From home cooking to fine dining, the world of food in 2007 is reaching for extremes, even as the personality cult of TV celebrity chefs finally begins to wane.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
A culinary trend expected to gain ground this year is molecular gastronomy, in which natural food chemicals are used to change the texture of food. Burning rosemary in a beaker creates smoke to infuse serrano ham-wrapped rabbit at Bigelow Grille, Downtown.
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More trends to watch for
The rise of Asian food. Beijing is the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. That's enough to spotlight the foods of Asia. Add the foodways of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. The star of the food stage will be Korea, as a cuisine, culture and commercial hub.
Combinations of salt with sweet. French-style, sea-salted caramels are the hottest candy in the box, thanks to high-profile candymakers such as Fran Bigelow of Fran's Chocolates in Seattle. Fran's soft chocolate-covered butter caramels are sprinkled with gray sea salt harvested off the Brittany Coast. The salty-sweet duo has gone mainstream and we're seeing all sorts of salty-sweet combinations. Think this is something new? Not at all. Check out classic candy bars such as PayDay and OHenry.
Want to try salted caramels? Go to Mon Aimee Chocolat, 2101 Penn Ave., in the Strip District. 412-395-0022.
Celebrity chefs are on the way out, however, only because the cult of TV "personalities" has begun to wax, according to Jane Goldman, editor in chief of the hip online food magazine Chow.
In 2007, Rachael Ray, who now has her own TV show -- rather than celebrity chef, cookbook author and restaurateur Mario Batali -- will be the face of food TV, said Ms. Goldman.
"We're casting not for talent or skill, but we're casting the way we cast news anchors," she said. "We're casting for looks and personality, and probably for 'brandability,' that television quotient. I think it's very hard to learn from most TV cooking shows now -- it's just entertainment."
Many high-end restaurants, in their never-ending quest to keep diners' attention, are also focusing increasingly on entertainment. But we're not talking dinner theater: Right now, it's the food that amuses, after preparation and presentation that more closely resembles science than cooking.
In molecular gastronomy, a trend that began in Spain and has become popular at some restaurants in New York, Chicago -- and in Pittsburgh, at Bigelow Grille, where chef Kevin Sousa serves a tasting menu -- ingredients are treated with natural food chemicals such as seaweed extract and other substances that transform their texture and shape. Lobster tail might have the texture of filet mignon. Blue cheese is spun like cotton candy. Rosemary smoke from a glass beaker infuses morsels of serrano ham-wrapped rabbit.
But while food in some restaurants is becoming increasingly specialized -- some might say obscure -- home cooks are again embracing traditional, back-to-basics American dishes, but with a twist. Think macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate layer cake, but updated to be healthier -- say, using lower-fat meat and whole grains -- and more exotically spiced.Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
If prognosticators are correct, we'll be seeing more of food entertainers, such as Rachael Ray, shown here at a book signing in June in Monroeville.
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And as one of the ultimate expressions of home cooking, home baking is likely to continue its surge in popularity in 2007, according to Ms. Goldman.
As with the glorification of domesticity that happened during the frightening years of the early Cold War, since Sept. 11 Americans have again enshrined hearth and home as a refuge from a complex, threatening world, Ms. Goldman said.
"The more the world looks like it's going to blow up, the more people want comfort," she said.
Home cooks are concerned about stretching their food dollars, and they're thinking more about food safety, too.
They can find much to like in slow-cooked alternative cuts of "lesser" and so-called variety meats. These inexpensive meats are woefully underused, despite their being flavorful, versatile and easy on the purse.
Credit certain chefs -- Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali among them -- for popularizing these cuts as part of a philosophy of "nose-to-tail eating" that seeks to cut down on waste. They are the soul of hearty, homey dishes, full of flavor from long, slow cooking surrounded by vegetables and perhaps wine.
Batali says, "We use many 'alternative cuts' and variety meats because we respect the tradition of the Italian farm table, where nothing goes to waste. Great recipes are born out of necessity and economics."
These are the braises and roasts that cook at low heat for hours, filling the kitchen with tantalizing aromas. Cooking leisurely in the oven or on the back burner, they don't require much active work. That means no 15- or 30-minute deadlines. They are excellent for family meals and, because they benefit from reheating, good for entertaining.
These dishes are similar to those found in a French bistro or Nonna's kitchen. Think stuffed veal breast, veal or lamb shanks, lamb riblets, oxtail and cheeks, one of the tenderest and most flavorful parts of a four-legged animal.
Many people explore further, happily enjoying variety meats (also called innards or offal), such as sweetbreads, tripe, kidney and headcheese, but often they don't talk about it because the uninitiated usually respond with "Eeuuww."
Exceptions to the slow-cooking variety meats are beef, calf and chicken livers, which are delicious when quickly cooked and served medium rare.
To try these cuts at home, make friends with a good butcher. Supermarkets will not stock them until or unless there is a demand.
For recipes, go to these cookbooks: "The Babbo Cookbook," by Mario Batali (Clarkson-Potter) and "The Cooking of Italy," (Time-Life Foods of the World, 1968).
In 2007, home cooks will also show increased interest in buying fresh food, locally grown or produced by people they know.
This is the positive fallout of the two big outbreaks of E.coli that infected spinach and produce from Taco Bell last year. Unfortunately, people are always going to get food poisoning, and the idea that every meal can be risk-free, germ-free and sterile is a fantasy. But our food can be much safer than it is right now.
Consumers sense that, and they are thinking hard about their food supply. Foods not grown on a mass scale or not having traveled very far are not guaranteed to be uncontaminated, but the odds are good that they are safer. And it makes sense to know where our food comes from, because if we know the producer or farmer, we know where to point the finger if necessary.
Bottom line, we want to know our sellers and producers. We want to eat fresh food, locally grown. And from that, more of us will show up at the farmers' markets in our neighborhoods. At home, we'll spend more time in the kitchen, cooking more dishes from scratch.
We're not the only ones citing this trend.
The New York Times recently quoted nutrition professor and author Marion Nestle, who said, "In a world in which people feel more and more distant from the forces that control their lives, they can do something by, as the British put it, 'voting with your trolley,' their word for shopping cart."
Joan Gussow, an author and gardener from upstate New York says, "My view is that long-distance food is scary. I want to know where my food comes from."
"You are what you eat is more than a catch phrase," says Ira Matathia, a marketing consultant and trendspotter in New York. "Organic food is moving into the mainstream, thanks in part to WalMart, and aware consumers are turning their attention to local sourcing. Buying products locally is increasingly seen as one of the best ways to ensure that one's food is truly made or fresh-picked not long before consumption."
To know more, read "Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan. This best seller takes a critical look at industrial agriculture.