Updates of classic ethnic recipes often find eager audiences. These five dishes are ripe for reimagining with all-American twists.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
"The term ‘ethnic' brings interest to the experience for guests whether or not it's a true ethnic recipe," says Mike Miduri, general manager of dining services at Saint Francis University, a Parkhurst Dining Services account in Loretto, Pa. That's why menus on campus offer both authentically prepared dishes such as Moroccan tagines and Americanized recipes such as fajitas.
Rodelio Aglibot, executive chef at recently opened Pan-Asian restaurant Sunda in Chicago, says stretching the boundaries of authenticity sometimes helps speed diners' acceptance of unfamiliar ethnic dishes. Sushi is a prime example, he says. Once exotic to most Americans, it is now a regular offering nearly everywhere, from grocery stores and college dining halls to high-end restaurants.
"As chefs, we blur the lines of what sushi is these days and draw other cultures into raw seafood preparations," says Aglibot, who menus conventional sushi and sashimi as well as signature creations such as rolled tuna sashimi with shredded pork, green onions and crispy shallots.
That's not to say that diners shouldn't know or care about the differences between authentic and adapted dishes, or that traditional preparations won't appeal to American customers. The lesson for operators is simply that both approaches offer opportunities to delight diners. Those looking for someplace to start can turn to the five ethnic dishes that follow-pierogis, empanadas, sushi, spring rolls and quesadillas-all of which now find success in reinterpreted recipes on American menus.
The big appeal of sushi is that it's fresh and light-"and it's fun to eat," Aglibot says. "There's not a lot of manipulation of the product. That's why it's become so well-respected and accepted."
At Sunda, the menu includes several sushi and sashimi dishes tweaked with flavors that please American palates. Rolled tuna sashimi plays up the contrast of the rich, fatty fish and salty, smoky pork, a combination Aglibot says often is found in the Philippines and sometimes in Spain. The thin-sliced tuna is laid flat and topped with an Asian shredded dried pork product also known as floss. Green onions lend acidity, while crispy shallots complement the pork's saltiness and add crunch.
"I want to give guests options where they don't have to dip everything in soy and wasabi, so I create dishes that have their own distinct profiles," says Aglibot.
The chef takes a similar approach with escolar. He contrasts the strong-flavored, oily fish with crisp-fried Thai basil leaves and bright, spicy tomato-ginger chutney, a combination of tomatoes, coriander, shallots, ginger, Japanese ichimi peppers, ponzu sauce, brown sugar and honey cooked together for two to three hours.
So many menus offer twists on quesadillas that the recipe's roots sometimes are called into question. But the folded, griddled tortillas stuffed with cheese and other fillings are indeed Mexican in origin, according to Mexican-cuisine writer and researcher Diana Kennedy and other experts.
Quesadillas are approachable and easy to eat, making them great conduits for ingredients beyond those found south of the border. Chef Kevin McCarthy's recipe at Armadillo Beach restaurant in Dania Beach, Fla., layers smoked duck, Jack cheese and sour cream with cranberry-pear chutney. At Restaurant Associates in New York City, Chef Michael Gallagher tucks in shrimp and poblano chiles and garnishes the wedges with avocado-mango salsa.
Considering that tortillas are the Mexican equivalent of white bread, sandwich-inspired quesadillas also make perfect sense. At Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill, the most-successful limited-time offer to date was a Chicken Club Quesadilla featuring Jack cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and chipotle-ranch sauce. The fast-casual chain's Phil E. Quesadilla, a current special, is a spin on the cheesesteak sandwich, with grilled sirloin, peppers, onions, mushrooms, Jack and Cheddar cheeses and Moe's "queso sauce" (melted white American cheese, onions and jalepeÁ±os).
Finding interesting and unique accompaniments for the upscale-casual menu at West End Tavern in Boulder, Colo., is always a goal for Executive Chef Chris Blackwood. The popular lobster empanadas at sister restaurant Zolo Southwestern Grill inspired Blackwood to try his hand at the crispy turnovers, common in Latin America and Spain in varieties savory and sweet, baked and fried.
Blackwood's recipe calls for a simple dough that starts with a 2-to-1 ratio of masa to all-purpose flour with a touch of chile powder and black pepper. Instead of using traditional lard, he folds butter into the dry ingredients and adds warm water. The thinly rolled dough is topped with the filling, folded into medium-size crescent shapes and deep-fried.
"The empanadas are a vessel for me-I can use them with everything," Blackwood says. Past versions have included spinach-and-goat-cheese empanadas paired with a pork chop and peach chutney. Recently, he has stuffed the golden pastries with roasted zucchini, red peppers, sweet potatoes and asadero cheese to accompany an entrée of sweet-potato-crusted tuna. "The crispness of the crust matches up perfectly with the flakiness of the tuna," he says.
Peter Maccaroni, executive chef at The Sample Room in Minneapolis, wanted to add a dumpling-style dish to his comfort-food-focused menu, so he drew on the neighborhood's Polish roots with a play on pierogi.
- Minced meat, cheese and vegetables (often cabbage and potatoes) typically fill the half-moon-shaped dumplings, but Maccaroni gives the recipe a more-upscale tone with salmon. He roasts the fish with dill and lemon, pulls it apart, and wraps the tender pieces in dough with creamy mashed potatoes and just enough horseradish to give it a kick.
The dough, thicker and more toothsome than many other dumplings, is a mixture of all-purpose flour, egg, kosher salt, sour cream and extra-virgin olive oil (in place of typically used butter). Once the fillings are sealed in, the pierogi are boiled and tossed with garlic béchamel and fresh chives. The restaurant serves them in orders of three as a small plate and eight as an entrée.
"The pierogi are a great vehicle for all the flavors," Maccaroni says. "They hold everything together in one or two nice little bites."
In China, spring rolls are more of a seasonal specialty (traditionally eaten in the early days of spring) than a must-have at every restaurant, says Fuchsia Dunlop, author of "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China" (W.W. Norton, 2008) and other books on Chinese cuisine. In the United States, though, the paper-thin pancakes of dough rolled with vegetables and sometimes meat have become ubiquitous on menus.
Many preparations are Asian-accented, such as the duck-confit spring rolls with hoisin-barbecue dipping sauce at River House Bistro in Westport, Conn., but plenty are all-American inside their wrappers. The new Hoagie Stogies from Dallas-based Bennigan's Grill & Tavern, for example, are described as crispy spring rolls loaded with Philly cheesesteak-style sirloin and cheese. Ranch dressing comes on the side for dipping. The bar at 21 Main Prime Steak House in West Sayville, N.Y., offers a higher-end approach; its Steak House Spring Rolls are filled with Kobe beef, spinach, caramelized onions, Gruyère cheese and Gorgonzola demi-glace.
In some restaurants, spring rolls are even cropping up as after-dinner sweets: The dessert menu at Pleasanton, Calif.-based Zao Noodle Bar features fried spring rolls filled with bananas and coconut ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce.
In heavy-bottomed sauce pan, combine cream, onion, garlic, clove and bay leaf; bring to simmer and reduce 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain; reserve.
WHAT'S REALLY ETHNIC?
A quick quiz: which of the following foods is a true staple of Mexican cuisine: tamales, nachos or fajitas?
The answer is tamales-meat, vegetable or fruit fillings coated in masa dough, wrapped in corn husks and steamed-but a good percentage of Americans fully expect to find nachos and fajitas on menus billed as Mexican. That these items actually fall under the category of Tex-Mex rather than authentic Mexican food is of little concern to diners who simply enjoy the flavors.
The same goes for other ethnic hybrids that are far from authentic but no less popular with consumers, from Chinese-American dishes such as chop suey and crab rangoon to Italian-American staples such as chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs.
"Chicken or veal parmigiana are famous here," says Chef Fabio Hakill, who often cooks special orders of the dishes for guests who request it even though the items are not menued at his restaurant, Fabio Piccolo Fiore in New York City. "Everybody has to eat whatever they want, not whatever I want to cook."
Some may argue that such recipes represent a "dumbing down" of global traditions to appease American palates. There's no question about the value of authenticity on menus-for heightening customers' appreciation of unfamiliar ingredients and preparations, for teaching guests about global cuisines by staying true to dishes' origins and passing on rich culinary traditions. But the takeaway for operators is that items don't have to be "authentic" to simply be good-or to be good sellers.