Comfort Food for Troubled Times

Wellness may be on consumers’ minds, but comfort foods are the reward, especially now.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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In Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin and yang is used to describe how seemingly opposing forces are bound together, intertwined, and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn.

So it is with food trends. As consumers buy more wellness foods to improve their health, they crave foods they consider a reward for their good and responsible behavior.

These options tend to be comfort foods, or those homemade (or semi-homemade) dishes taking one back to one’s youth and roots – what mom served that made us happy. They are warm and welcoming foods we remember eating fondly as our families sat at the dinner table together to discuss the day’s happenings, sans cell phones and over-scheduled children’s activities. 

Favorite comfort foods vary from person to person. Your favorite may be homemade meat loaf with mashed potatoes; casseroles; a hamburger with fries; mac and cheese; fried chicken; pot roast; barbecue; clam chowder or lasagna. 

Mintel’s Global Flavor Forecasts for 2009
  • Persimmon -- Viewed as a unique and exotic fruit, persimmon is poised to make a major splash in food and beverages. Mintel expects companies to blend it with more common fruits, as seen in a new Japanese yogurt that contains white peaches, persimmon and apricots.
  • Starfruit -- Another unusually shaped, distinctly flavored fruit, it is catching on around the globe. Already seen in Flor De Hibiscus’ Chutney with Star Fruit (Brazil), the exotic fruit will become a major global player in 2009.
  • Lavender -- Mintel expects lavender to move into food and beverage next year. Already in products such as Lindt Chocolat Provence’s Lemon-Lavender Dream chocolate (Germany), lavender can be paired with more familiar ingredients to bring a naturally soothing, aromatic quality to food and drink.

But in this nation of rapidly changing demographics, favorite comfort foods might be an Indian curry, Mexican quesadillas, Japanese yakitori (bite-sized pieces of chicken meat, or chicken skewered on a bamboo skewer and barbecued, usually over charcoal) or Korean kimchi, a fermented dish made of vegetables with spicy seasonings. 

Our choice of favorite comfort food also varies according to our age and sex, according to a study at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. Young adults tend to favor ice cream and cookies when they reach for comfort food, while 35-54 year old adults chose soup, pizza and pasta as their comfort food favorites. The 55-plus age group named soup and mashed potatoes as top choices.

Top comfort foods chosen by men as a group include ice cream, soup, pizza and pasta, whereas women selected sweeter items, with ice cream, chocolate and cookies topping their list of preferred comfort foods.

Whatever comfort foods float your boat, the desire for them becomes more important in tough economic times. That’s because they take us away for a while from our problems and stresses and remind us of happier, more secure times in our lives.

“Our studies suggest that comfort food applies the brakes on a key element of chronic stress,” says co-author Norman Pecoraro, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of senior author Mary Dallman, a University of California-San Francisco professor of physiology, who released the results of a groundbreaking study on chronic stress in 2003. And it could explain why solace is often sought in such foods by people with stress, anxiety or depression.

Comfort food with a twist

There’s no doubt macaroni and cheese, the venerable comfort food, is enjoying a redux at home and in foodservice venues. It has become a tabula rasa, or blank slate for unusual interpretations for innovative chefs all over the country, bolstered by the use of outstanding artisan cheeses and pungent flavoring like truffles and rosemary, reports Metro Magazine.

 A food and beverage survey of hotel chefs by Hotel Interactive Inc. (www.hotelinteractive.com/)  found comfort food with a twist is an important trend to watch in 2009, according to Associate Editor Lisa Rogak. “As consumer confidence continues to flag at least through the middle of next year, diners will search out familiar and comforting dining experiences.”

Executive Chef John Cox at El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa in Taos, N.M. (www.elmontesagrado.com), explains: “Expect classic dishes like tomato caprese, Caesar salad, a simple steak presentation with vegetables and mashed potatoes, and shrimp cocktail and other familiar classics to be popular, though with a sophisticated yet subtle touch from the chef.” 

Mintel’s Global Flavor Forecasts for 2009 (cont.)
  • Chimichurri -- Another classic from Latin America, chimichurri is a sauce for grilled meats, recognized for its clean, clear flavor. It has already begun to win fans in the U.S, and is in new products like Gaucho Ranch’s Original Argentinean Chimichurri Steak Sauce.
  • Peri-Peri -- Manufacturers are always seeking the next new source of heat when it comes to food flavors. Enter peri-peri, an African hot sauce already made popular by Nando’s restaurants in the UK.
  • Masala -- An extension of the curry trend from several years ago, next year’s Indian-inspired flavor will be masala. Frito-Lay has launched India’s Magic Masala Crisps, but Mintel expects the flavor to become popular globally next year.
  • Cactus -- A popular food flavor in Latin America, it is in products like Nopalia Cactus Toasts (Mexico) which contain both cactus and corn. Next year, look for manufacturers to incorporate this regional taste into new food products around the world.
  • That extra touch might include the addition of an exotic salt and basil espuma – Spanish for foam – to the caprese salad or freshly grated horseradish for the shrimp cocktail.

    More dishes created with a sweet/savory combination will be on the menu, according to Lawrence McFadden, hotel manager and food and beverage director at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla. (www.ritzcarlton.com) “Sweet spices are being introduced more into savory dishes while savory spices are being added to sweet dishes such as desserts,” he says.

    And chefs will start to rely on cheaper cuts of meat, such as short ribs, which require different cooking techniques (braising). Chef Rocky Rocha of the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Neb.(www.magnoliahotelomaha.com), believes that flat iron and hanger steaks will continue their popularity because of their relatively low cost. “It cuts like a filet but tastes like a New York strip,” he says.

    More with less

    Aramark notes its chefs serving convention center clients nationwide are developing dishes with more strategically placed expensive and exotic ingredients nationwide due to rising costs.

    Culinarians will be looking at ways to give the gourmet treatment to otherwise ordinary menu items. For example, roast chicken breast with prunes, kalamata olives and lemon roasted garlic jus; and sautéed chicken medallions with caramelized pears, fig dates and gorgonzola with Frangelico syrup are two ways Palm Beach County Convention Center (www.palmbeachfl.com/ConventionCenter/) Executive Chef Michael Russell’s staff is reinventing chicken.

    Looking ahead to 2009, Mintel forecasts manufacturers will reach for exotic fruits and fresh, soothing flavors with a touch of spice to jazz up their new products. “Today’s manufacturer is constantly looking for those tastes and aromas that stand out and capture shoppers’ imaginations,” says Lynn Dornblaser, Mintel’s leading new product expert. “By adding exotic fruits and unusual ingredients to everyday products, companies give people the opportunity to experiment and move out of their comfort zones without breaking the bank.”

    An aroma, a visual clue that brings up a happy remembrance of things past or a taste of a food that transports us to a safe and comfortable place where good memories abound is what comfort foods are all about.

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