Molten. Gooey. Indulgent. Comforting. Satisfying. Perfect for sharing. Mouthwatering desserts? Think again.
No, these are apt and appetizing descriptions of hot appetizers, sharing-plates, and snacks in which melted cheese is the star attraction. Some are new food trends, some are reinventions of classics, but all are indulgences at the beginning of, or instead of, the meal. And all are players in today’s casualization trend in food service. Simply swapping flavorful cheeses with little cost additions makes for a unique menu offering. Try incorporating new flavors or concentrates to build mouth watering cravings.
“Two aspects of casualization are comfort and the greater use of less costly ingredients,” says Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC. “The increase in the popularity of dishes with melted cheese relates to both those aspects. There’s a huge comfort and indulgence aspect to melted cheese—and cheese is generally a much less costly protein option than meat.” Fresh produce items are a great way to add flavor and zest to traditional menu offerings with little cost. Add crunchy fried kale leaves as a base or seasonal greens tossed in refreshing citrus juices or flavored vinegars to bring a flavor explosion.
Savvy food service operators and consumers alike are taking note. Data from the Chicago-based research firm Technomic, Inc.’s MenuMonitor show a 9-percent increase in the incidence of cheese dips—accounted for by some 75 items—on menus between 2009 and 2011. While, according to data from Technomic and the Chicago-based research firm Mintel, the ubiquitous and cheesy spinach-and-artichoke dip remains the most popular dip on today’s menus, there’s more than one way to melt a diner’s heart with a hot-cheese dish. Many of our operators are looking for ways to bring comfort memories and stay up to date. House made pimiento cheese spreads remind us of the days Dad used to sit back and indulge in store bought favorites. Fondutas were always a favorite at Nona’s house and these incredible cheese sharing plates are perfect for any operator.
“The two major cheese food trend opportunities,” Ludwig explains, “are, one, dishes based on a melted cheese or in which cheese is central to a particular dish, and, two, dishes that are enhanced by a generous topping of melted cheese.” Both provide ample ways to be creative and please diners across multiple segments. Like cheese both crispy bacon and roasted peppers offer a great flavor enhancement to any melted cheese offering.
With the exception of Asian, virtually every major cuisine has its own hot-cheese dips and dishes. All are really variations on a theme—cheese in a melted form infused with spirits and/or other flavorings. Cheese has a place on every menu, offerings that are served “scraped” and warm such as Raclette with toasted breads and crackers are great communal offerings.
Swiss in origin, fondue—Gruyère and Emmental cheeses blended with white wine and kirschwasser—is closer to a cheese sauce. “This is classic European comfort food,” Ludwig says. “It was all the rage in the U.S. in the ’70s. At the peak of the trend, there was a huge wealth of fondue restaurants, but those that remain are mostly special-occasion, niche operations.” Still, fondue remains an opportunity; add it as a special, sharing-plates dish or make it one course of a prix-fixe romantic dinner.
Updates: Replace traditional ingredients with artisanal and upscale cheeses and ale or beer; serve themed fondues such as a jerk-chicken fondue, seafood fondue; offer creative dippers.
“The Italian version of fondue, fonduta, is much easier to execute and, from a consumer standpoint, is rich, cheesy, and easily shareable,” Ludwig says. Italian cheeses such as Gorgonzola, fontina, and/or Asiago and other ingredients are baked or broiled in a shallow casserole or baking dish. In classic versions, a tomato-based or Alfredo sauce is topped with melted cheese and dried Italian cheese.
Updates: Add flavorful meats—Crispy prosciutto, crumbled sausage (fennel, Bresaola, sopressata, Lonza or lardo), grilled chicken, bacon; grilled onions, spinach, sautéed leeks, shallots, white wine; braised root vegetables. These fondutas can be a unique chef’s creation. Try them with roasted heirloom tomatoes, pickled green tomato or eggplant.
Smooth and creamy Latin cheese or queso dips—which, according to Q2 2011 Mintel data, rank second on the list of most popular dips—are nothing new, but they are being reinvented. “Today’s sophisticated diners are moving away from homogenous nacho-cheese dips to the more authentic queso fundido, which uses tomato-based salsa topped with a Mexican melting cheese such as queso rico, heated together in a ramekin.”
Updates: Use authentic Mexican and/or artisanal cheeses; or use Alfredo sauce. Incorporate roasted vegetables; jalapeños or other chilies; beef or chicken fajita meat; crumbled chorizo, pulled or braised Latin pork; shrimp or crabmeat.
This Greek dish can help satisfy increased interest in Mediterranean cuisine—and offers a dramatic presentation for sophisticated diners seeking a memorable experience. Soak slices of Kasseri cheese in ouzo, brandy, or some other liqueur, and flambé at tableside as the server calls out, “Opa!” then douses the fire with lemon juice.
Updates: If tableside flambéing is not an option, fry half-inch slices of Kasseri cheese in olive oil or butter, sprinkle with fresh herbs or butter, and serve with pita or other flatbread.
“Dishes with melted cheese toppings have very high flavor, a great comfort element, and are easy to prepare,” Ludwig says. “You may have to purchase a specific cheese, but many items are already in your pantry or cooler, so you can add them to the menu without expanding inventory.” Ask your Customer Development Specialist for a listing of small pack size cheeses and experiment with new flavors without spending too much.
“These have evolved from cheese sauce to full strength cheeses,” Ludwig says.
Updates: Use artisanal cheeses, multiple cheese blends, and hearty meat-protein toppings, such as barbacoa, chicken tinga, or seafood. Look at expanding into Poutines by using french fries or sliced potatoes. A new twist could include tostones, which are fried plantain chips, or an even better choice could be fried chicharon.
“In its purest form, this French-Canadian dish is fried with beef gravy and cheese curds, but chefs have pushed it in all sorts of directions,” Ludwig says. “Pick some sort of signature cheese and do something different.”
Updates: Use artisanal cheeses and/or unexpected cheeses such as Muenster and Havarti; use blue cheese, goat cheese, or feta crumbles instead of cheese curds; add a cheese sauce, such as Alfredo, in addition to any curds and gravy; add a signature meat component like braised pot roast or braised short rib that elevates the dish and makes it heartier and more enjoyable; change up your potatoes and use wedges, chunks, or even sweet potatoes.
“These are perfect for a family restaurant or sports bar,” Ludwig says.
Updates: Use upscale cheeses; roasted garlic, and vegetables; add hearty meats such as steak, pot roast, and barbecued or pulled pork.