Cakes, pickles and the next great grub city: Top food trends for 2012

Matthew Mead / AP
Layer cakes might just be the nest dessert obsession in 2012.

As 2011 draws to a close, the culinary trends we’re seeing on the horizon for 2012 are about comfort, familiarity, and hometown pride. Here’s a look at what was hot in 2011—and what will be in vogue in the year to come.

Meatballs will give way to meatloaf

Meatballs have always been a trend in my book, but I had an a-ha! moment last spring when chef Daniel Holzman, of New York City’s Meatball Shop, came by the Saveur office bearing meatball sandwiches. It made me realize that savory balls of ground meat were a bona fide trend in 2011.  Get Daniel’s recipe for delicious turkey meatballs.

What’s so amazing about meatballs is their chameleon-like qualities: They work brilliantly with so many global flavors. And that’s exactly what makes meat loaf—a trend for 2012—so exciting. Meat loaf is very much a grown-up food: Not only is the ketchup-glazed version a true culinary classic, but the basic idea of meat loaf is so fabulously variable! You can add whatever ingredients you have on hand—sun-dried tomato, picholine olives—and with a little imagination, you can transform a meat loaf into something wonderful and surprising.

Japanese knives will step aside for carbon steel

Gorgeous-to-look-at Japanese knives, often ceramic but sometimes folded steel, are classic, timeless tools that had serious popularity in 2011. But for all the beauty of a pricey, perfect Japanese blade, in 2012 good, old-fashioned carbon-steel knives will rise to prominence. The ultra-hard blades can be honed to a whisper-thin edge, and they’re fantastically durable. There’s also the undeniable fact that they’re affordable. Keep your $300 Japanese blade in its decorative display case on the shelf; the carbon steel blade is the one you’re actually going to use to chop onions and carve steaks for the rest of your life.

Italian-American food will take its place at the table

America’s love affair with regional Italian cuisine reached a crescendo in 2011. Without having to travel to Italy, you could, for example, eat your way across Italy at New York City’s fantastic Eataly, brought to us by Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich.

We owe Italy, and its gastronomic ambassadors, like Mario and Lidia, a tremendous debt of thanks. But still, there’s something about America’s take on Italian food that is uniquely our own. For years, Italian-American foods like eggplant parmesan and sausage and peppers have been a culinary afterthought, but in 2012 they will be ready for the spotlight. New York City restaurants like Torrisi Italian Specialties and Frankies Spuntino are leading the charge, recasting the Sunday-supper staples and sub shop classics as real American cuisine.

The layer cake will rise

Everyone in the food world seems to be on an eternal quest for "the next cupcake.”  Will it be pie? Will it be cookies? The first real contender to the dessert-obsession throne arrived in 2011: colorful, bite-sized Parisian macarons, an airy sandwich of almond cookies with flavored centers. They’ve swept the land, especially with the opening in the States of Laduree, Paris’s premiere macaron bakery.

While few things are more beautiful than a rainbow-hued array of macarons, the American layer cake is one of them, and 2012 seems ripe to be its year. With its roots in British dessert cookery, our version—especially the versions that have been elevated to art forms in the American South, like coconut, lemon chiffon, and red velvet—are the quintessence of sweetness. It’s nice to see cake no longer relegated to cupcake size but instead rearing up to its full height, its true, towering self.

American terroir will move beyond California

California produces some of the best wines in the entire world. Over the years it has become known especially as a place that produces incredible, friendly, super-flavorful jammy reds and oaky whites. But the trend in 2011 was the state’s amazing, subtle wines that are produced in a more classically European vein, like the un-oaky and superdelicious LIOCO chardonnay, or the strawberry-scented Gris de Cigare from Bonny Doon (a real bargain at $15 a bottle).

All the success of California wines has left little room in the conversation for the wines of the rest of America. In 2012, that’s going to change. The wine-growing and wine-making regions of Virginia, North Carolina, the north shore of Long Island and the Finger Lakes in upstate New York are coming into their own and creating wines that are, in certain cases, just as good as wines coming out of California. To wit: the exquisite Dr. Frank’s Riesling from the Finger Lakes region is a fruity, floral delight, and the Texas Tempranillo from Pedernales Cellars in the Texas Hill Country is one of the most drinkable wines available today.

Story: Try American wines from vineyards outside California

We’ll have homemade pickles to go with our homemade salami

People say that bacon is the gateway meat for vegetarians, but in my book it’s a really good slice (or two or three) of salami. Artisanal salami is such good food, and 2011 has been its year, from Paul Bertolli’s Fra Mani sausages to those from Portland, Oregon’s Olympic Provisions. The salumi that these craftspeople are making is full of subtlety and nuance and made from impeccably sourced ingredients, and is changing the American palate toward the funky, fatty, spicy meats. It completely puts to shame any shrink-wrapped supermarket variety.

In 2012, we’re going to see the charcuterie board take a turn for the even more artisanal. Welcome to the sharp, spicy world of fermented foods! Hello homemade pickles, kimchee, olives and sauerkraut! While store-bought fermented foods can taste great, the homemade ones taste unimaginably better. Store-bought fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt are, more often than not, pasteurized, and are not living foods in the same way that their homemade cousins are. Try this recipe for sour pickles.

Portland will keep rising, but Kansas City is right behind it

Portland, Ore., has some of the best food not only in this country, but anywhere in the world. From the hundreds of fantastic food trucks found in the city, which offer everything from the dishes of Guam to some of the best vegetarian food I’ve tried, to the city’s high-end dining like Paley’s Place and Beast, gastronomically speaking, the city completely rocks. With the Pacific Northwest’s anything-goes attitude, the convergence of immigrant populations, artistic young people and access to some of the most marvelous produce in the world, it’s no wonder it’s hit such a pinnacle: It’s where artisanal farm-to-table meets global food meets really great, smart American culinary ingenuity. It’s just awesome.

Then there’s Kansas City, which is going to have its moment in 2012. This Midwestern city has a deep-rooted food culture that’s been around for well over a century, one that’s now poised to reinvigorate itself and position the city as a new culinary destination. We all know about Kansas City’s reputation as a great barbecue town, but recently there’s been a fantastic wave of smart, new high-end cooking that’s been lighting a fire in the heart of America. Laying the foundation are chefs like Debbie Gold, Celina Tio, and Colby Garrelts, whose restaurants (American Restaurant, Julian and Bluestem, respectively) are galvanizing the area’s independent and organic farmers and producers, and inspiring Kansas City’s next generation of chefs to reach for new heights. 

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