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August 30, 2011

10 Min Read
Seafood: Swimming in the Seas of Change

By Gina Parisi, CRC, Contributing Editor

As the age of the U.S. population shifts, so does its taste for seafood. With the baby boomers becoming empty nesters," they seem more daring with their food and flavor profiles. Since they no longer have to worry about feeding the entire family, they are willing to purchase and try seafood that is of a higher quality with a more-exotic flavor profile. Generation X and Y consumers have grown up with a broader palate and expect more than baked scrod or fish sticks.

Economic changes have affected when and where people enjoy seafood. The average seafood consumer may only eat seafood when dining out. But throughout these past few years, seafood consumers are dining out less and are preparing more meals at home. In turn, the consumer still wants to have that restaurant-quality meal, but they want it at home to save on meal expenses.

In that respect, the consumer can find more restaurant-quality seafood in retail today. Individually quick-frozen (IQF) fillets are now going into value-added fish products, moving beyond the basic square, rectangle or wedge portions that have been available for years. Larger-sized shrimp are being breaded and glazed so the consumer can have that restaurant experience at home. The breadings and batters now being developed are using ingredients that are less processed and higher in quality to improve the at-home eating experience.

Not only is this an advantage for home use, but since quality has improved and flavor profiles have expanded, these value-added items can also be used in foodservice. These types of items can assist in product consistency and ease of preparation. This can also aid in portion control and keep food costs from fluctuating. A fish fillet that comes into a restaurant already battered saves time and expense related to labor compared to one that has to be prepared from scratch in the back of the house. This is perfect for a small kitchen, quick-service restaurants (QSR) or kitchens that have less-experienced employees.

Ideas are unlimited when it comes to the types of products that can fit into the retail realm as well as foodservice. It just takes a creative mind to figure out how to develop the product and consumer interest to improve your chances for success.

The flavors to savor

Classic flavor profiles like lemon pepper and garlic butter still predominate. However, slight tweaks to traditional profiles can make a delicious impact. Grapefruit, lime, blood orange and tangerine are just a few different citrus ideas that can put a tasty, but consumer-comfortable twist on the never-fail lemon pepper. To kick up the conventional garlic butter, try adding some roasted herbs. Roasted thyme, rosemary or sage can really impact the flavor of the dish.

One flavor trend is sweet heat. Fruit and fish can really be an exquisite combination. Pineapple, mango, coconut and papaya go really well with seafood when paired with a little kick of a fresh jalapeño or a pinch of cayenne. Simple, sweet flavors, such as maple, brown sugar or honey, when combined with the spice of a smoked chile pepper, can be a hit on stronger-flavored seafood such as salmon or tuna.

Smoked and grilled flavor profiles are also becoming trendy on seafood. Seafood dishes smoked with cedar, mesquite and applewood seem to be all over restaurant menus these days. Adding ingredients like bacon or pancetta can also impart a smoky flavor to seafood.

Asian flavor profiles are still very popular with seafood. Dressed up or down, sweet and sour shrimp is still a big hit in most Asian restaurants. The biggest change with Asian profiles on seafood is that, instead of having a basic, nondescript flavor, ingredients are being showcased. Sesame ginger, Thai basil and Mongolian barbecue can give seafood an Asian flair.

Latin flavor profiles are also popular with seafood. Tortilla-crusted items are popping up on fine-dining and QSR menus, as well as in the frozen seafood section in grocery stores. Chili lime and mojito are other Latin flavor profiles that are emerging at the retail level.

Batter up

On the battered end of things, a lot of consumers are now looking for dual-purpose battered items. Not everyone has a deep-fat fryer in their home or in the back of the house, so it is a huge advantage to have a batter that comes out crispy from either the oven or the fryer. This is also an advantage for schools and health-care facilities, because there is no fat added during the cooking stage.

Beer-battered items are still a top choice. Foodservice and retail customers want real beer in their product, not just a batter with beer flavor added to it. Even though real beer is used in the batter, there is no need to be concerned about getting a little tipsy while enjoying this flavorful type of battered product since the alcohol in the beer will burn off during the pre-frying step in processing. Not only are customers looking for real beer, some want to see call-outs of the brand. Some of the name-brand beers advertised in battered seafood right now include Budweiser, Corona, Bass and Red Hook.

Tempura batter is on the rise in seafood applications. Primarily used on shrimp and vegetables, this batter is generally made with cold water (sometimes carbonated water is used to keep a light, airy texture), soft-wheat flour, eggs, corn starch and leavening (generally baking soda and baking powder). This type of batter has been a challenge to make commercially because, if it is mixed too long or gets too warm, the texture goes from fluffy and crispy to dense and chewy. However, some production facilities have figured out how to make this delicate batter on a large scale by modifying standard batter application processes and equipment, making it more accessible to restaurants and the home user. This type of batter is best reconstituted by deep-frying to assure the product keeps its crispness and doesnt end up soft and soggy.

Battered items with a cornflake" appearance are also in demand. Instead of the batter creating a smooth appearance, these items have ridges and flakes of batter. This makes the product look hand-made rather than mass-produced. The texture has a more-tender bite versus a hard shell or crispy coating. A southern-fried (salt, pepper, onion and garlic) or buttermilk flavor profile is most common with this type of batter, but a spicy cayenne profile would also work. These items can be reconstituted in the deep-fat fryer or the oven and have a very similar texture.

Its all in the breading

Breaded fish has come a long way from butter and Ritz crackers. Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) give a light, but very crispy, crunch. Unique ingredients like pieces of dried fruit, nuts, shredded cheese and tortilla chipseven potato sticks and baconare also blended into coatings, including those for IQF portions, to give a handmade, back-of-the-house feel.

With flavor profiles such as honey chipotle and Mediterranean herb with pine nuts, both foodservice and retail customers can feel like they are serving and enjoying a fillet from a fine-dining establishment. Having the portion crusted" on just the top and sides gives the product the appearance of being hand-made, as well. This also ensures that theres more fish than breading, giving the product more perceived value. Since the breading consists of high-quality ingredients, the ideal reconstitution method for these items baking to lessen the chance that they overcook and develop volatile off flavors.

Time to get saucy

A lot of restaurants serve their seafood with a glaze or sauce. In the past, a sauce packet in a frozen seafood product added convenience, but the consumer had to thaw out the sauce pouch before use. Today, consumers can purchase individually vacuumed-packed glazed seafood, seafood enrobed with sauce, and frozen seafood dishes that include sauce pellets. With these types of items, the cooking process has been condensed from two steps to one.

Not only can foodservice and retail customers prepare sauced items with ease and convenience, but now they can also have a slow-roasted fillet in about 20 minutes. My company, High Liner Foods, recently launched a line of fillets that have been flame-seared and enrobed with a light glaze to deliver basted, slow-roasted fish portions that are as easy to cook as frozen pizza. The line includes popular flavor profiles such as Apple Wood Salmon, Citrus Peppercorn Tilapia and Rustic Italian Cod. There are also more-current flavor profiles, such as Asian BBQ Salmon, Thai Basil Tilapia and Southwestern Cod.

Since these items do not have a crispy or crunchy coating, they can be prepared in the microwave thanks to special steam" packaging, such as self-venting pouches and films used on microwaveable trays. Also, with enrobed items, the amount of sauce is always the same.

Classic sauces such as scampi, lemon pepper and lemon butter work well on all types of seafood. However, more-upscale flavor profiles can be adapted, such as Alfredo, white wine and herb, basil pesto, pineapple mango, and chipotle barbecue. These sauce-enrobed items can be served alone or over rice or pasta. They can be part of a surf and turf, or used as an ingredient in a casserole or stuffing.

The world of seafood today has come a long way from the classic seafood dishes. Even though those items are still in demand, the untraditional products are sparking interest in the avid seafood consumer, as well as those who only eat seafood when they go out to eat at restaurants. After all, many people are afraid to make seafood from scratch at home. However, a product that tastes as if it came straight from a restaurant, but is easy to prepare, may be the key to having people eat more seafood in the comfort of their own home. Also, mass-producing a product good enough to be served in a restaurant makes it more convenient and consistent for the foodservice user. These items could end up being the secret weapon in a restaurant, or for the home cook who wants to show off" their culinary skills at dinner party. Dont worrywell never tell.

Gina Parisi, CRC, is a senior food technologist at High Liner Foods, U.S. Division. She earned her degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson and Wales University. Gina is a member of the Research Chefs Association and the Institute of Food Technologists. She can be reached at [email protected].

Non-Fried Seafood Rising

According to the NPD Group, Chicago, while total seafood and fried seafood servings have been declining for several years, servings of non-fried seafood have increased over the last two years.

The market-research firm notes foodservice seafood consumption declined by 2% for the year ending March 2011, part of an ongoing slip in sales. Prior years saw total seafood servings declining by 1% in 2007, 1% in 2008, 6% in 2009 and 1% in 2010.

However, non-fried seafood, like salmon and sushi, is an exception in the seafood category. While servings of fried seafood experienced the steepest declines, demand for fish that is grilled, broiled, baked or raw posted growth in this latest year and prior to the recession. Servings of total non-fried fish increased by 1% for year ending March 2011, salmon servings grew by 1% and sushi by 4%.

The growth in non-fried seafood servings suggests consumers are making health-conscious decisions in their seafood selections," says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst, NPD Group. With the attention healthful eating is being given by public and private sector initiatives, restaurant operators may see this as a good opportunity to assess their seafood menu offerings in order to meet their consumers interests and needs."

The Editors

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