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Grilling 2.0: Build flavor with grilled produce

grilled vegetables restaurant menus

Charred, smoky flavors are trending on summer menus, but how can operators offer these flavors beyond traditional grilled proteins featured center-of-plate? Answer: Make room on the grill for fruits and vegetables. This is a win-win opportunity for both restaurateurs and consumers as well as an on-trend preparation method that’s continuing to grow.

“Grilling plays an important role in food preparation from breakfast to lunch to dinner,” says Jana Mann, senior director at Chicago-based research company Datassential. Dinner menus lead the way, with 60 percent including grilled items; 51 percent of lunch menus and 42 percent of breakfast menus mention grilling, based on 2014 data pulled across all menu parts (appetizers, sides, entrées and desserts).

And across all segments, grilled items are on the rise. A review of 6,845 brands’ menus—restaurants of all types from top 500 chains to local independents—show that the number of grilled items increased by about 1.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to Technomic. That may not be a Sriracha-style increase in penetration (which has grown 300 percent on menus since 2010), but grilled is already the second-most prevalent preparation method used as a descriptor on menus. “More than three-quarters (77 percent) of restaurant brands have something on their menu that’s grilled,” says Mary Chapman, senior director at Technomic.

Adding flavor across all menu parts

Marinating vegetables before grilling and basting during cooking is a good way to add a shot of flavor, but a little goes a long way. For most veggies, it only takes a few minutes to soak up the right amount of marinade; too long of a soak will saturate the vegetable and overpower its natural flavor. Marinades made from steak sauces, mustards or other condiments with a concentrated flavor often work well.

Restaurants are also giving guests the option to add their own flavor to grilled veggies with an array of dipping sauces and condiments. Chapman notes that mayonnaise, salsa, vinaigrette, ranch, ponzu sauce, remoulade and pico de gallo are top sellers; for example, Cheesecake Factory includes a grilled artichoke served with a lemon-garlic aioli side sauce on its lighter menu. Likewise, at Bricktown Bagel & Café in Long Island City, New York, grilled eggplant and zucchini is tossed with sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella with balsamic vinaigrette.

The opportunity for grilled produce is particularly strong with side items, since restaurants can save money by serving a smaller portion of a protein, and guests can still fulfill their desire for meat. Savvy operators are taking advantage of this—grilled side dishes grew 6 percent over last year, according to Technomic.

Grilled sides are also an opportunity for creativity. Kachina Southwestern Grill, a Native-American inspired concept in Westminster, Colo., menus a grilled romaine salad with a soft-poached egg and citrus Caesar dressing.

Additionally, some operators are even including grilled produce on cocktail menus and during breakfast and brunch. Dos Caminos, a Mexican chain in New York City, mixes a tequila-based cocktail with grilled tropical fruit and a Bloody Mary garnished with grilled pineapple for a creative twist. In the same way, casual beachside eatery The Gulf, in Orange Beach, Ala., recently menued French toast with grilled peaches and vanilla whipped cream as a daily special.

Back to basics

Because it’s a simple preparation, grilling suits the back-to-basics food trend, where consumers want less-processed foods and simple ingredients. “Grilling—particularly flame-grilling—is a good way to add flavor without added salt or fat, and without needing to say there’s less salt or fat, because consumers like the flavor imparted by grilling,” Chapman says.

But beware: If not done right, zucchini will turn into a soggy, pulpy mess and mushrooms will become lumps of coal. Each vegetable needs slightly different handling, with one basic rule: cook over direct heat at medium-high temperature, turning halfway through.

For more ways to add flavor to grilled veggies, visit Heinz Foodservice here.

This post is sponsored by Heinz Foodservice

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