2012 Ideas, Ingredients & Philosophies

Ok, so I’m a little behind the New Year, but these things are always evolving… Now that holiday excess and New Year’s resolutions have… well, resolved themselves, most of us have settled back into our usual patterns of eating. Looking around, I’ve noticed certain food-related trends— Some of them are broad and well-established, others just starting to gain ground. All of them deserve a little consideration, for they are coloring our views and impacting our choices. Here are 10 of-the-moment ideas, ingredients, and philosophies that definitely provide food for thought.

1. Small-batch, Artisan, Local– This is more a movement (evolution? revolution?) than a trend. We’re obsessed with thoughtful, intentional, conscientious food– the more carefully, caringly produced, the better. This new ideal has begun to change the way we eat (and shop!). This, in turn, is having an effect on the billion dollar food industry: Bigger is not necessarily better—Good news for cheese, heirloom vegetables, charcuterie, marshmallows, chocolate, coffee, spirits and beer, to name a few.
2. D-I-Y- What happens if you carry the idea of small-batch, local food a few steps further? An burst of interest in D-I-Y foods. Evident for a while (think brewing, canning), this trend has exploded in the last twelve months or so, with books and kits for everything from curing your own bacon, to making your own Mozzarella, to growing (and drying) your own mushrooms. I’ve tried a few such projects myself. While I cannot unequivocally profess that D-I-Y always results in better food, I can adamantly state that a few such undertakings will help you appreciate all those small-batch and artisan entrepreneurs who put time and energy into crafting something wonderful (so that you don’t have to!). Still, the D-Y-I trend is present and growing. And it is causing people to venture out and try new foods, reason alone to encourage more of it.
3. Organic – This trend, too, relates to the emergent concept of mindful, intentional food. Gone are the carefree days when we assumed that all corn, strawberries, beef… were created equal. We are increasingly aware that even if we cannot taste a difference (though sometimes we can), the environmental and global effects of conventionally raised food are troubling. Many of us have additional concerns about the health impact of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals prevalent in large-scale farming. Statistics don’t lie. Even in this economy, Organic is growing. 😉
4. Lower-alcohol wines– I heard an NPR piece on the ascendency of Muscat wine, and it got me thinking. Lately, I’ve noticed people discussing the virtues of lower alcohol wine. No one is saying, I’m drinking this wine because I don’t want to get crocked. Rather, the idea seems to be more that lower alcohol wines are refreshing, appealing, and easier to drink with a wider variety of food. And yes, you can drink more at one sitting. It is not that the big, New World juice bombs are out of style, it is just that we seem to want sleeker, less temperamental options for those times when wine is an accompaniment, not center stage. Look for more Old World wines, especially whites, as the weather turns warmer and more people discover their allure.
5. Greens, esp. All Things Kale There seems to be resurgence of interest in greens. One sees them featured in restaurant menus, published recipes, even in smoothies (!). Greens are at the convergence point of several trends: They are a perennial favorite of organic farmers, grown locally in many places, and prominent in various traditional cuisines. They are also undeniably healthy. Look for greens to move beyond traditional preparations (braising, stir-fry’s, soups) and into more innovative dishes, like the coleslaws, croquettes and the kale “chips” we have started to see.
6. Comfort Food– Yesteryear’s Slow Food Movement seems to have evolved into something broader. Our collective trepidations (the economy, chronic disease, food safety) seem to have turned our attention backward, to dishes that nourish body and soul. Unlike the comfort food of the 1950’s, which is clearly around, just not dominant, the comfort food that is gaining momentum is steeped in tradition. It is often peasant food or food of scarcity, of turning vegetables and (sometimes just a little) meat into something savory and satisfying. We are rediscovering how to eat real food, and coming with that is a new appreciation for the traditional, reassuring foods that are lodged in our collective memory. Look for us to broaden the cuisines we pull from, so that our definition of comfort food comes to include more foods born of other cultural traditions.
7. More Veggies, Less Meat– You can see this trend at every turn– cookbooks, magazine articles, even at high-end restaurants. Meat is starting to take a backseat. Maybe it is a concern over the environmental inefficiency of raising meat, or an objection to factory farming, or even a growing awareness of diet’s impact on health, but vegetables are taking center stage again, or at least dominating many of the acts. Financial concerns could also be playing a role in our food choices, but Meatless Monday is giving a way to meatless entrees 2-3 times a week, at least in some homes. And as this practice becomes habitual, look for synergetic effect: More meatless options at restaurants and for special occasions, more acceptance of eating meatless at home.
8. Whole Foods– Lynne Rosetto Kasper of APM’s The Splendid Table uses the phrase, “eating close to the ground.” She seems to mean food that is less expensive, lower down the food chain. I love the phrase, but for me, “eating close to the ground” means eating food in its simplest, most natural form. I hesitated to include “whole foods” as its own trend. Yet, it is hard to have a discussion these days about food or the philosophy of good eating without running into the phrase. For many, it is the cornerstone of how to eat. And it seems the more thought someone gives to eating, the more likely s/he is to embrace the idea that minimally processed food is often the best food. Look for the trend to continue, as our society becomes more educated and more people come to understand the undeniable connection between the quality of our food and health.
9. Honey– It seems strange to include a food that has been valued for thousands of years on a list of “current” trends, but after decades of taking a back seat to sugar, honey is making a comeback. Long valued for certain “traditional” uses (warm milk, tea, cornbread), the proliferation of artisanal and specialty honeys on the market seems has inspired a new appreciation for the gooey, sticky substance. I see it more on the coasts, at this point, where honey drizzled over cheese plates or featured in artisanal yogurt is quite common. Look for this trend to move inland and for honey to inspire even greater reverence, especially if bees continue to decline. Honey cakes, anyone?
10. And lastly, Eggs– Now that we all understand the role eggs don’t play in most people’s cholesterol levels, we are increasingly turning to eggs for quick, healthy, satisfying meals. Even organic and pasture-raised eggs are a relative bargain, and the possibilities are almost endless—We’re rediscovering frittatas, tortillas and tians, making bread puddings, baking soufflés, and layering fried eggs on top of vegetable skillets and Asian-inspired rice dishes. Nothing seems to make a meal come together faster. These preparations are adaptable, so eggs are a delicious and economic option for using up odds and ends. People also love eggs every meal of the day. Any food this versatile is here for the duration. Watch for eggs to become even more prevalent at dinner, especially as meatless and whole-food-eating gain further ground.

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