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Food: Savory Gets Sweeter – US Food Trends

14 March 2008

Preparations blending sweet flavors with savory ingredients go beyond novelty: Such contrasting flavors add interest while fighting palate fatigue.

This article first appeared in the 1 February 2008 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

Other than their first three letters, chorizo and chocolate don't have much in common. The former offers a meaty, savory flavor, whereas the latter often ushers in sweetness.

But Chef Todd Ginsberg of TAP, a gastropub in Atlanta, doesn't think that that means the two should never meet. While wandering once through the Mercat de la Boqueria, a large market in the center of Barcelona, he saw vendors selling chocolate with smoked meat.

The combination piqued Ginsberg's interest and inspired the chef to combine chocolate and Spanish chorizo for a dish on TAP's bar menu. The unexpected selection features a thin piece of bread that is grilled, brushed with bittersweet chocolate, layered with sliced Spanish chorizo and garnished with sea salt and olive oil.

"What I tried to do is to think about all of the flavor profiles that go well with beer: Salty, spicy, fatty foods generally do," he says, adding that he plans to bring back cubes of pineapple served with guajillo chile, sugar and salt this summer. And the chocolate with chorizo? "When people come in looking for something different, they're drawn to it."

As the boundaries blur among snacks, appetizers and entrées, so too do the rules governing the ingredients appropriate for savory dishes. In some instances, sweet/savory combinations are new and novel, although most chefs are reluctant to call them a trend.

"Sweet and savory have been around for years," asserts Rick Crossland, senior vice president of culinary and beverage at Bahama Breeze. The Orlando-based Darden Restaurants concept menus a popular dish of shrimp marinated in coconut milk, breaded with coconut, fried and served with a citrus-mustard sauce.

John McClure, executive chef and owner of Starker's Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., sees evidence of diners' affinity for sweet and savory combinations in the success of his grilled foie gras, the one dish he never takes off the menu. He serves a 3-ounce portion of foie gras with a beignet, spiced apple butter, and an apple-and-walnut salad dressed with a vinaigrette of reduced apple cider, vinegar and veal stock.

"The American palate enjoys sweeter combinations," McClure says. "What I like to do is serve something sweet and give them something savory. The biggest problem is palate fatigue if you only have sweet, sweet, sweet."

Guillermo Pernot, executive concept chef at Philadelphia-based Cuba Libre, agrees. "It creates a different spectrum of flavors," he says. "If you just do savory alone, it doesn't always work."

More recently, however, there has been a surge in bolder, unexpected combinations. Boston's Nebo serves fried arancini made with risotto seasoned with porcini and mozzarella and Romano cheeses and garnished with chestnut honey.

Meanwhile, at Nisen Sushi in Woodbury, N.Y., Sushi Chef Osan Weng brushes seared filet mignon with a sauce of dark chocolate, cocoa powder, white soy sauce, sake and brown sugar before adding it into a maki roll with grilled asparagus.

Success hinges on careful seasoning. "You can do sweet and sour or you can do sweet and salty," asserts McClure. "As long as everything is balanced and the flavors go together, it should be pretty tasty."

Hitting That Sweet Spot

Dan Admire, vice president of culinary for Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's, believes that the use of sweet and savory flavors in a dish staves off monotony. The chain's top-selling Asian Tuna Salad features seared tuna with napa cabbage, dried bananas, cilantro and cashews tossed with a vinaigrette of rice-wine vinegar, banana purée and ginger juice.

"As you eat your way through an entrée salad, some of the flavors become stronger than others," Admire says. "If it's just one level of flavor and you have a large salad to eat, you're going to lose interest."

Chutneys, fruit juices and baking spices give savory dishes varied levels of sweetness. Says Carmen Gonzalez, executive chef of Lucy of Gramercy in New York City, "You can have a little bit of sweetness on the plate and it will do the trick."

"In Puerto Rico, when you eat anything that has rice, you always eat it with tostones [smashed, fried green plantain medallions] or fried ripe plantains," Gonzalez says. "Instead of doing the fried ripe plantains, I do chutney."

Dried or fresh fruit or fruit juices also can add sweetness to a variety of dishes. Mary Pagan, owner and executive chef of the Culinary Center of Monterey in Monterey, Calif., has students make a dried-strawberries-and-chipotle chutney to accompany roasted pork shoulder. At Bahama Breeze, a compound butter with passion fruit, sugar and salt is used in roasting cocktail-cut blue crab claws for Crab Claw St. Thomas.

Baking spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove give dishes a hint of sweetness when balanced with salt, an acidic component, and piquancy.

Cuba Libre's Camarones Calypso appetizer hits several sweet, salty and piquant notes. Shrimp, before they are fried, get a dusting of cornmeal spiced with cinnamon, clove, allspice and habanero chile powder.

Greens, meanwhile, are dressed with a vinaigrette made of panela (a solid block of sugarcane used in Latin America), soy sauce, lime juice and black pepper. Pears poached in white wine, honey, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and habanero peppers finish the dish.

"The rock shrimp are small and crunchy like popcorn; the pear has the acidity of the wine," Pernot says. "You have a sweet pear and you have a sweet vinaigrette, but they have different kinds of sweetness."

Yet care is important when composing sweet and savory dishes. "Sweetness is a very pleasant sensation on the palate," says Crossland, "but too much of a good thing isn't necessarily a great thing."

Beyond salted caramel

More often, pastry chefs are borrowing spices and seasonings from savory pantries. Ramon Perez, Los Angeles-based Food Art Group's executive pastry chef, goes further.

On the tasting menu at Sona, also in Los Angeles, he has served squid-in, black-olive and cilantro ice creams and garnished plates with beet leather and crystallized onion.

"When you're eating [a sweet and savory] dessert, it hits you at the back of your mouth," Perez says, adding, "I love playing with the palate." He concedes that some of the desserts on the tasting menu aren't for everyone. "For the a la carte menu, I try to keep it simple," he says.

For a slightly tamer tasting-menu course, Perez soaks tangerine segments in a spiced honey syrup for sweetness. To add contrast, he makes a pink-peppercorn vinaigrette seasoned with salt and balsamic vinegar and serves the segments with tangerine foam and fennel ice cream.

Gustavo Tzoc, executive pastry chef at davidburke & donatella in New York City, acknowledges the challenges of selling unusual desserts. "We did a Granny Smith apple confit with a salty smoked vanilla ice cream," he says. "Some people loved it, but others said it wasn't their thing."

Instead, he has hit a home run with a salted caramel mousse with crunchy peanuts and coconut sorbet. "It's very unexpected but [customers] love it."

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Dried-Strawberry Chipotle Chutney Executive Chef-Owner Mary Pagan
Culinary Center of Monterey, Monterey, Calif.
Yield: 6 servings

Pork shoulder (4-6lb) - 1
Kosher salt - as needed
Black pepper - as needed
Yellow onion, small dice - ½
Port - ½ cup
Balsamic vinegar - 1 Tbsp
Chipotle pepper, chopped fine -1
Dried strawberries - 6oz

  1. Season pork generously with salt and pepper. Roast at 350°F for 2-3 hours.
  2. Meanwhile, in small saucepan, combine onion and port. Reduce port until almost dry.
  3. Add chipotle and strawberries; cook over low heat for 20 minutes.
  4. Carve pork; serve with chutney on the side.
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