Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Next Super-Veggie

Forecasting the Next Food Fad: Are ‘Kohlrabi’ and ‘Yacon’ the Next Kale?

Why do some foods start popping up everywhere from markets to restaurant menus? Here’s a glimpse into the making of an ‘It’ vegetable. Plus, recipes for the must-haves of the moment.

The Wall Street Journal   by Karen Stabiner July 27, 2017

YOU MAY NOT have heard of a yacon, but pay attention. This Andean tuber could be big. 


If you’ve ever eaten a kiwi or a kale salad, you’ve already surfed a produce wave. But there’s a new urgency to fruit and vegetable trends as a tight restaurant economy makes it more important than ever for a chef to stand out. Savvy customers want produce that’s intriguing, surprising, delicious and, if possible, wildly nutritious—not only at restaurants and stores but on our doorsteps, as grocery-delivery services such as FreshDirect expand the market.

On the local level, veteran southern California farmer Alex Weiser plants what he calls “development crops”—seasonal items that a chef might audition on his menu—to see if they warrant more acreage. On a much larger scale, companies like Los Angeles-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce scour the globe for fruits and vegetables that might come from nearby or from South America, because supermarket clients want variety year-round.

Karen Caplan, CEO of the 55-year-old Frieda’s, has never seen anything like the current scramble for marquee produce.

“Information travels at the speed of light” in the Instagram era, she said. The next big thing gets a lot more exposure, and faces a lot more competition.

The new star could be a tomato called the datterino—Italian for little date—that Pennsylvania farmer Chris Field brings to New York’s Union Square Greenmarket every Friday. “We can’t grow enough,” said Mr. Field, considering a near-empty crate only an hour after the market opened.

Or it could be a happy fluke like the Stokes purple sweet potato that Frieda’s distributes. Its debut happened to coincide with the popular Blue Zone diet; though the regimen promotes the health benefits of a different variety of purple sweet potato, the Stokes benefited from the association.

Yet for every lucky crop there’s a story of unmet potential. Remember kale sprouts, aka lollipop kale or kalettes? Back in 2013, this hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts was touted as the next kale—the biggest produce-marketing success story in recent memory—but wasn’t.

On a postcard Sunday morning in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Weiser presides over his family’s stand at the farmers’ market in a well-worn “Life is Good” T-shirt. Conversations with customers invigorate him. Chatting with a couple of chefs, he learned about the yacon, the aforementioned Andean tuber, which he now cultivates alongside other newcomers at his farm at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains. The versatile vegetable “tastes like a combo of celery and apple raw, and cooked, it gets sweeter,” said Mr. Weiser. He’ll give the early yield to the chefs who told him about it, to see what kind of response they get from diners.

Collaborations between chefs and small farmers sometimes hinge on matching produce to the appropriate microclimate. Evan Funke, chef-partner at Felix Trattoria in Venice, Calif., handed out chicory seeds to Mr. Weiser and a few other farmers, to make sure he has a constant supply of the bitter green as the seasons shift. He’s a one-man chicory trendmaker: When the crops hit, there will be enough not only for him but for other local chefs.

Broccolini Salad Broccolini Salad Photo: Victor Prado for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Heather Meldrom, Prop Styling by Stephanie Hanes 
 
Kong Thao, who has a farm in Fresno, Calif., is going to grow a thin-skinned Italian pepper called Jimmy Nardello for Mr. Funke, as is Mr. Weiser. Once the peppers hit the market, Mr. Thao expects word of mouth to expand his customer base. “Chefs try something, people see it on the menu, they want to buy it and try it at home,” he said. “And if a chef’s here buying something and another chef’s standing nearby, they have a conversation—and the second chef tries it too.”

The same synergy informs the East Coast market. Greg Vernick, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region, said that his menu at Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia emphasizes vegetables because so many people, himself included, are eating more of them (or feel they should be). He’s always on the hunt for novel produce.

Like most people, Mr. Vernick thought of kohlrabi as a fall vegetable—until he found some in June at the local farmers market. The summer strains were tasty and easy to work with, Mr. Vernick found—the right combination for a potential trend. “It’s not like an artichoke, where you do all this work to get a quarter cup of vegetable,” said Mr. Vernick. His kohlrabi slaw recipe, at right, combines the zesty bulb, cut into matchsticks, with cabbage, corn, tomatoes and strawberries.

The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety, and more candidates for fame. When Mr. Thao first came to the Santa Monica market 21 years ago he had about 15 crops to sell, including Chinese long beans, most of which went back on the truck at the end of the day. Now he grows about 300 produce varieties, and a bigger harvest of Chinese long beans frequently sells out in the first hour.
The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety.
On the national level, big distributors take a more strategic approach to trend-building, selecting candidates that satisfy two additional criteria: volume and a decent shelf life. “Jackfruit’s the hottest,” said Ms. Caplan of Frieda’s Produce, who likens its flavor to “Juicy Fruit gum” and describes it as “big as a toddler.” It doesn’t spoil quickly, it’s unusual enough to appeal to a retailer who wants to stand out, and it works raw and cooked, frozen or canned. It also has a demographic advantage, coming from Asia: The Asian population is the fastest-growing in the U.S.

None of which was sufficient to make a shopper take a chance on an $80 whole jackfruit. Ms. Caplan said shoppers will spend about five dollars to try a new fruit or vegetable. So Frieda’s created a label to introduce the new item and got retailers to sell cut segments for a fraction of an entire jackfruit’s cost.

As with any trend, there can be backlash. Chef Missy Robbins of Lilia, in Brooklyn, said that over the last couple of seasons she saw versions of the same dish everywhere: “carrots, roasted, with some seeds and yogurt.” Instead, she used thinly sliced raw carrots in a salad with feta and boquerones. For years she embraced springtime peas and fava beans, an annual rite at New York restaurants. “Peas come in, people do them with everything; favas come in, people do them with everything,” she said. She’s over it.

“Peas and favas don’t excite me the way they used to,” she said. Vegetables have moved to the center of the plate, from the cauliflower steaks that have been so popular in recent years to Ms. Robbins’s own hearty, boldly flavored broccolini salad (recipe at right). “I like a vegetable you can eat as a meal, and people want that,” she said. “That’s the trend.” 

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