Flash in the Pan
In the world of food today, there seems to be two equally strong yet opposing forces at play: the love of food and the fear of food (think: trans-fats, farmed salmon, mad cows). Whatever the driving force, the result is a new generation of well-informed eaters (or so we like to think).
Whether it’s the celebrity chefs on Food TV helping to expand our culinary horizons or the powerful revival of carbohydrate-averse diets, one thing is sure: people care deeply about what they consume. But for better or worse, some things never change. Food still has the power to comfort us, to transport our senses to faraway lands and to surprise and tempt us with its endless innovations. Here are 10 of the latest food fetishes to hit our plates and palates.
Let’s get this one out of the way. Because no matter how you feel about the science behind the low-carb diet craze, you can’t ignore it. In May, the New England Journal of Medicine published two studies suggesting the Atkins diet is more effective than a traditional low-fat approach to losing weight. After striking fear into the hearts of a nation of pasta and pastry lovers, the Atkins diet, along with its relatives the Zone and South Beach diets, have been embraced by the masses. Many food manufacturers, restaurants and fast-food outlets are jumping on the bandwagon with “Atkins friendly” offerings like Subways’ Turkey Bacon Wrap and Labatt’s Sterling, Canada’s first lower-carb beer. Passing fancy? Perhaps. But for now, the lure of bacon and eggs coupled with a promise of rapid weight-loss is still for many, an irresistible proposition.
Now that the pursuit of gourmet sea salt has reached a saturation point (no pun intended), along comes designer sugar as the latest pantry sweetheart. The popularity of minimally processed sugars like golden flake and raw cane prove that being unrefined can be a compliment. As with the growing taste for sea salt and the highly prized fleur du sel, discerning palates seek a more nuanced range of flavour. For sweetness with a soul, more recipes are calling for the dark brown sugar known as Muscovado with its high molasses content deep within the crystals (most brown sugar is white sugar with the molasses refined out, then added back to coat the sugar). Its delightfully moist texture and stronger flavour goes well with rich-tasting treats like gingerbread, coffee and fudge. Bakers and dessert lovers alike are finding sweet inspiration in the expanding range of sugar now available including pure granulated maple and vanilla sugar.
The buzz on Spanish food and wine has been building for years, but it is the country’s social ritual of tapas (enjoying small, simple dishes made with fresh, local ingredients) that has had the greatest impact on dining out across North America. Small-portion samplings from other parts of the globe, like Italian cicchetti, and Middle Eastern mezzé are also responsible for redefining portion sizes and contributing to the trend of appetizer-as-main-event menus. The result is the so-called “small plates” phenomenon, sometimes presented as “tasting menus.” Their popularity reflects a growing interest in making food and dining a communal affair. Diners have the opportunity to sample different flavours and cuisines without having to commit all their calories to one dish. Small plates are perfectly suited to today’s more informed, adventurous eaters. Their new mantra: smaller is better.
Some might argue that the pomegranate is hardly worth the trouble (and the mess) it takes to get at its tart ruby seeds. But to its devotees, the effort of extracting the sweet little clustered gems from the bitter white pith is akin to meditation. Whether sprinkling the seeds on salads or extracting the juice to mix into cocktails, dressings and sauces, the exotic allure and sweet-sour kick of the pomegranate is now at home in every kitchen after centuries of use in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Christine Cushing, who hosts a cooking show on Food Network Canada, recently introduced viewers to the thick dark syrup known as pomegranate molasses. Extolling the virtues of this viscous fruit reduction, Cushing says it gives a great balance of flavour and rich crimson colour to the mango pomegranate chutney that accompanies her five-spice pork tenderloin recipe. Move over balsamic vinegar, there’s a new condiment in town.
The human tongue can detect just four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But could there be a fifth? Some people think so. In fact, the Japanese term umami, which translates loosely as “meaty” or “savoury”, is becoming one of those buzz words that trendy people use to describe food. And isn’t it just like them to adopt a glamourous term for something as banal as monosodium glutamate? To call a dish umami is the highest compliment, because it means all the tastes are working together. MSG, for all its negative connotations, does enhance the flavours of food and give it a delicious and distinctive, yet elusive quality that defines umami. While its “fifth taste” status remains controversial, this is one science experiment you can test out with your tongue. Then watch for all of those “no MSG” signs to be replaced with “umami food served here.”
“A fine aroma with hints of candied orange. Delightful smoky vanilla flavour with delicate fruit – lighter than berries and not quite citrus. Shades of cappucino as the flavour develops. Good length, if a little bitter.” You could be forgiven for thinking this review refers to wine rather than chocolate; the language has become interchangeable. In this case, it’s a description of Valrhona’s Caraïbe, a type of dark chocolate that is created from cocoa beans of a “single origin” (the Caribbean Islands) rather than a blend of beans from around the world. And as if that weren’t decadent enough, we can now treat ourselves to “single estate” chocolate, the cocoa equivalent of Grand Cru wine, where the product reflects the estate on which the cocoa beans are grown and harvested.Intrigued? Look for Valrhona’s elegant wooden box containing six chocolate bars made with beans from Madagascar, Venezuela and Trinidad.
Who can resist the hearty appeal of a slow-simmered stew, fragrant tagines or the sensuous delights of a leg of lamb braised until meltingly tender? Slow-cooking techniques are enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days, both at home and in restaurant kitchens. The flavour-enhancing methods like simmering, slow-roasting, braising, poaching, and marinating have given a boost to many oft-ignored, inexpensive cuts of meat such as flank steak, oxtails and lamb shoulder. But who has time to cook all day? In her cookbook Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, distinguished author Paula Wolfert reminds us that while slow-cooked dishes require more time to prepare, they are ultimately more forgiving when it comes to the clock. A dish can be ruined by grilling it a minute too long, whereas a slow gentle simmer will continue to improve a dish’s depth of flavour with each passing moment.
There’s no such thing as a plain “cup of coffee” anymore. Now it’s a hazelnut half-caf, extra-shot no-fat, no-foam latté. And while the selection at your local coffee shop may appear to be tapped out, I predict coffee purists will soon catch on to the ritual of Vietnamese coffee. Laughing in the face of the drive-thru, quick-fix caffeinated liquid found in Styrofoam cups, Vietnamese coffee is all about patience and an exquisite creamy taste (not unlike melted Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream). Its strong, syrupy, dark-roasted coffee is released slowly (I’m talking 8 to 12 minutes here) from the bottom of a little metal coffee filter that sits on top of a glass containing a layer of sweetened condensed milk. In Vietnam it is stirred and sipped slowly – sometimes served on ice – and followed by a cup of hot weak green tea.
Scandinavia, the part of the world that gave us the smorgasbord and meatballs (not to mention IKEA), has been called the new culinary hot spot. The real buzz started making its way through culinary circles when Swedish chef and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson was named the Best Chef in New York City at the prestigious James Beard Awards last year. Samuelsson executive chef and co-owner of Aquavit in Manhattan has redefined traditional Scandinavian fare, using new techniques and flavors such as sushi-style pickled herring and cured beef filet. Much has changed in the Land of the Midnight Sun where culinary traditions once relied upon preserving, pickling, drying and canning. Today, some of Scandinavia’s most beloved dishes like lutefisk (dried cod),gravlax (cured salmon) and lefse (a crepe made of potatoes) are finally getting the respect they deserve.
Designer Fast food
Ronald McDonald has seen the future and it’s served on focaccia. And while fast food menus scramble to cater to more sophisticated tastes, fine dining chefs embrace fast food favourites to appeal to our sinful cravings and showcase their creativity. New York’s DB Bistro Moderne set the bar high with a sirloin burger served rare with a filling of short ribs topped with foie gras. Toronto’s Bymark restaurant was next to reinvent the burger with melted Brie de Maux from France, grilled porcini mushrooms and shavings of Perigord truffle. Celebrity chef Rob Feenie began delighting diners at his Vancouver namesake restaurant with “Feenie’s Weenie”, a cheese smokie with sauerkraut, sautéed onions and lardons. But leave it toMontreal’s Au Pied de Cochon to kick the indulgence-factor up a notch with its foie gras poutine – a take-off on the provinces notorious fries, gravy & melted cheese curd concoction.