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The Flexibility Factor

Selective meat-eaters appreciate top-quality meats used in high-impact ways, like the prosciutto that joins fresh mozzarella and arugula atop Bertucci’s Pizza Verde. Photo courtesy of bertucci’s. A meat-optional approach to menu-making ensures craveable meals for diners of all persuasions

By Robin Schempp

After decades of culinary limitations brought on by labels like “vegetarian” and “vegan,” the term “flexitarian” seemed like a gustatory godsend when it entered the culinary lexicon and, indeed, even the dictionary in 2004. Not until the end of the decade, however, did the word catch up to a slew of unlabeled eaters who considered themselves among the picky meat-eaters, semi-pescatarians, sometime-vegetarians, reformed vegans or, simply, “cheaters” in numbers well beyond the estimated 2 percent strict vegetarian/vegan population. Carnivores who are cutting back for any number of health, religious, moral, ethical, environmental, dietary or financial reasons self-identify as flexitarians — even if they have yet to utter the word.

There is no escaping a change in attitude among a growing number of consumers. Motivated by a range of reasons, meat-optional eaters are embracing plant-based, meat-accented or modified-meat eating plans. Meanwhile, a growing list of food media and culinary cognoscenti is devoting time and resources to educating eaters about the beneficial dietary and environmental changes that revolve largely around reducing meat intake.

Following chefs like Peter Berley, with his pioneering book “The Flexitarian Table: Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers and Everyone In Between,” food writers and bloggers are proliferating in the physical and digital press with pages of flexitarian-at-home options.

Gastronomic meat maestros like April Bloomfield (The Breslin) and Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern) are on the bandwagon, contributing flexitarian recipes to the James Beard blog. Even unabashed meat-loving, nose-to-tail aficionado chef Mario Batali (who adopted the concept of “Meatless Mondays” in his 14 restaurants), suggests that Americans have “over-represented” protein on the plate.

And if you aren’t sure “flexible meat-eating” has reached mainstream consciousness yet, let Oprah’s 21-day vegan “cleanse” with her staff be the final sign. The resulting Oprah show included a meat-packing-plant tour and Michael Pollan interview. Afterward, Oprah and her corporation ultimately integrated conscious, meat-optional eating choices in her kitchens and cafeterias.

Restaurateurs who choose to ignore these “less meat-centric/more meat-conscious” indicators do so at their own peril. A mounting number of white-tablecloth and pop-up restaurants are hawking their various meat-optional menus and dishes, increasing their strategies for avoiding the inevitable “veto vote,” whereby if all party members’ dining needs aren’t met, a decision to eat elsewhere is likely.

Regional operators like Florida’s Field of Greens and Lime Fresh Mexican Grill have found a natural fit for their prevailing themes. In fact, Mediterranean, Asian and Hispanic formats and menus may be the most naturally suited to flexitarian adaptation.

Atlanta-based fast-casual Moe’s Southwest Grill introduced a new “food mission” in early 2011, including dining guides for flexitarianism, (“the newest diet option,” the guide says) vegetarian and vegan preferences. All meal categories come with the option to add grass-fed sirloin steak, all-natural chicken, pulled pork, ground beef or organic tofu.

And it may be just a slight shift to emphasize (rather than downplay) what has always been there, like Chicago-based Big Bowl does by highlighting its veggie options on Meatless Mondays.

School districts, college campuses and cafeterias from Connecticut to California have always had vegetarian offerings but are now reforming menus to be adaptable with or without meat. Sodexo, one of the world’s largest foodservice companies, launched Meatless Mondays among its network of U.S. schools, hospitals, businesses and governmental campuses.

Moe’s Southwest Grill is one of a growing number of fast-casual operators appealing to consumers with flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan dietary preferences. Photo courtesy of moe’s southwest grill. Street vendors and food trucks, naturally known to have a few discretionary selections, are getting into the act by specifically featuring items geared toward accommodating a regular clientele of increasingly selective meat eaters.

Clearly, the time is now to incorporate a flexitarian-friendly menu strategy. But a major key to a successful strategy seems to be neither to diss nor dismiss meat. Focusing on the quality, variety and overall “flexibility” in usage of meat, poultry, seafood and alternative proteins is the ultimate goal. Here are four tactics to ensure your menu appeals to diners of all inclinations.

Menu-Ready: Meat Optional
Entrée salads, with their “add chicken, steak or shrimp” choices, are perhaps American diners’ best known and most widely accepted meat-optional dishes. But consumers have come to expect protein-optional menu offerings at Mexican (chicken, beef or bean) and Asian (poultry, pork, shrimp or tofu) restaurants. Borrowing from this principal and practice is a smart strategy. Identifying and arranging a menu for both meat-full and meat-less dishes can be successful for menu items that are finished à la minute.

> Top crostini, flatbread or soup with nut- and/or bean-based spreads, sauces or pistous and hearty cheeses, as well as a selection of cured, pre-cooked and pulled meats.
> Even the most avid meat-eaters like falafel, cheese and hummus; stuffing burgers and sandwiches with alternate protein sources can be a winning strategy. And make sure your burger menu features a signature veggie, seafood and/or poultry option.
> Composed items like antipasti, entrée salads and noodle, rice or grain bowls are essential meat-optional platforms. Enhance these selections with vegetable “leather,” rolled up salumi-style, fried or baked tofu cubes, roasted chickpeas, pickled or roasted broccoli or cauliflower, mushrooms or peppers.
> Finished menu items such as pasta, chili, hot pot, cassoulet or gumbo are a good flexitarian fit. Start with a good-enough-to-stand-alone vegan or vegetarian base or components and assemble with vegetarian, seafood or meat add-ins.

Menu-Ready: Meat-O-Cratic
Prepped-in-advance offerings can easily expanded to include vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian options for a more egalitarian selection. You’d be surprised how many items on the menu are convertible for flex-friendly positioning.

> Winter or summer squash, peppers, grape leaves and the like can be stuffed as main-course offerings. Stuffings can comprise vegetable-, fruit- and nut-studded quinoa, farro, spelt and wild or red rice as well as meat or poultry.
> Prepared items like savory pies, turnovers, empanadas, spring rolls, pierogi, samosas, arepas, calzones, crêpes, lasagnettes and tamales are a terrific platform for vegetable ragout, cheeses and starchy or root vegetables to carry flavor and satiety.
> Protein-optional meatballs are a great menu addition for sandwiches, pasta, shareable starters or just as ample add-ons. Consider bean, bulgur and seafood versions in addition to your special poultry, pork and beef blends.
> Egg dishes like quiche, tortillas and frittatas are already satisfying enough to go meat- and even cheese-free; to make them more substantial, consider adding potatoes (including sweet, red and blue varieties).
> Croquettes, rissoles, arancini, savory calas or fritters — the surprise in the middle of these substantial hand-held or fork-and-knife treats can just as easily be cheese- or veggie-based.

Menu-Ready: Minimize
This strategy uses small amounts of meat or seafood primarily as a flavor accent or enhancement. Pork products; smoked, salt-cured, dried or fermented meats; and seafood offer the most bang for the buck, since even small quantities will deliver and disperse big flavor.

> Sprinkle or top small amounts of pulled or cured meats atop fast-cooking or quick-finishing dishes like vegetable, rice or grain stir-fries, dumplings and pastas.
> Incorporate small bits of unctuous meat or seafood into slow-cooked dishes like gratins, bean dishes or risottos. Take a cue from traditional cuisines such as South American, Mediterranean and Asian, reliant on nose-to-tail utilization and turning perishable proteins into shelf-stable staples. Examples include:

Anchovies or sardines
Duck or salmon prosciutto or pastrami
Egg and egg yolk
Ham — prosciutto, Serrano, Iberico
Prosciutto, pancetta or Parmesan
“chips” or frico
Roe and caviar
Sausage and dry sausage

Loaded with rice, veggies, greens and a choice of proteins, flexitarian-friendly rice bowls like those at Au Bon Pain are a clever way to offer all things to all patrons. Photo courtesy of au bon pain. Menu-Ready: Meatless
In addition to the success of the Meatless Monday campaign, a growing legion of part-time meat-eaters are practicing meat restraint as a trade-off at lunch or during a first course. Veggie-based noshes and shared plates help in curbing the veto vote. Consider adapting one or two house specialties to become signature meatless selections.

> Work on having at least one vegetarian and one vegan option in each menu section. Mimic meaty cooking styles like roasting, grilling, braising, searing and barbecueing.
> Consider layered tarts, pies and tians that incorporate hearty grains, pasta and legumes; corn bases like polenta, grits, cornbread, spoon bread, tortillas, posole and masa harina; or starchy vegetable and root mashes, such as yucca, yam, plantain, celeriac, rutabaga, turnip,  potato, carrot and parsnip.
> This is the ideal place to employ umami-rich products that will trigger satiety and craveability. Examples include:

Aged cheeses
Caramelized onions, leek confit,
shallot jam
Cruciferous vegetables
File powder
Dark and leafy greens
Olive tapenade
Sea vegetables
Smoked produce
Soy – beans and sauce
Sweet potatoes
Tomatoes and tomato products
Truffles and truffle oil
Vinegars – barrel-aged

Today’s meat-conscious customers are looking for more flavor and a greater variety when they dine out. A menu designed with flexitarians in mind will ensure that your establishment is a fit for a wider range of customers.


About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.