Food trends: more ethnic flavors, less artificial ingredients

The largest buffet that I try to sample every spring is at the National Restaurant Association’s trade show, which shows off what’s new in every aspect of the industry.

That means food concepts with “Shark Tank” exposure and lesser-known, chocolate-flavored hummus. Strawberry ricotta ice cream and multi-grain naan bread. Hemp seeds for salad and hemp powder for protein shakes. International flavors and hot dogs that snap when bitten.

Industry experts show up to coach and enlighten. That includes Nancy Kruse of Atlanta, menu trend analyst and columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News. She says the biggest food trend of the decade is interest in “more natural, less processed” products.

Especially hot are foods without antibiotics and additives, especially for moms with youngsters. Kruse, who keeps her eye on major players in the industry, noted during her NRA presentation that even McDonald’s aims to serve coffee that is sustainably grown and eggs from only cage-free chickens; the deadline is 2025.

Simplification is another goal. Chipotle tortillas now contain five ingredients – wheat flour, water, canola oil, yeast and salt – instead of 16. Denny’s touts only four ingredients in pancakes – buttermilk, eggs, flour and vanilla.

“This is total transparency in terms of menu,” Kruse observes. Here are a few other trends that she has noticed.

More “plants on plates,” partly because more carnivores are “flexitarians” who occasionally order vegetarian meals. Think steaks of roasted cauliflower with complex spice blends and sauces, or cauliflower as a hot pizza topping. Hard Rock Café serves a cauliflower burger (a patty mixed with garlic, goat cheese, oregano), and California Pizza Kitchen coats cauliflower in a spicy batter as a veggie substitute for hot chicken wings.

Smart chefs treat vegetables with the same culinary innovation and creativity “that you’d lavish on an animal protein.” That means vegetarian offerings shouldn’t “look like a consolation prize” and go way beyond baked potatoes and salad.

A chef at Orchard Grocer in Manhattan, Kruse says, serves smoked and cured carrots with a cashew cream cheese – his vegan substitute for lox and cream cheese.

The global pantry no longer is limited to Italian, Mexican and Chinese fare. Two-thirds of consumers eat a wider variety of ethnic dishes than five years ago, Kruse says. The cuisines of India are particularly “getting more play on American menus,” as are an array of Asian noodles that include ramen, udon, soba and rice noodles.

What else? Maybe more play with schnitzels, especially the Japanese version, called katsu and made with panko crumbs before light frying. Watch what happens to limited-time, regional offers – like the smoked pork belly barbecue sandwich with cheddar and battered onions, introduced by Arby’s.

More unconventional offerings, Kruse says, might mean wild boar sausage – which a Maryland pizzeria describes as a leaner, healthier pork – or more duck in sausage, tacos and burgers. She notes P.F. Chang’s addition of a Chengdu stir-fry that contains marinated lamb.

Salads and side dishes merit special treatment, too. Consider Chick-fil-A’s “superfood” side salad: kale, broccolini, roasted nuts and dried cherries in a maple vinaigrette. Or french-fried asparagus at Houlihan’s. Kruse predicts a lot of restaurants will use the French fry as a springboard for innovation, and that could mean a more poutine-like smothering of the potato with a sauce, gravy or chowder.

“Snackification” acknowledges that 42 percent of consumers will daily replace at least one of three meals with a snack. The analyst describes the afternoon snack as a fast-growing segment of the restaurant industry. So expect more sandwich sliders, flights of food and small-plate choices on menus.

Tilted Kilt in late 2016 began testing in Arizona six-piece flights of bacon: raspberry-chipotle to “naked” bacon.

Fun with food hits new extremes, too. On Kruse’s radar are colorful crushed cereal in the new Froot Loops Shake at Burger King; the same cereal is a topping choice at Happy Dogs in Cleveland, whose 50 toppings for dawgs also include SpaghettiOs, chunky peanut butter, black truffle honey mustard and vegetarian lentil chili.

New and closer to home is a spicy version of Broasted chicken, introduced seven months ago. The marinade and coating are “a derivative of our regular flavor profile,” says Randy McKinney of the Broaster Company. Chipotle, habenaro and hatch green chilis are a part of the recipe.

It’s the first time that the Beloit-based company, founded in the 1950s, has introduced a formula described as a cousin to the original recipe. The spicy version looks more reddish-orange than golden, and that’s on purpose – it helps wait staff quickly identify one product from the other.

Broasted chicken, McKinney notes, is a popular product for taverns to supper clubs in Wisconsin. How popular? Sheboygan alone has around 70 operators of the trademarked equipment. broaster.com

“Breakthrough products” earning awards at the National Restaurant Association’s food show include Colonel Pabst Worchestershire Sauce, a small-batch product that uses an old Pabst family recipe. Among the 21 ingredients: amber lager, tamarind, curry and ginger. The multi-purpose product can be used in cocktails, as a marinade and in dips or sauces. colonelpabst.com

Italian-style cheeses are a specialty at BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay, and newest for the company is Artigiano, which means “artisan” in Italian. The product took master cheesemaker Gianni Toffolon more than three years to develop. Vino Rosso is a wine-soaked version of the cheese; a third version is Aged Balsamic and Cipolline Onion.

The snacking cheese is made in 11-pound wheels, about one-half of the standard size, so flavor is drawn into more of the cheese, says Frank Alfaro, BelGioioso’s vice president of food service and export. savorlabottega.com