Comfort Food, Local Sources, Exotic Spices

Scott Pruden

Those are some of the trends area restaurants are adapting for the cooler months

What you put in your mouth has surprising parallels to what you put on your body. The restaurant world—much like the clothing world—follows fashions and trends.

Think of it in terms of that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep’s haughty magazine editor Miranda Priestly explains to 20-something assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) the precise provenance of her blue Rayon sweater, from haute couture runway item to the department store rack, to her back.

Food isn’t so different, with trends often starting at the “top” of the industry and gradually trickling down to where you and I are exposed to new flavors and ideas as our regional and local chefs incorporate them into their own kitchens and menus.

One of the great advantages of being in this sweet spot between New York City and Washington, D.C., is that many of our area chefs possess both an awareness of the trends, and the confidence to create some of their own.

So, with the change in seasons from hot and soupy to clear and crisp, we took some of the area’s leaders in the culinary field aside to chat about what they look for in a fall/winter menu, what trends they’re seeing among their peers and competition, and what they’ll be plating for the hungry masses now that cooler weather has kicked in.

Two words that dominated our conversations would be no surprise to anyone who has hunkered down for a long, dreary Delaware winter: comfort food.

Less than a trend, it’s more of a human need to seek out those foods that make us think of the warmth and safety of home, says Amanda Nichols, chef at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa. But she indicates that even comfort foods should be prepped with the bathroom scale in mind. 

That Homey Feeling

“I’m not afraid to put lots of butter and cream in things, but I do think that healthier comfort food is going to be the trend this year—people finding classic comfort foods and trying to find healthier ways to prepare them. So, what I’m looking forward to is maybe I’ll use a little less butter,” says Nichols, laughing.

At Home Grown Café in Newark, owner Sasha Aber agrees that it’s important to create that feeling of home during the cooler months.

“Fall and winter are always exciting,” she says. “The bright fruits of summer go, and people are always looking for those warming foods. That’s when we transition to root vegetables, heartier salads and different sides.”

That change also means more density in the dessert menu, with things like apple cider bread pudding and maple syrup crème brulee.

“You’re not hibernating, but you’re not getting your nutrients as much from the sun, so if you can watch your portions, you can still enjoy some of those richer desserts,” Aber says.

Nichols is also seeing a trend toward one-bowl meals, similar to what might be found in a ramen restaurant, but adapted to American tastes. In the red, white and blue version, the bowls take elements usually served separately on the plate and layer them together, creating more complex flavors.

Layering flavors is also one of the goals for David Banks, executive chef for Harry’s Hospitality Group and co-owner of Harry’s Seafood Grill and Harry’s Fish Market in Wilmington. The seasonal trend is to exotic spices and herbs—Mediterranean, Moroccan and Indian—that complement the season.

“As chefs,” says Banks, “we’re all looking for the new flavor profile. We go through our Italian stage, then we go through our Asian phase and then Latin phase, and now I’m on to the Indian phase—those chutneys and spices and aromatics that lend themselves not just to meat, but to vegetables. They’re just great flavors.”

Aber agrees, and that’s a reason her team has long been incorporating flavors of Africa, India and the Middle East.

“Mexican, Indian, whatever you can think of, it’s on our menu because it’s all made fresh and it fits together, so I think we’re unique in that aspect,” she says. “Because we’re smaller, we have that freedom. We run specials twice a week, but if something comes in, we can use it right away. We have a lot more freedom to experiment, and I think our customers expect that from us. They’re looking for something a little different and unique, and we deliver that to them.”

Comfort foods like cassoulets and chilis will appear more often on Banks’ cool-weather menus, as well as game dishes that will often incorporate duck, venison and lamb. But given the fact that seafood and fish are in both restaurants’ names, the fruits of the ocean get their due, as well.

Gourd Season

“For Harry’s Seafood Grill, I always look to October through March as Florida stone crab season,” says Banks. “That’s just a great product that’s literally in season only during that time—they’re not allowed to catch them at other times of the year.”

As far as vegetables go, everyone we spoke to is excited about the squashes, gourds and pumpkins of late fall. They also agreed that the long-percolating farm-to-table movement has expanded to the point where restaurateurs and growers have reached a happy equilibrium. Chefs now know their customers expect to find locally sourced produce on their menus. Meanwhile, the number of farmers of local and heirloom produceas well as sustainably farmed meats and artisan goods like cheeses and pickleshas increased dramatically.

The Hilton Christiana in Newark has reinvented its on-site Hunt Club restaurant into the Market Kitchen and Bar, and Robert Fratticcioli, executive chef, takes the farm-to-table philosophy seriously, looking to source everything he can—fruits and vegetables, meats, beer, and even ice cream—from local producers.

A portion of Christiana Hilton’s herb garden used in dishes for Market Kitchen and Bar. Photo Matt Urban

Those include beer from area brewers, ice cream from Woodside Farm Creamery in Hockessin, and beef for short ribs, flatiron steaks and burgers from Reid Angus in Frankford.

“We’re trying to stay true to our concept of using local, so we’re touring farms in the area looking at things they pickle and jar and trying to do that ourselves through the year using Delaware-grown products,” he says.

Additionally, Fratticcioli buys apples and cider from Milburne Orchards in Elkton, Md. “We’ll run off their calendar for next summer to incorporate their produce in specials from breakfast through dinner,” he says.

And as if farm-to-table wasn’t local enough, Fratticcioli has crossed over into patio-to-table, growing heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and a wide selection of herbs in the hotel’s own garden. During the winter months, you’re likely to see the examples of the hotel’s summer crop show up in the form of house-made pickles and other preserved delicacies, he says.

The Ugly Squash

To feed Home Grown Café’s focus on locally-grown, Aber says the restaurant lives up to its name by building its seasonal menu around what it gets from its membership in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program that always has a diverse selection of heirloom varieties, including purple and yellow carrots and “ugly on the outside” squash.

“It seems like every fall and winter we do something with that and it’s always really good,” she says. “I just take the flavors as they come and understand that the variety might not be around, but that you use what’s there, because that’s when it’s fresh and delicious.”

With all the focus on using locally sourced ingredients and preserving the summer crop for use during the winter months, it might seem that the restaurant world is stepping back to where the subsistence farmer might have been at the end of the 19th century —using ingredients from root to leaf.

“We’re figuring out how to use things that we’d normally throw away to make something else,” says Cantwell’s Nichols. “In our business, you have to save every penny you can.”

The 26-year-old chef rediscovered the joys of using the entire food and paring down what gets thrown away when she encountered some cost issues after taking over the executive chef role at Cantwell’s. Suddenly, she was reminded that those parts of meats and vegetables typically seen as waste could instead help build the foundations of other dishes. Greens from carrots, for instance, can be incorporated into a vegetable stock. Vegetables cooked down in the stock can be pureed to create the base for a sauce.

Fratticcioli is doing much the same in his kitchen. “We’re using the whole vegetable,” he says, citing the restaurant’s use of the stems of roasted cauliflower to make cauliflower rice. “What you want to do is cut down on your waste by finding ways to use the whole product,” he says.

For her part, Aber stresses that Home Grown Café has been ahead of the root-to-tip curve for some time.

“We’ve been focusing on using all ingredients all along,” she says, noting that even corn cobs go into vegetable stock. “We’re not one of those restaurants getting in things pre-cut and pre-chopped. We get the whole ingredient in all the time and that helps us look at things differently.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.