Authentic Meats and Cheeses
In the U.S., meat has traditionally been the star of the meal and the menu. In the past few years, however, there has been a menu shift toward smaller portions from free-range, grass-fed animals and lesser known cuts of meat. High-quality, artisanal and heritage sources of meat served in smaller portions are beginning to trump quantity in many cases. For example, it almost seems like a requirement of every chef-driven, farm-to-table restaurant to have a housemade charcuterie plate on the menu. Chefs are curing locally raised heritage breeds of pork, such as Duroc and Berkshire, in the style of Italian guianciale, pancetta and Spanish Serrano ham, slicing them paper thin and serving them with seasonal pickles and jams.
There are several U.S. producers who specialize in traditional Spanish and Italian cured-meat products, such as Iowa’s LaQuercia Prosciutto and Virginia-based Surry Farms’ Surryano Hams. In many cases, the quality of these domestic versions is on par with European products, and the cost usually is lower. While it’s unlikely the demand for authentic imported Prosciutto di Parma in the U.S. will ever completely diminish, American chefs and consumers take pride in serving and consuming locally produced food.
With the encouragement and information found in texts like Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing Meat, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, ambitious home cooks also can get in on the action. Wherever the raw product originates, the traditional methods for curing, pickling and preserving meat and other food goes back centuries in every country around the world, not only Spain and Italy.
Preparing and enjoying conventionally less-favored cuts of meat (such as offal) has cultural roots all over the world, with Italy and Spain being no exception. Rather than offering a prime filet mignon, a restaurant might choose a flat-iron steak that is far more economical and delivers just as much—if not more—flavor. In the past few years, restaurants have ventured into including offal on their menus beyond the expected foie gras and occasional chicken liver mousse, surprising guests with delicious new flavors and textures.
Vera, a Spanish wine and tapas bar in Chicago, is serving a tripe and chickpea stew with their own morcilla sausage, which is a traditional blood and rice sausage. The popular dish is homey, rustic and authentic, yet prepared by a well-known chef and served in a trendy wine bar in Chicago’s West Loop. Diners also are more likely to try a dish like this when it’s served in the shareable small-plate format—tapas—because they don’t have to worry about committing to a large, expensive portion of something they’re not sure they’ll enjoy.
Similar to trends involving cured meats, restaurants are developing cheese programs consisting entirely of American artisanal cheeses. Chefs are making their own ricotta, mozzarella and other fresh cheeses to add value, flavor and originality to their menus. These artisanal cheeses are made in small batches using traditional methods from Europe—but with uniquely American twists. One example is from Indiana’s Capriole Farms. For its chestnut-wrapped goat cheese, the leaves are soaked in bourbon instead of eau de vie before wrapping them around the fresh goat cheese. There definitely is still a demand for authentic cheeses imported from Italy and Spain. While most Americans are already familiar with Italian cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola and even Taleggio, Spanish cheeses remain a bit of a mystery. The popularity of tapas bars and increasing interest in Spanish cuisine has helped bring delicacies like Cabrales and Manchego to more American restaurants.
Vegetables Front and Center
Vegetable dishes have stepped out of the shadows to enjoy a strong presence as center-of-the-plate items, especially in restaurants specializing in small, shareable plates. The menus of some popular hot spots, such as Chicago’s Girl and the Goat, are now categorizing dishes by “Vegetables, Fish and Meat,” rather than by “Appetizer, Entrée and Sides.” Using seasonal, locally grown produce has become incredibly important for restaurants. Moreover, there are many more heirloom varieties of vegetables available at the farmers’ markets.
Most Americans have at least heard of heirloom tomatoes, but there are dozens of varieties of heirloom potatoes, beans, cabbages and apples, just to name a few. Chefs are supporting these local farmers by shopping at their markets and proudly printing the names of individual farms on menus. In Chicago, people can shop at Lincoln Park’s Green City Market on Saturday morning and spy local chefs picking up their orders and catching up with the farmers.
The notion of local, seasonal produce is nothing new to Europeans, who traditionally shop at local markets—picking up the season’s best produce or creatively using whatever is at its best in their gardens. They enjoy fava beans for three or four weeks in the spring and then wait in anticipation for them the following year. Across Europe, festivals are held throughout the year celebrating a particular fruit or vegetable during the height of its growing season. An example is Calcotada, the spring onion festival held in Catalonia, Spain, in March. Other recent trends with Old World roots include the return of canning, pickling and preserving. Chefs are growing produce in their restaurants’ own gardens—for example, Rick Bayless’ rooftop garden in downtown Chicago—and then preserving any abundance not used right away.
One thing that makes vegetables such a pleasure to prepare and eat is their versatility. Vegetables lend themselves well to all cooking techniques (braising, roasting, steaming, sautéing, etc.) and can, of course, be enjoyed raw. It’s exciting for diners to be able to experience vegetables prepared in an unexpected manner. Take cucumber, for example. Cucumbers are usually served raw as part of a salad, but they are also delicious braised in butter with dill or grilled lightly and served with fish. Vegetables such as beets and turnips—that are typically roasted or tossed into stews—can be sliced paper thin and tossed with a vinaigrette to make interesting, colorful and healthy salads.
Combining these garden-fresh ingredients with eggs to make frittatas is becoming more popular, as eggs, too, take a greater role in restaurant fare. Once reserved for Sunday brunch, frittatas are gaining ground as eggs enjoy a renewed reputation as a healthy source of inexpensive protein. Frittatas are typically served either as wedges or small individual portions, or made in hotel pans and cut into smaller portions to be served as tapas or appetizers.
Traditional Italian and Spanish dishes are vegetable-centric and use expensive ingredients such as meat as a flavoring accent. Pasta and rice, both heavily consumed in Italy and Spain, are perfect blank canvases for all manner of seasonal vegetable dishes, started with perhaps a bit of pancetta for flavor and fat. Vegetable dishes with humble beginnings like gazpacho (cold tomato soup thickened with bread and seasoned with vinegar, olive oil and salt) are being elevated to works of art in high-end restaurants, such as Chicago’s Alinea.
Italian flavors always seem to be on trend. The common flavors and seasonings that make Italian food so popular include fresh basil, oregano, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, rosemary, fresh sage and bay leaves. Spanish cuisine shares a few of these seasonings but also relies heavily on saffron, pimento or paprika (both sweet and hot), parsley and lemon. Crushed red pepper flakes, along with various chilies and paprika, add both heat and flavor to traditional Italian and Spanish dishes. Smoked flavors are also on trend; using smoked paprika and cumin in cured meats, salad dressings and marinades is an inexpensive and easy way of bringing smokiness to food.
Italians and Spaniards like to pair sweet and salty or spicy flavors together, especially through the use of fruit. For example, a salad of fennel, oranges and red onion dressed with orange juice, chili flakes and olive oil is sweet, spicy, balanced and flavorful.
Well-balanced flavors and variety are important to diners. A good example of an on-trend restaurant dish combining meats, cheeses, vegetables and seasonings is a housemade charcuterie and local cheese plate served with pickled and preserved fruit and vegetable accompaniments. The pickles and preserves cleanse the palate and balance the richness in the cured meats and cheeses. Also, all the components can be produced economically and stored for long periods of time to reduce waste. Italians, Spaniards and chefs alike do not like to throw anything away and are skilled at making use of leftovers. Old World techniques of using day-old bread to thicken soups or make breadcrumbs; stirring bits of leftover vegetables into hearty soups; and stretching tough cuts of meat by slowing braising and using them as pasta filling are ways to reduce waste and lower food costs.
These techniques of being thrifty and creative in the kitchen are now trendy—something consumers appreciate in the current economic climate. Serving small, shareable plates of delicious food prepared in this manner allows diners to sample more variety, try new things and cuts down on waste.
As consumers become more knowledgeable about fresh, flavorful foods and authentic ethnic ingredients, it raises the bar for chefs to continue to come up with authentic, but approachable, menu items. In order to make a dish worth ordering again, the meats, cheeses, vegetables and seasonings must be of the highest quality, whether grown or produced locally or imported. Authentic Italian and Spanish dishes, from frittatas to tapas, will always be on trend, and their flavors and techniques will continue to be used by chefs around the world. pf