The first Side Orders column in January is always a favorite because it gives me a chance to look at food trends -- what has come and gone in the previous year and what we have to look out for.
Kara Nielsen, trendologist for the Center for Culinary Development, caught me up on what she thinks is coming.
"An overarching consumer concern will be for seeking a few more better-for-you foods, cutting back a few indulgences and finding delicious and satisfying snacks, treats and meals that make us feel better, alive and on top of our busy lives," she said. "So it appears that we'll be looking for foods that are good for us -- much-needed in this obesity-driven society."
She continued: "Chain restaurants are starting to finally see some traction with their better-for-you offerings, such as Cheesecake Factory's SkinnyLicious line. As restaurants and other food-service providers offer more healthful choices, consumers will respond a bit more than in the past. But they still want the occasional burger and fries and milkshake, especially premium versions."
Have you tried Hardee's Steakhouse Thickburger with its 1,170 calories and 740 grams of fat? I haven't built up the nerve to do so, but that's what Nielsen's talking about.
Here are some more things to look out for, according to Nielsen:
- French fries as a carrier to other ingredients such as meat, gravy and cheese. Sounds like nachos, but with fries instead of chips. Interesting. Nielsen said she's seen chefs reinventing with such savory toppings as braised short ribs and artisan cheeses.
- A celebration of new fats to cook with -- animal fats such as duck, schmaltz and lard; Indian ghee; and especially coconut oil for baking and other uses.
"We are learning that some of these formerly demonized fats aren't so bad for us, and chefs are playing with new fats in the kitchen, while home cooks pursuing alternative diets, like vegan, will be tapping into tastier vegetable fats," Nielsen said. "Coconut fat is processed differently by our bodies, making it quite interesting to pursue."
- Vegetables in desserts. Pastry chefs are already raiding the vegetable bin for new inspiration. We'll continue to see more beets, carrots, corn, squash and peas in desserts, adding texture and flavor as well as little health halos, Nielsen said. So you think this doesn't sound very good? Think carrot cake, and you may just change your mind.
- Sprouted grains will continue to attract new users seeking more benefits from their grains, especially rice. When the grain sprouts, enzymes start preparing for the growing process and start breaking down the parts that are tougher to digest. This makes nutrients in the grain easier to digest for us, too. They are already turning up in bread, tortillas and packaged quinoa, and we may see more in rice. We'll also start seeing more sea vegetables on menus -- a truly nutritious and versatile alternative. Their introduction to the American palate is due to the rising popularity of Japanese and Korean cuisines.
Nielsen spends a year following food trends and watches signs of movement by consumers as well as in the food industry as a whole. So looking back, did last year's predictions ring true?
"I did pretty well," she said.
Foraged flavors, which was one of her predictions, such as wild plants and mushrooms, did well in fine-dining establishments but didn't go mainstream.
"I also talked about coconut oil, which I think is moving forward. Grass-fed dairy continues to grow, albeit slowly," she said.
"The trends I look at are typically more emerging trends. I also thought ramen shops would be a hot topic, and they were."
I don't know of any restaurants solely devoted to ramen noodles, but maybe we'll get one down the line. Just think about all the things you can do with that lowly noodle.
As for Nielsen's 2012 predictions, I think she's spot-on with the health angle. At least I hope so. It would do us all good in 2012 to heed what we eat and try to do a little better.
Happy 2012 and the best of health to you all this year.
Email Anne Braly at abraly @timesfreepress.com.