Prepared Foods talks with Chef Emily Cruz, director of sales & marketing at CuliNex, Seattle-based a consultancy to brand owners, food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, boards and commissions. A Seattle native, Cruz joined CuliNex in 2011 as a contractor and was promoted to a full-time “Culinologist” in 2013. She served as the company’s director of operations until her most recent promotion in May 2020. Cruz graduated in 2010 from Johnson & Wales University with a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Nutrition and an associates degree (2008) in Culinary Arts.
Prepared Foods: We have a culinary feature titled “New Mediterranean,” and it’s looking at new takes on traditional foods from this region. Have you noticed growing interest in the foods and flavors from this area? If so, what’s behind that growth?
Emily Cruz: Yes! I grew up loving Italian, Greek, and French cuisine, but much of the other foods of this region were foreign to me until about a decade ago. This is when I fell in love with the cooking of Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. His recipes were blowing up in the pages of Bon Appetit and on popular food blogs. I often still reference his vegetable-forward cookbooks for concept flavor inspiration, including Jerusalem, Plenty, and Ottolenghi.
The cuisines of the Mediterranean are incredibly diverse, but overall are vegetable-forward, flavor packed with fresh herbs and warm spices—all of which appeal to consumers looking for new flavor experiences. Some of my favorite vegetables from this region include cauliflower, eggplant, sweet potato, and butternut squash; as well as fruits including figs, pomegranates, and dates. All of these are delicious when paired with toasted nuts, sesame seeds, olive oil, fragrant spices, and crumbly cheeses. It all makes for vibrant, flexitarian-focused meals.
PF: What are examples of trending new dishes and tastes compared to what’s older and more traditional?
Cruz: Bagels, hummus and pita are familiar to many Americans. Meanwhile there are so many other “new” flavors and dishes to explore. Some of my favorites are lahneh, tangy yogurt cheese; toum, a whipped garlic spread; haloumi, a semi-hard, unripened, brined cheese that holds its shape when pan-fried or grilled; shakshuka, a saucy baked dish of stewed peppers, tomatoes, and eggs for brunch or dinner; kuku, an omelet packed with fresh green herbs; and fattoush, a textural salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, herbs like mint and parsley, with lots of crunchy toasted pita chips thrown in.
PF: These foods are distinguished by what flavors, spices and/or textures?
Cruz: There are rich and homey comfort foods, such as creamy dips, charred, smoked and even burnt flavors in vegetables and chewy flatbreads, rich vegetable stews, and sticky, syrupy sweets with nuts.
My favorite spice mix from this region is Za’atar, a Middle Eastern herb that tastes of oregano, marjoram, sage and thyme is mixed with sumac, sesame seeds and salt. This is the perfect condiment to sprinkle on top of flatbread or as a dip with olive oil, bread and veggies. It’s great on roasted chicken and vegetables as well.
Rose water is an aromatic distillate of floral rose petals is used for sweet and savory dishes; try pairing with fruit such strawberry or raspberry for a floral yogurt or creamy dessert, pair with warm spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and cumin in savory braised meat dishes.
Tahini is a staple in my kitchen, one of the original seed butters and flavor enhancers. It is nothing more than sesame seed paste, but adds rich depth of flavor and thickens salad dressings, dips, sauces; it’s also delicious in baked goods like chewy tahini blondies with chocolate chunks, toasted sesame tahini cookies, or black sesame tahini swirl ice cream.
PF: Have you noticed trending tastes, etc. involving beverages from this region?
Cruz: Cultured and fermented foods—especially dairy products—play a large role in new Mediterranean cuisine. This includes well-loved Greek yogurt, but also labneh, kefir, buttermilk for use in sauces, dips, spreads, desserts, baking—and even beverages. We’re now also seeing a lot of alternative and plant-based cheeses and fermented, cultured dairy alternatives as ingredients in creamy dips and sauces.
PF: Have you worked on projects in this particular area? If so, what can you tell us about them? What was most fun or what was most challenging?
Cruz: One project we worked on was commercializing hummus-stuffed falafel poppers for Tadah. The owner came to us with a gold standard formula that was suffering from texture and mold issues. We found two solutions that not only fit well into the Mediterranean theme of the product but also solved shelf life and texture issues without much change to the ingredient deck. To keep the falafel exterior crunchy, we added pre-gelatinized garbanzo flour, which represented only a slight change to the original home kitchen recipe. This kept the falafel shell crunchy, even after thawing and cooking in the microwave, the preferred method of cooking for the consumer.
To keep the hummus creamy and smooth, without taking on additional water during the thaw, we added fenugreek gum, a gentle gum system that bound up just enough water to keep the product creamy and delicious. The remaining work involved adjusting fry times at the plant to ensure the falafel exterior stayed crunchy while the interior fully cooked, all without the product getting too tough during the fry.
Many of the projects we’ve worked on recently have been nut and seed rich, especially those involving almonds and coconut. Other nuts popular in this region are walnuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. They are delicious and offer great crunchy texture in hot and cold dishes, make rich and creamy dairy-free sauces and hearty-textured plant-based meals, and indulgent desserts.
Of course, nuts are premium ingredients and command a higher price. They also are allergens and do go stale with time. Sesame seeds, tahini, and sesame oil all go rancid notoriously fast; it’s important to always source good quality, fresh nuts and seeds for use in formulation.
PF: Do you see Mediterranean foods and flavors trending up for 2021?
Cruz: Yes! With comfort food, carbs and sweets allowed for permissive indulgence, there is more interest in the laminated croissants of France and different spin-offs and mashups, such as the “cruffin,” a stuffed sweet croissant roll filled with vanilla pastry cream and fruit preserves like fig jam.
There will be more interest in flaky-textured pastries of the region, like sticky honey baklava, and cirsy Börek, made with buttery phyllo dough and filled with meat, vegetables and cheeses made savory or sweet.
The Georgian cheese-filled flatbread, Khachapuri, is topped with a molten egg yolk and has gained a cult-like following with foodies and makes for a special breakfast or snack. I also see this becoming a breakfast pizza-like favorite with consumers obsessed with “ooey-gooey” cheesy textures.
PF: A quick follow-up! With restaurant visits down here and international travel down as well, how do consumers discover these new items?
Cruz: Since most people aren’t traveling these days, eating trends are heavily influenced by what we see on the web. Right now, that means whatever’s trending on Instagram, Tiktok, Pinterest, and YouTube, including beautiful charcuterie boards, artfully arranged platters and spreads.
Millennials are quite comfortable snacking all day long, so it’s perfectly reasonable to them make a breakfast, brunch, lunch, snack, or dinner out of a fancy cheese board or mezze appetizer spread. This kind of “mix-and-match” eating style lends itself well to the vibrant and diverse flavors of Mediterranean.
Culinex LLC, Seattle provides clean label food product development services for brand owners, food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, boards and commissions. For more information, visit www.culinex.biz or contact Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org.