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McCormick enlists experts across the globe to influence your next meal

Spiced chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives
Spiced chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives (Courtesy of McCormick & Co.)

The world of flavor seems fickle sometimes. One minute, everyone's talking about chipotle. The next, they've moved on to sriracha. This year, according to Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Company, it'll be Japanese and Middle Eastern spices setting everyone's tongues ablaze.

Those cuisines are heavily represented in the 2015 Flavor Forecast, a set of predictions just released by the venerable spice company, which celebrates its 125th year in 2015. One trend — there are eight in all — is "Global Blends on the Move," a category that includes a Japanese spice blend incorporating white pepper, red pepper and ginger. Spicy Middle Eastern flavors also pop up, both in "Global Blends" and in other categories, including "Middle Eastern Mezze."

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Since 2000, McCormick has released an annual flavor forecast, predicting and promoting a handful of trends that are likely to take hold in the food world over the coming year and beyond. This year's forecast was developed by a panel of about 30 global food experts who converged on Baltimore last April for a "global flavor summit."

"Chefs, technologists, trend trackers — all flavor experts from around the world — represent what's happening in their regions," says McCormick's director of public relations, Laurie Harrsen. McCormick also involves local experts, including bloggers and food truck operators, to contribute to the discussion.

Harrsen says the forecast is fueled in part by observing what's already happening internationally in the food world and also by the team suggesting, based on their intuition, what should catch fire next. The team mines a combination of quantitative data, pulling from menu contents, social media activity, consumer product launches and search trends, but the forecasting process also involves less tangible elements.

"It's just us keeping a pulse on the eating experience around the world," she says.

Though every part of the world has its own preferences, Harrsen says that when it comes to flavor choices, there are more global commonalities than there are differences. Certain flavors might spark in one part of the world before another, or a particular country might have a twist on a trend, but ultimately, our flavor goals are the same.

She points to spicy foods as a good example. "We're looking for the 'next spicy,' " she says, noting that heat preferences in the United States have evolved from red pepper to chipotle to, now, sriracha. Not every country has embraced sriracha yet — but many likely will.

Some trends, including "Middle Eastern Mezze," focus on flavor movements that already have small but loyal fan bases and seem poised for mainstream acceptance.

Alec Kantar, owner of the downtown Baltimore Turkish restaurant Cazbar, is pleased — and not surprised — that Middle Eastern flavors are a trend on the rise. "They should have been popular years ago," he says with a laugh, noting that diners have become increasingly comfortable with traditional Middle Eastern dishes, like hummus, over the past five years.

Nine years ago, when he opened Cazbar, he found that guests were open-minded about Turkish food but unfamiliar with the spices. Today, he notes that even at HomeSlyce, his pizza restaurants, diners enthusiastically order chicken wings tossed with Middle Eastern spices.

Other trends focus more on how familiar flavors can be used in new ways.

The so-called "Liquid Revolution" trend is about purees and juices, while "Sour + Salt" showcases what happens when citruses and other sour flavors are blended with course salts. "Umami Veggies" and "Flavor Worth the Wait" emphasize the power of slow cooking to coax intense flavors from foods, while "Cookies Reimagined" explores the way traditional cookie flavors fit with more sophisticated desserts.

One trend, "Smoked Spices," infuses traditional spices with the smoky flavors familiar to fans of Southern barbecue. To help introduce smoky flavors to the Global Flavor Summit team during their meeting last April, McCormick asked Drew Pumphrey to cater lunch and to give a demonstration covering the ins and outs of smoking.

Pumphrey, who has been smoking meats professionally for about three years, owns The Smoking Swine, a food truck that is currently collaborating with the restaurant Smokehouse Canton. The McCormick experience was fun, he says, and very different from what he does on a daily basis.

"There were other chefs from McCormick Global, people from Japan, Australia, New Zealand," Pumphrey says." I gave a demo on how to smoke spices, the difference between woods, the reactions that happen. They were completely enamored by it, saying they didn't know it was so technical."

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A few of the flavor summit members had never eaten barbecue before, so their Smoking Swine lunch of pulled pork, brisket, mac and cheese, and collard greens was an exciting one. "We came away with respect from those guys. It was a really fun time and great experience," says Pumphrey.

From his perspective as a professional smoker, Pumphrey agrees that "Smoked Spices" are on target. Smoking has "been a huge culinary trend lately," he says. "Barbecue has always been around, but the proliferation of smoking things has been huge, especially in the past two years."

Pumphrey loves smoking meats but he also experiments with less typical foods, smoking lemons for lemonade, nuts for cookies or sea salt for sea salt caramel ice cream. Over the past several years, as more home cooks buy smokers for their yards, he's seen those cooks become more experimental.

"That's where a lot of cool things come from," he says. "Home chefs give it a shot on a small scale, and it makes it to a blog, then a restaurant kitchen, and they put it on a menu."

In 2009, McCormick asked Hamilton resident Rachel Rappaport, the woman behind the successful recipe blog Coconut & Lime, to participate in the events surrounding the 2010 Flavor Forecast. Rappaport, who has also written several cookbooks, received a variety of spices and foods to try, and a long list of potential trends to consider. As part of the forecast process, she also filmed a Web show with celebrity chef Richard Blais.

"I feel like my part was to represent the home cook," she recalls. "They sent me some things to try — spices and coordinating things. They try to do a mix of unexpected and expected. I tried to pick flavors that were more in line with what people might make at home." Rappaport says her favorite McCormick flavor combination was rhubarb with roasted ginger, which could help home cooks think about ways to use rhubarb beyond the traditional pie.

Rappaport praises the flavor-trend recommendations, saying they can inspire home cooks, like her readers, to try new things without too much of a commitment. "It's an easy way to try something. Sometimes the flavor combination is enough to create a whole dish around," she says. "You don't have to go out and learn an entirely new cuisine. You're not totally starting from scratch. It gives people a push to say, these flavors go together."

Harrsen says that for McCormick, the flavor forecast findings ultimately influence a variety of products that make their way onto grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Later this year, Baltimoreans will surely notice at least one new product that evolved out of the 2014 trend "Chilies Obsession": a new "hot" version of Old Bay.

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"You can see the trend come to life that way," Harrsen says. First on the shelf and then in kitchens all over Baltimore and beyond.

Spiced chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives

Recipe courtesy of McCormick

Makes 8 servings

Tagine refers to both the Moroccan braised dish and the traditional vessel it's prepared in. If you don't own a tagine, you can use a Dutch oven to slow-cook the chicken and vegetables with fragrant spices, preserved lemon and green olives.

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup flour

2 1/2 pounds chicken parts, skin removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

3 carrots, cut diagonally into 1/2 -inch slices

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

2 large Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 cup Greek cracked green olives

1 preserved lemon, cut into 8 wedges

4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, divided

4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

Mix paprika, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and salt. Mix 1 tablespoon of the spice mixture with flour in shallow dish. Coat chicken with flour mixture. Reserve remaining spice mixture. Heat oil in 4- to 6-quart Dutch oven on medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 7 minutes or until chicken is browned on both sides. Remove chicken from pan. Set aside.

Stir onions, carrots, garlic and remaining spice mixture into pan. Cook and stir 5 minutes or until onions are lightly browned. Return chicken to pan. Add potatoes, olives, preserved lemon, 2 tablespoons each of the cilantro and parsley, bay leaves and stock.

Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 1 hour or until chicken and potatoes are tender. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons each cilantro and parsley. Serve with cooked couscous, if desired.

Umami vegetable saute with tarragon and white wine

Recipe courtesy of McCormick

Makes 8 servings

Umami flavor is found naturally in tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, asparagus and celery. Whip up this quick veggie saute as a fresh way to savor the "fifth taste."

2 tablespoons white wine

2 teaspoons ground dried porcini mushrooms

2 teaspoons tarragon leaves

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 carrot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 rib celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 cups asparagus pieces (2-inch pieces)

2 cups halved multicolored cherry tomatoes

1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage

Mix wine, ground mushrooms, tarragon, garlic powder and salt in small bowl. Set aside.

Heat oil in large skillet on medium-high heat. Add carrot and celery; cook and stir 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Add bell pepper and asparagus; cook and stir 2 minutes or until tender-crisp. Add tomatoes and wine mixture; cook and stir 1 minute or until tomatoes are heated through. Remove from heat. Add cabbage; mix well.

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