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Starch on the SideStarch on the Side

October 9, 2009

9 Min Read
Starch on the Side

By Keith Darling, Contributing Editor

Side dishes have been around since the invention of the dinner plate, so they arent a new concept. But the dish served alongside a center-plate item came into its own on American menus as recently as the mid-1990s, when the estimation of a side dishs contribution to the experience of dining soared virtually overnight.

Thanks to the creativity and competitiveness of savvy chefsand, later, innovation-focused manufacturersU.S. diners began to view the side dish every bit as interesting and intriguing as the wood-roasted duck breast or the pecan-crusted rainbow trout.

Suddenly, rice was no longer always long-grain and white. Mashed potatoes began to take on bold flavors, such as wasabi and cumin. Baby carrots, glazed with buttery sweetness, were born. Wild mushrooms hiding in dense forests were hunted down with fervor. Ancient grains from South America were rediscovered; beans and legumes diversified to a magnificent array of tasty, protein- and fiber-packed varieties; and mac-and-cheese went upscale with Gorgonzola and delicious bits of Parma ham.

Diners began to ask servers to swap the side dish chosen by the chef for one they preferred, and many realized that ordering two or more sides for a meal was a novel, fun and completely satisfying alternative to ordering a single menued entrée. Operators discovered that pairing the right side dish with a center-plate protein influenced sales of that menu item. And consumers also rediscovered the convenience of prepared and speed-scratch retail sides that espouse flavor as a top priority.

The side dish has never played second fiddle since.

Starches like potatoes, rice and noodles often star in sides. In menu development, chefs and operators know the critical role of a starch in achieving the perfect balance of plate presentation, flavor delivery and mouthfeel that results in satiety and satisfaction. These qualities likewise go into the development of intriguing retail side dishes.

Convenience-added side-dish products have become indispensable in foodservice and retail. Many manufacturers have made tremendous strides in recent years to create easy-prep products that are indistinguishable in taste and texture from scratch. Shelf-stable products often only require addition of hot water, and prep time is reduced to mere minutes. Companies have perfected holding times to maintain serving quality of foodservice products for extended periods. Advances in packaging technology also come into play, with some refrigerated potato products, for instance, able to maintain ready-to-use integrity for up to 60 days.

Potatoes reconsidered

In recent years, the potato has re-emerged in restaurants in new and creative ways. Appearing mashed, it was no longer always peeled first, and might sport any of a number of mix-ins, such as extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, aged cheese or horseradish. As a whole skin-on potato, it might be rolled in rock salt or double stuffed or twice baked. Sliced as shoestring or wedge fries, it came equipped with a dipping sauce of pesto, melted Cheddar, aïoli or jalapeño-spiked ketchup. Often, it was transformed into a soufflé, tart or mini-casserole.

Manufacturers and foodservice operators can get a head start on potato creations by beginning with precut or mashed potato products. Consider a Mediterranean potato gratin based on traditional scalloped potatoes, but dressed up with Parmesan, mushrooms and thyme. Potato-shrimp fritters made with hash browns and coconut milk in the batter taste of the Caribbean. A seasonal New England mashed-potato purée might incorporate roasted butternut squash, brown sugar and nutmeg.

Or, how about Buffalo Hash Browns, developed by Donette Beattie, currently vice president, supply chain, Culver Franchising Systems, Prairie du Sac, WI? She has spent much of her career working on menu development for restaurants in the family-dining segment and is always looking for new ways to present traditional fare. We were wondering if we could actually infuse the hash browns with different flavors, she says. And the idea came about to refresh the hash browns with a ratio of water and hot sauce, and then grill them. So we tried it and topped them off with blue cheese and called them Buffalo Hash Browns.

Going for the grain

Grains are also seeing revitalization in side dishes. Quinoa, originating from the Andean region of South America, was tapped as the hottest menu trend in the sides/starches category in the 2009 Whats Hot survey of chefs conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, D.C. Considered a supergrain despite its classification as a pseudocereal, quinoa has all eight essential amino acids and is gluten-freevaluable in meeting the dietary needs of a growing number of diagnosed celiac sufferers. Black and red quinoa varieties are new to the scene. All three varieties have an earthy flavor and crisp-tender texture, although black quinoa leaves a slightly stronger taste impression, making it ideal for pairing with game meats and savory proteins. Cooked red quinoa blended with smoked kielbasa and diced orange segments and apple, with dried cranberries, toasted walnuts and fresh thyme and garlic, is a colorful and seasonal stuffing and side dish to roasted poultry. A 2:1 ratio of Arborio rice blended with black quinoa lends a more-robust flavor and salt and pepper appearance to traditional risotto.

Other grains making an impact on U.S. menus include ancient varieties, such as amaranth and farro (the heirloom version of spelt). Amaranth, for example, once a staple of the pre-Columbian Aztecs, can be popped, toasted or cooked with other grains for a signature pilaf. Farro, with its rice-like grains, can star on the side in virtually any way that rice can. Bulgur and barley are also re-appearing in novel ways. Cooked black barley with wild mushrooms, garlic, white wine and scallion stands up to the pleasantly grassy flavor of grilled lamb chops. Stressed durum wheat, grown in extreme climates, makes high-protein pasta possible.

Among rices, manufacturers are taking a cue from the produce sector and introducing heirloom varieties harvested domestically and abroad. Examples are varieties of rice grown exclusively on the millennia-old terraces on the island of Luzon in the northern Philippines, hand-milled by indigenous peoples for 100 generations, as well as red Colusari rice cultivated from a seed bank in Maryland and now growing in Californias Sacramento Valley. Exotic varieties such as indigo-colored Thai rice, Chinese short-grain white rice infused with chlorophyll to give it a green hue, and black rice from China expand the palette so rice need never look plain on the plate. Scarificationthe process of etching or scratching the surface area of grains to shorten cook timeis employed by some manufacturers to enable uniformity of cooking, particularly with rice blends.

Specialty long- and medium-grain rices harvested domestically are also taking center stage as sides. For operators and consumers, purchasing U.S.-grown jasmine, basmati, aromatic red and Arborio can be less costly, while supporting local farmers. U.S. jasmine rice, for instance, combined with mango, red wine, vinegar, green pepper, ginger and clove, served cold, is a nice contrasting partner to braised short ribs and grilled salmon fillet. Long-grain basmati cooked in chicken stock and blended with a touch of saffron and a splash of lime juice with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro is perfect aside grilled duck breast and braised lamb shoulder.

Pasta possibilities

Although semolina pasta is far more often consumed as an entrée in the United States, a notable exception is couscous, a granular pasta with Middle Eastern and North African ties, served more frequently as a side dish in this country; it ranked third among sides/starches in the NRA Whats Hot survey. Israeli couscous, which is becoming more widely available, is made from whole wheat and offers a differentbut pleasingmouthfeel with its generous pearls.

Couscous, when cooked with chicken stock instead of water, absorbs the flavor of the stock. Blended with smoked Gouda and cream, and simmered until the cheese is melted and the cream has thickened, its a complementary side to broiled salmon. A blend of Israeli couscous, orzo pasta, split baby garbanzo beans and white quinoa cooked in chicken stock, seasoned with fresh herbs and moistened with olive oil, can be served with virtually any center-of-the-plate protein or vegetable.

Mac-and-cheese has long remained a perennial favorite. The concept of mac-and-cheese bars, capitalizing on the have it my way allure of salad and dessert bars, is a novel idea with potential promise for operators. A variety of mix-ins and toppings, such as crumbled sausage and pulled meats, steamed and roasted vegetables, chopped herbs, and specialty cheese crumbles and shreds, creates an event by allowing guests to customize one of their favorite side dishes. Plus, a mac-and-cheese bar is a cost-effective way for operators to use leftovers and pantry staples.

Macaroni and cheese is comfort food for the soul, says Susi Handke-Greiner, research-and-development executive chef, Harrys Fresh Foods, Portland, ORa division of Basic American Foods, Blackfoot, IDwhich offers two varieties of heat-and-serve mac-and-cheese to foodservice, All American and another featuring Cheddar. Mac-and-cheese has remained a cherished dish for more than two centuries, she says. Not only is it simple to prepare and uncomplicated to eat, it offers organoleptic umami flavor coupled with a pleasingly contrasting mouthfeel of chewy and creamy. Plus, she adds, mac-and-cheese appeals to the desire among us for common, everyday food: something delicious that is also eminently affordable.

Tweaking familiar starchy sides just a bit allows them to stand out from those of competitors, promoting a valuable dining experience that encourages repeat business for all dayparts. Thats what I call painting it red and putting wheels on it.

Keith Darling is corporate executive chef at Basic American Foods, Blackfoot, ID, and a member of the Research Chefs Association.

More Mac-and-Cheese, Please

Mintel, Chicago, expected the retail side-dish market to grow only 2.3% in 2008; in fact, it grew more than 5%, driven by increased sales of basic comfort dishes such as mac-and-cheese.

Although macaroni-and-cheese has been a favored American dish for two centuries, its still rising in popularity in foodservice, particularly at lunch service, according to Foodservice®/CREST® data from NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, which saw a notable increase in orders of mac-and-cheese in the 12 months ending June 2009. Increases in mac-and-cheese orders were most significant with customers aged 18 to 24, and 50 to 64.

Also, popularity of mac-and-cheese in foodservice rose from fourth among kids favorite dishes in 2005 to second (behind chicken fingers) by mid-2009, according to Mintel Menu Insights.


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