Vermont culture vultures should savor this moment: Our sparsely peopled state is leading the nation in promoting some sizzling food fads. True, we're missing out on certain treats enjoyed by au courant urbanites, such as flavored waters, Asian entrée salads and smoked and colored salts. But, according to a 194-item list of "hot or not" foodstuffs compiled by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), quite a few of the biggest food-world fashions are totally Vermont-y.
Which local trends make us hip on the national scene? The biggie is one the NRA calls "alternative-source ingredients." These include Green Mountain specialties such as locally grown produce (number two on the list, after miniature desserts), organics, "grass-fed and free-range items" and unusual red meats. Vermonters are also on the cutting edge when it comes to our love of craft beer, flatbreads, micro-distilled liquors and braising. Strangely enough, the NRA doesn't mention the artisan-cheese revolution.
But all this cataloguing and predicting seems a little silly — much like trying to find meaning in the rising and dipping of hemlines in the fashion world. What can we really conclude from the fact that 35 percent of chefs think root vegetables are hot, 31 percent say they're passé, and 34 percent call the winter warriors a perennial favorite? Are Jewish people going to stop drinking Concord Grape Manischewitz because 59 percent of the chefs surveyed think kosher wine is no longer "cool"?
It's fun to read about gastronomic trends and predictions, but here at Seven Days we prefer to invent our own. As you read, keep in mind that our favorite dish is tongue in cheek . . .
Vegetable-Infused Liquors This year, nutrition will be sexier than ever as "functional foods" make their way into your favorite cocktails. You can't go wrong when your booze of choice is infused with veggies. Stock up on vitamins A and C as you toss down one "broccopolitan" after another. The bracing blend of broccoli-infused vodka, lemon juice and triple sec is both citrus and vegetal, and only a little gross.
Where does the ocean meet the land? In a seaweedtini, of course! Mix nori or wakame-scented gin with a few dashes of vermouth, garnish with an olive and a piece of tuna sashimi, and serve. Want an extra urban touch? Wet the rim of the glass and dip it in a bowlful of rice grains. Having a hot flash? You can get the estrogen-like compounds you crave with a "tofu triple." Mix equal parts silken tofu and sake, season with soy sauce, and garnish with a few edamame speared on a plastic samurai sword. As a Japanese person would say: Oishii, ne! ("It's good, huh!").
Fruity drinks are so 2007.
Chef-Made Furnishings In the aughts, it's de rigueur for chefs to whip up condiments such as chipotle-scented ketchup and roasted-garlic mayo — or aioli — from scratch. Sometimes these kitchen wizards even concoct their own recipes for crunchy pickled onions or spiced pear preserves.
Now that they've got the sauces covered, cutting-edge culinary-school grads are trying to figure out new ways to adorn their restaurants with signature touches. Since blending herbal tisanes tableside has already been done — at the Hudson Valley critics' darling Blue Hill at Stone Barns — Vermont chefs are setting their sights even higher.
Our prediction: housemade plates, flatware and furniture. After all, can you really call a dish your own when you're serving it on someone else's, well, dish? For those chefs who don't have room to add a kiln or bellows next to the convection oven, there are always local studios that rent out their facilities.
Localvore Fast Food and Junk Food Who says food has to be shipped thousands of miles to be cooked carelessly in bubbling vats of rancid grease? Soon Vermonters will be able to experience shoddy sandwiches and thoughtlessly tossed salads made from local ingredients at a new chain called Loco for Local. For breakfast, try a frozen 'n' nuked "Fatty Patty Sandwich" — the special sausage is made with a proprietary blend of North Country fat and gristle. The brown-edged lettuce on top? Grown with Green Mountain pride, of course!
Meanwhile, on the shelves of your local market or co-op, expect to see a brand of corn chips flavored with Vermont cheddar "cheeze food" and a soda sweetened with genuine-maple-syrup-like Addison County corn syrup. Sure, they're pricier and just as nutrition-free as the alternatives from Nabisco and Coca-Cola — but they're carbon-friendly!
Senior menus Family-friendly restaurants often boast children's menus featuring goofy cartoon characters and primary colors. They offer inexpensive portions of chunky, lard-laden finger foods that are perfect for fast-growing tots — while the big people enjoy "grown-up" foods such as burgers and submarine sandwiches.
But what about the fastest-growing demographic of all — the over-60 crowd? We predict that this year, savvy restaurateurs will begin to hand out "senior menus," complete with large type, to their more venerable patrons. Aging boomers can enjoy easy-eatin' options such as mashed turnips, red flannel hash and delicious liver purees. Have issues with, um, regularity? Get a bowl of "dried plums" or a glass of juice with Metamucil on the side. The decaf is on the house.
Having relegated all their bland foods to the special menu, chefs who were constrained by the recommendations of seniors' bossy doctors will make like Justin Timberlake and start "bringin' sexy back." How? By once again lavishing citrus juices, chiles, sea salt, butter and cream on their culinary creations.
Waste Not, Want Not In 2007, savvy local chefs strove to get the most food possible from each animal. Shelburne Farms even hosted a dinner featuring unusual piggy parts such as braised cheeks and twisty, crispy ears, at which headcheese made a triumphant appearance. The best thing about this wave of frugality is that it lends itself to the production of highly seasoned sausages and sensuous pâtés and terrines.
This year, chefs will take the concept from the barnyard to the vegetable garden, as they strive to use the "whole vegetable." Love yourself some silky-smooth potato puree? Not any more. After all, consider the peels that went to waste to provide you with that pleasant, creamy texture. Never tried chewing on carrot greens? Soon you'll find them candied and perched atop your dessert. Let's just hope they hold off on the whole rhubarb. Using up those leaves won't be worth the resultant nausea and convulsions.
Why are we so sure that 2008 will be the year of vegetable love? Look no further than the new difficulties plaguing the Intervale's composting company.
Infinitesimal plates Recently, Kim Severson of The New York Times brashly declared the death of the entrée in favor of multi-course chefs' tasting menus and "small plates." But in the B-town area, only a few restaurants have jumped on board the tapas trend. Most still offer meals designed to showcase ample portions of the hearty dinnertime trinity: protein, starch and a colorful veg.
Why are we missing out? Because Burlington chefs are about to skip right over the "small plates" trend and hit the big time with something even edgier: infinitesimal plates. After all, why would you want to pay $6 for a pair of cute crab cakes with spiced mango coulis when you could pay $2 for the achingly hip miniature version: a bite of crabmeat, a sandy pile of bread crumbs and a mango cube? It's as cool (and twee) as a Wes Anderson movie. At the crème de la crème of dining establishments, expect your plate to arrive with a handsome pair of custom-made tweezers.
Musical Meals The "infinitesimal plates" trend won't come without a backlash from down-to-earth "real" Vermonters. At restaurants that don't embrace the minuscule and deconstructed, you'll find the concept of "shared plates" taken to a new level when regular diners get to split their dinners with complete strangers.
Think $32 is a little steep for a portion of shepherd's pie? That's 'cause it's not just a portion: It's a whole pan. But don't get too cozy with the hearty casserole; in a few minutes, a friendly server will swap your mass of mashed for the mega-bowl of spaghetti and meatballs being shared by the party at the next table over. They're not finished yet? That's part of the fun!
Before the end of the evening, your entrée will have made it around the entire dining room, and you'll have sampled a bunch of the chef's specialties. Germophobes may want to sit this one out.
Food Minutes Thanks to hardworking activists such as Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, almost all literate Americans have heard of "food miles" and carbon footprints. But so far, nobody has considered how damn long it takes to produce one itty-bitty summer squash.
Culinary philosophers will change that this year, as they begin to talk about "food minutes": the length of time it takes to grow, cook and serve each item that makes its way to your plate. Did you know the sandwich you're eating took 1,972,234 minutes to create? Gives a new meaning to the phrase "slow food," doesn't it?