food trends

Falling Out of Love with Food Trucks

Food trucks were the darlings of the food world.
They rolled their cheap and casual fare into the heart of the recession. They had the good food sense to swap steam tray hot dogs for trendy dishes like red velvet cupcakes and Korean pork belly tacos, and the tech savvy to tweet out their locations and daily specials.

In a few short years food trucks became a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Now they fan out each morning arranging themselves on sidewalks, street corners, and parking lots, transforming the face of public spaces in urban centers from coast-to-coast. They’re in demand to make scheduled appearances at farmers markets and street fairs, they’re hired to cater weddings and bar mitzvahs. There are food truck competitions and festivals, Zagat guidebook ratings and cookbooks, and they have their own Food Network show.

Is the food truck phenomenon just another pop culture moment?
In this fast and fickle culture of ours the pendulum already seems to be swinging away from food trucks. The food cognoscenti complain that they’ve become eye-rollingly common, their quality diluted by less inventive latecomers drawn to the hype. Others gripe that the prices mirror those found in bricks-and-mortar restaurants despite the lack of customer amenities and the operators’ lower overhead. Then there’s the existential question of a food truck as a destination.

There is mounting evidence of a food truck backlash.
Cities have responded to their proliferation with skepticism or even hostility as municipal governments balance mobile vending with the demands of community, permanent business owners, and traffic patterns. New York evokes an obscure parking rule to kick food trucks out of metered parking spaces, while Washington D.C. issues tickets if they idle without a waiting line of customers. Oakland, Atlanta, and Chicago all have exclusion zones protecting traditional food businesses from what they decry as unfair competition, and San Francisco banishes the trucks from a 2-block ring around school entrances to keep temptation from undermining school nutrition programs.

Health messages, onerous regulations, a crazy quilt of protected real estate, and restaurants crying ‘foul’—it’s all too much for some fledgling operators. In an abrupt turnaround for a business that was so recently was busting at the seams with eager new entrants, food truck associations are reporting members’ revenues dropping by as much as 70%, and you’ll find plenty of used food trucks at fire sale prices on Craigslist.

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The Yabba Dabba Doo Diet

image via Hanna-Barbera

 

There’s a lot of buzz about the Paleo Diet.
Followers try to mimic the 10,000 year-old regimen of hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era before the advent of agriculture and domesticated animals. The diet is limited to foods that would have been available to early man either straight from the ground or the animal: pastured meats and wild fish, roots, nuts, fruit, and vegetables; no processed foods, sugar, dairy, beans, or grains. Nutty, yes, but the diet has gotten a boost from celebrity adherents like Megan Fox, Uma Thurman, and Tom Jones, NBA players Grant Hill and Steve Nash, and a good-sized chunk of the NFL.

Nuttier still is the logic behind the Paleo Diet.
It seems that primordial human fossils show that no one was fat back then. They didn’t suffer from modern-day problems like diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease. Of course they rarely lived beyond their 30’s, so it’s possible that they just didn’t live long enough to develop these conditions, but Paleo Dieters argue that it’s because they had inherently healthier diets.

The rationale has to do with evolution.
The Paleolithic era of hunter-gatherers lasted for 2.5 million years giving humans plenty of time for genetic adaptation. The era ended a mere 10,000 years ago, and the Paleo crowd claims that the modern diet has zoomed too far ahead too fast for the human genome to catch up. We’re forcing a 21st century diet into our stone age bodies.

“It’s intuitive,” says Dr. Loren Cordain of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University. “Obviously you can’t feed meat to a horse, you can’t feed hay to a cat.” Author of the bestselling The Paleo Diet (and The Paleo Diet Cookbook, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, and The Paleo Answer), Cordain claims millions of followers, many of whom also incorporate a caveman-like workout into their lifestyle, practicing underbrush scoots, boulder tosses, and other primitive skills that can be helpful when fleeing a mastodon.

Moving beyond the wheel
The food is prehistoric but the technology is not.
Paleos have an active online community; you’ll find more than 5,000 discussion topics covering the Paleo diet and lifestyle at CAVEMANforum, as well as an assortment of smartphone apps that take the guesswork out of cooking, nutrition, food shopping, and restaurant dining for Paleos.

Beware of Matshishkapeu, god of constipation.
Anyone who’s ever tried a high-protein diet is familiar with the side effect of sluggish digestion. Paleolithic-Inuits believed that constipation was the result of a curse from Matshishkapeu, a mythological figure known familiarly as ‘Fart Man’ that accompanied the Innu when they were hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging.

 

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The True Story of Baby Carrots

[image via Bent Objects]

Did you ever wonder where those perfect little carrots come from?
Those marvels of the produce aisle, so uniform in shape, size, and color, like no carrot found in nature. You’ve had your suspicions; you’ve heard the rumors.
It’s all true: carrots- yes; babies-no.

True baby carrots are a specialty crop that’s grown to be harvested before maturity. The supermarket version is a manufactured product. It starts with full-sized, fully-grown carrots that are snipped into 2-inch sections, pumped through water-filled pipes into giant whirling peelers, whittled down to lovable niblets, and bathed in a mold retardant before they’re packed in plastic bags for shipping. Organic carrot growers use a citrus-based product called Citrix, but the conventional baby-cuts in your supermarket were treated with chlorine to prolong shelf life.

The baby carrots we’ve come to know were invented in the late 1980’s. Supermarkets have always demanded carrots of uniform size and shape, with no lumps, bumps, spots, or twists. One California carrot farmer had grown tired of culling the imperfect and irregular carrots from his crop. Up to 70% of his harvest would end up discarded or sold at a discounted price for juice and animal feed. He started experimenting with green bean trimmers and potato peelers, dabbling first with 1-inch rounds that he marketed as ‘bunny balls’ before settling on 2-inch thumbs, and an industry was transformed. Ironically, we now pay a premium price for the former cast-offs.

The baby-cut boom has changed the way carrots are grown. The ideal carrot used to be bulky-topped and steeply tapered, grown to a standard 6½ inches for the best fit in 0ne- and two-pound plastic bags. Now growers shoot for long, narrow cylinders. The length gets them more cuts—it’s gone from the original two cuts per carrot to three and even four cuts from 8+ inch behemoths. Straight and narrow means they can be planted closer together for more yield per acre, and less is wasted when they’re carved into the baby carrot shape.

Before the advent of the baby-cut, annual carrot consumption in the U.S. was a steady 6 pounds a year per person. It started climbing in 1986 and topped 11 pounds per person by 2007. We snack on them, throw them into soups and stews, entertain with baby-cuts and dip, put them in lunch boxes, and order them at fast food restaurants. The carrot industry’s Eat’em Like Junk Food campaign has even pushed ‘scarrots’ as a dubious alternative to Halloween candy.

I know what you’re going to say.
Of course it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But we’re eating twice as many fresh carrots as we used to. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

 

 

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Jell-O Returns

Did you feel that?
It’s the Jell-O groundswell, and I’ll bet you’re sensing it too.

Jell-O is primed for a comeback. It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. Plus, it wiggles.

Jell-O comes with its own mythology.
Prototypically American, for years Jell-O was the official welcoming dish served to immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. It’s been found to have numerous medical applications, as a testing medium for pancreatitis, mimicking brain waves for an EEG, and as an experimental cancer therapy; and by day 3 of the stomach flu, it’s just about the only food you can handle.

Jell-O has even been touched by scandal. In the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the case hinged on a meeting between two communist spies. One spy had stolen atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, and the other was to deliver the secrets into the hands of the Russians. The prosecution alleged that Julius Rosenberg had arranged for a meeting between the pair of spies by tearing a Jell-O box in two and giving a piece separately to each. The theory went that when the spies met up to pass along the stolen secrets, they would  be able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the Jell-O box together. The torn Jell-O box shown in court was seen as a damning piece of physical evidence that led to the Rosenbergs’ controversial convictions and executions. That Jell-O box is now held in the Public Vaults of the National Archives.

A distinguished past and a bright future.
Our infatuation with all things DIY helped kickstart the Jell-O comeback.
The unique properties of Jell-O make it a magnet for tinkerers. Play with the ratios and it can be a liquid, a solid, or something in between. You can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser.

In its gelled form, Jell-O is edible entertainment. Its color and opacity are endlessly variable. It molds into any shape and suspended objects can be layered in, making it a favorite of both holiday hostesses and office pranksters who are endlessly amused by gelatin-encased staplers.

Jell-O is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity. It’s also a remnant of the unpretentious traditions of American cookery. It reminds us that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass was the height of sophisticated dining.

Liz Hickock is an internationally exhibited sculptor and photographer who is currently working in the medium of Jell-O. Best known for her gelatin renderings of urban landscapes, she has transformed the San Francisco skyline, the Arizona desert, and the city of Wilmington into fragile, shimmering mosaics.

In upstate Le Roy, New York, birthplace of Jell-O, the Jell-O Brick Road leads to the Jell-O Gallery. General Foods moved the factory out of state years ago, but the museum still hauls in busloads of tourists drawn to artifacts and exhibits like the evolution of Jell-O packaging and a Jell-O-themed Barbie doll; and a gift shop that carries boxer shorts bearing the Jell-O tagline: Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle.

The motto of My Jello Americans is ‘in order to form a more perfect union of gelatin and alcohol.’ In other words, they blog about jello shots. But that simplification belies the artistry of their creations: intricate, elegant sculptural objets wrought in boozy Jell-O.

 

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Small Plates: Love ‘Em or Loathe ‘Em

image via Little Red Book

Appetizers are the new entree.
Is there any bigger dining trend than small plates? It’s been gaining momentum for about a decade, but in 2011 there was a quantum leap in popularity. Restaurants everywhere are encouraging us to graze our way through dinner by putting together a shareable meal of small courses in large numbers.

Eveyone has a theory.
Some say that small plates are like snippets of meals, reflecting the MTV fast-cuts and twitter-length of our attention spans. Or that it’s driven by the economy; it’s the down marketing of our plates after the sky-high vertical towers of food we saw in the dot-com boom. It could be moderation driven by health and diet issues, or a rejection of the formality and structure of traditional dining. Or maybe plate size is just fashion, like the rise and fall of hemlines.

We love small plates.
Any dining veteran can tell you that appetizers are the best part of the meal, and the small plates format gives you a veritable smörgåsbord of appetizers. The best small plates are not just scaled-down entrées; the flavors are bigger, more intense. You can take more risks with them because the commitment—of dollars, appetite, and calories—is smaller.

A meal composed of small plates has its own rhythm. It doesn’t have to fit the traditional progression of courses so it always fits into your day. You can get the variety of a tasting menu, with less expense and formality, or have fries and dessert- just fries and dessert- and no one even raises their eyebrows.

We loathe small plates.
What was wrong with full-sized plates of properly paired food? Small plates bring a clash of flavors that never quite add up to the balance of a well-composed meal. And with per plate prices that fall somewhere between appetizers and entrees, it can quickly add up to a very uneconomical way to dine.

Sharing brings its own headaches. You tussle with the number and assortment of dishes, sidestepping allergies, aversions, and dietary restrictions. Plates bring supremely unsplittable portions like a single duck leg or 3 scallops for 4 people, and you never get more than a few precious bites, no matter how much you love a single dish.

Small plates have their place.
We don’t just eat in restaurants on special occasions like previous generations of diners. The unstructured small plates format gives us versatility, expanding and contracting to fit a range of appetites and social occasions. But we are the nation that invented super-sized meals, the unlimited salad bar, and the bottomless cup of coffee. Small plates are a refreshing alternative, but not a monumental shift in the way we eat.

 

 

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Don’t Hold the Mayo

[Nine Badass Mayonnaise Jars via Marc Johns]

Nobody’s holding the mayo these days.
According to research by Bloomberg Businessweek, six of the top 15 best-selling condiments in the U.S. are different varieties of mayonnaise. While we’ve been musing about population trends and watching salsa and ketchup duke it out, we failed to notice that mayonnaise has been living large at the top of the condiment heap.

Mayonnaise love is kind of embarrassing. We’ve always thought of mayonnaise as a little low-rent, a little trashy. Every negative stereotype hanging over American food is encapsulated in each white, bland, fatty dollop. It’s been falsely mythologized as the spoilage-prone scourge of picnics and potlucks, and doubles as a common treatment for head lice.

Like bacon before it, trend watchers think that mayonnaise’s down-market, all-American image gives it the hallmarks of a foodie cult-favorite in the making.

Mayonnaise goes upscale.
36 new supermarket varieties have been introduced in recent months in trendy flavors like chipotle and lime. All the big commercial brands have added a line of olive oil mayonnaise replacing some of the standard soybean oil with that culinary darling, and Hellmann’s is transitioning its whole product line to cage-free eggs.

A sure sign of its overhaul is the appearance of mayonnaise on fine dining menus. Of course chefs have always tinkered with various flavorings added to the basic mayonnaise emulsion of egg yolk, oil and and acid (usually vinegar or lemon juice). But it always left the kitchen labelled as rémoulade, rouille, or aïoli. Now, they’re able to hold their heads up high and say mayonnaise.

This month we’ll see the opening of the world’s first world luxury mayonnaise store. Empire Mayonnaise Co. is shooting for the artisan stratosphere with seasonal flavorings like white truffle, Indian lime pickle, fennel, and black garlic, and will include emu and quail eggs as the base for some batches. Naturally, the new shop is located in Brooklyn.

Haven’t you always wondered…http://printablecouponsanddeals.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Hellmans-mayo-new.jpg
Why the great mayonnaise divide—Best Foods in the western half of the U.S., Hellmann’s in the east?
Best Foods has owned both since 1932 (and the company has been a division of Unilever since 2000), but decided early on that both brands had such commanding market shares in their respective halves of the country that the distinct names and recipes should be preserved. The two products are made in the same plant and contain all the same ingredients, but there are slight variations in relative quantities of those ingredients. Best Foods is the tarter and tangier of the two, and is presumed to contain more lemon juice, but the company isn’t talking.

 

 

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The World Waits for the Next Cupcake

image via Sparkliatti

Cupcakes have had a good run.
It seems like only yesterday that cupcakes were a humble homey dessert, just one of the pack, interchangeable with cookies and brownies. Then, in a perfect storm of ease, economics, and Sex and the City, cupcakes caught fire. Today, cupcake bakeries dot the landscape of gentrified urban neighborhoods and suburban strip malls. You can get a cupcake in a deli or a burger joint, waiting for a plane at the airport, in a hospital cafeteria, or a Michelin-starred restaurant.

High time for the next ‘it’ treat.
Eye-rollingly common, greedy little treats for our sugar-riddled souls, trend watchers in the media have dedicated countless column inches to predictions of when these precious nubbins of fake happiness will ride off into the sunset. There have been a few lone voices in the wilderness calling out for dark horse candidates like bread pudding and bundt cakes, but most arguments have coalesced around a few credible contenders.

http://www.foodbeam.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/rose-macaron.pngLooking like tiny, colorful hamburgers, macarons are a French confection of meringue and ganache. The beauty of the macaron is its pastel-shaded beauty; its insubstantial nature and particular challenge to the home baker limits the appeal.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-KVsiO9m9kjg/TkV8EQ9iZ_I/AAAAAAAADiE/HSSpbNjc0Zo/s1600/donut-donut.jpgAnother treat best left to the professionals, donuts will need to overcome the stigma of deep frying if they are ever to fully realize their potential, though it breaks my heart to say so.

http://hostedmedia.reimanpub.com/TOH/Images/Photos/62/cappuccinopop_155.jpgFancy ice pops came on strong this summer. They’re easy to make at home, take well to unusual flavor combinations like mango mint and basil watermelon, and traditional versions in lemon and cherry are perennial crowd pleasers. But outside of a few tropical zones, these are strictly a seasonal treat.

http://www.delish.com/cm/delish/images/2e/strawberry-apricot-hand-pies-recipe-opr0811-lg.jpgHand pies have been getting plenty of recent buzz, which no doubt pleases the pie contingent, after they’ve been so sorely and repeatedly disappointed by the failure of their favorite pastry to break through. Move inland from the two coasts and you find that it’s nothing new; pie has always been a big deal.

http://bohochicbride.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/cakepopspink.jpgCake pops? You’ve got to be kidding.

 

http://newyork.seriouseats.com/images/20091005OneGirlCookiesPumpkinWhoopiePie.jpg Whoopie pies are essentially inside-out cupcakes. The frosting in the middle gives them an edge on portability, but otherwise, why bother?

Each of these pastries might, in turn, have its pop culture moment, and we’re even hearing rumblings of support from the rugelach, cream puff, and funnel cake camps, but we don’t see cupcakes stepping aside any time soon. Their longevity defies trend forecasting, their rationale—comfort and luxury for just a few dollars—transcends the vagaries of our economy. Cupcakes continue to multiply like fruit flies.

We’re still waiting for the next cupcake, and it could be a while.

 

 

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What’s Hot in Cold Beverages

What we’ve been drinking:

Infographic via Beverage Marketing Corporation

We worry about an obesity epidemic, but in 2010, we were still chug-a-lugging soda, which remains the most consumed beverage at an average of 45 gallons in a year. And our professed concern for the environment? Last year we drank more bottled water than ever before.

As 2011 winds down, the prognosticators are turning toward 2012. The Food Channel combined the results of its reader survey with intelligence gathered from the market analysts at Mintel, Culture Waves, and the International Food Futurists to identify the top 10 beverage trends that will shape our drinking habits in the coming year.

What we will be drinking:

1. Do-it-Yourself Flavor
 Beverage companies have been experimenting with a profusion of flavors looking for the new blockbuster. Refrigerated cases overflow with lychee water, ginger-peach iced tea, and rhubarb-lemongrass soda. We’ll be taking matters into our own hands with powdered and liquid flavor enhancers that are added to water or seltzer; coffee and tea creamers in new flavors like honey-vanilla crème and white chocolate caramel latte; and Coca Cola’s new Freestyle machine with a touch-screen that turns you into an instant mixologist with more than 100 flavor variations.

2. The Buzz Around Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is all over the map. While school districts are questioning its place in their cafeterias, new studies seem to indicate that it’s a better choice than sports drinks for athletes looking to develop more muscle and less fat, and improve oxygen uptake during workouts. New products include straws imbedded with chocolate beads that flavor each sip, and a boozy chocolate milk for grown-ups with the tagline: “Retaste your youth at 40 proof.”

3. Cold Coffee is Hot
The iced coffee market has grown by 20 percent in the last five years. Dunkin’ Donuts, the nation’s largest retailer of coffee—hot and iced—reports that more than a fourth of the yearly, billion cups of coffee it serves are now iced. Iced, frozen, and slushie coffee drinks are available everywhere. Home brewing systems are growing in popularity and you can always grab a pre-bottled iced coffee or ready-to-mix concentrate. Iced coffee is not just for summer anymore.

4. Drink to Your Health
The category of functional beverages is exploding. Bottled waters are enhanced with vitamins and fortified with minerals that claim to battle diabetes, improve digestion, and promote improved bone and cardiovascular health. Sugars are being reshuffled as we steer away from high-fructose corn syrup and back to cane sugar; and away from artificial sweeteners toward natural, zero-calorie plant-based sweeteners like stevia and agave nectar. You can fire up with an energy shot, mellow out with a stress busting anti-energy drink, or sharpen cognition with one of the ‘think drinks.’

5. Simple, Seasonal Sips
The local foods ethos is coming to your highball glass. Beers are going seasonal, artisan distillers are cooking up local spirits, and bartenders are embracing a style that’s been dubbed ‘Market Fresh Mixology,’ whipping up cocktails with natural mixers made in-house and freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. Even the hotel minibar is now stocked with local brews and regional wines.

6. Fizz-free Combo Meals
Fast food and quick-serve restaurants are looking beyond fountain drinks. McDonald’s is urging its customers in ads to ‘drinkcessorize’ with its new smoothies and frozen lemonade, and Sonic Drive-In is promoting milk shake happy hours. Popeye’s is experimenting with soda-lemonade blends, Burger King has toyed with a breakfast cocktail of orange juice cut with Sprite, and they’re all testing the waters for alcoholic beverages.

7. Craft Beer is Booming
Sales of craft brews are seeing double-digit increases, even while overall beer sales are flat. In the midst of a mature industry, craft brewers are acting like frisky teenagers as they tinker with ingredients and techniques to brew experimental batches with ingredients like fruit, tea leaves, lavender, chiles, and Nutella. There are so many small, independent artisan brewers popping up around the country that most Americans now live within 10 miles of at least one specialty producer.

8. Bourbon’s Rebirth
It’s the biggest bourbon boom since Prohibition. Just a few years ago, distillers were ready to consign the bourbon category to that great liquor store in the sky; today, inspired at least in part by the popular period TV series Mad Men, classic cocktails are making a comeback as the twenty- and thirty-something crowd bellies up to the bar for whiskey—specifically bourbon whiskey. Small batch premium and super premium bourbons are now commanding the same respect and high prices that had been the domain of single-malt scotch. 

9. Drinks and a Show
Restaurants like to dazzle us with presentation: the pampering turn of a peppermill; the deft, table side deboning of a whole fish; the oohs and aahs of a made-to-order zabaglione that’s whisked and flamed in its copper bowl. Now we’re seeing the same star treatment for cocktails. Juices are squeezed a la minute, syrups and purees are ladled right under our noses, and mixed drinks are given a deliberately theatrical, tooth-rattling ride in cocktail shakers.

10. How Low Can They Go?
Happy hour has always been a diet disaster, and drinkers, especially women, have always pushed for lower calorie choices. There’s a caloric arms race as the big players compete for the title of the lightest of the light beers on the market. Miller had just released its MGD 64, claiming it to be “as light as it gets” at 64 calories, when Bud Select 55 stole the title with a mere 55 calories in a 12 oz. bottle. Pre-mixed, low-calorie cocktails—a category that barely existed just a year ago—is giving a boost to liquor store sales, and restaurants like Morton’s Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurants, Applebee’s, and even that ode to caloric excess, the Cheesecake Factory, have developed low-calorie cocktail menus.

 

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6 Condiments You Really Should Get to Know

In the beginning there was ketchup.

Ketchup has reigned supreme for nearly 200 years. At its peak, it was found in 97% of U.S. households.
But global influences have perked up our palates. There’s a big world of flavor out there. Clear out some space in the pantry and push aside the ketchup bottle in your refrigerator. It’s time to make room in your kitchen and your cooking repertoire for six new condiments.

Sriracha, oh how I love thee. Squeezed on vegetables, drizzled over noodles, mixed into dressings, dips, and sauces; a moderately spicy chili base with a healthy garlic kick, Sriracha is a condiment chameleon. It transcends cuisines and national boundaries meshing equally well with dishes from Asia, Latin America, and the American South. It rivals ketchup as a tabletop catch-all.

 

Fish sauce requires a leap of faith. Comprised largely from fermented anchovies, on its own it is potent and smelly. Use it judiciously as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in curries, casseroles, and stir fries. The flavor is pure magic.

Chimichurri sauce can be green or red (with added tomatoes or peppers). It’s primarily a blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper flakes, with different spices added to suit the dish. It’s used as a marinade and as a sauce, mostly with grilled meats. It’s popular throughout South and Central America; especially in Argentina where they know a thing or two about grilling meats.

Doesn’t this look familiar? Canned tahini has been found on supermarket shelves in the kosher aisle forever. A creamy paste made from sesame seeds, tahini is most closely associated with the Middle East, where it is a familiar ingredient in hummus, falafel, and eggplant dishes. Tahini has the consistency of peanut butter but with a milder taste, and adds nutty richness as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, and dessert ingredient.

Harissa is a chili sauce that appears on every North African table; sometimes in every course at every meal in all kinds of dishes. To my taste, a little goes a long way: a dab added to stews, sandwich spreads, soups, and sauces adds a distinctively tart, fiery finish. It is available in cans and jars, but for me, the little tube, as shown, is plenty.

Cook Moroccan food without preserved lemon and it just doesn’t taste Moroccan. These are lemons that have been essentially pickled in their own juices along with salt and some spices like cloves, coriander, pepper, and cinnamon. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but whatever the preserved lemons are added to take on complexity and a kind of exoticness. Beans or vegetables, sauces and salsas, dips and desserts will all have a little Moroccan je ne sais quoi.

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College Dining: It’s Not Like You Remember

image via GraphJam

 

Sushi Bar … Espresso Bar… Carving Station … Mongolian Barbecue… Made-to-order Pasta
This is a college cafeteria?

The old dining hall was supposed to be a taste of home. There was little choice: a green salad, a main and some sides, bread and butter, and  jello or a slice of cake for dessert. There was little imagination, plenty of repetition, and mediocre execution—just like Mom used to make.

Steam trays full of meatloaf and homey casseroles don’t cut it for a generation raised on Starbucks and shopping mall food courts. They have eclectic tastes, broad palates, and a long list of food allergies and specialized diets.

Colleges are more than happy to cater to fussy, finicky students. Campus dining is a $9 billion market—as much as Americans spend in fine dining restaurants. More importantly, according to the food service consultants at Technomic, 44% of college students give significant weight to college dining programs when deciding where to enroll. And it’s a lot easier for a school to boost the meal plan than the average SAT scores.

Sodexo, the food service provider to 650 U.S. campuses, gives us their predictions for the top 10 trendy dishes of the 2011-2012 school year:

  1. Grilled Chicken Souvlaki Kabob
  2. Paella
  3. Spanakopita
  4. Couscous Chicken Stew
  5. Orecchiette with Broccoli and Garbanzo Beans
  6. Fattoush and Sumac (Pita Bread Salad with Tangy Dressing)
  7. Spanish Tomato Bread with Manchego Cheese
  8. Edamame and Corn Salad
  9. Pesto Pasta Bowl
  10. Wild Mushroom Risotto Balls with Pesto Aioli
According to the Princeton Review, these are the top 10 college cafeterias :
  1. Wheaton College (IL)
  2. Bowdoin College
  3. Virginia Tech
  4. Bryn Mawr College
  5. James Madison University
  6. University of Georgia
  7. Washington University in St. Louis
  8. Cornell University
  9. Colby College
  10. University of Massachusetts- Amherst

 

 

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The Milkman Cometh

Remember the milkman?

Once a fixture of the early morning landscape, making deliveries to about a third of all households in the United States, the milkman was all but extinct as the 20th century drew to a close, with sales down to a paltry 0.4% of the retail dairy industry. It appeared that the milkman would remain a bit of quaint nostalgia for those old enough to remember, and younger generations would never know home delivery that doesn’t arrive in an Amazon box.

Home milk delivery had been dying since the 1970’s. Improvements in refrigeration and pasteurization had extended the shelf life of dairy products allowing for less frequent purchases. The burgeoning supermarket industry had begun selling milk as a loss leader to lure customers into their stores. And Americans were drinking less milk.

The return of the milkman
Recently, this old-fashioned service has been making a comeback for reasons that can be personal, practical, and political. It’s a convenience for working parents who can strike a chore off their list, and for seniors who can lighten the load they lug home from the market. It fits with consumer interest in local products and small-scale producers who likely bottle in reusable and recyclable glass bottles and adhere to natural and organic dairy practices.

This is not the milkman of yesteryear.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that it is still almost always a man slinging the bottles. But smaller customer bases and larger areas of coverage demanded tweaks to much of the business model, so in addition to traditional dairy products, high-profit items like specialty meats, bread, jams, and cut flowers are often added to the orders.

Dairies are availing themselves of plenty of 21st century technology with online ordering, route optimization software that works with the delivery truck’s GPS , twittered delivery announcements, and hand-held scanners that track barcoded products and generate the customer accounts.

Businesses range from the small mom and pops with a few hundred local customers to Oberweis Dairy, which delivers to more than 50,000 households throughout Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Dairies in Maryland , Virgina, Washington, and Boston are reporting annual sales growth of more than 30% and massive waiting lists as they expand into new delivery areas. Even New York City has Manhattan Milk, although its trucks are more likely to drop the bottles with doormen than on doorsteps

You will pay a premium for the convenience, usually a delivery charge of around $3, but the milk itself probably costs no more than the supermarket price for organic dairy products. In exchange, your milk will be the freshest you can get and you will be doing your part for the local economy and the environment. And between the nostalgia, the cream on top, and the glass bottles, you’ll swear it just tastes better.

 

 

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A Small Indulgence: Bite-sized desserts

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[image via Show and Tell]

Forget about ordering one dessert with four forks.

What’s big in desserts right now is small. We’re scooping itty bitty spoons into tiny tureens of tiramisu and downing shot glass shooters of passion fruit soufflé. Already precious cupcakes have morphed into the cake ball trend, and little pies are appearing atop lollipop sticks.

Restaurants are happy to accommodate the baby sweet tooth. They find that average checks are higher when small desserts are on the menu; customers that wouldn’t typically indulge are lured by the novelty and smaller commitment of the miniatures, and while they’re at it, they’ll order a coffee, a tea, maybe an after-dinner drink.

We are more adventurous with tiny desserts. We want a big taste in the small package and are willing to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and preparations. The stakes are low– we’re committing to just a few bites at a lower price point than for standard desserts.

O.K., but just a sliver.

A tiny dessert can be perceived as a guilt-free indulgence. Whatever the caloric reality of a flight of wee custards or micro nut tarts, we think of the minis as a lo-cal, portion-controlled treat– kind of like those 100-calorie pre-packed snack bags of chips and crackers. Is it technically even dessert? It almost doesn’t count.

For the true fan of bitty foods, you can get an eyeful at Must Have Cute, a blog devoted entirely to the genre.

The Stir examines the bang-for-the buck of the Starbucks Petites line and Dairy Queen’s Mini Blizzards in Mini Desserts Will Make You Fat and Poor.

Get ready for dollhouse-sized cheesecakes. Industry insiders predict that cheesecake is due for its own mini makeover.

http://www.5minutesformom.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/easy-bake.jpg It’s the original mini dessert maker, and it’s still baking little cakes with just a light bulb. See where it all began:  Hasbro’s Easy Bake Oven.

image courtesy of MarcWellness.com Are you portion savvy? Gigabiting explores portion trends in Mini-Size Me.

 

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You’ll be Eating This Next Year

That’s no Oscar.
The toques! The domed plate covers! It can only be the sofis.

You might not know the award, but you know the winners.
The Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation, or sofi, is the top honor in the specialty food industry. Past winners include the Republic Of Tea, Rick’s Picks, Stonewall Kitchen, Cypress Grove Chevre, O Olive Oil, and the list goes on. If you pay attention to these things you know the names; if not, I can guarantee they are on the shelves of your neighborhood market and making their way onto local menus. This year’s finalists were just announced, and the odds are you’ll be seeing them soon too.

The sofi nominees are selected at the Fancy Food Show, the industry’s twice-yearly marketplace and schmoozefest that’s attended by everybody that’s anybody in specialty foods. The events draw executive chefs, supermarket buyers, specialty retailers, the food press, and even a few lucky civilians who can be easily spotted for their blissed-out looks and tote bags overflowing with a free haul of artisan meats, exotic condiments, 6 colors of finishing salts, and 92% cacao chocolate truffles. This is where the tastemakers decide what’s in, what’s out, and what’s on the horizon. These are the trends and ingredients that will first break with the fervid foodies of the Open Table crowd, and eventually trickle down to the menus of Olive Garden and Applebees.

The trendspotting:
Foods of the Andes captured two of the ten silver medals for this year’s best new product, a pretty good indication that we will be delving deeper into regional Latin American cuisines.
Prepared foods, spice blends, and ingredients from the Indian kitchen point to another trendy cuisine.
The pig still rules. Cured ham from the new, American-raised mangalitsa pigs, and an herb-rubbed, domestic pancetta were also awarded silver medals.
There was chocolate purported to make you smarter, and fermented, probiotic -rich beverages to make you healthier. Expect a big takeoff for the functional foods category;
and gluten-free everything.

Sofi silver finalists and gold winners are selected from more than 250,000 products that appear at the Fancy Food Show. Competition takes place in 30+ categories, literally from soups to nuts. You can see the full list of this year’s silver medalists at Foodspring, the consumer-oriented blog of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. Gold medal winners will be announced at this summer’s edition of the Fancy Foods Show, temporarily relocating from New York to Washington, DC.

 

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Donuts are NOT the Next Cupcake!

It’s happening again.
Another humble, familiar snack is getting the upscale treatment. This time, let’s try to keep our wits about us.

Donuts are definitely having their pop culture moment. They are showing up on restaurant menus, dressed in high style. Pastry chefs are experimenting with unorthodox forms and flavor combinations. Trendy brides are requesting donut towers in place of wedding cakes.

Can we stop trying to turn them into the next cupcake? Misguided attempts to label the latest ‘it’ dessert have seen us scurrying after macarons and whoopie pies, chasing down funnel cakes and rugelach. And now donuts.

The parallels are obvious.
Like cupcakes before them, donuts are pure, sugar-dipped nostalgia. Both treats deliver comfort and familiarity at a relatively low price point. Both are single-serving, hand-held goodies, often whimsically decorated.

But donuts are are not looking to dethrone cupcakes. Donuts are edgier and more decadent. They’re fried in oil and served for a wholly delicious but unhealthy breakfast. Let’s try to ease up on the exotic excess that afflicted cupcakes, and just let donuts be donuts.

You’ll find Cupcakes: The Clock is Ticking for their 15 Minutes, in the Gigabiting archives.

 

 

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No, It is Not Iced Coffee Season

I do love my iced coffee.
A tall glass, lots of ice, and just a splash of cream. When properly made, the coffee is rich and smooth with very low acid, notes of chocolate and caramel, and barely a hint of bitterness. Sugar is superfluous.
Why would anyone want to wait for summertime to enjoy it?

Finally, the rest of you are catching on and catching up.
According to an independent survey commissioned by Dunkin’ Donuts, iced coffee is now seasonless.

More than a fourth of the yearly, billion cups of coffee served by Dunkin’ Donuts are now iced, and 56% of their iced coffee drinkers prefer iced coffee to hot coffee, even during the winter months. 42% said that what they like best is the energy jolt they get from iced coffee—in fact Dunkin’ Donuts uses a double portion of ground coffee in its double-brew method, although melting ice dilutes the double dose of caffeine. 21% said they like that they can gulp it down, while hot coffee requires careful sipping; 18% claimed that their favorite thing about iced coffee is the straw.

It’s never too cold for iced coffee.
Look at ice cream. Alaska leads the nation in per capita consumption, with the chilly states of New England close behind.

Iced coffee is expected to rack up another summer of double-digit sales increases, causing food and beverage businesses to trip over each other with new product launches. There are ready-to-drink, canned and bottled versions coming from Wolfgang Puck, the classic Italian espresso brand, Illy, and Pom Wonderful (better known for its line of pomegranate drinks). Starbucks is pushing its one-ounce-shy-of-a-quart Trenta cup, a new Via instant iced coffee packet designed to be mixed into a standard water bottle, and created a page for its iced frappuccino drinks that became Facebook’s third-largest product fan page in less than a week.

For the record, Dunkin’ Donuts is still the nation’s largest retailer of hot coffee and iced coffee. Let’s also note that 91% of their iced coffee drinkers order it sugared-up with added flavorings (mocha and French vanilla are the favorites). You know my position on sweeteners. But I’ve tasted Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and am willing to cut them some slack.

For the summertime purist who believes (however misguidedly) that iced coffee goes in and out of season, there is a pointless but nifty website called Is It Iced Coffee Weather? Plug in your zip code and you’ll get the definitive answer.

 

 

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How About a Nice Tall Glass of Vinegar?

We were just getting used to the strangeness of bubble tea, with its chewy pearls of tapioca.
Here comes another Asian import of a curious drink fad: vinegar drinks.

This isn’t like the vinegar you splash on your salad.
Drinking vinegars have much lower acidity and are flavored with fruit. They’re typically sweetened with sugar or honey and mixed with water or soda for a tart and snappy warm weather drink. Trendy mixologists blend them into concoctions for cocktail scenesters, and restaurants in Japan and Korea might even have a vinegar sommelier.

Vinegar drinks are hardly new to the U.S. Shrubs made from vinegary fruits syrups were popular in colonial times, and saw a brief revival during Prohibition. They have always had a following in wellness circles where they are considered effective as a digestive and weight-loss aid, balancing pH levels in the digestive tract and giving a sense of fullness; and they’re high in anti-oxidants.

If you’re still crinkling your nose at the thought of a cool glass of vinegar, remember that refreshment comes in all shapes and sizes. Turks like their yeasty, sour kefir; Northern Europeans prefer a glass of drinking yogurt; and Indians have salted, creamy lassi. Here in the U.S., even pickle juice has a solid fan base.

Slow Food USA has a brief history of colonial era shrubs, as well as sources for purchasing American-made fruit vinegars.

Farmer Jo gives you recipes for making your own.

Portland, Oregon’s Pok Pok restaurant is widely credited as the earliest adopter of the new wave of vinegar drinks. They’ve begun bottling their own Pok Pok Som brand for retail sale in flavors like honey, pomegranate, and tamarind.

 

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How Local is Local?

Is it 50 miles? 100? Can an entire state be considered local? You can drive the length of Rhode Island in under an hour, but Texas is larger than entire European nations.

There is an audible buzz about eating local foods. According to the food service marketers at Mintel, the appearance of a local label on restaurant menu items has gone up 13% in the past year, with 58% of restaurant-goers interested in seeing more locally grown products on menus. Everyone from growers to retailers to restaurateurs is looking to capitalize on the trend, and yet with so much at stake, we have no real definition of what local really is. What we have instead is an awful lot of wiggle room.

The local food movement is part of a broader movement toward sustainability. The global corporate food model separates producers and consumers through a chain of processors, brokers, distributors, shippers, and retailers. By contrast, the goal of localizing is to build food systems that are built into the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place. Sustainability is paramount when everyone is a stakeholder in the future.

In the U.K., the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (farma.org.uk) defines local strictly in terms of a producer’s distance to the market– usually within a 30 mile radius. In France, there is the concept of terroir, which is tied to the special characteristics that the geography, geology, and climate bestow on its products. Here in the U.S., the standard hasn’t been codified, but the USDA is moving toward a radius of 400 miles- essentially a day’s drive, which is known as a DGD or day-goods-distance. The distance is a mere jaunt for a Texan, but for the Rhode Islander, 400 miles is a trip through nearly a dozen states and even more distinct ecologies and growing regions.

The definition does matter. There is a lot at at stake, and the potential to abuse the public’s trust. Clearly, the geography matters. But it seems impossibly arbitrary to apply the absoluteness of miles traveled to the creation of sustainable economic communities.


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The Return of Jell-O

Did you feel that?
It’s the Jell-O groundswell, and I’ll bet you’re sensing it too.

Jell-O is primed for a comeback. It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. Plus, it wiggles.

Jell-O comes with its own mythology.
Prototypically American, for years Jell-O was the official welcoming dish served to immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. It’s been found to have numerous medical applications, as a testing medium for pancreatitis, mimicking brain waves for an EEG, and as an experimental cancer therapy; and by day 3 of the stomach flu, it’s just about the only food you can handle.

Jell-O has even been touched by scandal. In the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the case hinged on a meeting between two communist spies. One spy had stolen atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, and the other was to deliver the secrets into the hands of the Russians. The prosecution alleged that Julius Rosenberg had arranged for a meeting between the pair of spies by tearing a Jell-O box in two and giving a piece separately to each. The theory went that when the spies met up to pass along the stolen secrets, they would  be able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the Jell-O box together. The torn Jell-O box shown in court was seen as a damning piece of physical evidence that led to the Rosenbergs’ controversial convictions and executions. That Jell-O box is now held in the Public Vaults of the National Archives.

A distinguished past and a bright future.
Our infatuation with all things DIY should help kickstart the Jell-O comeback.
The unique properties of Jell-O make it a magnet for tinkerers. Play with the ratios and it can be a liquid, a solid, or something in between. You can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser.

In its gelled form, Jell-O is edible entertainment. Its color and opacity are endlessly variable. It molds into any shape and suspended objects can be layered in, making it a favorite of both holiday hostesses and office pranksters who are endlessly amused by gelatin-encased staplers.

Jell-O is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity. It’s also a remnant of the unpretentious traditions of American cookery. It reminds us that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass was the height of sophisticated dining.

Liz Hickock is an internationally exhibited sculptor and photographer who is currently working in the medium of Jell-O. Best known for her gelatin renderings of urban landscapes, she has transformed the San Francisco skyline, the Arizona desert, and the city of Wilmington into fragile, shimmering mosaics.

In upstate Le Roy, New York, birthplace of Jell-O, the Jell-O Brick Road leads to the Jell-O Gallery. General Foods moved the factory out of state years ago, but the museum still hauls in busloads of tourists drawn to artifacts and exhibits like the evolution of Jell-O packaging and a Jell-O-themed Barbie doll; and a gift shop that carries boxer shorts bearing the Jell-O tagline: Watch it wiggle,see it jiggle.

The motto of My Jello Americans is ‘in order to form a more perfect union of gelatin and alcohol.’ In other words, they blog about jello shots. But that simplification belies the artistry of their creations: intricate, elegant sculptural objets wrought in boozy Jell-O.

 

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The Shape of Things to Come

Ice comes in cubes. Same for sugar. White Castle even sells its hamburgers as little cubed sliders.
Yes, we’ve always liked a good cube.

It’s a Platonic solid, a perfect shape in terms of its symmetry and aesthetics. Scientists and mathematicians have always been mad for cubes.
But that still doesn’t explain why the food business is suddenly cubing everything in sight.

Not that we’re complaining about hot chocolate cubes that you swirl into a cup of milk. It’s like the foil-wrapped chocolate Ice Cubes you see by the cash register, but on a stick, and  the chocolate’s better. [The Ticket Kitchen Chocolate on a Stick]

 

 

It’s instant coffee and it’s cubed. As far as we can tell, just ‘cuz.  [Little Delights—The Original Coffee Cube]

 

 


If you make a lot of smoothies, this one will make a lot of sense. It’s frozen smoothie cubes. You add them to milk or juice in a blender.  [Creative Gourmet Smoothie Cubes]

 

In the midst of all the cubing, the traditional bouillon cube is bucking the trend. The familiar shape has seasoned the stew for generations of cooks, but this year it’s being reformulated as a blocky ‘X’ said to dissolve easier. Can you say New Coke?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The big daddy of cube introductions is the restaurant cube. It’s a fully equipped, self-contained restaurant inside a semi-translucent cube that will be placed atop a series of European landmarks. It will operate as a temporary, 18-seat pop-up restaurant at each location, using a resident chef and locally sourced ingredients. It’s currently perched on the main arch at the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Belgium. [Cube by Electrolux]

And finally, we would be remiss in our cube roundup if we failed to mention the cube known around the ‘net as ‘is it a puppy or a loaf of bread?’.

 

 

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Deconstructing Chicken and Waffles

The long-time favorite of West Coast stoners and East Coast soul food lovers has crossed into the mainstream.
Chicken and waffles has been gaining steam for a few years, spreading organically from its New York and Los Angeles bases. The culinary mash-up began popping up on stylish brunch menus and as a late-night gastropub offering. It’s had its own controversies, raising questions about cultural sensitivity and cultural appropriation, and has spawned shark-jumping fusions from chicken and waffle food trucks. If you needed any more proof that chicken and waffles has hit the big time, IHOP is now serving the combination at 1,500 locations.

Northern Europe meets southern United States. Breakfast meets dinner. Sweet meets savory.
Who do we thank [or blame] for this uneasy marriage? Some food historians see a link to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions. Others point to the confluence of black cooks and the nation’s first waffle iron, when that implement was imported by the notorious slave-holder Thomas Jefferson.

Whatever the origins, the dish was first popularized in 1930’s Harlem at the Wells Supper Club. An after-hours gathering place for Jazz Age club-goers, the Wells legend tells us that the combination was a happy compromise—it was too late for dinner and  too early for breakfast, so both meals were served on a single plate. The dish hit the west coast in the 1970’s, where it was equally well-suited to the midnight rambles of the local youth culture.

With maple syrup; really?
It can baffle the uninitiated: is it two dishes sitting side-by-side or should it be eaten as a single entity? How about butter? Gravy? Hot sauce? Syrup?

Yes to all.
Crunchy, juicy, spicy, crispy, fluffy, sweet, and salty, plus a hit of sticky maple—it’s a heck of a forkful.

History professor Frederick Douglass Opie is our foremost chicken and waffles authority. His podcast for American Public Media’s The Splendid Table traces the dish’s history, and he shares more history, culture, and recipes at his blog Hog and Hominy: Culture, Cooking, Travel, and Traditions.

 

 

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