A. Elizabeth Sloan

With culinary trends continuing to focus on the familiar, it’s not surprising that a number of traditional foods and ingredients are back in the spotlight, thanks to a new series of culinary applications created by chain-restaurant chefs. Here are some new twists on old favorites:
1. Lobster and Shrimp. According to the National Fisheries Institute, shrimp has surpassed tuna as America’s most consumed seafood, mostly due to chefs using shrimp—and lobster—as ingredients to deliver more upscale, but affordable fare. According to the Chain Account Menu Survey (CAMS), Wheaton, Ill., lobster menu mentions—and the number of chains menuing it—climbed 37% in the past two years. Shrimp or lobster noodle bowls; fajitas, enchiladas, tostadas and tacos; seafood crepes; lobster ravioli, seafood pastas; and omelets are among the most widespread applications.

2. BBQ Sauce. Although “barbecue” has traditionally sported a Southern or Texas favor, it now boasts an international flare. Chinese and Korean barbecue, Mexican barbacoa, Indian tandoor, and Brazilian churrasco are among the many cultural forms of flame-fired cooking—accompanied by bold sauces—which are being copied by creative chefs. CAMS reports that sweet and sour, Hunan, Hawaiian, and mango/rum/ molasses BBQ sauces are being menued more frequently. BBQ sauce has also found new uses in other meal parts, growing rapidly in the appetizer segment as a dip for chicken wings/tenders, onion rings, shrimp, and salmon. About 43% of barbecue sauces are used in entrees, 19% sandwiches, 13% burgers, and 13% appetizers.

3. Artichokes. Artichokes jumped 27% in menu mentions over the past two years and appear more frequently than celery, green beans, or peas. While spinach and artichoke dip drove recent growth, other products include Panera Bread’s Turkey Artichoke Panini with a spinach artichoke spread, Johnny Carino’s Kid’s Pizza Mia with artichoke topping, and the Spaghetti Warehouse’s Chicken Florentine tossed with spinach and artichokes.

4. Mustard & Ketchup. Meat, poultry, and seafood are being rubbed, marinated, and topped with mustard-based preparations. In chain restaurants, pear and ginger mustard glazes, hot bacon mustard dressing, mustard mayonnaise, fruity grain mustard dipping sauces, and apple Dijon and Creole mustards are gaining in popularity, reports CAMS. With the growth of signature condiment bars, such as Fuddruckers’, chefs are also showcasing signature ketchups using tomato varietals and salsa combinations or by adding chilies, curry, or other spices.

5. Peanuts. The growth of Asian menu items, especially Thai, is re-popularizing peanuts. Peanut menu mentions have increased 50% in the past two years. Peanuts now have fewer than 15% of dessert menu mentions. However, new uses include Legal Seafood’s’ Rhode Island Calamari, a Thai version with pineapple and peanuts, and California Pizza Kitchen’s Kung Pao Spaghetti with chicken, peanuts, scallions, garlic, and hot red chilies.

6. Vanilla. Vanilla menu mentions have also more than doubled, primarily in dessert and beverage applications. However, in the CAMS pace-setting, Trendspotter group of independent restaurants, vanilla is enjoying a new presence in appetizers and entrees, such as a vanilla beurre blanc sauce for crab cakes, Granny Smith apple vanilla vinaigrette for salads, and a vanilla salsa for grilled shrimp. Peppers of every kind, curry, and thyme also show strong growth.

7. Tropical Fruit. Tropical fruit, new and traditional, showed significant growth in the past six months (bananas up 18%, pineapple 16%, and mango 21%). While bananas were mostly in desserts or smoothies, pineapple was most likely to be in marinades, toppings, and salsas, and mango in sauces and salsas. Another major trend is in blending tropical fruits such as apple/mango in sauces and salsa. As the popularity of ceviche grows, expect lime to become a highly desired flavoring.

8. Cucumbers. Today, cucumbers are more than salad filler, finding new roles as cucumber slaw, shavings in quesadillas, or toppings for Asian noodles, dill salad sides and crisp dill relish for fish, cucumber dipping sauces, and as fillers for little tea and finger sandwiches appetizers.

9. Cookies. Exemplifying every trend from comfort foods to grab-and-go, cookies are mainstreaming onto menus, such as Nestlé Tollhouse Cookies at Burger King. The new twist? Cookies as ingredients such as in Bennigan’s Cookie Blast, a milkshake full of Oreo cookies bits, or Johnny Carino’s Turtle Cheesecake, a cheesecake with chocolate chips, caramel, and walnuts.

10. Grits. Savory side dishes of grits have already appeared on 20% of CAMS Trendspotter pace-setter menus and are mainstreaming onto dinner plates nationwide. Creative concoctions feature bacon, shallots, corn, Parmesan cheese, chilies, and other ingredients.

Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends & Solutions, Inc.
Escondido, Calif.