Friday, May 27, 2005

Chocolate, Ready-to-Go Posted by Hello

Some Chocolate Help(s)!

The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the swimming pool was shimmering. Granted, it was just an inflatable, child’s wading pool, of light blue plastic. But it was a pool nonetheless; it even had a tiny diving board, perfect for a quick dip!

The first jump of the afternoon was by Rachael Raisin. Her skin, though a bit wrinkled, glistened as she stood on the board, sun reflecting all around. She hit the pool with a tiny splish-splash, then trilled in her even-tinier voice, “Fire!”

Next up was Alfonso Almond, the jokester who, even at his young age, always had something incongruous to say. The diving board was slippery for him, but he stood gallantly at the very tip of it, twisted his golden-brown body as he slipped (more than dove) toward the pool. “Fire!” he called, sounding even nuttier than usual.

Finally, Amanda Apricot struggled onto the board. Her well-rounded body was not well-suited to diving boards. But, she rolled painstakingly to the end of the board, wobbled left, then right, and finally careened off the side of the board and into the pool at its very rim. “Fire!” she murmured, as she realized that she was merely waist-deep – in chocolate!

As Rachael, Alfonso and Amanda dried off later, in the shade of the patio umbrella, the lifeguard had to ask, “Why did you all yell ‘fire’ when you jumped into the chocolate?” And then, even before they answered, she knew the response. It had to be the old record album that she had found at the flea market yesterday and played repeatedly in the evening. The Smothers Brothers had sung a catchy little tune, about falling into the chocolate and yelling “fire.” Why? Because, they sang, no one would have saved them if they’d yelled, “Chocolate!”

In fact, if they had yelled “chocolate” everyone would probably just have gotten up from their chairs and headed to the store to buy some! Or strolled to the pantry to retrieve some. Or found giant spoons, dipped into the chocolate pool and started eating! The world often seems as immersed (mentally, at least) in chocolate as Amanda Apricot. The mere mention of the word seems to create a mesmerizing craving. How did this come to be? When? Where? How?

Those are the questions that are answered by a fascinating, traveling exhibit of Chicago’s Field Museum ( I saw the “Chocolate” exhibit recently, in San Diego, and learned many things about this most-enticing of ingredients. (Currently, the exhibit is in San Francisco, will move on to Milwaukee in October, and to Atlanta next February.)

Cacao trees thrived in Central America as early as 200 A.D. Their seeds, thirty to fifty of which are contained in each acorn-squash-sized (but skinnier) pod, are about the size of an almond. The purple-white seeds are wet when removed from the pod, turn brown after being exposed to the air, are dried and then are ready for further processing.

From 250 to 900 A.D., a bitter, white drink that the ancient Mayans created with the beans was moved northward; the march of chocolate had begun. The cacao beans became known, and valued, among peoples of the region. As the beans’ perceived value grew, they themselves served as currency for the Aztecs in a kind of semi-bartering arrangement. Perhaps, the budding chocoholics of ancient times couldn’t resist consuming their currency, rather than spending it on other purchases, when a craving struck!

In the 1600s, Spanish explorers, especially Hernan Cortes, carried cacao beans to Spain. That was when the true magic, at least as perceived by we modern types, began. The Spanish added sugar, creating a sweetened drink, and chocolate’s future appeal was guaranteed! Over the years that followed, people throughout Europe would develop varied methods of using the sweetened mixture. Processing (from roasting through grinding, pressing, refining and tempering) would come to bear so that chocolate, in all of its liquid and solid formats as known today, could spread its flavors throughout the world.

Over time, the 30 to 50 seeds contained in each pod of the cacao tree would come to produce enough chocolate for seven chocolate bars, as we know them today. Gazing at the cacao tree, with pods, on display in the museum exhibit, I immediately did the mental translation into seven times as many chocolate bars, suspended there from the tree’s branches! Visions of sugar plums, dancing in my head, yet again!

The exhibit also features many of the accoutrements that have grown up around the use of the tasty cacao bean. Serving vessels from ancient times, hot-cocoa porcelain sets from Europe’s finest makers, early Easter-bunny mold forms from the 1890s and, my personal favorite, a 1920s to 1940s Hershey candy bar vending machine with per-bar pricing of ONE CENT! (Sigh.) The exhibit also includes its own gift shop, allowing exhibit-goers to emerge from the viewing with chocolate in-hand (although not priced at one cent) to satisfy the craving.

Further detail about chocolate production and its processing, recipes and enough colorful photographs (over 600) to send one straight to the store or pantry are contained in THE CHOCOLATE BIBLE, a book by Christian Teubner (et al), Penguin Studio Publishers. Especially intriguing, to me, is the concept that cacao beans from various tree varieties, various parts of the world, and various seasonal climatic conditions, have unique flavors. These flavors are blended, to produce specific chocolate profiles, just as varying grapes are blended for wine and diverse coffee beans are combined for coffees. Recipes for the use of chocolate as an ingredient, from cocoa to chips to melted bars, abound.

A currently-popular concept seems to be the coating, or partial coating, of nuts and dried fruits with melted chocolate. Tree nuts, as well as peanuts and the (legume) soy nut, are routinely available in chocolate-coated formats. Dried fruits also provide a wonderful blend of flavors when paired with chocolate. A quick Internet search confirmed what I have noticed at my local Trader Joe’s store (, which has an excellent selection of chocolate-coated dried fruits -- the pairings seem endless! Raisins, apricots, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, ginger, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, orange peel, pineapple – all are available in a dizzying array from Internet purveyors.

In addition, the windows of those exclusive chocolatier shops that one sees, around-and-about the world, these days also reflect the nuts and fruits trend. An increasing number offer thin bars or bite-sized disks of chocolate, on which are placed several beautiful pieces of fruit slices and nuts in an artistic arrangement. In keeping with the chocolatier tradition, they are ALMOST too pretty to eat! I am proud to state that I overcome that barrier, however!

We “do-it-our-selfers” can go wild as we decide which nuts or dried fruits to dip into the glistening melted chocolate – albeit not with the use of a wading pool! Maybe we like the idea of coating each whole item, individually. Maybe we like to form little clusters of one item, or a custom combination of items, and drop them by the teaspoonful onto parchment paper to dry. Maybe we like to create little half-moon areas of chocolate coating (like little chocolate hats!) at one end of the nut or fruit, creating colorful delicacies to accompany a dessert of ice cream. In any case, the crunch of nuts and the sweet, soft, flavor explosion of fruits combine to create a taste and “mouth feel” that embellishes chocolate’s rich smoothness.

As long as there is opulent, lovely chocolate, and as long as people are drawn to it by the multitudes, the dipping will continue. Each item, headed for its plunge, may not call out “Fire” as it is adorned with its crowning glory. More likely, the brain of the participating cook will call out “Chocolate” with each item’s dunking! And then, at last, the cook will finish the work, clear up the work surface, and do the obvious -- indulge! Bon appetit!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Sausage Counter at Mattern Market Posted by Hello

Hiking Food -- Austrian Style!

We jumped off of the train and headed straight to the waiting boat that would ferry us to Hallstatt – a village that is truly one of Austria’s scenic gems. It was difficult to keep moving, but we overcame the impulse to just stop and gawk at the beauty that surrounded us. With typical Austrian efficiency, the ferry delivered us posthaste to our waiting port. The town’s semi-official “greeter,” a friendly (and huge) shaggy dog, got up lazily from his resting space near his owner’s dark blue convertible and accepted a head pat from each of us as we made our way into the cobble-stoned central square.

After the morning’s train trip from Salzburg, we were easily enticed by the delicious aromas that restaurants seemed to pipe into the streets. Maybe it was just the beautifully-clean air, there in the midst of the mountains, that served as the perfect olfactory delivery mechanism. Red-checked tablecloths, red-and-white patio umbrellas, lakefront dining in the sunshine – we were drawn in faster than a hummingbird to bright red nectar.

Soon, we were seated at tables and gazing at mountains, the shimmering lake, sparkling-white boats, even-whiter majestic swans, half-timbered buildings clinging to hillsides, and flowers, flowers, everywhere! It was almost too difficult to tear our eyes away from the gorgeous scenery to focus on the menu card. We took a shortcut: a quick glance at the choices of nearby diners convinced us that the cheese-and-sausages plate, bright-and-refreshing Austrian Gruner Veltliner wine and apple cake would fill the bill wonderfully. We were, after all, in hiking country; there would never be a better time to eat hikers’ food!

Austrians, of course, have a heritage of hiking and mountain climbing. Ordinary trail mix and protein-packed “power bars” as we in the U.S. know them, are not the traditional Austrian idea of replenishing nourishment during and after such strenuous activity. Sausage – the long and the short of it – better fits the bill!

It’s easy to understand that Austrians never seem to grow tired of sausages; the selection from which to choose is astonishing. Whether one is looking for slicing sausages (the cylindrical, long rolls that are typically served sliced crosswise) or link sausages in casings (wieners or bratwurst, for example, that are done up in short, link shapes), the Austrian meat market serves up sausage options for every occasion.

So, what are we American types to do, when the craving for a good old Austrian- or German-style sausage strikes once we are back home? Fortunately, many of us have access to some good, natural-casing link-style sausages, as well as slicing varieties, right at our local supermarkets. These are always a convenient alternative, when the hiking or moutaineering agenda calls for a good sausage accompaniment. If we don’t indulge in either of those energetic pastimes, we often can instigate (with very little effort) some other sausage-specific activity – beer or wine drinking, for example!

Those of us who are even MORE fortunate have access to German-style markets, delis and groceries. There, lighted and refrigerated display cases exhibit a sausage and cheese selection sure to trigger those Austrian memories of Alpine horns and cow bells -- or tap into German memories of frothy beer steins and music-filled wine gardens.

In California, we are blessed with numerous German delis and markets. These markets typically go far beyond the sausage and meat products that their names suggest. Mattern Sausage and Meats, in the city of Orange, for example, offers not only numerous sausages, meats and cheeses, but a selection of German staple ingredients, wines, beers and German-style breads. And, of course, there are plenty of those tasty German chocolate bars too!

As is typical of meat markets and sausage shops (called Metzgerei) in Austria and Germany, these local markets also usually provide small seating areas, with basic tables and chairs, at which customers may enjoy made-to-order sandwiches containing the tantalizing sausages, meats, cheeses and breads which are featured in that store. The website provides an extensive list of German-style delis and bakeries (including addresses, phone numbers and websites) throughout California, by city. In other areas, a web or phone directory search is likely to provide similar information to get the sausage search off to a good start.

One of the things that I most enjoy about visiting German markets is the nostalgic ambiance in which I am immersed, on-the-spot. Fluent English quickly gives way to rapid-fire German when longstanding German-speaking customers come through the front door. Suddenly, there I am, once again, blissfully embedded in European atmosphere – and I didn’t even have to buy a plane ticket!

Before I know it, time at the German market has flown and this ingredient sleuth is once again headed toward home, stomach filled with a good sausage sandwich, heavy shopping bags pulling both arms straight at the elbows. Soon, the German sausages (and other tasty beverages and ingredients!) that I have selected will be cooking on the stove, roasting on the grill or just plain ready-to-eat from the butcher’s paper.

And visions of majestic mountains, clear-blue lakes, fluorescent-red geraniums and half-timbered houses will be prancing -- in hiking boots -- through my mind!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Organic Beets from Whole Foods Market Posted by Hello

In Beet-historic Times

Prehistoric Woman, Nhor (looking up from granite work surface toward prehistoric man as he appears at the top of the distant hill): “umh … good Mhor … green in hand … we eat good”

Prehistoric Man, Mhor (approaching prehistoric woman and holding vegetation toward her with outstretched hands): “umh … look Nhor … big green … grow good … small red”

Prehistoric Woman, Nhor (twisting off any red tuberous portions of the vegetation and tossing them onto the scrap pile in the corner of the prehistoric “cave kitchen”): “umh … good … red small … green more good”

Notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies of prehistoric grammar, syntax and reasoning – Mhor and Nhor had more in common with we modern types than we may care to admit! They just didn’t fully appreciate beets – even though they cultivated them routinely. For years – possibly even centuries – beets were a foundation element of their diet, but they only ate the green parts.

Time passed. In post-prehistoric times (hmmm, would that be in “historic times”?), the red bulb of the beet was used medicinally to treat headaches and toothaches, as a tisane or tea, but not eaten. By the 16th century, though, things changed. The beet root as we know it today, round in shape and substantial, had developed. It only took another two hundred years for the rounded beets to gain any real popularity as a food!

Then, throughout Europe, beets came into their own. In Russia, the emblematic soup borscht was born. From Scandinavia to England, from France to Italy and beyond, the time was right. Relatively easy to grow and consumable from stem to stern (so to speak), the beet was an excellent source of nourishment for swelling peasant populations.

Perhaps this longstanding link to peasant cooking was what once again relegated beets to the back burner, as cuisine and education “advanced” and beets were considered to be too “common” for modern times in much of the 19th (and some of the 20th) century. Thankfully, much of today’s best – and most sought after -- cooking harkens back to its peasant foundations. And, we find ourselves in a veritable beet-historic renaissance! Beets have a new image! Everything old is not only new again, but more creative.

Like other leafy greens, beet greens are loaded with nutrients and are easily prepared in a variety of ways (see the Ingredient Sleuth’s March 17 essay re. leafy greens for preparation ideas). And today, the red (or yellow-gold, in the case of some new varieties) round roots have moved from the brined jar and aluminum can into the mainstream of cooking, even in the highest of haute cuisine restaurants.

Beets can be used raw, as they have been for years in Italy and France. Peeled with a vegetable peeler and shredded, they are a sweet and vibrant addition to tossed salads. Or, they can be used as one component of those great, European-style composed salads, so popular in northern Europe, that feature several shredded raw vegetables, colorfully lined up side by side on an individual serving plate and topped with a vinaigrette dressing.

Beets can be boiled, steamed, microwaved, braised or baked in much the same way as potatoes – although cooking times will be somewhat longer. Beets are done when they can be pierced easily with the point of a sharp knife. To peel – or not to peel -- the only question is WHEN (before or after cooking), because beet skins have not yet come into fashion as a food item! Scrubbing the beets, then cooking, allowing to cool slightly and then peeling is a tried-and-true method. If baking them whole, skins on, it is always a good idea to prick them several times with a fork or sharp knife, just like potatoes, before baking.

Seasonings that blend especially well with beets include mint, parsley, thyme, horseradish, dill, citrus (juice and zest), nutmeg, oregano, cinnamon, caraway, mustard and coriander. And one of my favorites is rosemary – but then again, I could probably put rosemary on chocolate pudding and enjoy it! With this array of compatible flavors, virtually everyone should be able to chose one (or more) that will “speak” to them.

If you happen to live in Europe, let’s say Italy or France or England, you probably can just pop on over to your neighborhood grocer and pick up fresh, already-cooked (or in some cases wood-oven roasted) beets. Like many root vegetables, beets really are optimized when they are roasted. The natural sugars develop (and caramelize) by means of the exposure to roasting temperatures; dry heating also locks in the nutrition.

The following recipe for oven-roasted beets comes from Ina Garten’s marvelous book BAREFOOT IN PARIS: Easy French Food You CAN Make at Home (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2004). This dish also exemplifies the sensible recipes that fill this delightful book – real French food, that can be prepared on a regular basis, for and by real people – all with a reasonable number of ingredients and straightforward cooking techniques.

Ms. Garten writes that she believes in keeping recipes simple and, thereby, sustainable. Having moved from a career in the White House (working on nuclear energy policy) to a career as owner of the Barefoot Contessa specialty food store in New York, she brings the sensibilities of a day-in, day-out chef to her cooking. She knows what is required, not just to fill the plates at a family dinner party, but to keep the store counters stocked with tasty food that will keep customers coming back for more. After eighteen years in the specialty food shop business, Ms. Garten has moved to the world of cookbook writing and television. Her books, "Barefoot Contessa" programs on the TV Food Network, recipes and much more are detailed at her website:


12 beets
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Juice of 1 large orange

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the tops and the roots of the beets and peel each one with a vegetable peeler. Cut the beets in 1-1/2-inch chunks. (Small beets can be halved, medium ones cut in quarters, and large beets cut in eighths.)

Place the cut beets on a baking sheet and toss with the olive oil, thyme leaves, salt, and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, turning once or twice with a spatula, until the beets are tender. Remove from the oven and immediately toss with the vinegar and orange juice. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve warm.

(Serves 6)

*Copyright Note: Ina Garten specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

In this mouth-watering dish, the beets’ smooth richness and the thyme’s earthy liveliness are linked to the lighthearted high notes of tart raspberry vinegar and sweet orange juice. Rich, deep flavor -- tuned to brightness as sparkly as the Eiffel Tower’s hourly light shows!

It’s time to be on the lookout -- June to October is prime beet season in North America. Early in the season, baby beets with baby leaves still attached are available and can be cooked intact, green tip to red toe – a way, I think, that Mhor and Nhor would have enjoyed them, had they only known:

“Umh … good young taste … want more … red too!” Bon appetit!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Squeezable Tomato Paste Posted by Hello

Paste Pitch -- No More!

The Boys of Summer are back and another baseball season gets underway. Stadiums fill with eager fans, hot dog vendors cook up the links and the scent of popcorn wafts through the air.

The pitcher winds up and delivers the first pitch of the game – a curve ball, high and inside. “Ball one!” The crowd murmurs its reaction to the umpire’s call through mouths brimming with dogs and corn. The second pitch is a slider – right over the plate, just within the strike zone. “Stee-rike!” Once again, the pitcher squints into the sunlight as he grasps the ball for the next pitch. It’s a fastball, perfectly positioned. “Stee-rike!” The crowd becomes quiet, as the impending out can be sensed.

Just one more strike is needed. The pitcher winds up and delivers the pitch, at lightning speed, straight into the garbage can at the far end of the home team’s dugout! An awed silence fills the stadium. The catcher reacts and reaches the garbage can just as the apple core dislodged by the hurtling pitch bounds into the air. By instinct, he reaches his gloved hand into the garbage container to retrieve the pitch. And out it comes … a bright, shiny can of tomato paste!

The crowd goes wild (I had to say it – this IS a baseball story, after all)! The pitching coach explodes from the dugout, grabs the cap from his head, throws it to the ground and sends the pitcher packing. There is just one pitch that is NEVER allowed on this coach’s pitching staff: the tomato paste pitch!

I can certainly relate to the pitching coach’s opinion – it is the stuff of ingredient sleuth dreams! Time after time, can after can, year after year, I have resignedly pitched moldy tomato paste into my garbage can, shaking my head in disbelief that I have let it happen yet again. Filled with good intentions, of course, I had earlier placed the remainder of the tiny can’s contents into a glass container and wedged it into my refrigerator.

Whatever recipe I was making at the time – meat loaf, pasta sauce, hearty soup, Spanish rice, sloppy Joes, barbecued ribs, chicken cacciatore, red curry, pizza, salsa, jambalaya, pork stew – it undoubtedly called for one or two tablespoons of tomato paste. Because tomato paste is made from five times its own weight of tomatoes, it doesn’t take much to provide intense flavor. But, that often means that half (or more) of the can remains after some delectable dish has been prepared.

In general, once opened, canned tomato paste will keep for up to seven days in the refrigerator. If one’s cooking is organized – or voluminous – enough, perhaps the entire contents of the can will be used within that weeklong window of opportunity. Somehow, that never seems to have been the case, for me. The well-intentioned second dish of the week somehow seemed not to materialize, no matter how clearly I visualized it when the tomato paste can was zipped open. And hence, the inevitable tomato paste pitch occurred, yet again.

Finally, I have found two solutions that have banished the tomato paste pitch from my life! First, the remaining paste’s usable life can be extended to about six months by freezing. Many experts recommend freezing tablespoon-sized servings in ice cube trays, then removing them after they are frozen and packaging them in airtight freezer bags. This is a very good solution, but I must confess that something about the thought of washing those ice cube trays always dissuades me a bit!

I prefer to retrieve the nifty little baking tray from my toaster oven, cover it with a shiny piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper, and then put the tomato paste spoonfuls several inches apart on the sheet – as if I was making tomato paste cookies! I slide that tray into the freezer, let the paste dabs freeze, then peel them off and put them into a good, heavy-duty freezer bag. The dabs wait happily in my freezer – and I don’t even have to remember to thaw them before using them in most dishes. .

Recently, I discovered my favorite solution to the paste pitch problem, bar none. No ice cube trays, no plastic wrap, no scraping of that last remaining bit out of the tiny little can. The Italians figured it out – they put tomato paste into a tube! What genius, what sensible thriftiness, what flavor, all contained there in that squeezable packaging. The tubed paste has a longer refrigerator-life than the canned paste (up to three weeks). Although, ounce for ounce, or in this case gram for gram, it is more expensive than the canned paste, I rarely pitch any tubed paste into the garbage can – a cost offset, for sure. Also, I have found the squeezable paste to be very handy for speedy hors d’oeuvres, encouraging me to enjoy its nutrition benefits on a much-more-frequent basis than before.

Recent food and health literature has documented very well the benefits of tomatoes – particularly the cooked variety. Like all tomatoes, they provide excellent doses of potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. The cooking involved with heat-processed tomatoes releases lycopene, the strong antioxidant contained within the skin that has been credited with reducing the likelihood of several major diseases.

With all those nutrition benefits, as well as its deep, rich flavor going for it, tomato paste is just way too valuable to waste. Tomato paste in tubes can be found in some major supermarkets, at international markets, Italian groceries and online. Finally, just like the ballpark – in my kitchen, no more tomato-paste pitches are allowed!

Batter up – and bon appetit!