Plant-based seafood and healthy comfort food highlight emerging menu trends

Here's a look at some of the food trends that were in focus at Foodservice Director's recent Menu Directions Conference.
Elote pizza
Modern Market Eatery in the student union at University of Notre Dame serves Elote Pizza topped with Mexican street corn and crema. /Photo courtesy of Pat Cobe.

Global snacks from different parts of the world, plant-based innovation and comfort foods with a health halo are just some of the many trends noncommercial operators experienced during the 2022 MenuDirections conference, held this week at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Some of these trends emerged during presentations given throughout the conference, while others were sampled and sipped at culinary workshops and two vendor fairs. These six trends rose to the top, proving that foodservice menus truly are going in new directions.

vegan tuna taco

Plant-based tuna on a wonton crisp

Seafood swaps. Plant-based chicken, beef and pork are familiar meat alternatives, but seafood made from plants is the new kid on the block. Finless Plant Based Tuna crafted from winter melon has the texture and color of tuna fished from the sea, especially when cubes are combined with miso-ginger dressing and vegetables in a wasabi plant-based tuna lettuce wrap.

The vegan tuna also makes a great swap in a poke bowl, as do cubes of cooked beets. Visual clues play a big role in gaining acceptance for veggie substitutions.

Comfort foods with a health halo. Along the same plant-based theme, a mini Autumn Pulse Pot Pie filled with lentils, chickpeas, cranberry and cannellini beans, mushrooms and squash topped with a red lentil biscuit was as hearty and filling as a chicken or beef version. Recipe samples from the world of pulses also demonstrated how beans, peas and lentils can go into an indulgent dessert—a brown butter chickpea blondie with adzuki bean ice cream.

A healthy breakfast comfort food also got the indulgent treatment. Dark Chocolate and Coffee Overnight Oats are made with probiotic-rich Greek yogurt, high-fiber oatmeal, dark chocolate sauce, cold brew, bananas and chocolate chips.

Gluten-free is still in demand, especially at C&U and healthcare operations. An inventive potato recipe demo showed how to build a gluten-free Reuben sandwich using hash brown patties as the bread, as well as a pasta Bolognese using curly fries instead of spaghetti or rotini.

Technomic’s presentation on “How to Revive Your Menu” revealed that comforting, indulgent menu items continue to get the highest craveability ratings.

Pulse pie

Autumn Pulse Pot Pie

Delivery-friendly menu items.  Molly McGrath, director of operations and culinary for All Day Kitchens, emphasized the importance of creating a delivery-optimized menu for a successful to-go program. Select only foods that travel well, she recommends, so customers get the same quality as they would have dining in. It’s not necessary to pack everything on your menu into takeout containers.

The vendor fairs showcased some good examples, including a Three Bean Rice Bowl, Sweet Potato Poutine Bowl and Southwestern Quinoa Salad Cup—quinoa, vegetables, cheese cubes and vinaigrette packed in a lidded plastic cup.

Global street snacks. In a workshop presented by Smithfield Culinary, attendees learned that snacks can be a more cost-effective and approachable way to introduce diners to unique global flavors. Gen Z customers are an especially good target for this idea—they are open to adventurous flavors and have less disposable income.

Mexican street corn or elote showed up as it does on the streets of Mexico City, on the cob and grilled, then brushed with Caesar dressing and sprinkled with Parmesan. But the ingredients also flavored several other snacks and apps, including an an Elote Dip composed of a queso cheese dip, a frozen corn and jalapeno blend, lime juice and cotija; Street Corn Fries topped with chilies, cilantro, roasted sweet corn and cotija; and an Elote Pizza, topped with corn, drizzled with crema and served at Modern Market Eatery, the fast-casual chain with an outpost in Notre Dame’s student union.

There were also Indian and Middle Eastern street snacks on offer, including a Fresh Mango & Frisée Chaat Salad, Potato Shawarma and Kofta Kebabs with tzatziki.

Labor-saving solutions. The labor challenge was a thread that ran through many of the presentations, demos and discussions, and value-added and labor-saving food products offered tasty solutions.

King’s Hawaiian, the bakery supplying buns and bread to foodservice, came up with one innovative tool. The company’s slider buns now come in one sheet, and the chef layered condiments and deli sandwich ingredients on the bottom, replaced the top layer and then cut the whole thing into 24 individual sliders. It eliminated the work of making every slider individually.

Sous vide meats, fully cooked and ready to reheat, were offered at the vendor fair, along with cooked and sauced barbacoa, barbecued "pig" wings as an alternate to chicken wings and premium meats and cheeses for instant charcuterie boards.

Flavor-enhancing through food science. Fat washing, a technique mixologists use to add richness to cocktails, was translated to Asian sauces by Kikkoman’s chef, Andrew Hunter. It's based on the principle of polarity, that oil and water do not mix.

To demonstrate the technique, Hunter browned butter to deepen the flavor, infusing it with ginger and tarragon. Then he added ponzu, a citrus-seasoned soy sauce, to the butter and chilled the mixture so the fat congealed on top. Once the butter solidifies, it’s spooned off and discarded but the flavor molecules from the browned butter permeate the ponzu to give it a smooth, rich mouthfeel.

Hunter served the fat-washed ponzu with shu mai dumplings for the perfect pairing.

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