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Tapping Into Texture

The subtle textural mix in this Lamb Shank Ragu with Potato Gnocchi and Pickled Ramps helped chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Ripple win top honors at the Washington, D.C., Lamb Jam. photo courtesy of american lamb board. Attention to texture in proteins enhances flavor and delights the palate

By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

Crispy. Juicy. Tender. Flaky. These promises alone are enough to make a hungry diner salivate. When skilled chefs apply careful techniques to high-quality proteins in order to play up these textures, they help optimize flavor. And the trend toward healthier fare and more sustainable sources of protein is prompting menu developers to pay serious attention to technique, giving diners the texture they crave.

Foodservice experts and analysts agree that texture has an increasing importance in menu development. “Consumers are becoming more and more adventurous when they dine out, and they want more texture, not less,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president with the foodservice research firm Technomic. “We know how the other flavors form a sense of smell and taste, but texture adds a little more entertainment for the mouth,” he adds.

According to trends forecaster Elizabeth Sloan, texture ranks as a “mega trend.” In a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Food Texture session in July, she cited the increase in textural claims on food and beverage items. Sloan credits the interest in texture to a continued sense of foodie adventure as well as an indicator of “real” or freshly prepared.

Those on the leading edge, who serve customers willing to pay for time-consuming experimentations, have popularized ideas such as sous-vide, which aims to keep proteins juicier, evenly “done” and rosy in color throughout. Yet chefs in higher customer-count operations agree that the play between different textures is usually more interesting than any one texture alone. Even sous-vide steak is often briefly seared to create textural contrast. That way, flavors pop—and the opposing textures marry for a satisfying mouthfeel.

Classic Preps for Protein
Eric Caron, research & development chef at the Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill and Uno Due Go chain, appreciates novel approaches to texture as much as the next culinarian. “Friends opening new restaurants are really trying to hit concepts and get noticed,” Caron says. Chris Coombs at Boston Chops features several value cuts of meat, prepared in unusual ways, he says. “They opened up with a bang. And customers love what he’s done with his lesser known pieces.”

Diners at Uno Chicago have come to expect classic and simple preparation of proteins. And most of Caron’s customers order their steaks prepared medium. They’re lightly seasoned and carefully grilled, which make them enjoyable for everyday consumption.

Uno serves USDA Choice sirloin in more than 140 restaurants, so Caron wants its preparation to be easy to duplicate. Their only flourish? A perfect diamond-grill pattern. “We want to show our attention to detail,” Caron says. “We turn it twice on each side, so it’s evenly cooked. It shows that we showed some love to your piece of meat. I’ve seen too many cooks who lay the steak on a grill and walk away. Before you know it, it’s charred on one side.”

Caron’s team prepares haddock cooked through with a classic New England crumb. And they grill salmon with a diamond pattern, served with a lemon-basil sauce or rubbed with Cajun spice mix and pan seared. The goal is to have a little crispiness on the outside, while leaving it juicy and tender on the inside. Texture taken too far can be a disaster, though, Caron says. “There is nothing worse than the burned taste of salmon.”

Totally tender slow-smoked Berkshire pork butt combines with Michigan cherry and white beans for textural harmony. photo courtesy of national pork board.

Marinade Meets Hot Grill
Ype Von Hengst, co-founder and executive chef of Maryland-based Silver Diner, has reinvented his group of successful restaurants repeatedly in its 23 years. As he’s turned his focus in recent years to farm-to-table sourcing of sustainably grown ingredients, he has shifted his approach to cooking them. This year, the concept has added a number of gluten-free and vegan items to his traditional diner favorites. “But if you don’t make those dishes full of flavor, people will go home and feel hungry and dissatisfied,” Von Hengst says. “It’s a moral obligation—I have to make healthy food taste good.”

To do that, Von Hengst believes in long marinades and solid sears of his proteins. For a new gluten-free stir-fry, he marinates tofu overnight in applewood-smoked sea salt, rice-wine vinegar, gluten-free soy and agave. The next day, he dusts the tofu with cinnamon and chipotle before grilling it well and plating it on a generous bed of quinoa pasta, finishing with a housemade peanut sauce.

He treats a 10-ounce flat iron steak similarly, marinating it overnight in cinnamon, chipotle, olive oil, cilantro and garlic, and then grilling it. “The meat stays nice and tender inside, but the coarse pepper encases it to make a crust,” he says. It plays well with quinoa, black pecans, chile peppers, and red and yellow peppers. His tools of choice: a 450-degree flat top and a steak weight.

The approach is similar for a new special featuring grilled portobello mushrooms, which Von Hengst marinates overnight in rice wine, balsamic vinegar and tarragon. “They’re fully soaked,” he says. Then, a dash of coarse salt and pepper before he flattens out the mushrooms presses them into the flat top with a steak weight. “It’s absolutely juicy inside and crispy outside because all of the surface area is in contact with the grill and the spices are caramelized,” he says. He plates the mushrooms over farro risotto specked with walnuts or pecans.

His better-for-you, sustainably sourced additions have made an impact on his bottom line. Silver Diner’s sales have increased 20 percent in the past three years. And he has seen a 10 percent increase in sales and five percent increase in his customer count so far in 2013. “People who come to the Silver Diner know it’s their choice. They can eat healthy or hearty.”

Chef Ype Von Hengst pays close attention to the marriage of health, texture and flavor when preparing items like this Diver Scallop Risotto for the popular Silver Diner restaurants. photo courtesy of silver diner.

Tenderizing techniques
Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of Washington D.C.’s Ripple restaurant, makes memorable meals from regular deliveries of whole, locally raised animals. To make the best use of the proteins she buys, her preparation begins with careful cuts.

“Getting the whole animal keeps you a bit more creative,” she says. “I buy from local farmers, so I pay a little bit more for the meat. And I can’t just sell the pork chop.” But with the luxury of time (Ripple doesn’t serve lunch), she does all of the butchering herself.

With lamb, she simply roasts the saddle and chops and breaks down the hind legs into their muscle groups. She marinates the shanks and shoulders in harissa and braises them in veal stock. “You pretty much have to braise those cuts because they have a lot of sinew and a little bit of tendon,” she says. “There’s not a lot of meat there, but what meat there is, cooked well, makes a terrific ragù.”

For premium cuts, including pork chops, she keeps it simple. “I’ll roast them and then sear them in a pan,” she says. “It’s such a great product that it doesn’t need a whole lot done to it.” Even so, she sees a sea change in the way diners approach protein. They seem to appreciate new cuts prepared in the way that suits them best. “I’ve got a New York strip on the menu, because it’s important to offer something classic. But these lesser-known cuts, like pork shoulder, sell out faster than anything else. I slow roast it so it’s incredibly delicious and tender.”

Meek-Bradley knows that sourcing meat from quality providers allows her to approach preparation simply. That said, she aims to infuse every dish she prepares with interesting, often contrasting texture. In a recent chicken dish, she fried the legs and served the breast roasted so the crunchy and juicy elements played off one another on the same plate. Or, she might pair a simply prepared meat with a nut-spiked risotto to keep diners’ palates guessing.
Seasonality also plays into her textural techniques—her commitment to using what she has on hand has meant re-thinking her own approach to texture. “I was a little nervous going into the summer, knowing that I’d have to braise some of the meat to use the whole animal. But I discovered that as long as you lighten it with summer vegetables, you can still serve ragùs and braises, and people will love them.” 

About The Author

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos writes and edits stories about parenting, food and simple living for many national publications.