It's no secret that the Valley food scene is slow to hop aboard the gastronomical trend train, but that doesn't mean it can't surprise us every once in a while. And when it comes to food predictions for Arizona eaters in 2012, I'm certainly no fortuneteller, but given high food prices continuously making headlines, what happened in the Valley food scene in 2011, and our overall love of good eats, I'm happy to take a few scrumptious stabs at what we can look forward to (or not) in the New Year.

Nutella Goes Nuts: Most of the free world knows that Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread, is the food equivalent of a double rainbow ending in a pile of unicorns, puppies, and sparklers. Even now, restaurants like 32 Shea in Phoenix will put Nutella in your coffee or slather it on a piece of toast with bananas for breakfast. And Scottsdale's new Cuoco Pazzo uses it in its warm soufflé pecan crepes. But in 2012, Valley chefs and restaurants will really spread the spread in the form of creative dishes like Nutella enchiladas, French toast, pizzas, dessert pastas, salty snacks like popcorn, and drinks like adult Nutella hot chocolate and Nutella-laced cocktails.

Breakfast/Brunch Gets Big: It's quick, easy, and fairly inexpensive — so why wouldn't Valley restaurants start adding the most important meal of the day to their menus? Damon Brasch of Green and Nami is experimenting with a weekend vegan brunch, downtown's Cibo pizzeria started serving a weekend brunch in December, and the new Sunnyslope wine bar, Timo, opened in October with a wood-fired brunch already on the menu. Look for even more breakfast and brunch offerings to come in the new year and be ready to greet the day hungry for the next a.m. adventure.

Expect more food trucks to roll into the Valley in 2012.
Expect more food trucks to roll into the Valley in 2012.

No One Eats Alone Again. Ever: Thanks to an increasing number of food truck sightings, communal tables in restaurants, pop-ups, underground dining groups, food raves, and all matter of tech-i-fied social gathering apps like Foursquare, Yelp, GoWalla, and Living Social in 2012, eating out solo in the Valley will be so 2011. Sharing food experiences is where it's at next year. Which means knowing when and where your cookbook book club, raw food troop, or "I Heart Pork" posse is going to meet next. Got a Groupon or a social media scoop discount for that event? Even better.

Food Trucks Peak, Then Get Screwed: With the first Food Truck Festival, Food Truck Fridays at Phoenix Public Market, and more new mobile kitchens coming onto the scene than you could throw a spare tire at, there's no denying that the Valley's food truck phenomenon exploded in 2011. So what happens next? In 2012, Valley chefs and local restaurants deliciously get into the act (Think a Barrio Queen restaurante sobre ruedas or a Chef Christopher Gross Grub To-Go) and even add cocktails and beer offerings into the mobile mix. But then, when the food truck star is shining the brightest — the supernova: Corporations like Wendy's, Chipotle, and Denny's smell money, create their own mobile eateries, saturate the waters, and eventually start screwing everything up. Ugh.

More Gardens Get Growing: The Parlor Pizzeria in Central Phoenix has one outside its entryway, District American Kitchen in Downtown's Sheraton has one on its roof. Noting last year's 17 percent rise in the number of farmers markets throughout the nation and the current trend of supporting locally grown eats, more restaurants will respond in 2012 to a growing number of patrons interested in knowing where their food comes from by planting their own gardens or reaching out to a growing number of local sources who can provide the greens for them — including community gardens. That means smaller, more seasonal menus that change regularly, requiring patrons to put their trust in the overall output of the restaurant or chef (as well as the farmer) and not in a single dish.

Chefs Get Packaged: Who says good eats from favorite Valley chefs and restaurants have to end with the last course? Thanks to successful items like Chris Bianco's organic canned tomatoes and chef Justin Beckett's holiday offerings of pumpkin seed brittle and organic cranberry orange jam in 2011, Valley diners got to take the deliciousness home. In 2012, with food prices still on the rise, folks might be opting to eat at home more, but they're going to want to do it with flair and a little help. In the New Year, expect to see more packaged goodness from Valley taste makers and restaurants as well as dedicated retail areas selling the signature wares along with other tempting take-home treats.

Mixologists Rise to Celebrity Status: Citizen R + D, the intimate, 30-person cocktail lounge that opened upstairs at Citizen Public House in Scottsdale in December with the help of master mixologist Richie Moe, is just the beginning of what might be the year of alcohol-fueled celebrity. Sure, the Valley has always loved to imbibe, but in 2012 drinkers will be delighted by a slew of cocktail connoisseurs whose names will become as familiar as those of standout Valley chefs — and restaurants will benefit from having their own mixologist mogul behind the bar. Will it be mixed drinks on tap? Boozy jellies? Mini-cocktails? Whatever new creations are mixed, shaken, or stirred in the New Year, they'll be made more memorable (and worthy of a name drop) with some celebrity in the recipe. Laura Hahnefeld

Ten National Food Predictions

Trends come and go in a flash sometimes, especially in this era of social media. While no one will know for sure what will take off, we'll toss out our own thoughts on possible upcoming trends.

Doughnuts Go Global: We're used to the round, the loaded, and the plain glazed doughnuts, but they'll be going on a tour around the world this year. We predict (as did James Beard Blog) that we'll start seeing more regional fried delights like "Texan kolache, Turkish lokma, or Portuguese malasada (which Stephanie Izard will serve at the Beard House in February)."

Small or Shared Plates: It's not likely that all restaurants will be shrinking their portion sizes and prices to fit the needs of consumers' waistlines and wallets. They'd have to bring more bodies into the restaurants to account for the profit loss. We probably won't see every restaurant offering amuse-bouches or tapas (though many will). If that's not an option, consumers will get smart and share more main dishes to find ways to be frugal and still get a chance to dine out without chowing down on a plate containing enough food to serve a family of four.

Locally Sourced Proteins: With story after story of freaky diseases in the mass-produced meat supply, raising and slaughtering your own rabbit, goats, and elk is sounding like a better solution all the time. It helps that big-time chefs like Stephanie Izard are supporting these unique meats.

Collected Vintage Serviceware: You may have noticed that at some of your favorite haunts, your meal is served on unique plates, bowls, glassware, and flatware. See ya later, uniformly bright white plates. More restaurant owners are choosing to serve your salad on what looks like Grandma's china.

Sous Vide at Home: Some high-end chefs are releasing cookbooks full of recipes requiring the use of these pricey machines. At $400 a pop for a mid-priced model, it's not really an affordable option for most. However, we think there are many foodniks wanting to try their hand at the hip immersion technique and will be giving it a go this year.

Pickled Everything: It's not just for cukes anymore. Essentially a food preservation method (a pretty delicious one), pickled foods will be a trend you'll start seeing more and more on menus.

Scandinavian Flavors and/or Hyper-Local Niche Cooking: Copenhagen's Noma restaurant cookbook was a James Beard Foundation award winner, and many are predicting chefs will start incorporating ingredients like "sea buckthorn (a tart orange berry), wood sorrel (a plant with heart-shaped leaves), bark flour (made from real trees), and evergreens (such as Douglas fir)." Douglas fir was even spotted at Chicago's GT Fish & Oyster. Since these ingredients are difficult to source, we think that the trend will inspire more regional recipes using local ingredients, instead.

Smarter Kids' Menu Choices: Restaurants are wising up that serving chicken nuggets and plain buttered pasta isn't going to cut it with parents (or kids) anymore. More restaurants will be offering creative kid-sized portions of more healthful meals.

Hand-Pulled Noodles: They're cheap to make and thrilling to watch. Hand-pulled noodles already are featured at Chef Martin Yan's M.Y. China, which is scheduled to open this spring in San Francisco, and of course at our own Magic Noodle House in Chandler. We predict there will be a lot more chefs choosing this engaging offering.

Caneles Are the New Sweet Treat: Move over, cupcakes, macarons, and pies; caneles are on the prowl. These custard-filled beauties require molds at $25 each, so there might not be a proliferation of these from home cooks. But they're so alluring, we're thinking a shared set among friends would be a good idea. Jennifer Woods

Five Wishes for the Valley

In the past few years, thanks to an explosion of TV shows, celebrity chefs, blogs, and social media outlets, our knowledge of and accessibility to various kinds of cuisine, cooking methods, and ingredients has increased tremendously. And while the Phoenix dining culture has evolved as well, there's always room for improvement. In the coming year, I'm pulling hard on the proverbial wishbone in hopes that these five wishes for the Valley food scene come true.

More Ethnic Food: Yes, there are more options than before and, yes, the majority of them can be found in Tempe and in the West Valley, but we could do more — and better. I'd like to see our hunger for world cuisine play itself out in more cultural fare from Africa, Brazil, Korea, Russia, Cuba, etc., whether in brick-and-mortar buildings or in the form of pop-ups and food trucks. The last two options provide a go-anywhere and low-overhead concept that could bring a world of global cuisine to more Valley residents more often. No passport required.

Arizona Regional Cuisine: This may be the biggest stretch on my wish list, given what feels like a continuous (and frankly head-scratching) shunning of celebrating our state's diversity with south-of-the-border eats. Call it what you will — Az-Mex, Mex-Az, Zone-ico — the term would describe a type of cuisine we could truly call our own, one that blends ingredients found in the United States with the culinary creations of Mexican-Americans influenced by the dishes of Mexico. Southwest is too broad. Texas has its Tex-Mex. Let's make this our own.

More Late-Night Dining Options: In 2011, top-notch Valley restaurants like Petite Maison, FnB, Posh, Noca, Sens Asian Tapas, and Citizen Public House offered select menus of late-night gourmet eats to hungry diners not yet ready to call it a night. A good start, to be sure, but in 2012, I'd like to see more options at all dining levels — offering eats from exotic late-night bites to evening sweet treats to hearty hangover breakfasts at 3 a.m. And speaking of hangovers, if more food trucks were to be found alongside bars and music venues throughout the Valley, that'd be nice, too.

Upscale Brewpubs: There's no denying Arizona has a solid selection of locally brewed beers. But when it comes to brewpubs — restaurants that sell beer brewed on the premises — the eats don't always match up to the stellar suds. Perhaps O.H.S.O., the new eatery and nanobrewery in Arcadia, will be one of the first when it obtains its brewery license in 2012. Until then, there's room — lots of room — for an upscale brewpub to make the scene and offer great-tasting, locally made beer along with upscale eats worth raising a glass to.

More Specialty Food Stores: With just a handful of spots in existence (think Luci's Healthy Marketplace and the Downtown Phoenix Public Market), the senses of Valley residents would benefit from more specialty shops selling artisanal wares — places where strolling the aisles and sampling an array of delicacies can inspire the creation of a new meal or the makings of an amazing dinner party. How about more cheese shops, an artisanal Jewish deli, or gourmet food stores, like Zabar's or Citarella in New York City? There's lots of room for growth in this area. Let's hope it happens soon.

Bonus Wish — Bring back Maui Dog: Since the oasis of island-inspired fare in Phoenix closed its doors in December, I've been hoping for news of a comeback. Sadly, still waiting. — Laura Hahnefeld

Five Ways to Eat Better

We could tell you many different ways to eat more healthfully, but they all boil down to eating more vegetables.

The truth is that it's often difficult to get turned on by thinking about turnips or cabbage, but these are some of the foods that eventually will save your life, and if you choose pesticide-free and locally grown, you're contributing to the Earth's health, too. It's a win-win proposition.

Juicing/Smoothies: The beloved Alton Brown (among many other food/health authorities) lost weight in recent years due (in part) to his switch to a morning fruit smoothie for breakfast. It's sort of like front-loading your day with plants, just in case your schedule doesn't permit much of the fresh stuff later on.

Join a CSA: Joining your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is a little like joining a gym, but in the very best way. You're forced to learn how to prepare foods you don't usually put into your shopping cart because, by design, the farmer chooses what's best in the fields that week. There absolutely is a learning curve, but if you can make it to the end of a season, you'll have learned how to cook/store vegetables like your great grandparents did. You'll also learn that you actually love Swiss chard and rutabagas. Putting your hard-earned money into farms and workers who are out in the fields long hours and in some crazy weather just to have this nourishing food available for you is a very good thing.

Two Words — Vegetable Soup: This is a fantastic tip. Learn to make an amazing basic vegetable soup by taking onions and/or garlic along with whatever vegetables are in your fridge and adding them to a flavorful broth once a week. You'll have a frugal and flavorful lunch all week long. Zap a portion in the microwave and you've got something excellent for lunch or a last-minute dinner that's so good for you. Top with a spoonful of a pistou (or pesto) that you keep frozen, along with some fresh (or toasted straight from the freezer) bread and a bit of fabulous cheese, and you will be treating yourself to something special that you made with minimal effort.

Switch to Plant-Based Meal Planning: If you're already meal-planning in general, that's great. When planning/choosing your meals, think vegetable first and meat next. You know that you're supposed to fill your plate half-full of vegetables; this will ensure that you're reserving their spot on the plate and giving them the focus they deserve. You can start switching up your words with "we're having spinach for dinner" (that happens to have chicken), versus "we're having chicken for dinner." Similarly, focus on fruit-based desserts will help fit those other fresh gems into your diet.

Cook at Home: This is the most important tip. If you don't know how to cook, it's time to get on it. If you know how but don't do it enough, give your cooking space a little redo to lure you back. Get yourself a good knife and cutting board, toss the cheap and more-work-than-they're-worth kitchen tools, bring in fresh flowers and/or herbs, a little music to soothe (you savage beast you) and make cooking a helluva lot more romantic, and try using the good tabletop stuff for everyday.

Bonus Tip — Sardines: Dr. Weil sings their praises since they're known to help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, and they're quite delicious, actually. If you are a fan of canned tuna, you can easily switch to these fishy friends. They're mercury-free, sustainable (their natural predators have been over-fished), and fill you with the important omega-3s that we all need. — Jennifer Woods

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