Profitable Proteins: Seasonal and Trending Ideas

When chef David Chang was opening the now legendary Momofuku restaurant in New York, the pork belly buns were an eleventh-hour addition. The architecture of this dish was thoughtfully plotted out: the pillowy bun, the flavorful pork, the tangy quick pickles, the fresh scallions, and the savory hoisin sauce. While the restaurant is renowned for the noodle soup, it’s the pork belly buns that make Momofuku the icon it is today. In the cookbook named after his flagship restaurant, Chang (a previous Maines Food Show speaker) says the pork belly bun is their take on a common Asian food formula: “steamed bread + tasty meat = good eating.”

The Bowl Approach

Chicken Thigh Tonkotsu Style Ramen

Braised Chicken Thigh “Tonkotsu-Style” Ramen – Get the Recipe!

Except for the bread, the same standard Asian formula can also be applied to bowls, which presents an opportunity for chefs to get creative with modern takes on protein that excite guests. Bowls need not be restricted to Asian flavor profiles – they lend themselves well to Latin, contemporary American, and Mediterranean configurations. Customers are looking for dishes that are memorable, creative, healthy, fun, and comforting. It’s a tall order, but bowls can deliver on all counts. They also allow foodservice operators the chance to utilize leftovers and surplus product, making it a must-have menu item not just for craveability but also profitability.

This spring, take advantage of trending proteins including fresh seafood and incorporate spring produce for the ultimate bowl to freshen up your seasonal offerings. Modern bowl builds can incorporate all kinds of grains including rice, farro, barley, quinoa, sorghum, and Kamut to name a few. Noodles are another popular base option that can add texture and nod to ethnic cuisine or can feature grain-free noodles with the use of zucchini or spaghetti squash noodle. These will all provide a solid foundation and pair perfectly with the best of spring’s bounty.

The key to bowls is finding that perfect balance between flavors and textures so crunchy garnishes that provide texture and vegetables from raw to pickled that bring flavor all play an important role. These are crucial supporting players, but in a bowl build, proteins are front and center. When it comes to choosing protein in your bowl offerings, chicken, beef, and vegetable-based proteins are all excellent options, but our emphasis is on top trending items: pork belly and seafood.


Prominent Pork Belly

Spring Greens, Asparagus, & Fennel Salad with Pork Belly Croutons – Get the Recipe!

Pork belly is one of those perennial protein favorites. With its unctuousness, rich flavor and crispy skin cooked to perfection, pork belly has it all. It lends itself to many applications and stands up well to bold flavors like the sweet heat of Korean gochujang and sesame oil or a bright and garlicky Cuban mojo marinade. Pork belly can be fried, braised, roasted, or grilled, and since it’s so rich and flavorful, a small portion goes a long way, making it a perfect protein option to maximize checks. Aside from bowls, pork belly can be a garnish for salads, coated in ethnic flavors like Korean BBQ and served on a stick, or used as a filling for a classic sandwich.

Pork belly also pairs beautifully with spring produce. The intensely tart flavor of rhubarb cuts the richness of pork belly and can be married with other flavors such as ginger and warm spices such as cardamom. Use rhubarb in a sauce or glaze for pork belly and serve over grains like herbed farro or creamy grits. Other spring produce gems, such as the mild onion flavor of ramps and the earthiness of morel mushrooms, as well as the freshness of peas, fava beans, and asparagus complement pork.


Seasonal Seafood

Walleye Fish and “Chips” – Get the Recipe!

Health concerns are driving customers to eat more seafood, and spring is prime time to highlight a variety of seasonal fish such as walleye, trout, lox, tuna, halibut, and salmon. Customers are looking for lighter and healthier dishes, and seafood will help you meet this demand. In particular, sustainable seafood choices are popping up more often on menus, driven by millennials who are concerned about sustainability and quality.

Seasonal fish make for great protein options in entrées accompanied by fresh spring produce, as well as in menu staples such as sandwiches, tacos, chowders, and salads. According to Datassential, 90 percent of consumers said they have snacked on seafood, giving chefs opportunity to get inventive with seafood snack offerings and amp up the flavor combinations with appetizers such as calamari, mussels, and clams.

The Hawaiian dish poke – which typically features chunks of raw, marinated fish, umami-packed sauces, flavorful fresh vegetables, and creative, playful garnishes – continues to be popular. With its healthy halo and endless possibilities for flavor experimentation and customization, poke is comfort food without the guilt. Try featuring a salmon poke bowl on your menu containing raw salmon tossed with shoyu (soy-based broth), sesame oil, cucumbers, ginger, and green onions.