On The Side

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From condiments to vinegars, oils and sauces, chefs are using a range of accoutrements to dress up their food

It’s a running joke in the restaurant business that the most calorie-conscious, demanding, high-maintenance diners want every sauce and salad dressing “on the side.”

Most restaurants can accommodate that kind of request but, as every chef knows, it’s these little extras that can take a dish from dull to delectable. Whether it’s a special burger or sandwich slather, a spicy dipping sauce for wings or a dollop of Blue Cheese sauce on a steak, a unique condiment not only adds a hit of flavour, it can create a new dish that customers crave.

And, according to the “2011 Technomic Consumer Trend Report,” there’s growing consumer interest in new and unique flavours that drive traffic and sales. “Condiments give operators and consumers a way to add a unique flavour in a low-risk way,” says Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager at Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm. “A spread on a sandwich or salad dressing on the side lets them try something new but won’t ruin the meal if they don’t like it.”

The report found consumer interest in condiments and sauces is growing, with 54 per cent of respondents saying “a sauce with a unique or flavourful name can pique my interest in ordering a particular item,” up from 43 per cent in 2009. Forty-six per cent said they’re tempted by “original” sauces or toppings that are unique to a particular restaurant.

That’s what Top Chef Canada finalist Chef Connie DeSousa and her business partner, chef John Jackson, discovered at their Calgary restaurant, Charcut. The meaty menu seems simple, but the deliciousness is in the details. Scratch cooking is their mantra — everything, from the sausages and charcuterie, to the plum, orange and almond conserve, quince paste and pickles served alongside it, are made in-house. The Kitchen Pickles with rosemary grissini ($6) is a popular appetizer on its own, and the vinegar from those pickles, whether classic garlic dills or spicy pickled carrots, goes into their salad dressings. Even the mayonnaise in the piri-piri aioli that’s served with the pork croquettes and ale-battered onion rings ($14), or folded into the rotisserie chicken salad sandwich ($15), is made by hand. “We spend a number of hours creating sauces and pickles from scratch, but our guests really appreciate the extra care that goes into making these condiments,” says DeSousa. “The syrup from our sweet pickled sour cherries goes into a refreshing house cherry soda, and the spicy carrot vinegar gives a nice kick to our green salad.”

The oils in those salad dressings are sourced from Sky Hawk Olive Oil, friends in California who cold press their organic olives, some together with citrus fruits from their orchard. “They produce phenomenally clean lemon oil,” says DeSousa, who uses it in the signature Tuna Conserva, preserved in a small canning jar and served with a simple arugula salad ($11/14).

Otherwise, it’s duck fat for frying. “We try to stay away from GMO oils,” says DeSousa, noting they buy a 10-gallon pail of duck fat from Quebec’s Brome Lake every week. “Anything that goes into our fryer — the Parmesan fries, the croquettes, even the fries in our food truck — are cooked in duck fat,” she adds. “It does cost more, but it has less fat and cholesterol, it’s healthier for you. I preach it at all the tables.”

DeSousa makes her piri-piri from “an old family recipe,” every fall while the tomato jam — a purée of canned San Marzano tomatoes with garlic, onions and spices — is cooked constantly, as the restaurant goes through two litres a day. “Everyone’s fallen in love with it,” she says of the popular jam that’s served alongside Charcut burgers and fries. “We get lots of requests for the recipe.”

While DeSousa shares her recipes, many don’t. Just as there are “secret sauces” in the fast-food world, there are secrets around just how those sauces are made (or where they are sourced). Many operators say they are buying pre-made sauces or creating their signature sauces by combining a variety of pre-made condiments.

“Our Extreme Sauce is incredibly popular,” says Craig Walker, director of Product Development for Extreme Pita, describing the chain’s kitchen-sink combination of mayonnaise flavoured with garlic, horseradish, Dijon mustard and spicy barbecue sauce. “It was developed originally for a steak sandwich, but it’s great on chicken and has recently migrated to Mucho Burrito, our sister brand, because it’s just such a great sauce.”

The Ontario-based Extreme Pita uses its stable of creative sauces — from bourbon-chipotle-pepper sauce to pepita-mole sauce — to take a traditional Middle-Eastern pita wrap into new ethnic territory. “It’s a ‘flavours-of-the-world’ concept,” says Walker. “We have 18 different sauces and four spreads. You can take that pita and make any creation you want, just by changing the protein and the sauce.”

Extreme Pita uses some sauces direct from suppliers and has others custom-made, always looking for “low-calorie, reduced-fat or low-sodium” versions. “If we don’t have it made, we create it ourselves,” Walker says, noting its aiolis are made with yogurt or sour cream and fresh herbs.

Healthy options are another trend when it comes to sauces. According to Technomic, 43 per cent of recent survey respondents want low-fat choices, and 29 per cent are looking for low-sodium dressings and condiments.

While “hold the mayo” was once a popular way to cut calories, today mayonnaise trails only barbecue sauce and mustard as the topping of choice for sandwiches and burgers on Canadian menus. Garlic aioli is the 10th most popular topping, showing a 140-per-cent increase in menu penetration this year, and, according to “Datassential MenuTrends,” Canada’s March 2012 report, aioli and chipotle mayonnaise have also grown in popularity, each up more than 113 per cent since 2007.

Many fine-dining restaurants create their own salad dressings and vinaigrettes using specialty oils such as cold-pressed canola oil, avocado oil or hazelnut and special fruit- or herb-infused vinegars from artisan or local suppliers. It’s healthy Manitoba hemp seed oil on the plate at Fude in Winnipeg. At Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead in Toronto, the vinaigrettes include local Kozlick mustard, and at Raymond’s in St. John’s, N.L., chef Jeremy Charles might whisk in a bit of his local cranberry compote. And, while it was the exotic Pear Gorgonzola Vinaigrette Dressing from Litehouse that took the Association for Dressings and Sauces prize for Dressing of the Year in November, Technomic’s “MenuTrends Canada” found old stand- bys still reign on most Canadian menus. Caesar dressing is the most popular in Canada by far with more than two-thirds of restaurants surveyed serving it, with vinaigrette at 38.1 per cent, Balsamic at 23.3 per cent and Sesame and Ranch nearly tied at 10.5 per cent and 10.3 per cent respectively.

When it comes to tomato-based sauces, “Menu-Trends Canada” found salsa outpaced Ketchup nearly four to one, while barbecue sauce remains the top choice for burgers and sandwiches.

According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s December 2011 Sauces, Dressings and Condiments report, artisinal food products are the fastest-growing segment in the foodservice industry.

A special salad dressing can create loyal customers and, in some cases, can become so popular that it literally takes over the business. The dressing that customers once carried home in wine bottles from Ernie and Mary Heurlimann’s tiny restaurant, Boccalino Grotto, in Canmore, Alta., is now a Canadian salad sensation. “If you go to Switzerland, every chef makes a variation of this dressing,” says Mary of the light mayonnaise dressing, emulsified with beef stock. “Over there, it’s known as French dressing.”

Now sold in the fresh produce departments of supermarkets across Canada, the Boccalino Grotto dressing line includes Ernie’s original house dressing, and Caesar, Basil Garlic and Lemon Pepper flavours. The couple has sold the restaurant to concentrate on their salad dressings, which are served in prestigious places such as the Fairmont’s Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise.

With his Nonna Pia’s Balsamic Reduct-ions, Chef Norm Strim of Whistler, B.C., is part of that artisanal condiment trend, too. “I’m a chef by trade myself, so I appreciate the flavour of true reductions,” says Strim who reduces six-year-old balsamic vinegars imported from Modena for six hours with fresh strawberries and figs, or herbs such as rosemary, to create signature flavours. His reductions, named for his Italian grandmother, are gluten-free, unlike many balsamic-based sauces and glazes that contain thickeners, he says.

Strim cooked up the idea for his popular condiments while on a shopping trip to Italy with his former employer, Earl’s Restaurants. Amazed by the rich flavour and viscosity of the 100-year-old traditionally aged Italian balsamico, he was determined to recreate an affordable facsimile in his own kitchen.

Strim’s balsamic reductions are sold in glass or plastic squeeze bottles, perfect, he says, for drizzling over salads, grilled vegetables and meats, even vanilla ice cream. His latest infusion — with fresh ginger and lemon juice — is great on chicken wings or even sushi, he says.

While Strim markets his reductions as “finishing sauces,” bartenders love them, too. The Four Seasons Whistler has created a 100-Mile “Feel-the-Beet” cocktail with Nonna Pia strawberry fig reduction, combining it with beet-infused Schramm gin from nearby Pemberton and fresh local strawberry purée. Whistler’s Alta Bistro adds a splash of the balsamic reduction to its cocktails — whether it’s the sparkling strawberry mimosa or a bourbon-and-balsamic take on a whisky sour.

For Andrew Keen, corporate executive chef at Chop Steakhouse + Bar, a new premium casual chain with six locations in Western Canada and another opening in Toronto this year, creating a good sauce is an art. Whether it’s crab and shrimp cakes with basil aioli ($12.50), steak bites with sweet Dijon barbecue dip and horseradish aioli ($12.75), or crisp onion rings with white truffle aioli ($8), Keen says sauces let customers take risks. “With condiments you can go outside the box, as long as there’s something familiar on the plate,” says Keen who’s working on a fresh basil aioli for the Chop burger and offers a warm chutney-like apple bourbon salsa with pork chops. “If it was all about truffles, it might not work, but it’s onion rings.”

Keen admits it’s impractical to make all sauces from scratch and maintain consistency in a busy chain, and bases his “aioli” sauces on “a good quality commercial mayonnaise.” He adds: “But if you start with a good mayonnaise and a really, really good relish, and fold in some nice mustard and fresh lemon juice, you can create something quite divine,” he says. And, if diners are unsure, they can just ask for a little “on the side.”              

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