The Gleeful Gourmand: September 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chocolate To End All Chocolates

There is chocolate, and then there is chocolate. The first chocolate is the stuff of your childhood memories: probably Hershey’s, or Nestle, swirled into your glass of milk. Maybe once in awhile you dabbled in Lindt truffles, or perhaps even Ghiradelli around the holidays. It was special chocolate, because the holidays are special. It was the kind of chocolate that most women talk about when they say they’re addicted to chocolate. Sub-standard, unoriginal, and dare I say it? Milk chocolate.

And then there is chocolate. There is chocolate out there that all the other chocolate companies wish they could produce. And that chocolate company’s name is Valrhona.

My mom and step-dad just came back from a wonderful 10-day trip to the south of France, and while they were there, they were able to take a tour of Valrhona’s show room. When we saw them this past Sunday, my mom gave me some cute lavender keepsakes from Provence (as well as some wonderful Herbes de Provence). And then, with a gleam in her eye, she handed me a big bar of Valrhona Dark Chocolate: Guanaja at 70% cacao.

I was beyond overjoyed, because I’ve never had Valrhona chocolate. But I know it’s one of the finest chocolates in the world. Here’s the scoop on the company: It was founded in 1922 by Albéric Guironnet, a patissier, and named Chocolaterie du Vivarais. He built it in Tain l’Hermitage, and eventually changed the name to Valrhona to suggest its location in the Rhone Valley. Today it has a standard of excellence that is unmatched. What makes it so exceptional is that it works with cocoa producers in every single stage of the process, from the planting and cultivating of the trees, right down to when the bar gets wrapped. They have a small army of people who have a complete mastery of the sensorial analysis process in tasting.

And believe me when I say, the taste is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in chocolate. Here’s the description of the bar I received:

Named after the now-famous Caribbean island where Christopher Columbus landed in 1502, Guanaja offers a completely original blend of cocoas, with subtle Criollos, and powerfully fragrant Trinitarios and Forasteros. This Grand Cru has a high cocoa content and is surprisingly bitter, but the range is full of warm notes. The recipe, of course, remains a closely guarded secret.

I had to look up some of the words to understand what it meant, but doesn’t that just sound amazing? That’s some incredible chocolate wrapper copy right there. Here are the terms you’re probably scratching your head over (I know I was):

Criollos – A term used to describe the trees the best fine beans come from.
Forasteros – Ordinary Venezuelan cocoa trees producing a bitter, flat tasting cocoa.
Trinitarios – The rough term for trees that produce a mix of Criollos and Forasteros.

I have always loved dark chocolate, but I was disappointed on my first bite that it tasted like many other dark, bitter chocolates. And then the wave of warm notes came washing over me. It was like eating a full-bodied red wine. I could even detect some very subtle plum fruitiness in there. It’s a taste that sticks with you for a while.

Remember up above when I used the words “milk chocolate” like a bad word? I really have nothing against it, but it’s just average in my opinion. And then I tasted the little milk chocolate morsels my mom brought home from Valrhona. Once again, you think you know what to expect (milk chocolate is milk chocolate after all, right?), but then come all the different warm notes, turning it into something extraordinary.

I did a little searching and apparently you can find Valrhona sometimes in Whole Foods, and also in Trader Joe’s – both of which surprise me, because I’ve never seen it in there. But maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I will now – our bar is sadly half gone already.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When No One's Watching, I Do This In The Kitchen

I know I've been really slow in getting posts out, but it's been a really hectic couple of weeks around our house. In really great news, the girls are finally sleeping through the night. In even better news, my arm has completely healed from the fried green tomato incident and despite liberal use of scar cream, I now have a nice big scar - still resembling Popeye's flexed arm.

Anyway, the other night I was dicing onions finely while I was making Chicken and Dumplings, and I caught myself doing something. When I'm in the kitchen, slicing things and concentrating really hard, I turn my mouth down almost like I'm making a fish face. Now, this fish face is not new to me. I often make it to get a laugh out of Buck, because let's be honest, it's a spectacular fish face. In fact, it's so spectacular that I actually made the fish face at him while we were standing before our Priest getting married to get both of us to stop crying. I had no clue I was actually making it on purpose! In the kitchen!

Which got me thinking about how when I'm working with chocolate, melting it for baking (which is kind of a long process), I stand stirring with one hand balled into a fist on my hip. Like I'm a half-hearted Peter Pan or something. I don't do this for anything else.

So what about you readers? Care to confess anything weird you do knowingly or unknowingly in the kitchen? Share them in the comments, but please, keep it clean. And in the meantime, here's a conversation between Buck and I tonight that may ring true for many of you as well (I hope):

Buck: I really want to get a mandolin to slice things like sweet potatoes thinner.
Me: No! We cannot get a mandolin.
Buck: Er, okay, why not?
Me: Because then I'd be tempted to use it and I'll end up slicing all my fingers off.
Buck: There's the confidence I love!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 - Where I Was, Where I Am

My father was a Captain in the Army during the Vietnam War. He worked in the last outpost of the DMZ and saw many young men come in for battle, and those same young men go out in body bags. When I was a child, I was very curious about what he did over there, and what it meant. He was very reluctant to talk about it to anyone, especially his children. There were only two things he would ever say to me aloud: 1) That it was so unbearably hot there, that even in the shade it felt like 100 degrees, and 2) That the enemy looked exactly like common village people, and so it was very difficult to tell the two apart.

Of course, I know now thanks to history books what really went on over there. It never occurred to me back then, or for many years to come, that my own children would someday ask me what it was like to experience and witness that kind of horror. I couldn’t know that thanks to the Internet and television, I would witness horror in HD. It never occurred to me that I would feel the kind of anxiety my grandparents experienced as their loved ones went off to fight in WWII, as they heard of Nazi submarines possibly spotted off Long Island and North Carolina, of the fear that they would come up the Delaware River, where they lived. Or the kind of horror my mother-in-law experienced as a 5-year-old living on Oahu when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.

And why should I? I lived in a very protected world, and though I kept up with the news daily, I never saw this coming. It was a beautiful morning here in Virginia – crystal clear, but warm. In New York, autumn was already there, but here in the south, it was technically still summertime. I drove to work that morning blaring a CD, and so didn’t catch the news on the radio. I remember walking into work, and setting my things down at my desk. I remember walking to the break room with my breakfast to get some yogurt and some coffee, and a co-worker coming out of his office and stopping me in the hall.

“Did you hear the news? A plane just hit one of the World Trade Center towers.”

“A plane? Are you sure? Was anyone hurt?”

He didn’t know. We both supposed, like many people, that it was just a very small plane that had somehow gotten off course. A mistake. Some kind of terrible accident. By the time I got back from the break room and to my cubicle, everyone was gathering around a TV that someone brought out from their office. We got the signal for our local channel, and then it became apparent as the news broke that the second tower had been hit. This was much more than a terrible accident. We all stood, riveted, numb, horrorstruck for the next hour as we heard the news about The Pentagon, about the plane going down in Pennsylvania. As we watched the two towers crumble. It seemed like it would never end.

Mostly I felt a lot of disbelief and confusion. When it was announced that Al-Qaeda was taking responsibility, I remember most of saying, “Who?” It wasn’t until later, when the Taliban entered the picture that I suddenly remembered reading something about them in the late spring of 2001. I recall perfectly sitting in my mother’s kitchen after church reading the Sunday paper, and an article about what the Taliban was doing in Afghanistan – specifically about their crusade to tear down all remaining and existing Buddha statues in the area and in their museums. I remember thinking how crazy it all sounded.

Later at my desk, I tried my best to write copy for our upcoming catalog (I was working as a Senior Copywriter at the time), but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t get a hold on one tangible thought. It was just a reeling, jumbled mass of frightening replays of what I had just witnessed. Overwhelming grief and fear. I wanted to go home, and our boss let us, but I remember that suddenly nowhere felt safe. Home didn’t feel safe anymore. My roommates and my boyfriend at the time and I all sat around the television that night, watching the news, and talking very little. We had all purchased the special edition of the newspaper that had come out that night that covered it. The headline read “ACT OF WAR.” I still have that newspaper. It was war, but against whom? It felt like what my father was describing about Vietnam – if you can’t really tell whom the enemy is, how do you wage war on them?

I remember going to bed that night wondering if we would wake up in the morning – and if we did, what we would find? The world was already changed. Two days later I was having dinner with a friend who was about to leave to live overseas. We were laughing over the bill – I don’t even remember what got us started laughing, but we couldn’t stop. The restaurant had been pretty hushed before that anyway, but there we were, laughing hysterically, with the other patrons glaring at us. It was simply a release of all the stress and grief, but I remember thinking that I never thought the day would come when it wouldn’t be okay to laugh.

10 years later seems like the blink of an eye. I’m married, and I have three beautiful children. And I wonder when they will start teaching about 9/11 consistently in schools, and what exactly they’ll teach. I know there will come a time when my children will ask what it was like that day, and what I felt, much like I asked my father. I want to tell them this: That we were struck down, but we rose up again, and the day did come when we could laugh again.

In Memory of Those Who Died:

The World Trade Center Towers

Flight 93

The Pentagon

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Fried Green Mishap

We were fortunate enough when Irene blew through not to lose our power. My parents were not so fortunate, and were without power for a good week. So we invited them over for dinner last Monday night, and in the interest of making something delicious and easy, I decided on BLTs. While in the grocery store, I noticed something new in the stand with the tomatoes. I recognized them right away because of the way they stood out - pale green, and arranged just so. They whispered, “Fry us, fry us!” as I stood looking at them.

Okay, they didn’t, really, but I was so excited to see them - they hadn’t been there all summer. And yet suddenly, gloriously, there they were – Green Tomatoes. Now I’ve never made Fried Green Tomatoes, but I’ve eaten plenty of them, and I also loved the movie (which really doesn’t have much to do with the dish, but that’s okay).

Despite a little trepidation (I also don’t normally fry things in general), I snatched them up, and immediately started hunting for the right recipe. The right recipe turned out to not be so easy. I wasn’t crazy about some of them (too spicy), and others I didn’t have the proper equipment (a deep fryer). So I chose the simplest recipe I could find, the one I knew I’d be able to handle, and added in some elements from the other recipes.

My cast iron skillet sizzled, and I labored over the tomatoes wondering if I was doing it right or burning them. I thought they looked and smelled pretty great, so I moved onto the next and last batch. The rest of the dinner had come together, and I was plating up: I had just three more tomatoes to fry. In my haste, and also due to a little bravado at actually creating one of my favorite Southern dishes, I cavalierly tossed the second-to-last tomato into the skillet.

You can probably guess what happened next. The tomato landed with a plop, and the piping hot oil sloshed out of the pan, and right onto my forearm. The instant it happened, I knew I was in serious trouble. I shouted out the “S” word so loud that I heard Liam audibly gasp from the next room, and my stepdad came running around the corner to help me. But by that time I already had my arm under some running cold water. I then slathered some honey on it because I thought I remembered that honey was a good treatment rather than butter (it was organic wildflower honey, just in case you wanted to know). And it worked! I was waiting for excruciating pain to follow, but it didn’t. I mean, it stung that’s for sure, but the severe pain didn’t come.

Meanwhile, my mom is yelling at me to stop what I’m doing to go put some burn cream on it and a Bandaid, but I had to finish the tomatoes. I was suddenly recalling all those chef memoirs I had read and every one of them had terrible burn stories to tell while at the stove. But since they couldn’t stop to put on a Bandaid or use burn cream due to the rush in the kitchen, I figured I wouldn’t either. For a brief shining moment, I sort of felt like a chef, sacrificing comfort and healing for the sake of the meal.

The tomatoes were excellent. A perfect crunch, and that tangy sweetness you can only get from Green Tomatoes. The recipe is as follows, and you can serve it with your favorite dipping sauce:

Fried Green Tomatoes

2/3 cup white cornmeal

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

2 Tbsp. buttermilk

3 large green tomatoes, sliced

1 large egg, lightly beaten

¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil

• Combine first 3 ingredients in a small bowl; stir well. Combine beaten egg and buttermilk. Dip tomato slices in egg mixture; dredge in cornmeal mixture, coating well on both sides.

• Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add 1 layer of tomato slices and fry 3 to 5 minutes, or until browned, turning once. Remove tomatoes from skillet and drain. Set fried tomatoes aside and keep warm. Repeat process with remaining oil and tomato slices. Serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings.

After that’s complete move on to the next phase:

• Curse as loudly as you can

• Run wound under cold running water

• Honey

• Burn ointment/Neosporin

• Gauze or two large Bandaids

Apply all, but not at the same time. Accept the blame for your stupidity. Take picture of wound since it resembles Popeye’s flexed arm. Send to best friend via phone. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Taking the Mystery Out of Winery Visits

This week my good friend Alison Althouse writes about what it's like to work as a volunteer at a winery. She talks about how she got her start there, and also some great tips for first-time winery visits. I find this particularly interesting since I've only visited one winery in my life, and it was at The Biltmore, which is a shuffle you in, shuffle you out sort of ordeal with little in the way of learning anything new. And truthfully, I've always been curious about what you should do at a winery. Should you ask questions? If so, which ones? Or should you just shut up and drink? Sit back with a full glass and enjoy Alison's answers:

I volunteer at the James River Cellars Winery. It’s almost laughable until you realize just how much I love working at this place. I work when it fits my schedule, I teach people about the wines we offer at our winery, and I get paid in “wine dollars” for the hours that I’m there. It’s the perfect job for me. I started visiting wineries with my best friend about 2 years ago when she gifted me with a wine tasting/tour and lunch at a nearby winery. This seemingly small event opened up an entirely new world to me.

Wine had always been something of a mystery to me. I’d have a great-tasting wine somewhere and then search in vain to find something similar in my price range at the grocery store. Visiting wineries started to take some of the mystery out of what I liked in the wines I enjoyed. I learned about tannins (I don’t like strong ones), dry/sweet/off-dry wines (I’m somewhere in the middle, depending on the season), and oak vs stainless steel casks (I typically like stainless but can enjoy light oak). The difference from one winery to another can be like traveling between different countries. They all make wine, but each wine maker puts his or her own spin on things to make them unique. Add to that the impact caused by the weather on individual vintages (the year a wine is made) and you have another reason to visit your favorite wineries at least once a year! It was a lot to absorb as I started learning about wines, but I’ve found out some wonderful tips that I’d like to share.

· You don’t have to be an expert in wine to know what wines are good. If a wine tastes good to YOU, that’s all that is really important.

· At a winery, as in life, the only truly “stupid” question is the one that you don’t ask. TALK with the person pouring the wines at your tasting and ask questions. If they don’t know the answer, or aren’t willing to find out the answer for you, then you don’t ever have to return.

· Wine is for EVERYONE (of legal age, of course). Red wine is not just an “adult wine” and Sweet wine is not just for “Kids or beginners”. Each person has their own unique taste buds and their own preferences. If their choice doesn’t coincide with yours, then buy two different bottles.

· Do a little homework and visit wineries that offer tastings. The people pouring for you should be able to share their personal experiences with the wines being offered and give you suggestions on wines you will enjoy at their winery.

When I do a wine tasting at James River Cellars, you get MY opinion of the wines we offer. I will tell you how I’ve used our wines…. I’ll share recipes…. I’ll give you my nicknames for some of my personal favorites (Our Hanover Red wine is my “I have to call and talk with my mom for an hour” wine)…. and I’ll try and make your visit to our winery as memorable as I would want it to be if I were on the other side of the bar. Come visit James River Cellars winery (it’s on Rt 1 in Glen Allen, VA, just north of the Virginia Center Commons mall) and see for yourself. Hopefully I’ll be the one doing the pouring for you!

Here are my favorites right now:

Whites: I love our Chardonel and our Hanover White. The Chardonel is crisp and clean, but still fruity enough to taste yummy to me. I love to use it in sauces (replacing chicken stock in a chicken noodle casserole is a fave right now) and to use on fish when I'm making tilapia in the microwave. Hanover White is sweet and perfectly fabulous when ice-cold and paired with a spicy pizza or thai food.

Reds: I love our Hanover Red and Chambourcin. Hanover Red is similar to a sweet pinot noir. I use it to replace water in many chocolate dishes (brownies, cakes, etc) but love to drink it in the evenings or with whatever dinner I've made. Our Chambourcin is remiscent of a port, but is unique in that it can be served at three different temperatures for entirely different taste experiences. The warmer this wine is when served, the more smoke and spice flavor comes out but, when served cold, you really get that berry-forward taste. It's truly a special wine!