The definition of what Americans call “comfort food” has, over the years, expanded to such an extent that Italian, Mexican and some Asian foods are now considered mainstream cuisine. But during the last decade or so, “global cuisine” has caught on to the point where the mainstream palate now not only seeks diversity on the menu, but expects dishes to be authentically seasoned and prepared.
Francesco Esposito, CHE, concept development chef for Aramark, puts it this way: “American consumers are looking for true ethnic flavors.”
Keeping that in mind, along with the needs of his company’s business dining, healthcare and campus dining customers, Esposito has developed two new concepts—one Mexican, the other Asian—both slated to roll out this month and then menued throughout the summer. “A Mexican torta sandwich, to be featured off the grill station, is really Mexican ‘street food,’” he explains. “The soft bread with a sweet profile is spread with a paste of refried beans plus a portion of skirt steak or pork loin—two of the most popular Mexican proteins. A grilled portabella torta provides a vegetarian option. It’s garnished with chiffonade of fresh lettuce, pico de gallo and guacamole made on-site daily from fresh avocados. Yes, the sandwich is a little messy, but that’s part of the fun of it.”
To complement the tortas, he suggests that operators offer a selection of aqua frescas, traditional Mexican beverages prepared with very ripe fruit (see May 15, 2006, FSD, Healthy Cooking, “Drinkable Meals,” p. 53). These perfect for summertime refreshers may incorporate strawberries, peaches, mangos or other seasonal fruits blended with water, lime juice and a bit of sugar.
Meanwhile, Esposito’s new Asian chopped salad concept emphasizes color and crispness. Ingredients include Romaine lettuce, green and red cabbage, julienned red bell pepper, cilantro and diced cucumber. Rice noodles, plus a choice of chicken, shrimp or marinated tofu, completes the dish.
“This is designed for exhibition cooking and we suggest the culinary staff toss the greens and noodles with dressing—the customer’s choice of Chinese mustard dressing with a strong vinegar flavor, or a sweet orange peanut dressing—then transfer those ingredients to the plate,” Esposito says. “Then, with a separate utensil, they can add the protein selection and garnish the plate with quarter-inch julienned wonton strips.”
Taverna tempters: Many of the nine recipes Esposito created last summer for his Taverna Taste collection continue to be cycled through the menus at many of the contractor’s accounts; they’ve become old favorites potentially headed for comfort food status. The pesto/orzo salad with green bean/garlic potato salad combination, and cucumber/tomato and barley salad plus chilled potato salad with dill, are two of the new “combo” classics.
In each instance, one plate is filled with small portions of hummus plus each of two other salads and surrounded by triangular pieces of grilled pita (a round is cut into sixths, then arranged around the perimeter of the plate). Typically, Taverna Taste salad selections sell for $4.49 to $4.99.
Indian wraps: Capitalizing on the growing popularity of Indian fare, Esposito recently introduced “Indian Spices All Wrapped Up,” with a selection of wraps created from mostly scratch ingredients. They’re positioned as made-to-order deli options or pre-made for grab-and-go. “We try to give our operators the recipes as far in advance as possible to let them have time to source products,” he reports.
Most popular of the recipes is the tandoori chicken wrap with marinated, grilled and diced chicken rolled in the wrap along with almond/raisin jasmine rice, grilled onions, cucumber raita (a yogurt-based cucumber sauce), plus parsley/mint chutney (parsley and mint pureed with a bit of vinegar).
With the development of the new Mexican and Asian concepts off his plate, so to speak, Esposito confides he’s now thinking about developing several Spanish concepts to meet the next wave of interest in yet another authentic ethnic cuisine.
Ken Toong, director of dining and retail service at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, is originally from Hong Kong and prides himself on offering a broad selection of authentic Asian cuisine. In fact, traditional dim sum is available every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Students stir their own: Cook-to-order stir-fries have long been a solid draw, but Toong has been avidly promoting the cook-your-own stir-fry concept. “With 13,000 students on meal plans, we need to make food more interesting and this concept—with a chef out there to assist them—draws a couple of hundred a night,” he reports. “Some days the selection includes bamboo shoots, bok choy, chicken, beef, pork or fish. There are two choices each time and different sauces, but soy black bean sauce and hoisin are available each lunch and dinner.”
Toong wanted food on the express line to be prepared just-in-time, so he hired a restaurant chef who makes sure that batch cooking is completed every 15 minutes. “It’s a different crowd all the time and stir-fry is one of the most popular concepts at all colleges. Here, 30% to 40% choose it on any given day,” he says. “The challenge for us is how to make it quick, fresh and tasty.”
Fast Thai: Toong has also expanded Asian selections to include Thai and Vietnamese and offers a pho noodle bar at the International station twice a week. There’s also a Thai retail concept on campus. “The Talesai Café in the foodcourt in the Campus Center Student Union Complex was inspired by Talesai, a restaurant in West Hollywood, Calf.,” he explains. “Their chef did a demonstration at a conference I attended to show us how to make Thai into a fast (food) concept. We buy the sauce from them and offer six different entrees, from Pad Thai to grilled chicken with Thai sauce; all are priced from $4.50 to $5.50 with sides included.
“It’s been running almost a year and sales are up 35% versus the Chinese concept that was previously there,” Toong continues. “The food is all batch-cooked, no more than six portions at a time. Students choose this perhaps once or twice a week and it fills the bill because it’s something different and authentic.”
Recently, Toong has been inserting Mediterranean items into the regular three-week cycle on the all-you-can-eat programs in keeping with his goal to offer more healthy options. Choices include three types of olives on the salad bar as well as main entrees such as grilled pork loin with sumac onion; or Italian cioppino seafood stew—and North African couscous with roasted vegetables is always available.
Mix it up: “Our goal is to continue to add more Moroccan and Mediter-ranean items,” he says. “We already offer an Indian concept in The Hatch, one of our foodcourts. We feature five or six entrees prepared by two of our Indian employees. Five percent of our population is Indian, so the demand is there for us to serve more Indian. Now we sell a couple hundred (portions) a day. Since I started in this business 20 years ago with Marriott in Canada, I’ve seen the emphasis on diversity, variety, authenticity and now healthy. Students like to mix a bit of this and that—maybe sushi, a Moroccan entrée, something from the salad bar, then an American dessert. But each item needs to be authentic.”
Students aren’t the only ones who enjoy mixing and matching their authentic ethnic items. Historically, a retirement home’s residents generally came from the surrounding neighborhood and were of the same ethnicity.
But today the neighborhood is often the world in microcosm, as Herb Thomas, assistant director of food and nutrition services at United Odd Fellow & Rebekah Home in The Bronx, N.Y., has discovered.
Comfort Cuban: What was once a mostly Jewish and Italian population at this 213-bed facility has transitioned to include retirees from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and other nations. Therefore, to please his diverse clientele, he’s expanded the menu. “We menu Cuban ropa vieja, a stew of shredded beef with cilantro, fresh garlic, tomatoes, onions and green pepper,” he says. “It’s comfort food and we menu it as a main item once in our four-week-cycle—160 portions are gone each time.”
Arroz con pollo is also menued as a regular item, while quesadillas—the bean and cheese variety—are prepared just before they’re to be transported to the floors for buffet service For a Jamaican curried chicken with rice, coarsely shredded cabbage is seasoned with a bit of thyme, garlic, chicken base and onions, then sautéed a bit to maintain its crispness.
Jamaican beef patties—basically mini pies filled with ground beef—are menued as an alternate entrée (30 portions each time) about twice a month. A number of Italian dishes including chicken piccata, chicken Marsala and three types of lasagna, as well as Middle European favorites such as blintzes, knishes and pot roast with oven-browned potatoes and red cabbage, continue to be menu mainstays.
“We serve blintzes about three times a month, alternating between cheese and apple varieties, and the Latino residents like blintzes and knishes as well as the Jewish population,” Thomas says. “Our menu items cross all ethnicities—everybody tries a bit of everything and they enjoy the diversity.”
Corn chip pie flies: One of the most popular dishes among the more than 350 students attending Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., is corn chip pie. All 350 portions prepared sell out when it’s menued once a month, notes cafeteria manager/site supervisor Catherine Martinez.
To prepare the corn chip pie, “you make a meat and red bean chili; pinto beans and ground beef are mixed with red chili sauce,” she explains. “A drugstore/luncheonette in Santa Fe started serving this some years ago and now everyone in New Mexico has eaten it. It sells better than pizza.”
Mexican food is menued at least once a week and sometimes more. Chinese and Italian dishes are also popular with the students. Spaghetti and meatballs is a particular favorite, though it is arguably as American as apple pie. Still, staff are still committed to keeping recipes authentic as possible by using fresh ingredients.
Martinez is quick to point out that all ground beef—including beef crumbles—comes in frozen and pre-cooked to avoid E. coli contamination. But, the tomato sauce is basically from scratch since the foodservice staff grinds the tomatoes for a real homemade sauce, she says. And that’s about as “homemade” as an Italian comfort food in New Mexico can get.