This is the inaugural installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.
As managing editor of Eatocracy, I'm lucky enough to get to travel and eat all over the country, both for work and because it's what I love to do. I've seen some trends (in addition to the ubiquitous charcuterie, pickles, aged cocktails, salted caramel desserts, and foraged tidbits) start popping up in restaurants from coast to coast, and in 2013, here are a few I'm hoping will catch on.
1. Lots and lots and lots of tater tots
And please don't get all schmartisanal with them. Frozen tots are fine; feel free to get inventive with the toppings. They're the perfect combo of salt and crunch and starch and they're starting to pop up on menus across the country. People love them for their nostalgic deliciousness, but some chefs are trying to get fancy and make them in-house with hand-shredded potatoes, heirloom or sweet spuds and whatnot. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Just have fun with great house-made sauces, toppings, herbs and flavorful oils. The Company Burger in New Orleans (tots pictured above) hand-makes a bunch of different flavored mayos, ketchup, mustard and other toppings every day, and they're insanely delicious. Restaurateurs - please consider hopping on the tot train.
2. Thoughtful non-alcoholic drink options that won't cause your server to roll their eyes at you when everyone else orders a cocktail
I generally want a cocktail with dinner, but sometimes I'm keeping it light, driving, or just don't care to imbibe that night. I don't want to just get a Diet Coke or drink water, so I love that I can get small-batch seltzers and tonics with fun flavorings like fruit, herbs and spices, mixed with fresh juices and garnished like a cocktail. Non-drinkers deserve deliciousness, too - and it's better for the restaurant's bottom line because they can charge a few bucks extra.
3. Southern dishes with actual ingredients from the South in them
Southern food is on the rise in cities outside the South, but not all chefs are being conscientious about using ingredients that are actually from the region. You (probably) wouldn't make a New England clam chowder without using seafood from the region, or gumbo without some groceries from New Orleans. Here's to sourcing grits, beans, field peas, rice, sweeteners and oil that are grown and produced in the South so the dish tastes like it's meant to.
4. Grain and vegetable-based entrees that aren't an afterthought
The idea of meatless entrees doesn't seem so strange to a lot of people these days as they try to cut down on their consumption (especially on Meatless Mondays) - and sad steamed vegetables on rice just aren't cutting it anymore. More and more restaurants are serving vegetarian entrees that don't just seem like an afterthought, and even high-end venues like Per Se, Canlis, Daniel (just to name a few) serve vegetable tasting menus using the bounty of the season as a chance to show off, rather than just reluctantly appease the vegetarian at the table.
5. A nutria in every pot!
Okay, maybe not that far, but definitely more invasive species and sustainable protein on restaurant plates. "Here in America, we've raised two generations of consumers to think that only luxury cut from the center of the animal is what we should eat," says Andrew Zimmern, the host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel. "And only from three or four animals."
Nutria, for example, is a giant water-born rodent – but many chefs compare the taste to that of a succulent rabbit. It's all about consumer perception. "You start to stretch our food imagination, we can take it in sorts of great directions," says Zimmern. Other chefs, such as New Haven, Connecticut's Bun Lai, are putting seafood like the predatory lionfish on their menu in an attempt to acclimate diners' palates to foods that make a minimal - or negative - impact on the environment.
Honorable mentions: barrel-aged hot sauces, house-made vinegars, a rash of radishes and Tokyo turnips by the bushel - but we'll talk about that when Spring rolls around.
Got someone you want to hear from? Let us know in the comments and we'll try to track them down. Shoutout to Sarah LeTrent who did the heavy lifting on our invasive species investigation.
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Maybe I missed this somewhere, but how did that canal rat get the name nutria? It sounds like something that would be on the shelf next to the cans of Ensure in the pharmacy section of the grocery store.
If I could get my hands on a nutria, I would eat it. Don't know how to cook it or serve it, though.
I've seen tater tots popping up here and there... but not as much as to seem overplayed (like Philo99 observed).
Actually, sweet potato tater tots sound like they could be good.
Tater Tots??? What is this 2010?
That is a trend that was overplayed 3 years ago. Here in Denver Table 6 has been serving a gourmet tator tot for 5 years. It's time to move on.
Same with Southern food. I'd have to take my shoes off (The Southern Method) to count the number of Southern themed restaurants I have seen open and close. I don't think the demand for fried everything topped with lard is as big as it used to be.
You are uneducated if you think all Southern food is fried and 'topped with lard'. Geez.
Barrel-aged hot sauces, sure, but lots of them are, including Tabasco, which is aged in old bourbon barrels.
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