Menu Innovations | October 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Creating New Menu Classics

Sauce and spice flourishes give a new spin to comfort foods.

It’s the type of food that makes us think of home, mom’s cooking, and simpler times. To many, the tastes and smells evoke warmth, good memories, and inner peace.

In short, comfort.

Every nation and culture seems to have its own version of comfort food, from Mexican enchiladas to Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and eggs to French coq au vin.

In the U.S., however, we think more along the lines of meatloaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate brownies.

The term comfort food entered the vernacular in the 1970s, and gained traction again over the past decade in the wake of disconcerting times—economic, political, and global.

“After 9/11, restaurants took quite a hit,” says Ray Camillo, the vice president of Washington, D.C.–based restaurant consulting firm Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group. “People were unsettled, unsure.”

Many Americans retreated into cocooning, which included comforting home-cooked meals, grocer-prepared items, or home-meal replacements. This lifestyle reoccurred after the severe recession struck in 2008.

The number of take-away and microwavable items skyrocketed as daily home cooking from scratch continued to decline. But consumers also had become more quality and value conscious, and eventually discovered comfort foods at restaurants.

“People found they could eat out for less than eating at home,” Camillo says. “When you figure in the cost of food, the time to prepare the food and find the ingredients in the grocery store, you can get fresh-cooked, comforting meals at many restaurants for less.”

Not surprisingly, all types of limited-service restaurants have developed flavors and twists on comfort food that are hard to duplicate at home.

“This has been a really interesting trend,” says Dawn Voss, chief administrative officer at Noodles & Co., based in Broomfield, Colorado. The company, which has more than 250 units in 18 states, has been looking to build on the trend, Voss says.

The chain is known for its international menu that focuses on comfort-type food. This includes its American-style mac and cheese, stroganoff, and spaghetti and meatballs, and also dishes such as Asian Pad Thai and Mediterranean wine-tinged pasta.

“Comfort food ties very closely to the economy,” Voss says. “We saw that when we entered the recession, and that economic uncertainty continues. With all that is going on in what seems like a chaotic world, we’re looking for that moment of peace.”

Since the company’s inception, Noodles & Co. has looked at “taking your mom’s cooking up a notch,” with spices, sauces, and other ingredients, she says.

That continues with new and limited-time items, including three new macaroni and cheese entrées introduced this year. The full-time addition is bacon mac and cheese, while the LTOs were truffle mac with baby portabellas and Southwestern chili mac.

The bacon mac and cheese is a deconstructed version of what some view as a newer American comfort food, the bacon cheeseburger. The dish mixes crumbled roasted meatballs, bacon, tomatoes, and onions with the mac and cheese, and it is topped with cheddar Jack.

“This is comfort food, doubled,” Voss says.

Meanwhile, the limited-time truffle mac mixes macaroni with Noodles’ cheese sauce and white truffle oil and sautéed baby portabella mushrooms. The other LTO took mac and cheese and spiked it with red chili and added crumbled meatballs and diced green onions.

The prices range from $6.95 to $7.95.

Mac and cheese and another comfort favorite, grilled cheese sandwiches, have been given new life in food trucks across the country.

At the Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles, the Cheesy Mac and Rib Melt has Southern-style mac and cheese with sharp cheese, slow-cooked pork barbecue, and caramelized onions on fried French bread for $7.50.

“I worked on the recipe for years,” says truck owner and operator Dave Danhi.

The truck also has a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches, ranging from $3 for a simple American Cheese sandwich to $7.75 for the Brie Melt, which includes Brie, homemade fig paste, almonds, and smoked turkey or bacon on black peppercorn potato bread.

Across the country, in Miami, restaurant veteran Brian Mullins makes grilled cheese hip with his truck, Ms. Cheezious, which is adorned with a cartoon bikini-clad blonde.

“Right from the start, we wanted to do grilled cheese,” he says. “It’s the ultimate comfort food. Whatever mood you’re in, grilled cheese doesn’t hurt.”

Mullins searched for great grilled cheese recipes and used a “guinea-pig group of 20 friends” to narrow the number of signature sandwiches to a half dozen. The ingredients for those sandwiches are also available for build-your-own versions.

Prices range from $4 for a plain cheese sandwich to $8 for several of the specialty sandwiches, including one with goat cheese, prosciutto, tomato, and arugula on marble rye bread and another with sharp cheddar cheese and crab salad on sourdough bread.

The Sweet Meldown sandwich has ricotta cheese and orange marmalade blend on Texas toast and a chocolate dipping sauce.

For those who really want the comfort-food experience, there’s tomato soup.

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.