It’s official! Spain has been deemed the “New France” for foodies, and Spanish gastronomy has become one of the hottest international cuisines in the U.S. It started with the tapas craze in the 1990s, but since then Spanish main dishes and ingredients have caught on quickly, filtering down from fine-dining to fast-casual venues. More important, the acceptance of Spanish cuisine has been a gateway to the cuisines of other regions, such as North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, whose fare had previously been limited mostly to pioneering urban-chic restaurants like minibar in Washington, DC, and Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now that the trends are finally catching on with mainstream foodies, the time is right for food scientists, chefs, and product developers to start tapping into the unique flavors and ingredients of the Mediterranean table.
Mediterranean fare like tomatoes, garlic, peppers, olive oil, and nuts are all produced in the U.S. and available industrially, which allows developers to easily recreate authentic Mediterranean-style soups, sauces, and spreads. Global sauces have been exploding in both the retail and fast-casual markets because of their versatility, crossover capability, and customization potential. Sauces are a multitasking menu component: They can be manufactured in a concentrated form but can also be diluted at the dining establishment or by the retail customer and transformed into a soup or a spread. A base sauce can also be enhanced with additional ingredients such as vinegars, herbs, and fresh vegetables.
Using nuts to thicken sauces was originally an Arab technique that now is a staple throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Walnuts are an ideal choice for a nut-thickened sauce because their polyunsaturated fats contributes to a smooth and creamy mouth feel, and the finely ground nut flour has superior thickening power. Most Mediterranean countries have their own unique versions of nut-thickened soups, sauces, and condiments, but they clearly all shared the same realization that walnuts not only contribute a great flavor and texture, but they also add nutritional value to the sauce as well. In addition to the antioxidants and essential ALA/omega-3 fatty acid, an ounce of heart healthy walnuts provides a convenient source of protein and fiber. California walnut meal is an inexpensive, largely untapped industrial ingredient that allows developers to create a value-added sauce without substantially raising the cost. Flavor inspiration can be found in restaurants serving food from Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East.
Romesco and muhammara are both classic examples of tomato- and pepper-based nut sauces. Romesco is a classic Spanish dipping sauce with nuts, olive oil, bread, vinegar, garlic, and nyora peppers, which give the sauce its red color and a hint of heat. In Spain it is served with blackened calçots (green onions), but its versatility allows it to go well with seafood, pasta, and roasted vegetables. Muhammara, a thick and spicy Middle Eastern red sauce that can be used for dipping or as a spread, has many variations. The core ingredients are pomegranate, roasted red peppers, ground walnuts, and bread crumbs. Muhammara is simultaneously sweet, salty, spicy, and tart — and tastes great with grilled fish, on a sandwich, or with pita chips. Both romesco and muhammara can be used on a pizza or as a dip, but the end user can also thin them out for a pasta sauce or add vinegar to make a dressing.
The heat stability of the ingredients, all of which are available industrially, enables red nut-based sauces to be made into cost-effective shelf-stable products. They also can work as a non-sterile refrigerated item with a shorter shelf life. For a product to be commercially sterile, it must be heated to 185°F to 200°F for several minutes and must have a final-equilibrium pH below 4.6, which inhibits the outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum. If your nut-based sauce has more than 10% non-acid ingredients (such as red pepper, walnuts, and garlic), the pH of the finished product may exceed 4.6. To make this product shelf-stable, take three essential steps:
- Establish the thermal process with a processing authority.
- Acidify the product with an FDA-approved acidulant like citric acid or lemon-juice concentrate to bring the pH below 4.6 (possibly making the sauce slightly tangier than the gold standard).
- File the product with the FDA as an acidified food.
FDA rules on acidified-food manufacturing can be found in Chapter 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 114. A refrigerated version allows the manufacturer to use little heat during processing and have better control over the final flavor profile. No acidification is required because refrigeration is the microbiological inhibitor. However, this product’s shorter shelf life compared with the shelf-stable version is likely to dictate a higher selling price, and it will need to be shipped and stored at a temperature lower than 40°F.
Some pureed dips should not be heat processed at all because too much heat will break down the carbohydrates and leave the finished product with a mealy texture. Greek skordalia and Armenian bean and walnut spread are both comfort foods that combine walnuts and garlic with a bulky base. Skordalia brings together walnut meal with garlic, potato, vinegar, bread crumbs, and olive oil. It goes well with fish, spread on bread or as a simple side dish. Armenian bean and walnut spread is a blend of walnut meal, red beans, onions, dill, garlic mint, and pomegranate. These purees can be made and distributed as a refrigerated food service or retail item. The acid ingredients such as vinegar and pomegranate will naturally extend the finished product’s shelf life.
The ingredients in these sauces are familiar, but sometimes the names can be intimidating to Americans who have not come across words like muhammara and salbitxada. Instead you can use consumer-friendly names that accurately describe the sauce, such as “red pepper walnut puree” or “tomato-walnut pesto,” without discouraging customers from taking a chance on a new dish. Once they taste the amazing flavor and texture of a nut-based sauce, they will quickly become repeat buyers!