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Food Product Design: Culinary Connection - November 2000 - The Coffee-Food Connection

December 1, 2000

8 Min Read
Food Product Design: Culinary Connection - November 2000 - The Coffee-Food Connection

December 2000

Stewing Over Seafood

By Tom Sadler

If you have even the slightest passion for food, you probably have at least two or three vivid food experiences that I like to call "fond food memories." One of mine involves my uncle Joe, an avid crabber, who worked his way up and down the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in a time when the Maryland blue crab were plentiful and large. Our family would always convene at his house during the holidays, a place where seafood was the main course of choice. As we were welcomed through the front door, a familiar aroma imparted feelings of home, comfort and warmth — an early sort of "aromatherapy" — originating from a simmering cauldron of Maryland crab stew. I still close my eyes today and stand on that doorstep from time to time.

Hooking the market

For food manufacturers, seafood stews can provide a great opportunity at every level of foodservice and retail markets. Foodservice providers face a time where labor is in demand, and good labor is becoming extinct. This requires designing food concepts that need little more than thawing and heating, with built-in safeguards for the likely abuse the product will take at the restaurant level. Manufacturing for the retail market provides the same challenges of user-friendly, or should I say "user-abusive," product design. In addition, both segments demand high quality relative to value, and new and exciting ethnic flavors and designs.

For those charged with putting seafood options on the menu or shelf, seafood stews, when executed properly, are a magnificent preparation and presentation of fish and/or shellfish. They also can provide an economical method to deliver seafood on a menu that may have a medium-to-low price range. At one end of the spectrum, the preparation can be very delicate and upscale, and at the other, typify home-style or comfort food.

Soups vs. stews

Stews and soups have similar ingredients, but are differentiated by preparation and the finished result. Soups contain pieces of seafood and garnish surrounded by large amounts of a lightly flavored stock or broth. Stews’ higher percentage of particulate is surrounded by a richer, more flavorful liquid, often containing wine or alcohol, and is typically thicker in consistency.

When designing a seafood stew, it is easiest to break it down into four components:

  • Type of fish, shellfish or crustacean;

  • Broth, wine or flavored cooking liquid;

  • Thickening agent; and

  • Garnish

Go fish

The type of seafood used depends on a number of factors. The most obvious is cost and availability. Designers also have to match the seafood with the ethnic style or concept of the finished stew.

Another important factor in choosing the appropriate seafood type for a stew recipe is texture. Using a semi-firm to firm seafood with a relatively low fat content will allow the fish to withstand heating and reheating while only minimally falling apart. Also, depending upon the delicacy of the stew, a fatty or strongly flavored fish will take over the flavor of the entire stew and often provide an undesirable aroma and taste.

A good seafood stew has the appearance of seafood chunks. Designers need to choose seafood that matches the processor’s capabilities, especially when it comes to handling delicate cooked fish. A firm shellfish or crustacean may withstand the rigors of pumping through several hundred feet of pipe. An alternate solution may be to develop a great base in which the fish is added at the restaurant level.

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Best broth tips

The key to a great stew is the surrounding liquid or broth. When building a broth, think of it in three phases: the wine or alcohol, the stock or bouillon and the thickener. The wine or alcohol often depends on the style — white wine for a delicate Alsatian white fish stew or sherry for a Spanish-style romesco, for example. It is important to account for the salt in the alcohol and also provide ample time to cook out the bitterness at the plant level. Some good wine flavors can fortify those produced from wine, but I would not recommend replacing the wine entirely with wine flavor.

When building the broth, evaluate seafood bases and flavors already on the market. Start with the finished product in mind, while building singular dimensions. Find or create the best fish stock, the best clam broth, the best shrimp broth, the best vegetable broth, etc.

When you are satisfied with the quality of the parts, begin to combine based on the flavor goal of the finished product. A stew containing a wide variety of seafood might require an equal percent of each flavored stock that corresponds to the type of seafood in the finished product. Balancing those flavors with the wine of choice, and possibly even a vegetable broth for added flavor enhancement, comes next.

Many forms of seafood stews incorporate a pork flavor, often from salt pork or bacon that has been rendered with the vegetables during the initial cooking stages. This also can be achieved with flavors and bases at the plant level, or even with commercially available rendered-pork fat from several suppliers.

Choosing the correct thickening agent is critical. Evaluate the abuse the product is going to endure — freeze/thaw, rapid heating, over-heating, etc. — to determine the best thickening agents to achieve success. Next, evaluate the thickener’s flavor impact in the "authentic" version and determine whether it’s desired in the finished product. For example, some stews have roux thickeners that come in various cook stages (white or blond, golden or medium, and dark or brown), and each imparts a different distinctive flavor in the finished product. Many stews are thickened naturally by a vegetable or potato puree, and some are finished with an egg liaison for added viscosity, richness and flavor. Try to find a solution that is as authentic as possible, but will stand up to the end customer’s rigors. You’ll probably find that a combination of modified starch and gum, together with the most viable version of the actual authentic thickener, will provide the functionality and flavor needed.

The garnish for the stew not only exemplifies the care, or lack thereof, that has gone into its preparation, but also plays a key role in its flavor development. The aromatics or vegetables can impart sweet and savory flavors depending on how they are cooked. Roasting vegetables creates a sweet and slightly smoky flavor. Sautéing vegetables cooks out the bitterness and leaves a silky-sweet vegetable flavor behind.

Typically, a vegetable garnish is made from a combination of basic mirepoix, onions, celery and carrots. The product-development team must decide on the best options — fresh cut, IQF, dried or a combination — based on a multitude of processing and packaging parameters. Look at the process from beginning to end, because if you start with a 1/4 in., you may not end up with a 1/4 in. due to processing, pumping, packaging, etc. Some vegetables are more aromatic than others and it will be up to the team to determine how much of that particular flavor is to come through. I would strongly suggest looking at each vegetable and garnish component individually to build a library of prime ingredients to make the "whole" better.

Other garnishes may include nuts, rice, dumplings, herbs, bacon, croutons and additional sauces, such as aioli or romesco. Some may be added at the manufacturing level, while others will need to be added at the time of service. Be prepared to show the foodservice customer how to authentically garnish the finished product within their current operation. For a retail consumer, make sure that the label explains how to "finish" the stew.

Following all of these steps will inevitably result in a stew that would make my uncle Joe proud. But more importantly, combining culinary with food science is the best recipe for seafood stew success.

Putting the Parts Together

Remember, when designing any food product:

• Be passionate about food! Remember that at the end of the day, someone is eating a meal that you created.

• Involve the customer in the development process from the beginning. Don’t peddle your idea of what the customer needs; customize a solution that fits their business.

• While we have production parameters to work within, challenge the plant, and even the executive level to push the envelope to make products fresher, more flavorful and more authentic through the entire supply chain.

• Practice Culinology™ . The combined effort of a professional culinarian and technologist is the future of the entire foodservice industry, especially when it pertains to food product design.



Thomas A. Sadler’s responsibilities as vice president of research and development for Fontina Foods, Inc., Port St. Lucie, FL include the creation of new core and custom products that help make its customers’ business grow. He has held previous positions such as director of food operations for LTP Management; director of food operations/executive chef at Halabi Holding Corp.; sous chef/working chef at Unique Restaurant Concepts; and sous chef/working chef at Boston Restaurant Associates. Sadler is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, as well as a member of many culinary groups across the nation: American Culinary Federation, Institute of Food Technologists, International Food Manufactures Association, Research Chefs Association and Fresh Cut Produce Association.

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