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Comfort Food Goes Cerebral

By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor

Has the economy really pulled out of its slump? According to a July 2010 poll on CNN Money, 31% the population seems to think the economy is better now than it was in 2009, and 4% think we are entering another boom. The United States is apparently coming out of its recession, both emotionally and financiallybut memories of hardship still linger.

When we entered the recession in late 2008, the emotions tied into eating out affected restaurant prices, diner choices and available menu options. We saw prices drop, and new menu selections included traditional comfort foods like stews, meatloaf and pork chops. Foods that people usually ate at home were making their way more often into both casual and fine-dining establishments. Fine-dining restaurants in Las Vegas began to go bistro" with paper tablecloths and more-casual, price-friendly menus. Emotionally and financially stressed out Americans were instinctually choosing foods that were based on their emotional cravings, and the restaurants responded by making those items available at affordable prices.

As we emerge from the recession, however, our tune is beginning to change, and we are seeking out more experimental luxury food items. According to Suzy Badaracco, owner, Culinary Tides, Tualatin, OR, a firm that focuses on trend forecasting, this is a repeatable pattern that has been seen several times in American history. Foods are now emerging with a strong voice that ties the consumer to a specific time and place," she notes.

Current emerging food trends reflect our desire to augment traditional comfort-food choices with new varietiesmore-sophisticated and exotic thinking" versionsthat give consumers something new to ponder while making their selections in the retail and foodservice worlds.

Emerging comforts

The comfort foods that are emerging for 2010 and 2011 fall into several categories that strategically connect consumers to a specific time and place. American retro foods are tied to an era, typically the 50s through the 80s, and appeal to both baby boomers and Gen Xers.

With the economy steadily improving, Americans are beginning to spend more money on desserts. There is opportunity for more authentically flavored rice pudding with cinnamon and raisins, a dessert that resonates with baby boomers and the Gen-X crowd. The whoopie pie, originally a Pennsylvania Amish tradition, has become the new cupcake in both retail and foodservice. Bacon, which reminds many of a time when cholesterol did not exist, has been in everything from ice cream to donuts and cocktails. Other retro items, like smores, malts, and milkshakes, and nostalgic soda flavors like cream and orange, and even nonalcoholic versions of the classic lime Rickey cocktail, are also showing up in vending machines, dessert shops and multi-unit establishments.

International comfort foods" are also emerging, and are very popular with the Gen-Y crowd who continues to seek out global flavors. Several national dishes from untapped countries like Korea and Morocco feature hallmark attributes of typical comfort foods and can be easily translated into workable American retail and foodservice items. The Moroccan dish bastilla, a mixture of ground chicken, almonds and cinnamon wrapped in a warqa (similar to phyllo dough), and Vietnamese pho noodle soups are examples of national dishes that are easily adaptable to the American casual-dining restaurant table. Both dishes have a longstanding history in their own countries and are made with simple ingredients familiar to most Americans.

Comforting dishes from countries like Italy and Francethink lasagna and pizza, and crêpes and beef bourguignonhave long been part of the American casual-dining experience. However, the new trend is to offer dishes from specific regions of those countries, such as Parisian macarons (sweet, multicolored sandwich cookies made with almond paste) and Roman porchetta (herb-stuffed pork roast). These dishes have a voice and story that gives the consumer an opportunity to ponder not just the food, but where it came from and how it became a staple in that region.

Street food and food trucks are also part of the new comfort-food scene. The consumer gets to see their food being made in an unpretentious environment, which connects them to the dish in a way that fine dining never can. Street food simultaneously satisfies our craving for global cuisine and comfort food, while playing into our love for all things artisanal and handmade. Serving up everything from Belgian waffles to Korean bibimbap (bowls of rice, vegetables and chili paste, and sometimes beef and/or fried egg), street food is comforting for all generations seeking flavorful global cuisine.

Recreating retro

When it comes to retro, its all about getting the consumer to recognize the dish from a specific time period in their life, and the only way to really evoke the memory-flooding experience is to recreate the flavors and recipes as authentically as possible. Restaurants that want to recreate retro dishes from the 50s, like meatloaf, can take advantage of the artisanal ingredients on the market and use that angle to update the dish. Meatloaf made with beef from the local cows roaming nearby can still taste just like the meatloaf we grew up with, but we feel a whole lot better about eating it. National chain restaurants that might not be able to include artisanal ingredients can still recreate the dishes as authentically as possible and pay close attention to presentation and overall flavor profile.

Basic American Foods recently showed savory meatloaf cupcakes" with a mashed-potato topping at the National Association of College and University Food Service Conferencea fun way to serve this classic retro dish. The Meatloaf Bakery in Chicago has taken the meatloaf cupcake concept to a new level by offering it in different shapes (both cupcakes and traditional loaves) and with different flavor accents like salmon or hot sauce.

In retail, especially in the frozen section, there is always opportunity for new products to be introduced. Classic comfort foods like shepherds pie, chicken fricassee and macaroni-and-cheese can be introduced in their authentic form, but utilizing the much-improved frozen-meal technologies that are now available. Additionally, the availability of ingredients like high-fiber pasta and fat replacers can increase the nutritional value of these items without affecting their traditional, recognizable flavor.

Cultural comforts

Typically, it can take years for ethnic dishes to work their way into our retail shelves and foodservice operations, especially if the dishes have unfamiliar textures and flavors. However, when the dish is a countrys national favorite, it is more often recognized by American consumers, making them more open to that purchase. Retailers and chain operators should tap into comforting ethnic soups like tortilla (Mexico), gazpacho (Spain), pho (Vietnam) and Mediterranean vegetable-based types thickened with bread and/or nuts like the Spanish sopa de almendras (almond soup). All of these soups have relatively familiar flavors and could be put onto a multi-unit restaurant menu, or developed for retail in a shelf-stable retorted can, pasteurized or aseptic pouch, or in the refrigerated ready-to-eat soup section. Garnishes easily rendered shelf stablesuch as tortilla strips for the tortilla soupcan be packaged with the soup, while others can be left to the end user.

Ethnic comfort foods are easily translatedsometimes via ingredients, or perhaps just with a name change. Moroccan bastilla can be called a savory Mediterranean puff pastry. Even easier to incorporate are comfort foods from places Americans are already familiar with, like Italy, France and Germany. And by tying dishes to their specific regions of the countries, a food is given a very specific, multidimensional identity, like Alsatian-style choucroute (sauerkraut) simmered with smoked meats or Southwestern French pot-au-feu (beef stew served on a platter with Dijon mustard, coarse salt and gherkin pickles.

Sandwichesa category that always includes comforting classicscan take on international flavors via subtle touches. Badaracco notes Honey Dew Donuts, a regional New England chain, recently introduced some new egg sandwiches, including a couple of international versions, such as French (with ham and a garlic-herb spread) and Portuguese (with linguiça and Cheddar) combinations.

Ethnic comfort foods can also be re-created in familiar forms, like Korean tacos filled with bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef) or Asian coleslaw made with peanuts, rice vinegar and a sesame dressing. The ethnic flavors are there, just being served up in a way that we have already been exposed to.

Street food solicitations

The street food and food truck culture has exploded in the last year with menu concepts touching every flavor and food trend on the market. There are American classic retro comfort dishes like gourmet peanut butter and jelly, tater tots, and pastrami on rye, but there are comfort ethnic stands with Korean barbecue, bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), potato pancakes, Belgian-style pommes frites" served in paper cones with house-made condiments, and pressed paninis. Food carts offer comfort foods from virtually every nation in the world.

Retail developers and R&D chefs should visit these trucks for inspiration on how to incorporate these authentic flavors and dishes into their retail product lines and restaurant menus. At the time of writing, Portland, OR, had over 580 licensed food carts and would be a great starting point for new-menu or product-development research. Since all of these dishes are being made in trucks, there should not be any significant challenges involved in mainstreaming these concepts into a multi-unit dining chain. Find a supplier who can make the necessary components, utilize current technology to manufacture sauces and other components, and jump on the food-cart cultural bandwagon.

New and improved

Product and menu developers have an increasing array of tools at their disposal when creating todays comfort foods. Eric Koyama, consultant and owner, Culinary Revelations, Concord, CA, says there are three areas in the frozen-food arena that have dramatically improved. Raw ingredients, quality frozen-food components, and tray technology have all come a long way in the past 5 years," he says, noting that individually quick-frozen (IQF) ingredients allow us to freeze vegetables at the peak of their freshness. The ability to rapidly hit low temperatures prevents moisture loss and degradation, and improves the overall finished integrity after cooking. He also points out that the availability of unique components like IQF porcini mushrooms and perfectly caramelized frozen onions allow the developer to create finished dishes like Salisbury steak and beef stroganoff with a more-authentic, fresh-home-cooked profile." Other available components include home-style cut vegetables that lend a comfort appeal, and clean-label meat stock concentrates that help reduce costs (compared to manufacturing your own stock) without cutting flavor.

Lastly, cooking and packaging technology helps make frozen food taste and look better. Koyama notes some of the big improvements in microwave technology, such as microwavable trays with thickness variation in the different compartments that allow thinner items to cook at the same rate as the thick items, and susceptor trays that allow bread to get crispy in grilled" microwavable panini sandwiches.

Sometimes, when retro trends hit the market, a company can simply dig up its old formulas and recipes that were taken off the market and reintroduce them again with the same ingredients, flavors and packaging, a technique that has been used by cereal companies to attract the Gen-X and baby-boomer crowd that takes products from straightforward to hip retro status.

In this post-recession era, our comfort food has paved the way for a more-sophisticated kind of comfort. The new comfort has a voice, but needs to be authentic if recognized by the consumer. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheelthat is much further down the road," says Badaracco. Now is the time to research flavors and menus and get it right." By keeping the dish or retail product connected with its appropriate time and place, chefs and developers can help consumers feel grounded and safe, which will result in repeatable purchases. More often than not, a restaurant or manufacturer will only need to make small shifts in their products or menu items in order to push them right back into the game, allowing them to be on the cutting edge of selling what people want to eat.

Rachel Zemser, CCS, is a food industry consultant who has one foot planted in the artisan soils of San Francisco and the other buried deep in the world of R&D, manufacturing and food science. She has a B.S. and M.S. in food science, a culinary arts degree, and almost 15 years of food-industry experience. Zemser writes The Intrepid Culinologist blog on culinologyonline.com and is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

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