spices also help to create a flavorful crust.

> The Smokehouse Chicken Sandwich: marinated chicken breast with Monterey Jack cheese, Memphis spice-rubbed bacon, green leaf lettuce, sliced tomatoes and crispy onion petals served on hand-cut artisan ciabatta bread; finished with spicy chipotle sauce — Bob Evans Farms, all locations
> Pan Catalan: tomato and thyme-rubbed toasted ciabatta bread — Loca Luna, Atlanta

Brining proteins before cooking them adds a deep, soaked-in flavor. A brine is nothing more than water and salt, and perhaps a little sugar, but beyond that the sky’s the limit. The water can be replaced with cider, fruit juice, broth and so on, while sweeteners like molasses can stand in for the sugar.

It’s the herbs and spices, however, that can really be customized. A popular turkey brine includes rosemary, sage, thyme and savory — not coincidentally, all herbs that are commonly found in poultry seasoning mixes.

Exotic spices like cumin, coriander and juniper berries can bring more unique flavors, along with the tender juiciness that is the hallmark of proper brining. Different spice and herb components can alter the flavor profile of brines almost infinitely.

> Mango allspice-brined Pasture Prime pork with a mango arbol BBQ sauce and pickled mango over a tostone — Café Ponte, Tampa, Fla.
> Garlic and Coriander Brined Chicken: Yukon mashed potatoes and honey-glazed baby carrots — Bistro Z, Tarrytown, N.Y.

Salt and pepper aren’t the only possibilities for seasoning flour or batter used for frying foods. Thomas Keller famously uses onion and garlic powder, paprika and cayenne, in addition to salt and pepper, in the flour coating for his much-emulated lemon-brined, buttermilk fried chicken, which helped to promote the current fried chicken boom.

Ground spices and spice blends like cumin and lemon pepper are great additions to batters and flour mixes, which can be tailored to suit different ethnic or regional menu themes. The Indian fritters known as pakora are dredged in a blend of chickpea flour, ground coriander, turmeric, chile powder and garam masala. Of course you could use a packaged seasoned mix — and some of the bastions of frying wouldn’t dream of using anything other than Louisiana Fish Fry or Golden Dipt Hot ’n Spicy — but you can also create your own signature blend.

> Curry Spiced Shrimp Popcorn Tempura — Akariba, Brooklyn, N.Y.
> Fried Calamari: Cajun spice battered, served with marinara and Dijonaise sauces — Freddie’s Beach Bar, Arlington, Va.

Just as chopping or smashing a garlic clove releases the volatile oils and exposes more surface area to the cooking process, crushing whole spices and leafy herbs also creates more flavor.

Some spices, notably peppercorns, are seldom served in their whole form; used in a bouquet garni or other seasoning mix, they’re usually removed first. But crushed in a mortar and pestle or a mill, peppercorns become both more palatable and more fiery. It’s the same with coriander, juniper berries and cumin seeds: The character comes out under crushing.

Dried herbs can also be crushed to release more flavor; for example, the needles of dried rosemary are at their best when broken.

And for fresh herbs like mint or basil, muddling releases the subtle flavor into cocktails and other preparations in a way that tearing or chopping doesn’t achieve, especially if they’re not going to be cooked.

> Clementina: Clementine vodka, crushed basil and serrano chile, orange juice, fresh-squeezed lemon — Cleo, Los Angeles
> Petto di Pollo al Limonez: boneless breast of chicken sautéed in lemon, butter and crushed peppercorns — iMonelli, Lafayette, La.

Fire-grilled shrimp is a nice accompaniment for basmati rice and peas, slow-simmered in an authentic Indian curry sauce made with Madras curry and garam masala spice blends. Photo courtesy of haliburton international foods. 9. INFUSED
Infusions are one of the easiest ways to create a flavoring element with some shelf life.

Spice- or herb-flavored oils can be used to add last-minute savor to hot foods, for instance, as a drizzle added to hot soup or a garnish on freshly grilled meats. Colored with the addition of something like verdant green basil or red-tinged paprika, they can also be used for attractive platescaping. To extract that intense color, fresh herb leaves can be blanched and shocked before adding them to the oil to steep.

Infusions have also become popular as a means to create craft cocktails — almost any herb or spice can be used, from anise hyssop to the Middle Eastern blend known as za’atar.

Broths for cooking and soups also lend themselves to infusions — think of them as tisanes that are for eating rather than drinking.

> Cauliflower Soup: browned butter popcorn, chive oil — Radius, San Francisco
> Curry Chicken Hakata: curry-infused tonkatsu noodle soup with five-spice fried chicken, seasonal vegetables, half a boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame scallions and nori — Toki Underground, Washington, D.C.

To “bloom” a seasoning means to warm it slowly in oil to heighten and round out the flavors. Blooming coaxes out the spice’s essential oils, which don’t dissolve easily in water or water-based solutions, such as stock. Simply put the spices into an oil, heat to somewhere just below the smoke point, and cook for a few minutes, until the spice is lightly browned and deeply aromatic.

Not only does this technique cause the spices’ flavor to emerge, but it also infuses the rest of the oil, which can be filtered and used separately or in addition to the spices themselves.

Blooming is used for the many whole and ground spices that characterize Indian cooking, as in the bloomed-spice chutneys served at L.A.’s Dosa Truck. It’s also used for bringing out the flavor of saffron when starting paella or other traditional Spanish recipes.

> Tuna Tartare: diced tuna and bloomed mustard seeds mixed with soy sauce and wasabi oil over avocado and sour cream — Tre Dici Steak, New York City
> Trio de la Mer Bouillabaisse: grilled scallops, lemon sole, striped bass, Cote d’Azur fish soup, shaved fennel, saffron garlic aïoli and olive oil cracker, saffron-infused olive oil — Fig & Olive, all locations

Crusting foods with almost any ingredient is a technique that suggests texture as well as flavor — from the crisp and traditional (panko crumbs) to the soft and luxurious (crabmeat “crusted” fish).

While fried, battered and crumbed foods can all be said to be “crusted,” in the last decade or so this term has been expanded to describe an ever-expanding array of coatings and toppings.

Herbs and spices play an important role here, presaged by such classic preparations as steak au poivre, where the surface of the meat is embedded with cracked pepper to form a distinctive crust. Back in the early ’90s, the now-iconic potato-crusted fish took delicately flavored fish and covered it with crispy “scales” of thinly sliced potatoes, enlivened with paprika, rosemary or cilantro.

The concept has gone mainstream: Witness Olive Garden’s Parmesan-and-Herb-Crusted Bistecca, Cheesecake Factory’s Wasabi-Crusted Salmon and Ruby Tuesday’s Herb-Crusted Tilapia.

> Dark El Rey Chocolate and Dried Spice-Crusted Salmon: mashed potatoes, greens with garlic and caper-infused olive oil — Restaurant Jezebel, Austin, Texas
> Ginger-Crusted Onaga (long-tail red snapper), miso sesame vinaigrette, organically grown hamakua mushroom and corn — Alan Wong’s, Honolulu

Though seldom mentioned in menu copy, poaching can bring distinction to all kinds of foods, particularly delicate ones like seafood, chicken, sweetbreads and vegetables.

A traditional French court-bouillon (the term loosely means “short broth,” referring to the brief time that the food is cooked) is a poaching liquid made of a mix of aromatics such as onion and celery, acid like lemon or vinegar, and spices such as bay leaf, peppercorns and thyme.

Anything goes in creating a flavorful poaching liquid. Throughout the American South, seafood is cooked in water that’s been so heavily spiced (frequently with a prepared mix like Old Bay or Tony Chachere’s) that diners have to be careful not to rub their eyes after shelling the crawfish, shrimp or lobster that’s been poached in it.

Many Asian recipes call for poaching foods in a liquid seasoned with garlic, soy, green onions and ginger.

And fruits such as pears are delicious poached in red wine with sugar and such warm spices as cinnamon, cloves and star anise.

> Lowcountry Lobster Boil: lobster, shrimp, Andouille sausage, corn, potato — Lowcountry, New York City
> Lemon Grass Poached Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail: tomato, horseradish, lemon — Kameula Provision Company, Waikoloa, Hawaii


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.