Could artisanal cheese be the new charcuterie? Sea buckthorn the new acacia berry? Drinkable snacks the new vitamin water? Chefs and industry experts are betting on it, predicting they'll become some of this year's hottest food trends.
Here's a taste of what - and how - you might be eating in 2011:
1. Vegetable ash: The tradition of using ash as an ingredient goes back decades, possibly even centuries. Today, it's most commonly used in cheese-making to form a natural protective coating and add a vein of flavour. But chefs (notably Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea in Chicago) have recently begun reintroducing ash into dishes, such as apple cider gel in walnut milk and vegetable ash.
"It's definitely another thing, like cooking with hay, that's coming back into vogue," says Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont.
Mr. Gushue makes vegetable ash out of carrots, onions and the tough, fibrous green tops of leeks. He grills them until they're nearly black and then bakes them in the oven until they're completely dehydrated. He then mixes the ash with cold-pressed canola oil or soybean oil to create a sauce that he serves with lobster or crab. The ash brings a bit of an acidic taste, not to mention a new, unexpected flavour, to the rich protein, he says.
2. Olive oil alternatives: "We did go through a whole olive oil craze," says Laura Calder, cookbook author and host of the television show French Food at Home. "But olive oil is not the only oil any more."
Ms. Calder says she loves using walnut, hazelnut and untoasted almond oils in salads, on quinoa and drizzled on top of crab.
Mr. Gushue prefers oils like sunflower, soybean and hemp that are produced locally. He uses hemp oil made in southern Ontario, for example, to sous-vide beef rib-eye.
3. Locally grown global produce: Thanks in large part to the exploding demand for locally sourced food, growers are now producing fruits and vegetables that traditionally aren't thought of as local, such as bok choy, black salsify and Jerusalem artichoke, says Paul Knechtel, president and co-founder of 100 Mile Market Inc. His Kitchener, Ont.-based company buys from producers and sells to retail clients.
Until now, the market for foreign produce has largely been supplied by imports. But as the systems for distributing local food develop, growers now have the incentive to produce and the means to sell just about anything you can find in the imported section of the grocery store, Mr. Knechtel says.
"The whole local food movement has moved now … to very much a market segment, beyond a market niche," he says.
4. Sea buckthorn: The health-food community has long recognized the nutritional benefits of the antioxidant-rich, orange berries of sea buckthorn shrubs. But chefs are now catching on, using them for their unique, citrus-like flavour, Mr. Knechtel says.
"We've probably sold 10 times the volume of sea buckthorn this year than we did last year and we've probably tripled our customers who are using it," he says, noting he supplies restaurants like Globe Bistro and Earth restaurant in Toronto and Langdon Hall with the ingredient.
Mr. Knechtel describes the berries as sweet, tart and versatile, suitable for cocktails, with poultry or dessert, and with just about anything else in place of lemons or oranges.
5. Drinkable snacks: Executives at PepsiCo are betting that busy consumers want satiating and nutritious beverages that can double as snacks.
"We see the emerging opportunity to 'snackify' beverages and 'drinkify' snacks as the next frontier in food and beverage convenience," Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's chairwoman and chief executive said in a news release, announcing the company's acquisition of a stake in Russian dairy and juice company Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods last month.
That means more yogurt drinks and products like the new Tropolis squeezable fruit blend from PepsiCo's Tropicana division. The latter, which is the company is now testing, is sort of like a smoothie that comes in individual, squeezable, snack-sized packages.
6. "Healthy" indulgence: Among its top 10 Canadian food trend predictions for 2011, the Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic believes restaurant operators will increasingly try to merge health and indulgence on their menus, offering purportedly healthy ingredients that will allow customers to feel less guilty about eating the foods they love.
Laura McGuire, editorial manager at Technomic, points to the new Wendy's natural-cut French fries with sea salt and New Orleans Pizza's multigrain thin-crust pizzas as examples.
7. American invasion: U.S. chain restaurants will continue their expansion into Canada, seeing untapped opportunity north of the border, Technomic says.
According to Ms. McGuire, Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken opened its second Canadian location in December, Woody's Bar-B-Q is looking for Canadian franchisees to expand its Southern-style barbecue concept, Jamba Juice has entered into a letter of intent with International Franchise Corp. to develop about 125 locations across the country over 10 years, and Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar is planning to open 50 Canadian locations in the next five years.
"Canada's food-service scene is much less saturated than the U.S.," she says. But it may not stay that way for long.
8. Artisanal cheese: "If people ate more cheese, I would be a happy chef," says Lynn Crawford of Toronto's Ruby Watchco and host of the Food Network show Pitchin' In.
Artisanal cheese embodies many of the food trends that are happening right now - the interest in local production, in knowing how and where one's food is made, and the quest for new and interesting flavours, she explains.
Forget oenophiles and coffee nerds. It's time to make way for a new era of cheese enthusiasts.
"Just think about how do you get to taste all of those different flavours and textures. I mean, how does that happen?" Ms. Crawford says. "Talk about a complete magical miracle that happens."
9. Better breakfasts: Breakfast has for too long beenthe forgotten meal. It often consists of a cup of takeoutcoffee, or a granola bar eaten on the run. But Alana Peckham, chef of Cru in Vancouver, thinks hotels and independent restaurants may begin paying more attention to breakfast foods, offering them later in the day or taking greater care in their preparations as diners seek quality in their favourite comfort foods.
Although Cru won't be serving breakfast any time soon, Ms. Peckham recently put her own spin on bacon and eggs, offering pork belly and eggs on her evening menu.
"To be able to have breakfast flavours later on in the day, it's comforting," she says.
10. Old-school recipes: Further experimenting with comfort foods, Ms. Calder says she's recently become hooked on old-fashioned British and Canadian recipes like chicken pot pie, salmon with parsley sauce and corned beef and cabbage. Ms. Crawford, who also loves North American classics like lemon meringue pie and green goddess dressing, says she recently bought a copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac Everyday Cookbook for inspiration.
"They sound boring, but it's so fantastic when it's really good," Ms. Calder says, adding that many of the century-old recipes don't need a lot of reworking to modernize them. She slices ribbons of Savoy cabbage, for instance, instead of the common variety with her corned beef.
"You can get so carried away in your own cooking on doing techniques and trying things that you forget how to concentrate on taste and really simple things and sometimes they're the hardest," she says, adding: "It's not that they're old and no good any more. They're old and exciting."