Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fancy Food Show Part 4- Chocolate

Only two more posts about the Fancy Food Show, then I will shut up about it. I am sorry about the serious lack of photos, but no photos were allowed on the show floor. Of course, no wheeled carts were allowed, and no removing samples from the premises, but we saw plenty of both those things going fact I just finished the last of my chocolate samples tonight.

I tasted some BAD chocolate, let me tell you. There are a lot of people out there who seem to think "Hey, if that Scharffenberger dude can make chocolate, so can I!" Wrong. Those Scharffen Berger guys were chocolate geniuses, and most people aren't. Put down the cacao beans and step away from the grinder.

But the good news is I tasted some stunning chocolates, too. Godiva and Valrhona were not among them - I passed by both booths, sated by five hours of sampling other things. Besides, I already KNEW how they tasted.

My favorite for both flavor AND packaging was the lovely Mariebelle. . The Aztec Dark hot chocolate was unbelievably rich, even when made with just water, not milk. Perfect chocolate flavor balance. I think this will be my mail-order gift of choice for a long time to come.

The beautiful almost-Tiffany blue and brown tins don't hurt, either.

Venchi Chocolates come in some interesting flavors like Spicy Chili Pepper and Absinthe. The Spicy Chili is spicy indeed, and the Absinthe has a unique, intriguing fennel-like flavor. Their chocolate is very good, and the odd flavors just added to the fun. I tried their 85% cacao Cuor di Cacao, which I probably wouldn't eat every day, but for a real cacao lover, it just might do the trick. Also full of those antioxidants everyone is always talking about.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fancy Food Show Part 3 - Olives

I was surprised to find not a single olive to knock my socks off at the Fancy Food Show. None were truly awful (unlike some of the chocolate I tasted) but nothing stood out as something super-special.

I guess I will stick to my old standbys, like the superb Divina Mt. Athos Red Pepper Stuffed olives.

I did, however, taste two great olive oils. I have always been partial to Spanish olive oils over the Italian ones, and the Valderrama Olive Oil did not disappoint. The suave Spanish sales guy (see coffee post below) explained that these oils were extracted within 45 minutes of picking to maintain all the fresh olive flavors. They sell a variety of single-varietal oils, and the three I tasted - arbequina, hojiblanca and something else - were all wonderful, each with its own flavor profile.

I didn't realize our friends down under were getting into the olive oil market but it figures - Australia has a nice Mediterranean climate, just like California, so it is only natural that they should want to grow olives as well as wine grapes.

I tasted some really fine oils from Silvertree of New South Wales. Like Valderrama, they take pride in processing the oils soon after picking. These oils tasted fresh, green, grassy and full of life. They were significantly different than either Italian or Spanish olive oils, a whole different animal. I liked them a great deal and look forward to trying more Aussie olive oils.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fancy Food Show Part 2 - Coffee

One thing I learned at the Fancy Food Show - If I ever go on a culinary vacation, I'm not going to France. I'm not going to NYC. I'm going to Spain.

The best food I tasted was from Spain, but that was only part of it.

Adding to the pleasure was meeting the suave men who were the sales reps. When was the last time you met a suave guy in the United States? Funny, yes, friendly, yes - but suave? Not since Cary Grant.

The Fancy Food Show was full of Spanish men who not only knew their products, but who also had the ability to make a gal suddenly begin to feel the estrogen flowing through her veins or wherever estrogen flows...all the while describing the wonders of single-varietal olive oil. EVOO never sounded so good.

Ahem. Back to the products. Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Let's talk coffee first because of its place in my heart and my life. I go through a couple quarts a day, so I should know my beans. Lately I have been roasting my own, but that is for another post.

The best coffee I tasted, hands down, was Tarrazu Sustainable Coffee . My new best friend Javier brewed me a cup of the smoothest espresso I had ever tasted while laying that warm Spanish charm on me and Chef Shirley. At the end of the day, she and I agreed this was one of our favorite products at the show, and that Javier was one of our favorite men of the past 20 years or so.

I also loved the people over at Gavina Coffee . I got so busy talking to Jose Gavina about roasting coffee that I forgot to taste his, but he clearly had a passion and love for his craft. I was impressed that someone who had been in the coffee business his whole life still had such excitement about it and generosity enough to talk to me for so long at such a busy show.

I had another fine cup of espresso over at 30 West Coffee. Their website My Best Coffee is rather undeveloped, but they are worth keeping an eye out for. Good stuff.

I won't tell you about all the bad coffee I drank, mostly because I didn't take brochures or keep notes on the stuff I didn't like. But be assured I did choke a lot of it down because I care about my readers and wanted to give them valuable information. I'm a giver, that's what I am.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Fancy Food Show

I just got back from a long day at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Did I enjoy it? Let's just say it's a good thing I wore my fat pants.

The Fancy Food Show is a trade show with several million exhibitors that covers several thousand acres in San Francisco. Ok, I exaggerate, but only slightly. I think the real tally is (let me check my show directory) 1,100 exhibitors and 80,000 products.

My friends Chef Shirley and Not-Quite-a-Chef-But-Damn-Near-Indespensable-to-a-Very-Fine-Restaurant-Anyway Stacy and I paid our $35, put on our comfy shoes, and hit the show, ready to see all the fancy food world held for us.

The first question we had to answer was "What makes food 'fancy'"? It seems that fancy food is that which you are more likely to find when you are on vacation at the quaint little tourist gourmet shop that at the Safeway, but even that definition could be stretched.

The show is open to the trade only, by which they mean anyone who will pay the entry fee. No, I am sure the requirements are stricter than that. Or not. Let's just say I didn't see many people getting stopped at the door and quizzed about their culinary credentials.

There are samples of everything, which, in my mind, puts this in the pantheon of trade shows. It sure beats the hell out of those printing trade shows I used to attend, where you would end up with a goody bag full of pens that quit working after two weeks and beautiful posters that said things like "The Next Wave in Kiss-Cut Labels!" on them. No, here you could sample wines, cheeses, caviar, prosciutto, tea, chocolate, jam, olives, and on and on.

To narrow down the field, I tried to stick to sampling only chocolate, coffee, olives and cheese, but even that was overwhelming. I wanted to sample everything, but by hour five was wearing out. You know when you pass the Valrhona chocolate samples and say "Eh, I don't feel like it," that it is probably time to head home.

In coming days I will post information about some of my favorite finds. I can't wait to get my hands on some of the chocolates and cheeses I tried. Until I can place orders online, I will be stuffing my face with the samples I brought home.

There are Fancy Foods shows coming up in Chicago in May and in NYC in July. Mark your calendars and invest in some loose-fitting clothing. You're going to need it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Hating what is good for you

What is your most hated food? For some reason, certain vegetables seem to top most people's lists. Lima beans, beets and brussels sprouts are some of the foods with the highest yuk factor.

Not for me, of course. I save my bile for abominations like Cool Whip, that plastic orange Nacho cheese goop and Jell-O with chunks of things embedded in it (celery does not go with ANY flavor of Jell-o, people. Nuts do not belong in Jell-O. Meat or fish products DO NOT BELONG IN JELL-O. (Note to PETA people: yes, I know what Jell-O is made of).

I used to hate lima beans, but then I met a guy at Farmer's Market who was selling shelled zip-locs full of tiny, fresh green limas. Sauteed with a little butter, some green onion rings and a dash of salt and pepper, they made me a convert to the Lima Bean cause.

I have loved beets and brussels sprouts ever since I was a kid. Weird, I know. And I never liked steaks or hamburgers. I guess I am a natural-born vegetarian.

I really want to know: hit me in the comments section with your three least-favorite foods. I will post results Jan. 15.

Sweetnicks has a new meme: ARF Tuesdays. Anti-oxidant Rich Food Tuesdays. Here's the rules: Pick a high-anti-oxidant fruit or veg, cook it up on a Tuesday, post, and let her know.

Here is my first contribution - my favorite recipe to fool brussels sprout haters. It is modified from Margaret Fox's small but mighty book "Cafe Beaujolais."

Brussels Shreds
Brussels Sprouts
Lemon juice
Grated Parmesan Cheese

Trim the bottoms off the brussels sprouts and remove the outer, loose leaves and any buggy parts (brussels sprouts attract aphids like computer keyboards attract spilled coffee).

Cut the sprouts in half through the stem. Lay them flat side down, and using your best knife skills and a good, sharp knife, slice them into very fine shreds starting at the top (parallel to the root) and working your way down.

Melt enough butter to coat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Throw in the brussels sprout shreds, toss a bit, squeeze a little lemon juice over, and slam a lid on for about 3 minutes. Remove the lid, toss on some grated parmesan, and put the lid back on for another three minutes or so.

This makes the sprouts tasty but so un-sprout like that your victims - I mean guests - may not recognize what they are eating. The bitter flavors that people hate are less concentrated, and they don't have that mooshy texture that sprouts get when you cook them long enough so that the middle is soft.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Creative Granola

Sure, you can buy granola. But it always has either too little of what you like or too much of what you don't like. Making granola gives you a chance to mix and match your favorite ingredients.

Here's my recipe:

4 cups old fashioned oats (not quick-cooking)
1/2 cup light vegetable oil
1/3 cup honey
1 cup chopped raw nuts (sometimes I use pecans, sometimes almonds or cashews)
2 tsp ground cinnamon. Lots of cinnamon is key to making this taste great.
Optional: 2 Tbsp. each sesame and flax seeds for crunchy goodness
1 cup dried fruit or dried fruit pieces (usually cranberries but sometimes raisins, cherries, strawberries or blueberries)
1 cup unsweetened toasted coconut strips or shredded coconut

Mix the oats, nuts and cinnamon in a large bowl. Mix honey and oil together and pour over oat mixture, stirring. Don't worry if it clumps up - when it is in the oven, the clumps will melt in the heat.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread oat mixture on a large baking sheet and cook for an hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so. If your coconut is raw, you can put it in about 15 minutes before the granola is done so it cooks with the other ingredients.

Remove from oven, add dried fruit (and coconut if you haven't put it in already). Voila. Granola how you like it. It makes a good snack as well as a breakfast cereal.