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March 29, 2017

There's a Hot New Ingredient in Town

By Piet E. Jones

Nope, it’s not some rare plant with an odd sounding name that’s only available on alternate full moons. Nor is it some high end heritage meat with a genetic line that exists only on some remFried-egg-burger2ote mountain farm. The hot new ingredient is actually one of the oldest ingredients of all - the egg. Now, it’s not an unusual egg that’s hot. Quail, goose, duck, even ostrich eggs can be found on menus all over but that’s not what the buzz is about. No, it’s your garden variety chicken egg that’s showing up on the hottest dishes in town.

Think About It

Heavy sauces aren’t really in vogue anymore. People want to taste their food. Simple is in. And what is more simple yet tastefully alluring than an egg? Of course, you do need the right preparation for the right dish to really make that egg sing. Scrambled eggs would be kind of silly on top of a burger. But put a fried one on top, so the creamy yolk oozes out over the juicy burger and you suddenly have a winner.

That mixed green salad with lovely sliced radishes and crisp cucumber? Try dressing it with a perfect egg. What is a perfect egg, you ask? Well, set water to a boil and then let it go back down to a low simmer. Add your egg and let it steep for five minutes. Move immediately to an ice bath to stop the cooking process and make it easier to peel. What you have is an egg where the white is firm but still slightly soft and a yolk of creamy, runny perfection. Serve it plain on the salad or roll it lightly in salt and pepper, or other spices and herbs of your choice. No need for dressing, maybe a squirt of citrus or flavored olive oil, when they slice into the egg it will run beautifully onto the greens taking some of the spices with it. Perfection.

There’s No Need to Limit Your Perfect Egg to Salads

That heritage pork chop that you serve with the fat perfectly crisped? Top it with a perfect egg. The small batch stone ground grits that are the platform for the massive shrimp? Top it with a perfect egg. Any number of dishes could benefit from the richness of a creamy yolk oozing out onto it. Sure, you could achieve a similar result with a poached egg but the improved visuals and mouthfeel of the perfect egg really can’t be beat.

Ramen and Asian style noodle dishes are showing up in all manner of restaurant, not just Asian ones. Besides the broth and noodles, often painstakingly made in-house, the star of the dish is often the egg. A perfect egg would go wonderfully on top of the slow braised broth and hand pulled noodles but you could also go another route. Instead of a 5 minute egg, how about a 4 hour one? Initially, the thought of such an egg conjures memories of grey yolks and a lingering sulfur smell. Not so if done correctly. If you’re making your own broth you already have a slowly simmering pot filled with all manner of goodness. Toss a few eggs in. After an hour remove them and slightly crack them, rolling them lightly to crack uniformly around the egg. Then put them back in the braising dish. Under the low heat, the eggs will slowly absorb some of the flavors of the broth (the low heat will also avoid the discoloration and noxious odor). Before serving remove the shell, you should have a gorgeous broken glass pattern all around the egg. You could even mix it up a bit, instead of steeping the eggs in your broth, do it in green or black tea to add a new element of flavor to your noodle dish.

Get Creative

Another creative angle being used is to sous vide the eggs. The precise temperature control really allows chefs to run the gamut from soft to extra firm with precision. A little olive oil in the bag, perhaps infused with herbs, or fine chopped cooked bacon or house made charcuterie can create tiny bites that are sure to please as either an appetizer or as part of a larger dish - almost like a dialed up deviled egg.

Regardless of which method or dish you choose, adding an egg is elegantly on trend, bringing a creaminess and feeling of homey comfort to most any plate. That is it relatively inexpensive and so easy to work with helps make it a winner ingredient behind the line. All around, perhaps the most perfect ingredient.

March 1, 2017

Pollock – America's Other White Fish

Gray pollock2

By Piet E. Jones

“Monday fish hardly worth elevating to Friday.” That was how James Beard award winning British food writer, Jane Grigson, dismissed pollock in her 1973 tome, Fish Cookery.  “Tasteless” and “muddy” were some of the other words she used to describe the poor, lamented pollock.

But that was many years ago, tastes change and what was once out is now hot.  Diners today don’t want strong, fishy seafood.  What Grigson called “tasteless,” today we describe as “delicate.”  The “muddy” color that offended her?  Our eyes see a beautiful ivory fillet.  Don’t forget, in colonial America indentured servants in New England demanded a clause in their contracts not to be fed too much lobster - a burden many of us today would gladly welcome.

 

A Blank Slate

The delicate flavor is actually the perfect blank slate for the creative chef.  Nearly any sauce pairs easily.  Plus, the firm flesh and low moisture content lends itself perfectly for breading or batters - holding up well even in deep fryers.

Pollock also has a few more things going for it. These days savvy diners, especially Millenials, don’t just indulge, they look for enjoyable foods that also give a little extra.  They want to know if seafood is sustainable, wild caught, and even good for you. In this case, 400-500 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids per three ounce serving.  This “good fat” is considered essential and experts believe it can help ward off age related diseases like Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. And yes, to your diners’ delight, Alaskan Pollock is both wild caught and sustainable.

 

The Alaska Angle

More and more diners also want to know where their food was sourced from. The Portlandia skit where they make light of the farm-to-table movement and the journey Colin the Chicken made to their plate may have been funny, but there is more than a grain of truth to it.  The Alaskan fisheries, where American Pollock comes from,  are some of the best managed in the world.  Strict quotas and regulatory oversight ensure that the fishery will be productive for generations to come, providing good jobs.

There is even more to that Alaskan angle. Marketing research indicates that adding “Alaskan” or “Wild Caught Alaskan” can significantly increase sales over a menu item simply described as “Pollock.”  Diners are also willing to pay a premium for dishes labeled “Alaskan” over those that aren’t, a huge benefit in times of tight margins.

 

Budget Friendly

Also, Pollock won’t destroy your budget.  It is increasingly difficult to maintain quality and portion size without changing your price points - a real challenge in the face of stiff competition at all levels of dining in the restaurant industry.  Relatively inexpensive compared to similar wild caught white fishes, pollock can help you control your food costs while maintaining quality.

Pollock has come a long way.  Once out of favor, changing palates and increased awareness of environmental and health benefits point to it being the next hot fish.  Maybe it’s time for you to consider adding it to your menu.

February 1, 2017

Make the Most of Valentine's Week

Make the Most of Valentine's Day
By Piet E. Jones

Valentine’s Day. One of the roughest days of the year for many a restaurant. Some call it “amateur night,” filled with high expectations of a quiet, romantic dinner that is at odds with the reality of barely controlled dining chaos. Look around, do you see any of your regulars? Probably not. Maybe they stopped in for a quick drink before it gets busy and then flee the scene. Most of the people you see are new faces. Some you may be able to capture as new regulars, others are out for a very rare dinner. That’s all great, take good care of these people, it’ll give you a nice bump in an otherwise slow month but there is still so much more potential you can get out of this day.

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January 27, 2017

2017 Food Trends: Part 4 African Menu Strategies

Lamb
By Piet E. Jones

So, you’ve decided to add a little African flair to your menu. Great! Now what? It might be the trending flavor at the moment, but if you don’t capitalize it properly, you may find it languishing and dying on your menu. What to do? Well, there are a few strategies to get those dishes out of your kitchen and onto the tables.

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January 20, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 3, Southern Shores

South africa
The South African national dish bobotie features ground beef and lamb browned with onions, garlic, curry, turmeric, chopped apricots, apples, raisins, and almonds along with the zest of a lemon and a beaten egg to hold it all together.


By Piet E. Jones

Wrapping up our look at African cuisine, we move south and to the islands off the eastern coast. The flavors get a little lighter but are no less unique and exciting.

South Africa

Fish is abundant in South Africa and one of the preferred methods for cooking fish is in banana or plantain leaves. Either a whole or filleted fish can work, score the skin if whole, salt generously, add lemon or sliced leeks or onions, maybe a splash of wine, then wrap tightly—no steam should be able to escape.  An oven can work, but to really exploit this method, low burning coals are the best. A little charring is okay, but don’t let the leaves burn. The result is an intensifying of the flavors without it becoming fishy, not to mention the wrapped fish looking stunning on the plate. 

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January 10, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 2, North Africa

Tagine_foodcentric
Lamb tagine with chickpeas, apricots and pomegranate seeds.

By Piet E. Jones


Our journey across African cuisine continues. Next we find ourselves north of the Sahara and along the upper eastern coast. Here the cuisine is a convergence of African with Middle Eastern and Asian influences. One spice, cardamom, is used across Africa but comes into play with heavy prominence here where its earthy flavor adds to the fragrant mix of the cooking. In the United States cardamom tends to be most frequently used in desserts, but maybe it’s time to take some of it up to the main line of your kitchen.

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January 3, 2017

2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 1

Foodcentric_jollof_rice
Jollof Rice with fried plantains

By Piet E. Jones

Every year, the prognosticators polish off their crystal balls and try to predict what the next hot trends in dining will be. Getting ahead of the next of the next big thing in dining can be great for keeping the buzz going about your restaurant—fine tuning your dishes to perfection so you’re the one people think of when the trend peaks and every local publication is churning out “best-of” listicles for where to get that dish. Sure, not every trend will work for your restaurant, but look at how ramen, a dish that popped huge a few years ago and is still winding its way towards peak saturation, has shown up on the unlikeliest of menus. The key is identifying the key trends early and finding what techniques and ingredients can complement your dining philosophy and excite your customers.

For 2017, one trend that has been identified by those with their ears to the ground is African cuisine.  Which leads many a chef to draw a complete and total blank.  First, that’s a bit like saying the trend is European cooking and, while that might be more familiar, is equally broad and undefined. Then there’s the reality that many chefs in America are simply unfamiliar with what might constitute African cooking.  A quick look across the vast continent, though, and you’ll find an array of techniques and rich, earthy flavors that can be easily incorporated into your existing menu.  It’s just a matter of narrowing your focus and finding the right region or country for your inspiration. Let’s start with Central Africa.

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December 20, 2016

Beef Wellington is Back

Beef_welly_foodcentricBy Piet E. Jones

Ah, those classic French dishes. Back in the day, they were the height of cuisine. Over time, however, changing tastes and an overabundance of kitchen shortcuts led to many of them to fall out of favor.  Duck à l’Orange, a beautiful dish when prepared in the right kitchen, became a cloyingly sticky sweet mess. Chicken Cordon Bleu, a wonderful convergence of haute cuisine and comfort food, devolved into an overly breaded sodium bomb that most have only sampled from the freezer aisle.

Dining these days, though, is a high-demand, ever-changing business and many chefs are looking to the past for inspiration. Old techniques and classic sauces are appearing on menus, often in new and novel combinations. One dish that is getting a new lease on life owes its revival to a TV reality show—Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen. Yep, Beef Wellington is back on people’s minds.  Bad pastry and a propensity to be overcooked all but killed it off in the 80’s, but in the right hands it can be a showstopper.

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December 16, 2016

Lehja Holiday Traditions

LehjaBy: Piet E. Jones, Photography by Brooke Marsh

We all know the scene, little Ralphie and his family from A Christmas Story eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant to most everyone involved’s amusement. There’s even a bit of a real life tradition of going out to Chinese restaurants for Christmas dinner. Some restaurants, though, have a little difficulty making their cuisine relevant to the American holiday season.

One person who doesn’t is Sunny Baweja, executive chef and co-owner of critically acclaimed Indian restaurant, Lehja, in Richmond, VA. “Indians celebrate every event and food drives you together,” says Sunny who embraces the concept fully.

Sure, there is no tradition of Thanksgiving in India, but the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated very close on the calendar and being a time to celebrate friends and cherish family, is an easy cultural translation. This year, as part of Richmond’s Fire, Flour and Fork food festival, Sunny hosted a Kiss My Indian Grits brunch leading up to Thanksgiving where he strives to “break habits” and show that Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be “static.” Traditionally Southern dishes, popular around the holidays, like biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits translate easily into Lamb Khari Bhaji (using lamb from a local farm) or Shrimp with Vegetable Umpa Cake - a semolina variation on grits.

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November 30, 2016

Yes, You Need a Coffee Program

By: Piet E. Jones

Coffee_foodcentricSo, your wine program is the talk of the town. Your craft cocktail program gets updated seasonally to raves and online buzz. Your coffee program…. Wait, what? You don’t have a coffee program? Why not?

People willingly drop big money on coffee. Plus coffee is an integral part of the closing part of any good meal service. It can even be a way to jump that check average up by ten or twenty bucks per person. Without coffee, they might not get that extravagant dessert or relaxing cordial to wrap things up. Or worse, they know someplace else to get that robust cup and either leave to spend that money elsewhere or never come in in the first place because they want a fuller dining experience.

The sad reality, too many restaurants treat coffee as an afterthought and the lack of planning to integrate coffee into what is otherwise a well-choreographed meal shows. Yes, you made the pasta yourself with imported, small batch flour that’s been extruded from a custom ordered, hand-made bronze die. The sausage was created in-house using a heritage pork breed. Everything is served on ceramic plates, made from locally sourced clay, thrown and glazed by two ladies living off the grid just outside of town. Your coffee, well, your coffee comes from the same machine and is served in the same Bunn carafes as the culinarily questionable greasy spoon down the street.

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