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At Jardin in West Palm Beach, FLorida, executive chef Jordan Lerman uses black garlic in his Ricotta Gnudi.

What Exactly is a Superfood?

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Flavorful and nutritional, superfoods lead the way for chefs to create healthier menus.
By Amelia Levin September 2016 Health & Nutrition

There’s a lot of chatter about superfoods, but not a lot of clarity on the subject. Superfood, as defined by Datassential, is a non-medical, non-scientific term commonly used to describe nutrient-rich foods—such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dark leafy greens, salmon, nuts, seeds, and more—that are thought to provide functional health benefits. 

The term has gained traction in recent years as consumers seek healthier foods that are denser in nutrients. In fact, 50 percent of consumers say they are interested in superfoods, while 72 percent of operators have shown interest, according to Datassential. 

We already know that kale has been touted for its vitamin density. The green has even made it to mainstream, appearing on 13 percent of U.S. menus. 

Newer superfoods include goji berries, kefir, seaweed, and chia seeds. Surprisingly, these superfoods appear more prevalent at fast-casual restaurants, but full-service restaurants are starting to explore these ingredients in higher-level cooking and taking note of what their fast-casual compatriots are doing. 

The superfood salad at Farm Burger, an emerging fast-casual chain, contains lacinato kale, roasted carrots, pecans, beets, caramelized onions, dried cranberries, tahini dressing, and a sprinkling of nutritional yeast, a powdered deactivated yeast rich in vitamin B and essential minerals. Its Parmesan-like flavor has made the superfood popular among vegans looking to skip the cheese. 

And at Caravan of Dreams, an organic vegan restaurant in New York City, strawberries and dates are blended with raw cacao, maca powder, goji berries, almond butter, black currants, kelp, and aloe vera (which is believed to help with detoxification, immunity boosting, and digestion). 

Acai berry, maca powder, and cacao are also popping up on fast-casual menus, mainly as an ingredient in fruit/grain/veggie bowls, trail mixes, and smoothies. Acai berries, which are harvested in South American rainforests, are becoming more well known as a “miracle food,” whether used dried, fresh, or in puréed form. Goji berries, which are native Chinese wolfberries, are thought to help prevent diabetes, high blood pressure, and even age-related eye problems. 

Maca powder comes from a root in the radish family grown in the mountains of Peru. Rich in vitamins B, C, and E, it’s often used as a natural energy booster and a hormone regulator. 

Back to the Sea

As a superfood on the rise, kelp may be trending hottest, as this seaweed seems to be replacing kale as the new food to menu. Production of kelp is ramping up overseas and along the U.S. coasts. Naturally sustainable, kelp requires no fertilizers, fresh water, or land to grow—and its quick growth has restorative properties for oceans. Kelp also has restorative properties for humans, being loaded with iodine, which helps regulate the thyroid and metabolism, as well as rich in potassium, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and other minerals and antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the body and fight certain diseases. 

In cooking, kelp has a rich, umami flavor with notes of seawater. It can be dehydrated and crushed into powder form for incorporating into soups and sauces, braises, marinades, and even butter for extra flavor and nutrition. Kelp has been primarily used to make dashi in Japanese cooking, but chefs are finding other uses for it. At Momotaro in Chicago, Chef Mark Hellyar incorporates raw kombu, or large kelp leaves, in thinly sliced, raw form alongside Hawaiian seaweed and nopales for a savory-tangy salad. 

Other new superfoods are appearing on the horizon as well, like bitter melon and mangosteen, both loaded with vitamins and minerals, and known to decrease blood sugar to protect against diabetes and general inflammation. The bitter melon, most commonly used in Chinese and Asian cooking, has a bitter taste but can be blanched, sweetened, or paired with stronger-tasting fermented foods that offset the bitterness. Mangosteen appears in Thai and Southeast Asian cuisines and helps with metabolism and energy levels. 

It’s not all about being new. Not to be discounted as a superfood is the blueberry, which has been known to serve as an antioxidant, reduce the risk of heart attack, and reduce memory decline. New research shows that the fruit’s antioxidant properties are made even stronger when combined with other foods. 

At Nightbell in Asheville, North Carolina, Chef/Owner Katie Button pickles blueberries for extra acidity and juiciness, and combines that with roasted beets and house-made Ricotta. At Delicatessen in New York City, Chef Michael Ferraro pairs blueberries with coffee as a rub for a ribeye steak. 

Another sleeper superfood coming into the spotlight is black garlic. Formerly thought of as just a culinary delicacy that was revered for its sweet, savory, and uniquely earthy taste resulting from its fermented state, black garlic is now acclaimed for its strong nutritional properties. It has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, boost immune function, improve cardiovascular health and circulation by reducing blood pressure and protecting against clotting, and reduce toxins from 14 kinds of cancer cells. The magical bulb has even been shown to treat gangrene, insect bites, and ear infections. 

More chefs across the country have discovered this tasty and beneficial ingredient, and are using black garlic in different ways. At Jardin in West Palm Beach, Florida, Executive Chef Jordan Lerman uses the garlic in his Ricotta gnudi dish served in a ramen broth. “We make Ricotta in-house and let it hang overnight so that it firms, mixing it the next day with a little bit of flour and eggs,” Chef Lerman says. “We then simmer it like you would any other dumpling, and serve it with tonkatsu ramen broth, duck confit, black garlic, and fermented chili.”

Chef Thomas Horner at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort incorporates the tangy-sweet, balsamic-like flavored black garlic in a lemon bernaise sauce with oyster mushrooms for an accompaniment to a cold-smoked Australian grassfed strip steak. 

And at Glass & Vine in Coconut Grove, Florida, Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli incorporates black garlic in a leche de tigre sauce for octopus that is slowly poached, breaded, and lightly fried, then served with salsa criolla and pickled cucumber. 

The unique flavors afforded by superfoods serve as an appealing gateway for chefs to explore dishes that have more nutritional and health benefits, something consumers are increasingly seeking.

This story originally appeared in FSR's September 2016 issue with the title "Gateway Ingredients."