Tiny fish, tart plums and coconut syrup. Ready for a taste of 2016?
Since we’re all a little tired of hearing about bacon, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower steaks, let’s look forward to some of the flavors and foods that will be popping up in the coming year. It’s not so much that these foods are radically new (bacon certainly wasn’t). Rather, that they are edging toward a critical mass, making them more common on restaurant menus and easier for home cooks to find.
Ready to eat?
Two things going on here. First, the trend in seafood is to eat lower on the food chain. It’s good for the oceans; it’s good for the fishing industry. Second, we’ve all become slaves to umami (the flavor best described as “savory”), and little fish — and the products made from them — tend to be umami bombs. So expect to see lots of anchovies and sardines, and expect to see them in starring roles.
Because we’re moving way beyond Caesar dressing and anchovy butter. New York City chef Seamus Mullen puts them front and center at his Tertulia restaurant, where the “tosta matrimonio” tops crisp bread with black and white anchovies and slow-roasted tomatoes. Meanwhile, recipes for grilled or marinated sardines have practically become fixtures in the monthly food magazines.
More importantly, the quality of what’s available at the grocer has improved. Skip the canned tuna aisle and head for the seafood counter, where you’ll find refrigerated white and black anchovies (some of them deliciously marinated), as well as fresh and smoked sardines. Or look for tiny bottles of colatura, a liquid anchovy extract that is Italy’s answer to Asian fish sauce. Drizzle that over fresh pasta and dust with grated Parmesan.
Not sure what to do with your anchovies? Your best bet: nothing. As long as you’re buying the good ones (Fruits de Mer is a fine choice), just pop them on seeded crackers or toasted baguette, then enjoy. If you buy the cheaper ones, just heat them in a skillet with some olive oil and garlic. They’ll melt away into a sauce. Them toss in broccoli florets, cooked pasta and grated pecorino. Done.
Sure, there was a lot of hype this year about the new seaweed that supposedly tastes like bacon, but I’m not holding my breath for that. Because in the meantime we have nori, the seaweed that often is pressed and dried in sheets, then used to wrap maki-style sushi. But it can do much more, and folks are starting to wake up to that.
First, try it as an almost calorie-free potato chip substitute. No, seriously. Typically marketed as “seaweed snacks” and sold in single serve packets, these graham cracker-sized sheets of nori are crispy, salty and addictive. They also come in different seasonings, such as teriyaki and wasabi. You’ll usually find them alongside the other Asian ingredients.
Nori also is being turned into condiments. Combined with sesame seeds and salt, it’s called furikake. Or there is the Sea Shakes line of seaweed seasoning blends, which combine kelp, dulse and nori with garlic, lemon peel and rosemary (among many others) with delicious results. Try any of them over roasted vegetables, cooked chicken, or rice and other grains. Also use them to dress up soft goat cheese or hummus.
Avoiding high-fructose corn syrup is getting a little easier, in part because a growing number of soda companies are returning to pure cane syrup. But there also are other changes to the sweetener world that are worth noting. Of particular interest is the growing selection of natural sweeteners made from alternatives to either cane or corn.
Agave syrup (also called agave nectar) is the juggernaut here. Available in numerous varieties and grades, it is made from the sap of agave plants (tequila is made from a different part of the plants) and has a clean, sweeter-than-honey flavor. And that’s just the start. There also are sweeteners made from coconut (both syrups and granulated), barley, brown rice, dates and — my new favorite — apples. Each has a different flavor profile, though most lean toward neutral.
Many of these work well in baking and for making dressings, marinades and sauces. My personal favorite? I use agave or apple syrup in place of simple syrup when mixing cocktails. Unlike honey, these mix easily. And deliciously.
These are the fruit of the ume (pronounced OO-may) tree (a relative of the rose). They resemble small apricots, but they can’t be eaten raw. That’s why most of them are salted, fermented and dyed red using shisho leaves. The resulting “plums” have an intensely sour-salty flavor that can be weirdly addictive. They usually are sold whole, as a paste or as a vinegar.
In traditional Japanese cooking, umeboshi (OO-may-BOSH-ey) are eaten straight up as you would pickles, or are served inside balls of rice that are wrapped in nori (see what I did there?). The vinegar is used to season vegetables. But I’ve been seeing umeboshi showing up in unusual places lately. The vinegar is great in marinades and dressings; it also makes great pickles. Try it sprinkled over a bean and quinoa salad with avocado and shrimp.
The plums (remove the pits) or paste are great pureed into sauces and rich gravies. The flavor gets along particularly well with bitter greens and broccoli. Or for all manner of fun, start popping them into cocktails. Vodka, lime juice, ginger, simple syrup and an umeboshi plum shaken with ice is quite nice.
This has been building for a couple years now. It all started with the quinoa craze. Now all sorts of crazy grains and legumes (or seeds masquerading as them) have been popping up. And so we have farro and teff, millet and triticale, not to mention more common wheat berries and rye berries being cooked and consumed straight up (rather than turned into flour).
But there also are other changes in this niche. First, the sprouted phenomenon. Many grains and legumes are being briefly sprouted (germinated) before being dried and packaged. The result is a slightly sweeter, nuttier flavor.
Second — and even more profound — is ease. As in, companies have gotten wise to the fact that more people would eat more legumes is they were easier to prepare. Fava beans, for example, are a pain to prep. But Melissa’s now sells them fresh-packed (in the refrigerated produce section) already peeled and steamed. You just open the package and use as desired (no cooking or peeling needed). They’ve done the same thing for lentils and black-eyed peas.
And then there are the flours. No doubt stirred by all the interest in gluten-free foods, many company now produce bean flours, such as black bean flour, fava been flour and chickpea flour. They are a delicious way to play around with recipes, and work particularly nicely in crackers and dumplings. Try chickpea flour in a batter for vegetable tempura.