Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nutrition Trends

Now here is a refreshing trend - the move towards healthier eating. The American Dietetic Association recently released the results of their "Nutrition and You: Trends 2008" which was conducted earlier this year. The study separated people into 3 groups based on their attitudes on maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise routine. The groups were "I am Already Doing It" (people who believe in maintaining healthy eating habits and regular exercise and trying to life that lifestyle); "I Know I Should" (people who believe in maintaining healthy eating habits and getting regular exercise are very important, but may not have taken steps to achieve this lifestyle), and "Don't Bother Me" (people who are least concerned with healthy nutrition and regular exercise and are not making an effort to life a healthy lifestyle). Since 2002 there has been a definite decrease in the latter group. There is a shift towards taking more interest and even action towards a healthier nutrition and exercise routine. 40% of people now report that they actively seek information about nutrition and healthy eating, which is up from 19% in 2000.

Why is this important to you? Because your consumer wants knowledge and they want help as they try to feed their families healthier foods. They want to know how to fit the products they love into a healthier lifestyle. You can talk about the nutritional benefits of your product on pack, on the web or in your advertisements. You can show consumers how to incorporate your products into a healthier diet for their families by featuring nutritionally balanced recipes on pack or on your product website (don't forget to include that nutritional information at the bottom of your recipes!).

Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying you should totally change your brand positioning to be a health brand if that is not who your brand is. What I am just advocating is that your brand keep up the the healthier lifestyle trends that consumers - find ways to fit in. Help educate your consumers on how your products can fit. You can also keep nutritional benefits in mind as you develop new products to launch. Give consumers lots of reasons to believe in your brand.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Home Entertaining

One trend that is definitely here to stay is home entertaining. It started back at 9/11 when folks just wanted to stay home and be with their families. It has since expanded to more of a home entertaining trend. People are no longer just nesting with their closest family members, they are enjoying hosting friends and extended family members in their homes. And whether is family game night, a formal sit down meal with neighbors or a gathering of the boys for a Sunday football game, you know there will be food and drinks there. (Americans rarely get together without sharing food!) Now this poses an interesting dilemma for most people. People love hosting other people in their homes, there needs to be food and drinks to share with guests, but most people have plain gotten out of the habit of cooking (unless you count microwavable meals and popcorn or course!) and don't know how to put together a spread for their guests to enjoy.

Luckily for us, for ever consumer dilemma there is an awesome opportunity for someone to come in with a solution. For this particular dilemma the opportunity goes to branded food products to come in and save the day by providing super simple semi-homemade recipes, tips and tricks. Now if make those recipes and ideas seasonally relevant you have really created something of value for consumers! Let me give you an example. Suppose you make slice and bake sugar cookie dough. This holiday season you could feature a recipe for Stain Glass Sugar Cookie Ornaments. (So super simple - use the premade sugar cookie dough and hard candies to make the stain glass cookies. While the cookies are still warm use a straw to make a hole at top then just add some ribbon and your consumers have created something they can proudly call their own at their next holiday party!) Let me give you another example. Suppose you make salsa. Why not wish everyone a Feliz Navidad with a simple microwave queso dip recipe? The recipe could be a simple as your branded salsa, a melting cheese and a can of chopped little green chilies melted together in the microwave safe bowl!

It is really easy to do but is does take just a little planning a head of the season to come up with recipes and appetizing photos you want to feature. So think ahead - what is the next season people might want to enjoy a dish made with your product - Superbowl, Easter dinner, 4th of July picnic....the possiblities are endless! Then decide how are you going to communicate your fabulous recipe idea - on pack, website, POS materials, etc? Just make sure you get your recipe ideas out there - consumers are hungry for easy entertaining ideas!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Eating What's Fresh

Just because summer is coming to an end that doesn't have to mean the end of fresh foods on your table. Every month of the year brings its own special foods into season. This month look for lots of yummy fall fruits and veggie appearing at market like apples, broccoli, pumpkins, pears and mushrooms.

No matter what type of food you are marketing, think of ways to use these seasonal fruits and vegetables to add excitement and new news to your recipes library. For example if you were marketing raisins think about a nice Back-to-School Apple Raisin Salad to feature on your carton. Or if you are marketing baking mix you could feature an inviting Warm Autumn Pear Cobbler on the home page of your website. Consumers love seasonally relevant recipes....especially when the recipes are simple and use ingredients they can easily find.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Evolving Taste of Children

Adults aren’t the only ones with increasingly sophisticated palates; children’s tastes are evolving too. According to Mintel’s March 2008 Kid’s Snacking Report, 30% of kids 6-12-year-olds report that unusual flavors make snaking more fun, while 67% liked to try new kinds of snacks. So what kind of flavors are piquing kid’s interest these days? Check out the list of Up-and Coming Savory Flavors for Kids by International Flavors and Fragrances. These flavors definitely move beyond the macaroni and cheese from a box that made my day when I was in middle school!

Up-and Coming Savory Flavors for Kids
Jalapeno-Cheddar Chili
Sizzlin’ Fajita
Smokin’ Cajun
Chipotle BBQ
Spicy Thai Peanut
Sour Dill Pickle
Hot Buffalo and Cool Ranch
Grilled Cheese
Asian BBQ
Sweet Corn Salsa
Pineapple Jalapeno

Friday, August 22, 2008

Big Trend in Small Bites

Sometimes to find the next big idea or trend you have to think smaller – as in snack size! Whether savory or sweet, there is definitely an increased interest in bite-sized and sharable snack foods. According to an October 2007 National Restaurant Association survey the #1 hot new culinary trend for 2008 is bite-sized desserts followed by the #4 hot new trend of small plate dishes or tapas.

Why this interest in snack foods and snacking occasions? Well just like every other trend this year in America, you trace part of the cause to the slowing economy. In an effort to conserve money while not giving up entirely on our love of going out to eat, people are choosing to go out for appetizers and small dishes rather than full meals. But it is more than just our light wallets driving our interest in smaller portions. There is also a desire for more variety. Ordering several smaller dishes allows for more diversity of foods in an eating occasion. Another contributor is the social aspect to snack foods and appetizers. These types of foods lend themselves more to sharing and socializing than plated dinner entrees. Another contributing factor that cannot be ignored in the snacking or mini-meal trend is definitely our hectic schedules. When you are constantly on the go grab-and-go snacks or quick mini-meals just fit in between activities better than a sit down meal. Finally there is that constant struggle to eat more healthy. After years of super-sizing their food and their waistlines, many Americans are looking to down-sizing (or “Right-sizing” if you prefer) their meals rather than giving up the foods they love entirely.

Whether you think of these small bites as savory snacks, mini meals, dessert bites or appetizer flights, this is definitely a trend that is here to stay. Even if you are not in the restaurant industry this is a trend to which you should pay attention. If you are consumer brand manager cookbook author or food editor for magazine, here are some simple ideas to capitalize on this trend and promote usage of your product.

1) Stretch you concept of your product to include appetizer, mini-meals or snacking occasions. For example if your product is frozen French fries move beyond the side dish application and suggest a platter of Cheesy Spicy Nacho French Fries for a game day get together (I know, not every recipe can follow the better for you trend!). If your product is pea soup, suggest pea soup shooters (think shot glass of pea soup with a dollop of sour cream on top) as a super cool and trendy appetizer suggestion for urban cocktail party. If your product is canned corn, a recipe for simple corn salsa would do the trick. If you manage a brand of pork BBQ think smaller and suggest your consumer try BBQ sliders. See nearly any product can fit the small plate trend.

2) The KISS rule still applies – Keep it Simple Simple! In general consumers have even less time to prepare snacks than meals. Your serving suggestions and recipe ideas need to be simple, quick and easy. It also helps to be visual. If you are suggesting a usage occassion outside of your consumer's idea of typical, a picture can make the idea more appealing and do-able.

3) You appeal to more people with variety than a single idea. Not every recipe will fit everybody’s taste and desires and that is ok. That is why you want to have a large variety of recipes and marketing them to your consumers in different ways. For example you market a brand of guacamole and you know you core consumer puts your product on tacos and on chips and that is about it. Showing those 2 applications over and over will never inspire anyone to try something new (expanded usage occasions). It will also not speak to potential new consumers the way showing a variety of usage occasions. So let’s take that same product and add a recipe for Oven Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Guacamole Dip or Spicy Scallop Stackers (tortilla chip with a dollop of guacamole, a seared scallop a thin slice of jalapeno and topper of sour cream) and a serving suggestion of using guacamole as a dip on a vegetable tray. Now you are really expanding the possible usage occasions and making the product more appealing to new consumers!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Functional Superstar - Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a rising star in the world of functional foods. According to a 2007 study by the International Food Information Council out of Washington, DC, 71% of consumers report they are aware of Omega-3 fatty acids. This is up 8% from the previous year. Food manufactures are (or should be) taking notice of this important food trend. According to recent study by Packaged Facts in Rockville, MD, the market for omega-3 fortified foods has exploded from $100 million in 2002 to $2 billion in 2006. Impressive growth!

Just in case you are unfamiliar with omega-3 fatty acids and their health benefits, let me give you a quick summary. Omega-3's are naturally found in seafood, such salmon, tuna, mackerel and shellfish, as well as, some vegetation like flax seeds, walnuts, soy and canola oil. (Though the Omega-3's in seafood appear to pack a better healthy benefits punch than the plant derived Omega-3's.) The FDA has found enough supporting evidence to allow claims on food packaging that the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, reduce the risk of coronary disease. In addition to the heart benefits there is evidence that long-chain omega-3's have benefits to brain development and functioning. Omega-3's have shown success in treating psychiatric disorders (such as major depressive disorder and schizophrenia) and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. Also there is evidence that long-chain omega-3's also are successful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and reducing the risk of certain cancers, as well as, other ailments. (And just in case you were wondering, short-chain omega-3's are good too, but they don't pack nearly the healthy benefits of long-chain omega-3's. )

So, if you are a lucky manufacture of products that naturally have or are fortified with omega-3s, hopefully you are taking advantage of this consumer interest in this functional food's attributes. But what if you are a food manufacture who doesn't make a food product with omega-3's benefits, is there any way that you can get still hook your wagon to omega-3s shooting star? Absolutely! The fastest, simplest and easiest way is to provide your consumers with some recipes for your products that incorporate omega-3 rich ingredients. For example maybe you produce a branded crushed pineapple. You could provide an on-pack recipe for a simple pineapple salsa over grilled salmon. It would provide you with a great the opportunity to call out the omega-3 benefits of the recipe and your brands dedication to healthier living. Or maybe you produce a brand of breakfast baking mix. You could think about giving your consumers a recipe like Blueberry and Walnut Coffee Cake made with flax seed oil on an in-pack insert. You can use the space to tout your brand's dedication to helping your consumers make heart health choices. Almost any product can be pared with some form of ingredients that can produce recipes with functional benefits. It just takes dedication to that goal and a little creativity the kitchen. Delicious product specific recipes with functional benefits create great opportunities to tap into your consumers' desire for delicious better-for-you eating experiences.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Oil Impact

What is the biggest food trend so far in 2008? Unfortunately it is rising food prices. If you are a food producer or seller you have no doubt felt this impact on your bottom line. You may have even already made the painful decision to take price with your customers. On an even more personal level you have no doubt felt the impact on your own wallet as well, when it is your turn to be the consumer.

Why the dramatic spike in food cost? Well the most obvious culprit is sky rocking oil prices. Oil impacts the food chain in ways most of us never consider. Oil is a key ingredient in the fertilizers and pesticides that farmers use on crops - like corn, wheat and soy beans. It then takes oil to harvest and transport those crops to distribution centers and on to market. If those crops are then used to feed live stock more oil will be required to process and transport the meat. If the crops are used for processed foods (like hamburger buns, tater tots, or a box of corn bread mix) then more oil is used in the transportation and processing of those products. And don’t forget the oil that also goes into the production and transportation of all that beautiful packaging that encapsulates all the tasty food products we buy. Wow it takes a lot of oil to make a meal when I put it that way!

Since we know oil prices are unlikely to be headed south anytime soon (if ever) are there any things you can do to help your consumers (and your own family) with their rising food bills? Absolutely! You can offer recipes that deliver more bang for the buck. Offer up seasonal recipes that capitalize on locally available seasonal products (which cuts down on transportation costs). Produce cost typical aren’t as impacted as meat and processed foods prices so offer recipes that use generous amounts of fruits and veggies. Finally you can also offer Asian and Mediterranean style recipes that use meat, dairy and fish more as flavorings than main ingredients. Just remember to keep in mind the cooking skill level and available meal prep/cooking time for your key target demographic. Unless you are specifically targeting the most proficient and prolific cooks with your recipes, don’t get so gourmet (i.e. too complicated or time consuming) in your recipe offerings that you loose the interest of your key target market.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spring Fever

Seems I am not the only one with spring fever these days. People are clamoring for more springtime recipes that they can use to create delicious dishes with all the newly sprung springtime fruits and veggies. I totally understand the craving.

Lately I have been delighted to find tray packs of fresh green English peas (shell-off) in the produce section of my local grocery store. They are clear sign that spring is officially here. Below is one of my favorite super simple recipes for these tasty green treats.

English Peas Go to Italy

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium slices pancetta (can substitute prosciutto)

1 tray pack fresh English Peas (shell-off)

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

fresh cracked black pepper


*Pour olive oil into a medium to large skillet and place on medium high heat for 1-2 minutes.

*Dice pancetta.

*When oil is hot (but not smoking) add pancetta to pan. The pancetta should be gently sizzling. Saute for 2-3 minutes, stirring regularly.

*Add peas to the pan and stir together with pancetta. Continue sauteing for 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly.

*Pull rosemary leaves off the stems and add to the pan with peas. Add a very light sprinkle of salt plus a more generous helping of cracked black pepper to the peas. Stir to incorporate. Continue sauteing for 2-3 more minutes.

*Serve and enjoy!

Now if you are unlucky enough to be somewhere were you can't find fresh English peas yet you could substitute frozen green peas. I do not recommend using canned peas though - too mushy.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Mother's day offers an easy opportunity for another touch point with consumers. It is a great time to offer up simple semi-homemade recipes as children and fathers around the country enter the uncharted territory of the kitchen in an effort to make breakfast, dinner or treats for mom. Whether you are targeting consumers with email newsletters, a mailing, a splash page on your website, or other marketing vehicle, be sure to offer up some super simple quick ideas that even a cooking newbie can handle like Summer Garden Party Sugar Cookies . These delicious little cookies are perfect because dad can easily get the kids involved in cutting out the cookies, spreading the icing and decorating with fruit. Since dad starts with refrigerated cookie dough, as long as he can find a cookie sheet in the kitchen, he should be able to handle the task.

So remember, offering easy recipes are a great way to be a resource to your consumers throughout the year. And of course, don't forget to call your mom on this Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

From Hippie to Hip - Brown Rice Becomes Fashionable Again

In the 1960's and 70's brown rice was a popular whole-grain staple with the hippie era counter-culture. In the 80's and 90's it virtually disappeared from menus in favor of the more flavor-neutral white rice. Today the former hippie culture food is making a comeback thanks in part to the increasing interest in more nutrient rich "good" carbs.

So what is brown rice exactly? It is basically minimally processed rice. The outer inedible hulls are removed from the grain but the bran and germ are left mostly or completely intact. (To get white rice the bran and germ are stripped off leaving only the starchy flesh of the grain.) Brown rice is not always truly brown. "Brown" is more of a processing term referring to the bran which is left on the grain.

Brown rice has a lot of advantages over its paler younger brother. It is packed with more nutrients (fiber, antioxidants, etc) than white rice and it is much more flavorful. Thanks to popular mainstream restaurants (like P.F. Chang) consumers are becoming reacquainted with the tasty nutty flavor of brown rice. And thanks to popular diets (such as the South Beach Diet) consumers are actively looking to add more whole grains into their meal routines. So as you are building your recipe library think about including some recipes that call for brown rice. This flavorful ingredient edition will make for a deliciously on-trend meal that cooks can feel good about serving to their families and friends

Monday, May 5, 2008

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Most people think Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day. It actually commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 (Mexican independence came later) and is celebrated as only a regional holiday in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo is more widely celebrated in America where it has come to represent more of a celebration of Mexican pride and history. Regardless of what decent you are from, Cinco de Mayo is a great day to celebrate with some delicioso Latin American cuisine.

The Latin American food trend is a very hot, up and coming trend. Flavors and ingredients like lime, tomatillos, chili peppers, corn meal, chorizo, adobo, yuca and queso fresco are popping up on menus even in non-Mexican themed restaurants. One of my favorite "new" spices to use when I am cooking at home is chipotle peppers or chipotles in adobo sauce. Chipotle chile peppers are smoke-dried jalapenos. You can buy them as a dried spice (in the spice aisle) or you can get them whole in a can (in the ethnic section of the grocery store). Whole chipotle chiles in a can usually come packed in adobo sauce. This deep red flavorful sauce is made with tomatoes, vinegar and spices like garlic, onion, cumin, lemon pepper and achiote powder.

Need a little inspiration on how to use chipotles to add some Latin American flare to your menu tonight? Try sprinkling the dried chipotle chile pepper powder over french fries or popcorn. Or dice 1-2 chipotle peppers in a adobo sauce and add to spagetti sauce, chili or meatloaf. If you really want to mix things up and try something new, try adding the chipotle peppers in a adobo sauce to an alfedo sauce (it is obviously a non-traditional use and may sound a little strange, but it truly delicious - I promise you!). Whether you use the dried spice or the chipotle peppers in adobo, you will be adding a wonderfully smoky spice to your dish. If you worried about things getting too spicy, just scrape out and throw away most of the seeds before adding the chiles to your recipes. And of course, don't forget to serve some refreshing cold beverages like margaritas or cervezas to cool everything down.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mother's Little Helper - A Jar of Spagetti Sauce

The cover story for this month's issue of Saveur magazine is dedicated to the quest for the perfect Ragu sauce in Bologna, Italy. There are numerous recipes for delicious sounding, slow-cooked, authentic Italian Ragu dishes - most taking about 3 hours or more to prepare. The very thought of those rich and meaty sauces over fresh-made pasta is enough to make my mouth water in anticipation. While reading the article I started trying to mentally schedule a day when I could devote the 3 to 4 hours needed to make the perfect saucy pasta dish for friends and family to enjoy. After a few minutes of contemplation over the scheduling manipulations that would be required to free up the 4 hours of cooking time needed for my pasta feast, I was forced to admit scheduling defeat. (Scheduling is so hard when you are trying to do it all from Career Woman, to Family Manager to Domestic Goddess!) So maybe I will have to leave the creation of the perfect home-made pasta feast in the capable hands of one of the local Italian restaurants (at least for now), where my only time requirement will be the hour or so to sit and enjoy dinner.

There was another interesting shorter article in Saveur this month, titled "Mother's Little Helper". Deputy Editor, Dana Bowen, talked about her mother, a second generation Italian-American woman, and her surreptiticious use of Ragu-brand pasta sauce as a basis for her own legendary "homemade" Italian sauces. Dana even mentioned that if family and friends were coming over for dinner her mother took great care to throw the store bought sauce jars away in the outside trash cans so that no one would spot the confederates to a true "homemade" meal in the kitchen trash. I wonder if Dana realizes that while her mother was bring old world traditions over to America she was also modifying those traditions to work in an increasingly fast pace society. Her mom's creative uses for store bought pasta sauces as a basis for her own variety of Italian dishes made her an early adopter of the semi-homemade cooking trend which is all the rage in American kitchens today.

Today's cooks are more sophisticated in their tastes but less proficient in their cooking skills than past generations. What they want is slow cooked authentic deliciousness when they dine out and simple dinner solutions that taste homemade for busy meals at home. If you want to appeal to the masses, simple recipes using pre-made ingredients that generate healthy interesting meals in a hurry are just the ticket. Be sure to mix it up with an interesting selection of ethnic dishes as well as simple versions of familiar classics for the broadest reach on usage occasions and the widest appeal to consumers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Latin American Trend

Cinco De Mayo is almost here. What better time to talk about trends in Hispanic cooking....or at least trends in the types of Hispanic foods average America is eating. In the 1990's fast casual Mexican restaurants were extremely popular. No matter what the name of the particular restaurant was over the door, you knew before you even looked at the menu generally what was going to be offered to you - various combinations of similarly seasoned beans, meat, cheese and rice with tortillas or chips. Today those types of Mexican restaurants continue to be ubiquitous through out America, however the true emerging trend is Hispanic-influenced foods. According to Datassential's Food Bytes e-Gazette, 44% of restaurants now offer what they call a "Mexican-Inspired entree" (think of menu items like a tequila lime salsa burgers or a prime rib sandwich with a zesty jalapeno mesquite spread).

Following behind the Mexican-Inspired trend is a new trend towards Latin American foods which would include dishes from Mexico but also foods from the many other Latin American countries located in North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. New menu items being seen are things like Cuban sandwiches; chimichurri sauces* (popular in Argentina) and ceviche (a popular dish in Peru). In fact a Datassential survey showed that 22% of Americans were very interested in Brazilian foods, which makes it only slightly less popular than Thai.

So as you are thinking about recipes to add to your library it is definitely time to add a few dishes with a Hispanic twist. These could be things like Chipotle Chicken Alfredo or Spicy Lasagna made with habonaras. And if your target consumer is a little more progressive you can start adding in some more exotic Latin American dishes like Brazilian Rice Pudding or a flavorful Puerto Rican Stew. Fruit flavors like coconut, mango and pineapples are also a part of this trend so things like Coconut Infused Rice or a Pineapple Mango Salsa Grilled Chicken are more great menu options. May is a great time to debut your new Latin American-inspired dishes! So grab a margarita if you need the inspiration (or mojitos if you prefer), put on your salsa shoes and say ole! You won't want to miss this deliciously sassy trend!

*Chimichurri sauce is a thick herb sauce or condiment popular in Argentina. It is made from olive oil, vinegar, and finely chopped parsley, oregeno, garlic and onion and then seasoned with salt, cayenne and black pepper.
*Ceviche (also spelled seviche) is fish that has been "cooked" with lime juice. Often ingredients like tomatoes, onion and green peppers are added to the marinade.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Making it Simple

I opened up the April issue of Gourmet magazine and was intrigued by the picture of the Asparagus Ravioli in Parmesan Broth. The soup looked delicious and fresh and matched my desire to find to new recipes that could use the fresh asparagus which are just coming into season. So I flipped to the back to see how to make it. Of course this is Gourmet magazine so the first thing it called for was making fresh pasta dough followed by making fresh chicken stock infused with a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind and then making your own ravioli using, of course, a pasta machine to roll out the dough. OK that sounds absolutely wonderful except for the fact I do not have 2 1/2 hours to make a first course for dinner tonight. So I got to thinking about what I could do to make this delicious sounding soup in an abbreviated version. Below is the recipe I came up with. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

Ravioli and Asparagus Soup
(Makes 4 first course soup servings in about 20 minutes)

1/2 lbs asparagus (roughly half a bunch)

1 9-oz package fresh refrigerated cheese ravioli

64-oz chicken stock (can substitute vegetable stock if desired)

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cracked black pepper

*Pour chicken stock into a medium to large pot and place on high heat.

*Rinse asparagus. Cut off the bottom portion of the stalks (roughly the bottom 1/3 of the stalks ) and discard. Cut the top portion of the stalk into 2 inch pieces. Set aside until ready to use.

*Once the stock comes to a medium boil reduce heat to medium. Add ravioli and cook according to package directions (roughly 7 minutes).

*When the pasta has 2 minutes left to cook, add cut asparagus pieces to the pot and slowly sprinkle in the Parmesan cheese. Stir well and continue cooking remaining 2 minutes. Season soup with cracked black pepper to taste.

*Ladle into bowls and serve hot.

Voila you have taste fresh homemade soup in minutes - not hours!

Now please do not mistake my recipe makeover as a slight to Gourmet Magazine. My recipe is really more of a tribute to the great work the creative culinary team does over there. The magazine does an outstanding job of delivering deliciously gourmet recipes for me to drool over. Every month it inspires me to try to new flavor combinations and to step out of my familiar cooking patterns to try new things. However, the truly hot on-trend wave in cooking in the average American home right now is semi-homemade cooking. Recipes that use a little creative substitution of pre-made ingredients to make a nearly gourmet version of a meal that mom can bring to her family's dinner table any night of the week. While the true die-hard cooks will happily do scratch-cooking most of us don't have time to do it, at least not on a regular basis. So if you are putting together a collection of recipes for middle America rather than chef and gourmet cook type people, remember to keep it simple, quick and help the consumer take timing saving short cuts whenever possible.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


April is a great season to consider the egg. Both Gourmet.com and Martha Stewart Living Magazine have features this month about all the different types of eggs available beyond the standard chicken variety. Even Olive, a food magazine from the UK, starts off its April Starters section (which tracks food shopping, trends and news) with a beautiful picture of blue free range eggs. Maybe the editors of these publications were just all chicken egg-ed out following Easter and decided to look around the world for some variation on the traditional egg. Or maybe it was the emerging season of spring showers (I am talking about the baby and wedding variety here, not the rain producing type) that led to the interest in the most versatile of brunch foods. In any case we are treated to some delightful egg facts and pictures.

Gourmet.com features a delightfully informative slide show on different types of eggs - from chicken to iguana to the chocolate variety. Each image is adorned with a few informative sentences about the particular type of egg and its uses around the world. Let me just add here that I learned things about the harvesting of iguana eggs to make them truly unpalatable to me..... as if the idea of eating a lizard egg wasn't bad enough by itself.

Martha Stewart Living features a delightful article called Exemplary Eggs . It includes many beautiful egg dish images with the recipes to follow in the back portion of the magazine. Almost all of the recipes, of course, use the standard chicken variety of eggs but there is one recipe for Noodles with Poached Duck Egg that gets into the more exotic. (As soon as I locate some duck eggs I will let you know how the recipe tastes.)

So thinking forward, why not think about adding a few new egg recipes to your recipe library? Eggs are so versatile you can add almost any ingredient to them and come up with a delicious dish - usually in just minutes. You can dress them up for company (think a fancy crepe wrapped asparagus for a Saturday morning brunch) or dress them down for good old comfort food (think rich and egg-y french toast with lots of butter and syrup). Either way the chances are good that your egg dish will be a hit! And if you are feeling particularly gourmet you can always try that Noodles with Poached Duck Egg recipe. Just let us know how it tastes.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Forward

Spring has officially sprung! We have moved our clocks forward, celebrated Easter and are already trying to think about what to get our mom's for Mother's Day next month. Depending on what part of the country you live in the first flowers are also starting to bloom and the first fresh spring vegetables are making an appearance at your local farmer's market. What a great time of year!

It is the perfect time to shake things up in the kitchen. After a winter of frozen vegetables, start looking for recipes that call for fresh ones. Fruits and vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, beets, butter lettuce, peas and strawberries are just coming into season. Yes I know, through the beauty of intercontinental shipping it is possible to get many of these things imported to your local grocery store year-round, but there is something deliciously fresh about the first local produce of the season. Below is one of my favorite springtime recipes to whet your appetite.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies

2 1-lbs packages refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 8-oz package cream cheese, room temperature
5 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons whipping cream (could substitute Half and Half)
Fresh Strawberries, sliced

* Bake sugar cookies according to package directions.

*In a small bowl, mix the softned cream cheese, sugar and whipping cream with an electric hand mixer until well blended. The mixture should be the consitancy of frosting. If it is too thick to spread like frosting you can add a little more whipping cream and blend again.

*After the cookies have been allowed to cool, spread a generous layer of cream cheese frosting on top of each cookie then layer on slices of strawberries.

*Serve and enjoy!

A few notes about this cookie, because of the cut strawberries the cookies do not store well. So plan on eating them or setting them out on your buffet table the same morning or afternoon that you make them. If you need to make things ahead of time, I recommend baking the cookies and making the icing in advance (storing the icing in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it) but waiting to slice the strawberries and assemble the cookies with cream cheese icing and fruit right before you are ready to set them out for people to eat. Of course, if you have a little extra time or are feeling particularly gourmet you can always step it up a notch and make the sugar cookies from scratch. My favorite scratch sugar cookie recipe is the Classic Sugar Cookies in the Chocolate-Packed, Jam-Filled, Butter-Rich, No-Holds-Barred Cookie Book by Judy Rosenberg, but you could use whatever one you like.

Happy Spring!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Return to Butter!

I admit it - I have always loved butter. In the 90's I slathered it on bread even when prevailing diet wisdom advised a shift to "heart-healthy" margarine. By the late-90's and into the early 2000's however I, like many other Americans, followed the food trends and shifted to more Mediterranean-style cooking. This, of course, pushed me towards using more olive oil. Butter went from a staring role in most of my meals to an supporting and indulgent role for certain recipes. And as one would expect my rate of grocery store purchases of butter dropped dramatically. More recently though I noticed a gradual increase in recipes calling for butter. Maybe it has been because of our increasing dalliance into new types of ethnic recipes which call for for wonderfully rich ingredients like butter and ghee. It could be due in part to a certain amount of consumer disillusionment with the previous claims of the "heart-healthy" virtues of margarine. I think it also has something to do with just the natural circle of life in all trends (every trend seems to come back into style eventually).

It seems like I am not the only one noticing this delicious butter trend. This month's issue of Saveur magazine is a special issue devoted to "The Beauty of Butter". In the editorial by the Editor-in-Chief, James Oleland, he notes that 2005 was the first year since 1957 that Americans ate more butter than margarine. To me this shift makes sense as you look at how Americans are starting to being more mindful of the foods they eat. There is shift from overly-processed food towards more natural and organic options or at least towards foods with ingredients people can pronounce.

So as you look for recipes to fit your needs think about what type of ingredients your target market prefers - butter, margarine, olive oil, corn oil or something else. You want to keep your recipes diverse and current while being mindful of what staple ingredients your target consumer is currently stocking in her refrigerator and pantry.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Rise of the Cooking Inconfident

There was a really interesting article in the Washington Post about 10 days ago titled Cooking 101: Add a Cup of Simplicity. It outlined a trend that many of the big food brands who have dedicated teams of recipe developers already know - Americans tend to lack basic cooking skills. There lots of factors that have led to this like increasing numbers of moms in the work place (they have less time to teach the next generation how to cook), the rise of convenience foods, the proliferation of the microwave, the elimination of Home Economics classes from high school curriculums and, of course, there is also Americans' love affair with fast food. The net result is there are a lot of people who don't have the basic cooking skills that past generations took for granted. But don't mistake people's lack of cooking knowledge with a lack of interest in cooking. You only have to look at the explosion of TV chefs, the food network, cooking websites and cooking magazines to know that people are ready to return to their kitchens.....they just needs a little help.

What kind of help should you and your brand give them? If you are a mainstream brand, start with giving consumers very simple "semi-homemade" type recipes that start with your delicious food product as a base. Keep the ingredients list short. Limit the range of ingredients to things commonly found in the pantry of your consumers. Bullet point the prep steps and keep chopping and measuring to a minimum. Keep the prepping and cooking time as short as possible. Finally test your recipes before you publish them to make sure they really are tasty! Nothing will deter a consumer faster from trying more of your recipes than having served a bad or inedible meal to her family. Remember your goal is to be your consumers' resource in the kitchen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Flavor Trends for 2008

It is always interesting to see what flavor pairings emerge in the annual McCormick Flavor Forecast. Some of the pairings may be a little more relevant to product development and food service menu development than your mainstream product recipes and cookbook applications, but the pairings definitely highlight some key emerging flavor trends. And it never hurts to keep your eye on the emerging trends that may impact you in the future!

  • Oregano and Heirloom Beans: The familiar flavor of oregano added to the heirloom beans touches on 2 key trends - food with functional benefits and the emerging popularity of heirloom vegetables.

  • Vanilla Bean and Cardamom: Vanilla has long been popular flavor (remember the emergence of all the vanilla flavored drinks a couple of years ago like vodka and sodas?) that people recognize. Cardamon is an emerging trend that many consumers don't even even realize they are eating because it is increasingly in food service menu items but not called out in the menu descriptions.

  • Chile and Cocoa: This combination fits very well with the emerging Hispanic flavor trend. As with other ethnic cuisines, there is an evolving sophistication of the American palate that moves beyond the ubiquitous mainstream "Mexican" food to deliciously rich and diverse regional dishes.

  • Coriander and Coconut Water: A continuation of the tropical flavor trend that we saw last year.

  • Lemon Grass and Lychee: Asian cuisines continue to grow in popularity as consumers move away from mainstream "Chinese food" to regional Asian palates. The pairing of the exotic lychee brings in a freshness to this pairing.

  • Red Curry and Masa: This pairing follows the "fusion" trend by bringing together Latin and Asian influences to create a unique flavor experience.

  • Orange Peel and Natural Wood: Tangy orange peel matched with the smokiness of natural wood creates a delicious flavor combination that could go into multiple genres of foods from Asian to American BBQ.

  • Allspice and Exotic Meats: This combination fits well with the "experience eating" trend where food is more than nourishment for the body, it is an new experience for the senses.

  • Poppy Seed and Rose: A unique new pairing taken from North African and Middle Eastern cuisines, it speaks to Americans' expanding ethnic food palate.

  • Rubbed Sage and Rye Whiskey: Two traditional American flavors team up for an earthy familiar flavor combination.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cheese Please

At The Undercover Cook we follow all kinds of food and cooking trends. Some of my personal favorites are the trends in cheese. According to The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association we ate more than 32 pounds of cheese per capita last year! Not only are we eating more cheese, our taste for cheese is getting more sophisticated. The consumption of natural, artisan and ethnic cheeses is on the rise. The other big trend in cheese is, of course, convenience. As consumers look for food solutions that fit into their increasingly busy lives they continue to reach for more grated, crumbled, cubed, string, natural cheese slices and seasoned pre-shredded cheeses. The convenience cheeses take out the prep work without sacrificing the taste of traditional block cheese.

So as you are thinking about recipes for your brand or your latest cookbook, think about including cheese based recipes tailored towards your target consumer. For example, if you are targeting busy moms think about simple recipes that utilize the ever widening variety of convenience cheese, like a taco dip that uses pre-seasoned shredded cheese instead of of block cheese and spices. If you are targeting DINKS think about using cheese from the specialty cheese case, such as a recipe for boursin crusted pork chops. If your brand features upscale regional products think about using regional artisanal cheeses in your recipes. It is important that your recipes appeal to your target consumers' ever changing taste just as well as your products do.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Staying Relevant During a Value Shopping Trend

As we tally up our numbers and close the books on 2007 one things is clear, increasing commodity prices and decreasing consumer confidence have impacted our consumers as much as they impacted us. If your brand is a value player then you may have seen a bump in sales even as your bottom line has been getting squeezed. If you are a mid-range or premium brand you probably felt the pinch on the top line as well as the bottom line as your loyal consumers become more conservative in their shopping habits and trade down to the value brands.

So is there anything you can do with your recipe marketing plan to help stop this trend? Absolutely! No consumer wants to trade down. As a general rule you can bank on the fact that we consumers don't like denying ourselves our favorite foods even when money is tight. Your consumer needs for you to show her how she can affordable incorporate that indulgent product back into her families normal eating routine. This is a great time to offer what I like to call "stretch recipes". "Stretch recipes" use several ingredients to stretch the more expensive ingredient into more servings. For example let's say you are selling a premium refrigerated pasta product and you find that consumers who were purchasing your tortellini for a center of the plate entree are now trading down to a more affordable dry tortellini. You could feature a recipe campaign that focus on side dish applications for your product. The same package of product then goes from serving 2 main dishes to 4 side dishes. If the recipes incorporates some vegetables or other ingredients then the dish feels substantial and mom gets to feel good about serving this affordable indulgence to her family again. Don't worry, when consumer confidence picks up and the purse strings loosen up again you can go back to steering consumers towards center of the plate applications that incorporate more of your delicious product in each serving.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Healthier Eating in 2008

It is no secret that America has a weight issue. According to an IRI Times and Trends report, nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers are overweight to obese. The good news for our ever growing waist lines is that as many as 75% of consumers report that they are making changes to their diets in effort to eat healthier (sometimes referred to as the Better-For-You trend). Of course we know that what consumers say they are going to do and what really do are two different things, but that is a separate issue.

While I would not suggest that you should totally revamp your brand to match the Better-For-You trend (that would be a much larger branding question than what I am addressing), but you should consider adding a few healthier recipe and usage suggestions to your marketing arsenal. For example you could develop recipes that incorporate your product into a salad or a vegetable side dish or use whole grains like barley in the dish. Not only can these new healthy options draw in new more health conscious consumers who would have never considered using you product, they can keep you product relevant to consumers who may be considering healthy lifestyle changes.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Breakfast is Back

Restaurants believe that breakfast is becoming more relevant to consumers. How do I know? According to the November 2007 e-Gazette Food Bytes, restaurants (from QSRs to Fine Dining) have been increasing the number of breakfast items on their menus (a statistic also known as "breakfast density") for the past 2 years. While QSRs clearly lead the way on providing breakfast to consumers, it is the fine dining establishments that are showing the most growth on breakfast menu items.

If you are developing a recipe library for your brand, website or cookbook, you should consider including a few recipes for this important day-part. Try putting a breakfast twist on a non-traditional breakfast item just to keep in interesting. If you are selling pizza dough, why not include a recipe for a ham, egg and cheese breakfast pizza? If you are selling crab cakes, think about a crab, artichoke, sundried tomato and Parmesan cheese breakfast scrambler. If your e-newsletter theme is this month is cheese, try including a recipe for pancetta and brie mini quiches. It is very easy to add fun breakfast recipes to your recipe repertoire just by adding fun new ingredients to the traditional dishes that people already know and love.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome to The Undercover Cook

The Undercover Cook is a full service recipe consulting business. We specializes in writing recipes for consumer brand products, websites and cookbooks. What sets us apart from other recipe development companies is that by following cooking and food trends we understand how different segments of the population cook. One common mistake we see on consumer brand packaging and websites is complicated labor intensive recipes that don't match up to how the target consumer group really cooks. At The Undercover Cook, we carefully write recipes that fit within the skills set, time constraints and personal tastes of the specific group our client wants to target. We can also help guide our clients in developing beautiful food photography with maximum appetite appeal.

If you are a brand manager or product manager, you may ask why recipes should be important to you and your brand. Recipes are key to showing your consumers alternative usage occasions for your product (and we all know that increasing usage in existing customers is cheaper and more effective than just targeting new consumers to make their first purchase!). Recipes provide great content for brand websites and PR campaigns. Good recipes can turn your brand from just another product to a resource for consumers.

If you are a cookbook writer or recipe website manager you need good on-trend recipes as well. Your recipe needs will be based on your target reader. Are you targeting cheese lovers with specialty cheese based recipes or busy moms who want healthy meals for their families in under 30 minutes? Whoever your target is, you want recipes that are not above their skill level and not below their preferred tastes.

What ever your recipes needs, The Undercover Cook is ready to help you target your particular consumers. Go to theundercovercook.com to learn more.