Forget your cheeseburgers, pizza, apple pie, meat and potatoes and other tried-and-true traditional dishes; the North American palate has evolved in recent years, fueled by a desire for new, risky ethnic flavours.  “Chinese food” and “Mexican Food” used represent the consumer’s foray outside of their culinary comfort zone, but an influx of cultural influence has thoroughly infiltrated the food landscape.

The reasons for these changes have been out of both necessity and interest.  For food manufacturers and restaurants, experimenting with new flavours is viewed as a great way to spice up traditional offerings.  It’s much cheaper to add spices such as tandoori, curry and jerk to your average chicken dish than revamp an entire operation or menu, and consumers can’t seem to get enough risk with their food.

The Spanish are probably one of the most under served and under appreciated demographics in North America, but that is beginning to change.  This vocal plurality carries a tremendous amount of consumer influence, and companies have downplayed their significance for far too long.  Plus, their food is flavourful, passionate, invigorating and complex.

MediaPost highlights a report on what kind of products are hitting the scene: “Epazote, Seville oranges, aji amarillo chiles and sofritos, according to a new Culinary Trend Report on next-wave Latino foods from Packaged Facts and the Center for Culinary Development (CCD).”

“Epazote is a Mexican culinary herb that smells like “grassy turpentine” in its raw state, but when simmered in a pot of black beans, “mellows to a rich, grounding presence that more and more chefs are finding addictive,” report CCD’s trend-spotters.  They expect the herb to move beyond upscale Mexican restaurants to become a common ingredient in canned and CPG products.

Seville oranges are becoming increasingly popular ingredients in sophisticated contemporary Latin restaurant fare, and CCD predicts that CPGs will soon be using the oranges’ somewhat bitter citrus flavor to add “Caribbean tang” to a variety of products.

Aji amarillo chiles, the most popular variety in Peru, offer a distinctively fruity flavor while retaining chile bite.  The combination adds up to crossover appeal similar to that previously shown by now-ubiquitous chipotles, making aji chiles prime candidates for inclusion in “everything from spicy wings at QSRs to jarred salsas,” reports CCD.”

Other trends MediaPost points out:

•    “Rotisserie chicken flavored with authentic, regionally inspired flavors from Latin America. CCD believes this trend is destined for wide adoption by food manufacturers and restaurants because it offers the familiar comfort food roast chicken with a novel twist, as well as built-in nutritious, wholesome positioning.

•    U.S.-made versions of Mexican cheese varieties are in demand by Latinos and non-Latinos alike, and marketers are gradually catching on. Wisconsin’s Hispanic cheese production has doubled since 1997, and big national brands like Sargento and Tillamook have added Mexican cheeses and shredded jack-and-cheddar quesadilla blends, notes CCD.

•    Bland tableside guacamoles are being reinvented as consumers look for fresh, healthy ways to snack. Freshly made, hand-mashed, chunky varieties that can be customized to taste with more/less onions, chiles and other seasonings are hot–and CCD stresses that marketers should look to apply the same lessons to many other types of food offerings.

•    Soft-corn tortilla tacos–which offer both health and flavor advantages over the crunchy variety–are popping up in QSR’s and casual dining restaurants, and becoming more available in supermarkets as well.

•    Mojito isn’t over. While mojito cocktails may seem old-hat to some, seemingly endless variations on the basic tart lime/mint flavor are now finding their way into soft drinks, marinades, chocolates and even chewing gum. Far from reaching saturation, this Cuban flavor profile “will go on inspiring CPG manufacturers across a broad spectrum of products,” predicts CCD.”

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For those who are familiar with The Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollen’s manifesto of mastication, or Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s sugar-less spoonful of medicine, Skinny Bitch, it’s not just about what we eat, but also our food’s journey from pasture to plate, and what is really going on behind the scenes.

It’s remarkable how utterly undiscerning many of us are about what goes into our mouths.  Fortunately, we’ve begun to ask about those nine-syllable additives in our breakfast cereal, and learned the truth about misleading, “hydrogenated,” “natural” and “enriched” labels.

Accountability and transparency are not specific to the food industry, or characteristics of a passing trend.  The internet has leveled the information playing field such that consumers now have all the power.  With blogs in their holsters, average people spread criticism like wildfire.  Staying on the up-and-up has never been more important, or more difficult for businesses and their marketers.  Companies large and small are realizing they better not bite the hand that feeds.

According to Margaret Kime, the director of branding consultant, Fletcher Knight, as reported by MediaPost, “Consumer awareness of and interest in being intimately informed about their food has never been stronger,” says Kime.  “As the organic, fair trade, local and artisan food movements grow and food contamination scares persist, consumers are demanding more detail around the origins of a product and each of its ingredients.  Faceless or ‘orphan’ ingredients will be viewed with increasing suspicion.”

Food labeling in particular has toed the fine line between “ambiguous” and “leagalish” for too long.  In this country, only 51% of a product must be manufactured domestically for it to carry the “Made in Canada” sticker.  Not to mention the “Recommended Serving Sizes” and favourable calorie scales which allow products to appear better for you than they actually are.

According to a 2007 study by the Consumer Reports National Research Centre, 92% of those polled support better labeling for products imported into the United States, as food security issues have risen to what most agree are unacceptable levels.  A GreenerChoice.org article reports that “…nearly 9 out of 10 consumers want natural meat to come from animals that were raised on a diet without drugs, chemicals and other artificial ingredients.  Currently, the natural label on meat only pertains to how the cut of meat was processed and not how animal was raised or what it ate.”

The US Government in 2002 enacted a program called Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) which requires almost all products to carry specific information about where they originated.  Originally passed in 2002, the program was delayed for nearly 7 years (with the exception of seafood) and has seen its first limited implementation just this month.  The COOL initiative hopes to resolve questions surrounding interpretation and definition of product descriptions, but there is still a lot that is not known about this program.

As these changes have created problems for some, it’s presented new opportunities for others.  Products which emphasize local origin, artisan skill, pure, pronounceable ingredients, and responsible procurement have earned the respect of consumers, and gotten many of them talking.  A popular example is Welch’s Grape Juice.  Employing the services of popular food personality, Alton Brown, Welch’s has made a splash touting the benefits of its anti-oxidant-rich product, and also brings you right to the farm to have a close look at who is producing its fruit. While it’s not cynical to point out that cute little farmers hauling baskets of grapes onto a beat-up truck is not representative of the manufacturing process as a whole, it does use an everyman, human marketing strategy on which companies in other industries, including Ford and Microsoft, have started using as well.

As of now it’s still relatively easy to mislead consumers about product origin and ingredients, as regulatory oversight is still being established.  But businesses must be more truthful with their offerings, because if any evidence to the contrary (real or implied, the bloggers don’t care) could spell disaster for your brand.  So if you’re trying to carve out a niche in your market, and lend some credibility to your product, it might not be a bad idea for you to bet the farm.

The Edible Garden Project, by way of an extensive community consultation process,  has identified food security as a key priority area. Adequate access to fresh fruit and vegetables is a cornerstone to good health, but is beyond the reach of many low income community members.

The mission of the project is to create a network of communities where locally grown food is collected and distributed to organizations that provide food to low income families and individuals. The EGP strives to create a network between homeowners with gardens who want to donate a portion of their harvest, people who have under or un-used garden space and would like to cultivate this land for growing food, and volunteers who want to contribute to the growing, sharing, and learning around locally produced food.

The EGP aims to provide information and education to the community, where knowledge and skills are built around ecological food gardening, healthy eating, and food preservation.

The EGP has three main activities on the North Shore; Growing Gardens, Sharing Backyard Bounty, and building Strong Roots. The Edible Garden Project actively increases land-use for food production in the North
Shore by seeking-out unused garden space both on private and public property. The EGP also encourages people who grow gardens to plant an extra row for donation.

The fresh local produce that is produced is distributed to organizations, like the Harvest Project, who serve community members who require
it the most. The EGP also strives to create a community network around the
environmental and nutritional importance of growing, harvesting, and sharing fresh local food.

Edible Flowers

February 28, 2009

Edible flowers not only add beauty to the plate, they also add interesting flavours.

Nasturtiums, both the beautiful flowers and the leaves, can be added to salads to add a layer of mild pepper flavour. All edible flowers are used raw, as cooking will destroy any colour or flavour that the flower has.

Besides Nasturtiums, other flowers can be added to any uncooked dish for
flavour and colour. The list includes Rose petals, Pansy, Calendula,
Batchelor Buttons, Snapdragons, Scented Geranium flowers, Marigold
petals and the flowers from the Borage plant.

For a
savoury flavour, try using chive blossoms or the blossom from a
traditional vegetable that is about to go to seed – for example, radish
flowers or broccoli flowers. These are also used raw and can be used to
garnish a warm vegetable just before serving. Next time you have new
potatoes, try snipping some fresh chives blossoms over them while they
are steaming hot.

For a presentation that will keep the dinner conversation going, take a squash blossom or a tulip, dip them into a tempura batter and deep fry and serve while hot. Both of these blossoms can be stuffed. A tulip blossom can be stuffed with something cold, possibly a chicken salad, and presented just like that but the squash blossom can be stuffed and baked.

The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Edible flowers are
also used to decorate sweet things – they can be sugared or just placed
on top of a cake or desert to offer a beautiful presentation. Next time
you are planning a special occasion, consider cascading flowers from
the top of your cake, down the side and then onto the plate. Your
guests will be amazed at your creativity and unique presentation!