According to the Chinese zodiac, 2012 will be the Year of the Dragon.
But according to the crystal balls of more than one watcher of food trends, it also will be "The Year of the Potato."
"Watch out for french fry menus that let guests choose the cut, crispness, and sauce; make-your-own mashers with mix-ins; or custom-cut chips with dusts and dips to order. Everyone's chipping in." And it gives a San Francisco example: The french fry menu at Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen.
Our own trends maven, Marlene Parrish, also is looking at the coming year and seeing spuds. "After years of banishment by skinny Atkins diet types and low-carb pushers, potatoes are becoming fashionable again," she predicts. "In restaurants, spuds will get the spotlight as if they are something new -- mashed with variations, baked with custom-built toppings, french-fried with benefits. Legume Bistro in Oakland is ahead of the curve; look for their tallow fries on the menu. Translation: potato sticks fried in beef fat, and oh, are they fabulous. The only improvement on that will be any potato fried in duck fat, sometimes called liquid gold."
The potatoheads could be on to something: Dining critic China Millman raves over the pork fat fries she had not long ago at Bite Bistro in Bellevue, and reports that Kevin Sousa plans to offer both duck-fat fries and vegan fries at his soon-to-open-in-East Liberty Station Street Hot Dogs.
"At home," Marlene continues, "I have my own potato thing going on, cooking my way through '300 Best Potato Recipes,' by Kathleen Sloan-Mcintosh, a book from Robert Rose publishers of Canada. [See recipe for Pan-Fried Sweet Potatoes with Gremolata at end of story.] The book is written with wit, clarity and a Ph.D.'s worth of depth and knowledge."
We're not sure we can say the same thing about all of the many food trend predictions that cross our desks here at Food & Flavor, but we do enjoy reading them -- several of the trends already are being reflected here in Pittsburgh -- and we thought you might, too.
So here, passed on from several sources and with several grains of artisanal salt, are some forecasts for food in 2012.
Fresh sardines. Ultra-long dry aging of meat. Uni. Yuzu. Tamarind. Ox tail. Duck will make a comeback, but not slathered with orange marmalade. Hand-made ricotta and burrata. Kalbi, bibimbap, bulgogi. Huacatay (better look it up). Bone marrow. Flowers reappearing on dinner plates. Hibiscus. Arepas. Coconut oil. Goat meat crosses the border from ethnicnabes. Shiso. Nordic cooking and ingredients. Upscale restaurants re-tenanting shopping center food courts. Lamb ribs and belly. Bao. More entries into the tossed salad restaurant business, using ever better ingredients. Nduja. Micro-distilleries. Bacalao. Large displays of exotic bitters on the bar. Crazier taco fillings migrating from food trucks to restaurants. Green papaya. Seaweed in non-Asian dishes.
Phil Lempert, who runs supermarketguru.com, has been doling out his annual food forecasts (with ConAgra Foods, one of the companies he works with). Some are not at all surprises, such as a continued rise in food prices and more integration of mobile devices and social media into food shopping and dining out.
But one of his more offbeat ones and intriguing ones is:
• Listen for the sound of food: People judge the readiness of some foods (like microwave popcorn or grilled burgers) by the sounds the foods make. Multisensory perception will be one of the new "food sciences" in 2012, as psychologists and food scientists join forces to design, create and influence the sounds of our foods to convey freshness, taste and even health attributes.
Other shifts he sees include the waning of the supermarket checkout lane and the waxing of the male role in food shopping and preparation.
-- Phil Lempert, SupermarketGuru.com
Trends on the James Beard Foundation's blog, Delights & Prejudices, include this "stab at what we think will be crossing our plates" in 2012:
• Bloody good food: Maybe it's our love for "Twilight" and "True Blood." Maybe it's the natural next step in the nose-to-tail movement. Whatever the reason, blood is appearing on menus more and more. Blood pancakes, blood cups, sauces thickened with blood. JBF Award winner Jennifer McLagan even features a recipe for chocolate-blood ice cream in her latest book, "Odd Bits." Odd, indeed.
Other Beard predictions include:
• Doughnut world tour: These irresistible fried treats have recently resurged in popularity: our in-depth study of the Serious Eats archives revealed that doughnut-dedicated content rose by roughly 80 percent between 2010 and 2011. America is clearly wild about doughnuts, which is why we suspect that next year we'll start seeing other regions' and countries' versions of them, such as the Texan kolache, Turkish lokma, or Portuguese malasada (which Stephanie Izard will serve at the Beard House in February).
• Caneles: the new new cupcakes: First it was pies. Then it was macarons. Our bet for the next hot specialty bakery item? Caneles, a favorite in Bordeaux, made from an egg-yolk-enriched crêpe-like batter that's baked in copper molds lined with caramel and beeswax. (The egg whites were traditionally used to clarify the wine.) We love the ones at the new Dominique Ansel Bakery, which achieve the perfect crisp-shell-to-custardy-interior ratio. We also enjoyed watching Chez Pim work out her favorite recipe. Just don't count on a proliferation of caneles at kids' birthday parties: individual molds go for around $25 a pop.
The Food Channel compiled its top 10 trends with the International Food Futurists and Mintel International, and predictions include:
• Inconspicuous consumption: In tough economic times, those who are doing well don't really want to cut back, but they don't want to flaunt it either. This attitude has had an impact on many restaurants as well as on culinary tourism.
• Social cooking: Expect to see more -- and more expansive -- outdoor kitchens in the coming year. We're talking complete setups with covered patio, granite counter prep areas, sink, mini fridge, rotisserie, stove tops and big screen TVs. You'll also see more "group cooking," with everyone participating, using multipurpose cooking equipment.
• Groovin' on Peruvian: The next hot ethnic food is the cuisine of Peru. The South American country hosts one of the world's biggest annual food festivals, is home to many new culinary schools, and new Peruvian restaurants are opening up all over the USA. There's probably one coming soon to your neighborhood.
• Flexitarians: Allrecipes found more than one-third of households ate less meat in 2011, and the No. 1 reason they did was to "eat healthier" (80 percent).
• Back to food basics: From an interest in the Paleo Diet to consuming fewer carbohydrates, 2012 will be a year of "cleaner" eating.
• Label listings: Fifty-seven percent of people reported they read labels more frequently in 2011, and this vigilance will grow even more in 2012.
• Mini-me: Forty-six percent of home cooks reported eating a mini-dessert in the past year while 29 percent have tried making them at home. Allrecipes expects this trend to move out of the bakery and into the kitchens of home cooks as the enjoyment of eating these sweet, yet tiny, treats continues in 2012.
• Home economics: While consumers will continue shopping frugally in 2012, their values and demands will shift. They will not abandon their interest in having or creating a quality food experience for themselves, their families and friends.
• You inspire me: Mom's cooking, although inspiring to some, is having a hard time keeping up with the ability to search any time of day or night for a recipe idea online.
• Devices: It doesn't really matter whether a home cook is keying smart phone apps in the supermarket aisle or setting up her laptop or tablet in the local café to plan Saturday's dinner party. Mobile technology is definitely the top trend for meal planning.
• What's on your fridge door: Ketchup has reigned as the U.S. condiment king for 125 years, but now salsa is nipping at its heels, and mayonnaise is enjoying a revival.
• Anytime is a good time for a snack: Turns out adults snack as often as children, men and women snack about the same amount and, in general, snacking has become as culturally relevant to consumers as meal time.
• Love the sandwich: Higher quality ingredients from herb-infused bread to grass-fed pork and innovative ingredients (e.g. caramelized onions, watercress and Sriracha sauce) will elevate the humble sandwich to one of the top comfort foods of the year.
Food and nutrition marketing and PR firm Publicis Consultants USA's dozen picks include:
• Perpetual snacking: Make way for "grazing the day," as 24/7 lifestyles heighten the demand for snack-able foods. Smaller portions and mini-bites -- sweet to savory -- will invade restaurant menus and grocery store shelves.
• Pop-ular popcorn: Yes, it's an explosive trend. (There, we said it.) Popcorn is healthful, convenient, natural, versatile and affordable. It's the most fun you can have with whole grains.
• In-your-face nutrition: Front-of-pack labeling, nutrition disclosure on menus and calorie-counting mobile apps will make nutrition messaging hard to escape. (Blindfolds optional.)
• Barramundi, the next sustainable seafood: Feeding on a mostly vegetarian diet of plankton means this Australian import's delicate flaky flesh is extremely low in toxin levels, but full of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3s. It will be a shoo-in on menus and in packaged foods.
• Turmeric (above), the real "spice of life": Expect to see a lot of this bright yellow spice, an element in curry powder with a long history of medicinal uses. Turmeric contains high levels of antioxidants and touts anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties among its benefits.
• A health and wellness gender gap grows: Women will continue to take active strides to improve their health by eating healthy and staying active. Men, especially younger men, will continue to lag behind.
Bell Flavors & Fragrances of Northbrook, Ill., forecast:
• The top 10 beverage flavors: Lemonade, Maqui Berry, Aloe Vera, White Tea, Mamey, Cucumber Mint, Chrysanthemum, Kumquat, Honey Ginger and Green Coconut.
• The top 10 sweet flavors for food and beverages: Salty Caramel, Red Velvet, Strawberry Jasmine, Cinnamon Chipotle, Eucalyptus, Taro/Sweet Potato, Roasted Coconut, Cafe de Olla, Lucuma and White Sesame.
• The top 10 savory flavors for foods and beverages: White Truffle Oil, Kimchi, Absinthe, Calamansi Lime, Rich Umami, Rose Water, Aged Cayenne Pepper, Satsuma Orange, Mirin and Romesco.
-- Bell Flavors & Fragrances, via bevindustry.com
Food & Flavor contributor Virginia Phillips looks through her glass starchly and sees ancient grains continuing to sprout as an everything-that's-old-is-new-again food trend.
"High-profile chefs such as Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barn outside New York and Sean Brock at McGrady's and Husk in Charleston, S.C., grow their own heritage varieties and preach the gospel about the pedigreed plants that people all over the country are rescuing," she writes. "Mr. Barber is writing a book about it.
"Pedigrees may stretch to the Bible where you can find einkorn, a truly ancient wheat relative, or to this country where Aroostook rye earned 'terroir' in northern Maine, or to antebellum Dixie, where super-silky pastry flour is being milled in a historic way from a regional wheat grown locally in an unbroken line since the mid-1800s. You can get acquainted with these bluebloods at the pioneering grain-savers and heritage flour millers, Anson Mills (ansonmills.com).
"In Western Pennsylvania, we are planting the seeds for our own pedigreed seasonal and organic grains. Check Clarion River Organics (wheat, spelt and oats, milled various ways at clarionriverorganics.com). Next growing season we can expect to hear from Weatherbury Farm in Avella, where they are growing farro and einkorn, plus heritage wheats and rye (firstname.lastname@example.org).
"If you want to flirt with the newest old kid on the block, try freekeh.
"This is roasted or smoked green wheat, a flavor beloved from Lebanon to Turkey. Chef Ana Sortun, freekeh fan and owner of Oleana in Boston, is quoted in a Sierra Club magazine feature, 'Grain Trust,' as saying: 'The roasting of the grain brings complexity to the slightly smoky pistachio flavor.'
"This earthy, stubborn wheat softens slowly, but in 45 minutes or an hour, the dark grains become delicious chewy, juicy kernels in mahogany-colored broth. Cook it like a pilaf -- soften a few chopped shallots in oil, stir in a cup of freekeh, toast the grain in the oil a few minutes, stirring, add two cups of water or stock, a big pinch of salt and simmer until chewy-tender.
"You can buy freekeh at the Uncommon Market in Upper St. Clair, Salem's Market in the Strip District or, already cooked, at Trader Joe's. For broader experimenting with lesser-known grains, Giant Eagle carries a wide selection of Bob's Red Mill's grain and flours."
Here is a freekeh recipe from Christine Muhlke that ran in the New York Times: