There was a time when crab cakes, mini quiches, Buffalo wings (served with bleu cheese and a celery stick) and Swedish meatballs were considered fancy appetizers. Today, consumers’ taste buds are more globally educated. Food manufacturers continue to respond by producing restaurant-quality products such as spanakopita (a Greek appetizer made of phyllo dough, baked with a stuffing of feta cheese, spinach and egg), Mexican-style chicken tamales and Thai beef satay with peanut sauce. These globally inspired appetizers can be found in the freezer section at most large grocery stores across America.

Asian-spiced Chicken in Wonton Cups with Vanilla Apricot Sauce pairs savory-sweet flavors such as soy sauce, onion and a selection of spices (basil, cumin, ginger, black pepper and garlic powder) with apricot jam, vanilla and “pumpkin pie spice.”

Educated Chefs

Both Bruce Ozga, dean of culinary education, and Jordan Fickess, director of communications, at Johnson & Wales University in Miami agree that there is great interest in global foods because of the popularity of television’s Food Network, celebrity chefs and an increased enrollment in education programs at culinary colleges and universities. “Several of our students are in our degree programs because they want to start a second career,” says Ozga. “Some have worked as lawyers, accountants and dietitians,” he continues. 

Johnson & Wales is considered one of the best culinary universities in the country and has campuses in Miami, Denver, Charlotte and Providence. Culinary nutrition, the study of food and culinary arts from a nutritional perspective, is one of the popular bachelor of science degree programs. “Our students learn how to take traditional recipes and re-make them healthy by reducing or removing fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar and/or carbohydrates. But, the recipe must taste just as good as the original, traditional recipe. They are evaluated by the instructors and sometimes a panel of chefs,” says Ozga. Another popular program at Johnson & Wales is the Foodservice Entrepreneurship, which is offered at the Providence campus.

Ozga works at the Miami campus and has ongoing working relationships with food manufacturers and restaurants—everything from recipe development to food and wine pairing programs. “Because we are located in Miami, we have access to some of the freshest and most exotic fruits and vegetables. Miami is an international city with many cultural and culinary influences,” he says.

Re-inventing Simple Foods

Four Stars International in Chicago produces a line of appetizers it calls “updated classics” which include: The Philly Cheese Steak Egg Roll (2.5oz, made of thinly sliced Philly-style beef, onions, green bell peppers and cheddar cheese in an egg roll wrap), Buffalo Chicken Rangoon (1.25oz, made of zesty flavored Buffalo chicken wrapped in a wonton skin with a crispy fried chicken coating), Mini Wisconsin Brat in a Blanket (1.25oz, made of bratwurst wrapped in a flaky pastry with a reduction of caramelized onions, sauerkraut and mustard) and Sausage and Mozzarella Pizza Bite (1oz, mini sausage pizza with a specialty-crafted, authentic, crispy yet moist pizza crust made with olive oil). 

Wings Around the World, also in Chicago, is an independently owned carryout concept. There are 32 wing flavors on the menu; they are neither made with breading nor batter-dipped. Unique flavors include Mexican Chipotle, Italian Parmesan-garlic, Fire Jerk from Jamaica and Curry-Masala from India. There is even a Canadian-inspired Maple Twist Flavor.

These Southwest Salsa Bites with pepper jack cheese, brown rice, sour cream and crushed tortilla chips dovetail well with consumer interest in Southwestern and Latin cuisines.

Photo courtesy of USA Rice Federation

Merging Trends

Corn Maiden in California has taken basic Mexican appetizers, re-invented them with a gourmet touch and called it Euro-Mex Cuisine. The line of frozen products includes: Empanadas (made of goat cheese, sun-dried tomato and basil); Flautas (made of lime-cilantro chicken and green chile); Vegan Tamales (made of spinach, artichoke hearts, fresh corn and chipotle); and Dessert Tamales (made of Belgian chocolate, raspberries and caramelized walnuts). Pascal Dropsy, president of Corn Maiden, is a Belgian-born chef who founded the company 13 years ago. He was excited  to learn about Mexican cuisine and culture. “I like to call it kismet, since those two regions of the world inspired me the most—Europe and Mexico,” he says. Corn Maiden products are sold at Trader Joe’s, Albertson’s Supermarkets, Glenson’s and Bristol Farms Markets.  Additionally, they can be purchased via Williams-Sonoma and Dean & Deluca catalogues.

Another growing food trend is the merging of Asian and South American cuisines. This unique blend yields wonderful, tasty appetizers and entrées. SushiSamba, with locations in Miami, New York, Chicago, Rio and Tel Aviv, blends Japanese and Brazilian cuisine, music and design décor in its restaurants. One of the popular appetizers on its Miami menu is the Pastel (a crispy empanada filled with shiitake mushroom, manchego and Cabrales cheeses). It is served with a walnut corn salsa. SushiSamba is one of the first restaurants in the world to have a sushi/seviche bar. Seviche, also spelled ceviche, is a Latin American dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juice (which cooks it), onions, tomatoes and chilies—and sometimes flavored with cilantro. There is a popular menu item called Tuna Sashimi Seviche, which is made from fresh tuna served with grapefruit juice, red jalapeño pepper and almonds.

The Perfect Bit Company in Los Angeles manufactures a line of upscale frozen pastry appetizers. Flavors include Caramelized Onion & Feta Cheese, Roasted Jalapeño & Green Chili, Cilantro Pesto & Corn, Smoked Salmon & Chive and Basil Pesto & Gorgonzola. The products are packed and shipped to grocery stores frozen and uncooked in an oven-safe disposable baking tray.

What's Next

Philippe Ruiz, executive chef de cuisine at the Palm D’Or Restaurant inside the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, thinks chefs and food manufacturers must continue to raise the bar by coming up with creative menus and food products to please and educate consumers. “The food industry is very competitive in both the restaurant and food product retail sectors. Our customers are well-traveled, and they know a lot about food these days,” says chef Ruiz. Palm D’Or was recently named the best restaurant in South Florida by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Dennis Doucette, the Biltmore’s general manager, says, “South Florida is one of America’s liveliest and most competitive dining scenes. To go up against the best in Miami, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere and win is an extraordinary accomplishment.”

One of chef Ruiz’s signature menu items is Snow Crab and Heart of Palm Napoleon, Red Curry and Coconut Wasabi Tobiko, which is made of snow crab claws, lemon, coconut milk, chopped green, yellow and red bell peppers, mild red curry, Hawaiian heart of palm, annatto oil (yellowish/red oil made from the seeds and pulp of a tropical tree), balsamic vinegar and a touch of Tobiko caviar. 

In order to stay ahead of the trends, the Biltmore offers its guests interactive culinary demonstration luncheons led by some of America’s leading chefs. The Biltmore also has one of the country’s most popular weekly Sunday brunches. Each week, 18 chefs oversee this culinary extravaganza that requires intense preparation and advance strategic planning. Some of the most creative appetizers can be found on the menu, including ceviche on ice, tapas with international flavor flair and over 60 other dishes with influences from around the world.

The author would like to thank The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla. ( www.biltmorehotel.com ), and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau ( www.miamiand beaches.com ), as their personnel were extremely helpful with this article.

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