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Microsoft word - food_trends_2005-12.doc
A SURVEY OF CULINARY TRENDS JUST AROUND
Marc Halperin, QSR Magazine
, December 2005
Despite popular perception, quick-service restaurants have rarely been slaves to
fashion. Though they have, over time, adapted to significant changes in the American
palate and to the culture’s growing emphasis on convenience, value, and health, they’ve
never zealously latched onto every fleeting food fad that whistles down the pike.
The TrendMapping content-analysis method developed years ago at Center for Culinary
Development consistently shows that culinary trends pass through five distinct stages
en route to mainstream acceptance—a level of mass penetration that typical y
culminates in a flavor or dish turning up on quick-service menu boards and on grocery-
First, the new dish or ingredient is road-tested by cutting-edge chefs in adventurous
urban markets—sometimes in the form of daily specials, sometimes on the standard
daily menu. An item that proves highly popular with diners often stays on the menu
long-term. And sometime during its life span, the item wil be sampled by other chefs,
who always keep an eye on their competition’s creative and commercial breakthroughs.
Those chefs might ultimately add the dish to their own establishments’ menus.
After enough chefs have introduced a similar dish or begun experimenting with an
exciting new taste, culinary specialty media such as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, or the
Food Network wil take note of the burgeoning phenomenon. This is Stage 2 on the
TrendMap. And if enough articles on the same subject appear in these taste-making
publications, you can bet that mid-scale chain restaurants, such as Applebee’s, Chili’s,
and others, wil soon begin to tinker with the trend and test it on their own menus.
Once the chain restaurants find themselves with a runaway hit, it’s just a few short steps
to Stage 4, where the trend in question begins to attract coverage in magazines, such
as Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle. And this positive press typical y leads
to Stage 5, in which quick-serves and large grocery stores get in the game. The best
and most prevalent examples of trends that have fol owed this life cycle are such
modern staples as pesto, Caesar salads, chipotle, salsa, and lattes.
Now, part of quick-service’s reluctance to be swept up in the taste du jour has to do with
prudence. Creating and launching new products is a costly exercise, and a heavily
promoted new sandwich that doesn’t drive transactions or check amounts won’t provide
However, the downside of this conservative tendency is that fast-food chains seldom
get in on the ground floor of the most profitable trends. Imagine if, instead of adding a
chipotle chicken sandwich to its menu after the popular chile had already made its
appearance in several other contexts, a McDonald’s or a Burger King or a KFC had
been first to introduce it. The chains conceivably could have reaped the “first-on-their-
block” benefits of breaking a bona-fide blockbuster.
The question here in late 2005 is which emerging trends quick-serves might want to
examine closely if they want to secure that al -important first-mover advantage.
TrendMapping analysis reveals six specific up-and-comers:
This Argentinean dipping sauce, currently classified as a Stage 1 trend, although the
buzz surrounding it is growing in volume and intensity, is as ubiquitous in that beef-
loving nation as ketchup is here in the U.S. The highly acidic and herbal concoction—
made with olive oil, vinegar, parsley, oregano, onion, and garlic and seasoned with salt,
black pepper, and cayenne—makes for a magnificent meat and fish marinade.
Chimichurri’s uniquely sharp, intense flavor and vinaigrette-like texture could make it
every bit as popular here as salsa is today. And because, like salsa, its basic ingredient
mix can be altered to achieve varying degrees of spiciness and different flavor profiles—
variants include red pepper flakes, cilantro and mint, red or white vinegar, soy sauce,
tomatoes, and sherry—chimichurri’s versatility is already attracting the attention of
culinary trendsetters like James Schenk, owner and executive chef of the Nuevo Latino
bistro Destino on San Francisco’s Market Street. Last year, Schenk ladled chimichurri
over Pacific mahi-mahi and a puree of white fava beans. A few blocks away, the Acme
Chophouse, in the city’s South of Market district, offers a chimichurri sauce as one of
five sauce selections available for any of its popular beef entrees. In addition, at
Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, it’s served as part of a delicious natural rib-eye
Epicurious.com lists some 15 recipes for chimichurri dating back to 1999, and, in a
development that reveals how much momentum the green stuff from Argentina is
gaining Stateside, both T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s have begun incorporating chimichurri
Churrasco, Brazil’s rustic barbecue tradition, is simple, succulent, and highly social.
Because it originated in one of the country’s rural cattle-farming regions, it is humble to
the extreme. Basic tools of the trade are an open flame, a skewering sword, and a
carving knife. The only seasonings used in true traditional churrasco are sea salt and
garlic. The open flame results in meat that’s charred and smoked on the outside, but
If you’ve never been to a churrascaria, you’re in for a treat. Think Dim Sum, South
American-style. The first half of the meal consists of an enormous salad bar that boasts
an astounding array of hot and cold appetizers. Then, out come huge skewers of meat,
which your server wil typical y stab into the top of your table while he or she carves off
slabs of perfectly fire-gril ed meats for you. The staff wil keep on stopping by and
slicing until you indicate, by turning over a card or medal ion they’ve placed on your
Churrascarias have already taken root in San Francisco and New York, and Fogo de
Chao, a chain with outlets in Dal as, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and Beverly Hil s, has
proven with its success that the concept has legs.
Steven Raichlen, host of public television’s Barbecue University and author of several
best-sel ing books on barbecue, says he believes churrasco is clearly among the hottest
barbecue trends in the U.S. today, and adds that he believes the churrascaria could be
“the Outback of the new mil ennium.” With that kind of endorsement, it’s not hard to see
why we’re bul ish on Brazilian barbecue’s potential in the marketplace.
3. Flour Power
Closer to the mainstream sits ciabatta, an herbal, yeasty, olive oil-tinged, flour-dusted
Italian bread. It’s already made its mark on Jack in the Box’s menu; the West Coast-
based burger chain unleashed several new ciabatta-themed sandwiches during the past
Ciabatta and other specialty breads wil be turning up more and more in months to
come. Panera Bread is building a fast-casual sandwich empire based around fresh,
novel and distinctive breads. That phenomenon has led more traditional quick-serves to
look past the plain, sugary bun of old to embrace more upscale varieties. In the future,
brioche, herb- and vegetable-flavored breads, whole-grain offerings, and a wealth of
other possibilities wil likely make their presence felt on a universal level.
One of the wonderful things about high-quality bread is that it can transform even
ordinary ingredients into something sublime. Surround a basic burger with a fresh
baguette, a rosemary and Asiago cheese rol , or an onion-flecked bun, and suddenly
you’re holding a very different sandwich. Quick-serves are in a prime position to devise
better breads that can transform existing products into entirely new and proprietary
tastes. Al they need is some imagination and the ability to work with suppliers to cost-
effectively carry out the new specs. It’s a relatively low-risk/high reward proposition.
4. Regional Mexican
More and more Americans are coming to understand that the food they have tended to
group under the general heading of “Mexican” is, in fact, a composite of many different
regional cuisines, including those of Oaxaca, Yucatan, and Veracruz. Both chef Amey
Shaw, formerly of Berkeley’s Fourth Street Gril and now the proprietor of Sonoma
County’s L’Assiette, an organic artisan foods take-out business, and Tom Worthington,
who teaches Mexican cooking at San Francisco’s Tante Marie Cooking School, believe
Yucatecan cuisine might be in the best position to take off quickly. The region’s popular
signatures include recados, seasoning combinations that are rubbed into pork and
chicken before cooking, and achiote paste.
Of the various recados, Worthington notes that recado negro is the most common.
Made with charred chiles and al spice berries, the flavor is strong and bitter, he says,
and can be provocative and exciting. Achiote paste, meanwhile, figures prominently in
the Yucatecan favorite cochinita pibil, pork wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a
“The thing about Yucatecan is that it’s different, but stil familiar,” Shaw says.
“Americans don’t perceive it as too weird.”
“Overal , we’re developing more adventurous palates [with Mexican food],” Worthington
adds. “We started with macho flavors, but now we’re moving into more floral, more
sensory things. It’s a healthy trend.”
As consumers continue to search for new taste sensations, they’re often surprised by
the sorts of tempting flavors that different Mexican regions offer. Yucatan cuisine
includes handmade tortil as fil ed with squash blossoms and pomegranate seeds on a
stuffed pepper. And Oaxaca gave the world the seven moles—spicy sauces composed
of a base of onion, chiles, nuts or seeds, as wel as unsweetened chocolate.
Many chefs agree that Americans’ perception of Mexican food today is evolving quickly,
much the way our understanding of Italian food has grown over the course of the past
30 or 40 years. In 1970, “Italian” referred to spaghetti and red sauce, pizza, and not
much else. These days, many Americans appreciate and celebrate the distinct
differences between Sicilian fare and Tuscan or Neapolitan cuisine. One day in the not-
too-distant future, we might witness a similar degree of appreciation for the culinary
heritage of our south of the border neighbors.
5. White Tea
Now, here’s a trend whose applicability to a quick-service environment might be limited
for the moment, but it’s one that’s nonetheless cropping up with ever-greater frequency
on our radar. White tea’s subtle taste al ows it to be flavored in any number of ways,
and with a higher concentration of antioxidants than either black or green teas and
much less caffeine, it is rapidly making inroads among health-conscious consumers. As
it happens, white tea isn’t actual y white at al , but rather pale green; when brewed, it
looks like diluted apple juice and tastes slightly sweet, without the grassy undertones
many people dislike about green tea. Celestial Seasonings and the Republic of Tea
already offer white tea among their other offerings; we anticipate that it’s wel on its way
6. Dulce de Leche
Final y, there is this Latin dessert favorite, which has achieved widespread attention for
its prevalence in major manufacturers’ ice creams and its recent introduction into
Hershey’s Kisses. As a sort of caramel spread whose name roughly translates to “milk
jam,” dulce de leche is comforting in its familiarity and rich taste, but it lacks the butter
that’s typical y found in caramel candies. Dulce de leche is made with sweetened,
condensed milk that’s tossed into a saucepan with sugar and boiled until the whole
concoction turns brown. And its dessert-related applications are nearly endless: one
can imagine a dulce de leche milkshake, handheld pie, or cookies in a quick-service
setting, as wel as a host of other options.
My hope is that at least some of the foregoing trends spark a discussion or a handful of
experiments in quick-serve test kitchens around the nation. There’s no real reason why
quick-serves can’t spend more time on the vanguard of up-and-coming culinary trends.
Given their enviable product-development resources and extraordinary number of
distribution outlets, there’s an argument to be made that fast-food and fast-casual
chains are in the best possible position to promote the trial of new, exciting flavors even
before those trends have traveled the traditional TrendMapping route from white-
tablecloth settings to gourmet magazines to casual restaurants to mainstream family
and women’s publications. Who’s to say that consumers won’t one day experience the
Next Big Thing at Burger King, that Taco Bel won’t be a bel wether of up-and-coming
regional Mexican cuisines, or that Wendy’s can’t be trendy? Al it takes is a wil ingness
to set the pace and a few good ideas.
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