Menu Innovations | October 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Creating New Menu Classics

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Another food truck that opted for the comfort-food route is Hewtin's Dogs Mobile in Providence, Rhode Island. The name of the truck comes from the second syllable of the first names of owners Matthew and Kristin Gennuso.

The couple owns a full-service French restaurant, Chez Pascal, also known for its homemade cured meats and sausages.

“The way we make sausages leaves out the [pork] shoulder, which is leaner,” Matthew Gennuso says. “This is best for grinding,” and so it became the main ingredient, along with onion, eggs, breadcrumbs, and herbs, for the truck’s popular meatloaf sandwich. The meatloaf is wrapped with bacon and cooked. It’s browned on the truck’s griddle and placed on a roll with coleslaw and a spicy fresh compote made with strawberry, peach, tomato, or fig, depending on the season. It sells for $8.

“It’s become one of our most popular items” on a menu that includes hot dogs, smoked pulled pork, and an egg, ham, and spicy bacon jelly sandwich, Gennuso says.

Even traditional barbecue places are looking to put their own mark on traditional regional dishes. Shane’s Rib Shack added a Shack Salad to its mix, using meats such as chopped pork and chicken barbecue on greens and other veggies.

The salads, priced from $6.50 to $7, “combine our traditional menu with the healthier requirements of many of our customers,” says founder and president Shane Thompson.

While changes can be made to comfort food, “you have to make sure you don’t get too far off the tradition,” Thompson says. “Tradition and comfort go together.”

Creating new ideas for old comfort foods is often a matter of giving them a “pedigree,” says restaurant consultant Phyllis Ann Marshall, who operates FoodPower in Costa Mesa, California. In short, you give them something special.

“In almost every case, as a chef, you can stack it or top it or stuff it or garnish it or name it,” she says. “It’s something I can do today.”

That works on dishes from mac and cheese to meatloaf by adding various ingredients or toppings, putting the food in some type of carrier, or gussying it up with a special fixin’. Operators also can give the dish a special name or market its specialty ingredients.

McDonald’s use of Newman’s salad dressing and Chipotle’s build-your-own burrito are both prime examples of giving food a
pedigree.

For chefs, spices and sauces have always been a way to provide a twist to any type of menu, including those with comfort food.

“The use of sauces has mushroomed, especially on simpler foods,” says Bob Kaminski, director of the Consumer Products Lab at Wixon, the Wisconsin-based company that provides food and beverage ingredients and solutions.

“We’re seeing the sauces in combination with vegetables, as toppings, or inside the dishes,” he says. Notable are sautéed mushrooms and various colors of bell peppers.

“They’re attractive, and they add a little something different” to various menu items, he says, including meatloaf and its cousin, the hamburger.

Another popular trend is adding fruit flavors. “We’re seeing a lot of requests for fruit savory marinades that can be injected into full-muscle meats,” Kaminski says.

The combination of savory and sweet can also be found in a growing number of rubs and seasonings, providing the tastes of a region, country, or style.

“You can use a chipotle cinnamon seasoning that goes well in pot pie or fried chicken,” says Kevan Vetter, executive chef for the McCormick for Chefs line at McCormick. “Or you can have a cracked pepper garlic if you don’t want to go too far out of the box.”

At the same time, restaurants continue to experiment with dipping sauces, “which give customers a chance to create their own flavor profile” for various menu items, he says.

One comfort food where spices, sauces, and cooking styles have made a big difference is fried chicken. Hundreds of limited-service restaurants serve fried chicken—in pieces, as tenders, formed into nuggets, or in a sandwich or wrap.

Oils and spices differ greatly. Popeyes uses Cajun spices for its fried chicken, while Bojangles’ has its own distinctive blend of spices. And, of course, the granddaddy of quick-service fried chicken, KFC, continues to use its secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Despite equipment advances and the addition of other preparation methods, the fundamentals of KFC chicken haven’t changed since the original recipe for chicken fried under pressure was perfected by Harland Sanders in 1940.

The chain has 17,000 locations in 110 countries worldwide, including 5,000 in the U.S., and the original recipe chicken is the same “whether you’re in Bakersfield or Beijing,” says spokesman Rick Maynard.

Another type of chicken, rotisserie, is at the heart of the menu at Boston Market, which has made an art of adding twists to traditional comfort food.

Not only is this style of slow cooking in vogue, but diners have a choice of three sauces—barbecue, sweet Thai chili garlic, or honey habanero—all developed in the Boston Market kitchen and then manufactured for its 476 stores in 28 states.

“It’s an example of taking a comfort food and bumping it up,” says Louis Riccatone, the chain’s manager of culinary insight. “We try to emulate the cooking of mom at home when she wasn’t so busy, but we give it our own twist with high-quality ingredients.”

The meatloaf stands out because of a hickory ketchup glaze added in the last 15 minutes of cooking. The loaded mashed potatoes are made with real cream and butter, but also have cheddar cheese, bacon, sour cream, and chives. And the macaroni and cheese has American and cheddar cheese, plus upscale blue cheese.

Other comfort-food dishes include oven-roasted, glazed turkey and chicken pot pie, as well as desserts such as brownies with semi-sweet chocolate morsels and apple pie made with Granny Smith apples and Korintje cinnamon.

“It’s all comforting, but just a little different,” Riccatone says.