Choco-Tour 2014

cacao poulain posterLike chocolate itself, vacations are a recipe of ingredients both fantastic and real. Getting away, or just thinking about it, should taste of a dreamy unreality that rewards the mind for the body’s slogging through dog days of sun-blanching, humidity-drenching summer or cat (?) days of icy, sleety stormy soul-freezing winter.

This being the time of year when people take their summer or dream of their winter retreats, it seems right to consider traipsing from the more traditional path of choco-tourism (admittedly a naif travel niche) to span the cavernous divide between chocolate consumers such as a few Dutch captured-on-film, who have never seen the cacao fruit

and cacao farmers, who never tasted the “fruit” of their labors (in a report-gone-viral with something of a staged feeling to it)

Let this be a start for your vacation — the one taken or just planned. Consider the variety of options between enjoying the first world comfort of a Hotel Chocolate, a plantation servicing the British chocolatiere celebrating it’s tenth anniversary, that lets you wander the fields and going hyper-native in Brazil, exploring the romance of cabruca farming (an old-fashioned and ecologically sensible style, planting cacao under old growth forest) .

There’s also the socio-politico-economic-historical version of a world choco-tour exploring how the recent world market price increases are creating new market niches, including making specialty cacao a possible Haitian benefit and a causing an ironic turnaround that now has previously dismissed Ghanaian beans smuggled into the Cote d’Ivoire

Not last, not least consider an online or in-person visit taking in something like China’s Chocolate Happy Land

However, if your imagination and wallet can only take you so far and you need something real in your life (and real as in now), fight the dog days of summer (and think about the frozen, sleety winter of 180 degrees on the calendar) by taking a chocolate vacation, courtesy of the classic Serendipity3 Frozen Hot Chocolate recipe, courtesy of ABC’s Good Morning America.

1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
4 tablespoons of different cocoa powder
Pinch salt
1 cup milk
3 cups ice
whipped cream and semisweet chocolate (to taste and encouraged excess)

Combine the sugar, dry milk powder, cocoas, and salt. Blend mix, milk and ice until smooth Pour the milk into a blender. Add the dry mix and ice. Blend until all the ice is crushed and the drink is smooth. Top the drink with whipped cream and shavings from a semisweet chocolate bar.

Vegetables for Chocolate…and we don’t mean zombies

broccoli dipped chocolateAll hail! It’s summer and the garden is flooded with vegetables — technically, the edible parts of plants that are not the sweet wiht the, fleshy parts surrounding seeds often called fruits. We’re thinking of them with chocolate, but first, a  quick serenade from the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

Amongst the vegetables (or fruits as some have it), sadly, are no cacao pods. That doesn’t mean we can’t imagine chocovegetable concoctions. Before going sweet it is worth a savory mention. The Christian Science Monitor spells out the chocolate vinaigrette dressing over a peach salad, a borrow from Matt Kadey’s No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook . Kadey’s conceit is that the recipes are for when it is too hot to turn on the oven, but a chocolate salad dressing sounds like it could work any time.

A couple other mashups from around that possibly could start a meal, although it would have to be as part of a unique menu are a toffee drizzled sweet corn and fried eggplant with chocolate dollops.

For the corn, either boil stripped ears or (we prefer) immerse unstripped ears in cold water for about 30 minutes or so and then put over grill on indirect heat for 15-20 minutes before stripping. Put the cooked ears on a lined baking sheet, drizzle toffee topping (stir over low heat until completely melted 1/2 cup stevia; 1/2 cup agave or honey; 1/2 cup – one stick – butter; and 8 oz chocolate) before refrigerating another half hour prior to serving.

For the Italian-inspired fried eggplant with chocolate topping, we are inspired by Manhattan (via San Francisco) mom Sharon Beesley, who blogs about learning things as she wanders around her new neighborhoods.

A couple other ideas we’ll be whipping up include the ode to carrots and chocolate in an Epicurious-inspired Chocolate Orange Carrot Cake. Also, depending on what is coming in on the vine later this summer, there is also a good chance that some Chocolate Spice Tomato Soup Cupcakes will get whipped up, an idea owned (so far, at least) by Nicole Weston (@bakingbites)

Although it’s cheating on the idea of only working with veggies straight out of the garden, there is also the somewhat-related chocolate popcorn recipe serving as a pretty good summertime movie-watching staple. It gets remixed a bit every time, but currently stands as

1/4 cup popcorn kernels
1 ounce dark chocolate
Dash coarse salt
Dash cinnamon
Dash and dash again stevia

Air pop or microwave popcorn. Sprinkle and shake to mix salt and cinnamon and stevia. Melt chocolate in microwave in 10 second spurts so not to burn. Pour chocolate over popcorn, stir a couple times to mix up and refrigerate for five minutes.

Finally, although they are no Vegetable Orchestra, there is still something sweet about closing thoughts on chocolate and vegetables with an ode to chocolate and broccoli from the ever-video young Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen

Chocolate Banana Dinner Menu Fantasy

chocolate and bananaThere is something about a chocolate covered banana that is always decadent, ever-titillatiing to particular sites in the mind. Sadly, that particular stimulation is not always equaled by the gustatory pleasure.

The report that the Philippines is encouraging its banana farmers to diversify their lands with cacao tree plantings encouraged a consideration of the pairing’s limits. If something is good enough for the grower, shouldn’t it be equally providential for the baker (a sauce, goose and gander sort of thing)? And if it is good in one combination, shouldn’t many combinations be even better?

In other words, can you create a whole banana–chocolate meal that might possibly take in all the new production of the Filipino multi-farmers? Turns out we couldn’t, at least not one we’d really enjoy indulging in — which doesn’t mean we didn’t try, although maybe not long enough.

Probably great chefs should turn their minds and palates to solving “the problem” of bringing to savory dishes the taste and healthy benefits of ingredients generally enjoyed from the sweet side of the menu. But so far, while a meal can be created in name, we’re really just talking about multiple dessert courses … not that this would be a wholly bad thing. For example, you could start a meal taking your taste buds from B to C with soup.

Consider the chocolate–banana soup adapted by The Purple Frog Cook from a Jacques Torres creation.

The natural complement to the soup would be the whole what monkey muffins baked up by the suburban Chicago Spanish teacher behind, which she refers to within context as dietetically not completely unacceptable

Why am I calling these healthyish? Well, the low-ish fat and whole wheat flour of course. And the bananas. Fruit makes everything healthy, right?

Entree course could be sushi. Borrowing from the vegan devotees at Vegalicious, the feature would be “Banushi,” a vegan banana chocolate sushi using puff pastry instead of a seaweed wrapper, and in doing so suggests some off-label use in a different context as a delectable, healthy substitute for the banal-if-tasty-to-some cocktail party staple of pigs in a blanket. (Yes, there is an easy joke to be made here about people devouring enough to be “pigs” outside the blanket, but we’ll forego it.)

For liquid refreshment, it is possible to fit with the theme, although The Thirsty Zymurgist, who posted the idea of the banana-chocolate pour combining Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and Well’s Banana Bread Ale found it more than a few sips from stupendous.

Dessert — should you even be able to crawl back to the table for this course — will be fittingly represented by a BBQ Banana Chocolate Finisher. The banana is split lengthwise with the peel still encasing it, a quality chocolate is splintered and stuffed in the middle and whole is roasted over dying coals (or a warmed oven) until the peel has taken on a mostly black coat; peel and serve.

Dinner and appetite surely over, even if there is some residual happiness from helping out the Filipino farmers to such a great extent.

Questions and Answers with Mark Guiltinan, Sequencer of the Cacao Genome

heart on chocolateSomething about people going Valentine’s Day overboard in response to too many advertisements promoting cheap chocolates has sent us seeking repose in the science behind the art of cacao. We still wish everyone the happiest and chocolatiest of Valentines, but our interest on this day this year has led to Penn State Professor Mark Guiltinan, who along with colleagues, has taken one of the late deepest looks ever into what make chocolate chocolate.

The professor of plant molecular biology in the Department of Horticulture in the College of Agricultural Sciences heads up the eponymous Guiltinan Lab, where he studies crop improvement and sustainable farming methods. Among his projects was playing an integral part in the International Cocoa Genome Sequencing Consortium sequencing and analyzing the heirloom, Belize Criollo variety of the Theobromo cacao plant. Their goal was to understand the cacao genome, closely related to the luxury of the Mayans and Aztecs — consumed as a hot drink laced with peppers — in order to breed healthier, higher quality trees and more disease-resistant cacao pods. It was also hoped that the research would yield economic, social and environmental advantages to the cacao farmers and nations. What it was not, was a foray into scary science, or, as he told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, “…the main aim of the projects wasn’t to bring the world genetically modified candy bars.”

criolle bean podsTaking a few moments from his research and his own Valentines Day preparations, Dr. Guiltinan kindly shared a few insights into his affairs with chocolate.

Cupid Alley Chocolatieres: What was the moment or event or day or taste that was the inspiration for your personal and professional interest in studying the genome of chocolate?
Dr. Mark Guiltinan: Visiting the cacao growing regions of Bahia, Brazil, in 1995, and witnessing the effects of the witches’ broom epidemic, and how it had made thousands of people homeless, inspired me to focus on cacao. A few years later, the human genome was published, and I realized that sequencing the cacao genome could have a huge impact on accelerating the improvement of this tasty crop.

CAC: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your analysis?
MG: The cacao genome sequence allowed us to localize a gene (NPR1) that is very important in the plant immune system, to a region of chromosome 9 that is known to be very important in resistance to witches’ broom disease. We still have a ways to go to know for sure that the NPR1 gene is the reason certain plants can fight this disease better then others, but were working on that now.

CAC: How do you expect people to use your work to influence the growth and even taste of chocolate?
MG: The genome sequence will be used for the foreseeable future by anyone working with cacao improvement because it offers so many ways to speed up the process. I plan to continue to work on decoding the secrets of the cacao genome as long as I can, is there a better job anywhere?

CAC: In what ways does knowing the science of the taste of chocolate influence your personal experience of enjoying it, if you still can?
MG: When I taste chocolate I think of the different genetic types of cacao that contribute to the different flavors and even imagine the molecular structures of the compounds that we taste. Maybe it distracts from the taste…? I enjoy darker chocolates such as 65 percent to 75 percent and have become found of mixtures with fruits, nuts and other species. I love almost all quality chocolates but am quite fond of Lindt [Disclaimer: we do not receive any funding from this company, unfortunately!]. The Lindt Excellent Intense Pear is one of my most favorite, but there are many others. Come to think of it there are few chocolates I do not like, they are all just different experiences to try and enjoy.

CAC: Are you doing other work with cacao?
MG: We are studying the immune system of cacao to help breeders find better plants. We are working on the genes involved in oil biosynthesis (cocoa butter) that could lead to more or different cocoa butter. We work on the genes for flavonoid synthesis as well, which will someday lead to chocolates even higher levels of these healthy compounds. We also work on ways to propagate cacao through tissue culture which is very exciting technology that has recently been commercialized in Indonesia and is spreading worldwide. We now have made a impact throughout the cocoa growing world!

CAC: Do you have any special Valentine’s Day plans? Any favorite recipes you will be sharing with someone special?
MG: hmmmm let me get back to you on that…..

CAC: What other projects have captured your imagination?
MG: I am interested in working in large interdisciplinary teams to focus on cacao as a vehicle for economic, environmental and social improvement. To do this we need a coordinated plan that brings together specialists in all dimensions of the cocoa value chain, with a common goal to support the sustainability of the chocolate industry, and to help cocoa farmers worldwide. There are a few such projects starting and I hope our team can contribute to these. I also believe that in the future, it will be important to use all technology we have to solve agricultures and societies most pressing issues. One such technology is genetic engineering. While I am sure this is not going to be a popular comment with many of your readers, I believe that one day it will contribute to cocoa sustainability along with all the other tools we have. Towards that end, we are doing research now that will be important when that day comes. Don’t worry anti-GMO folks, there are no plans to release any GMO cocoa anytime soon! It’s just a research tool for now. I plant to spend a portion of my time to educate the public about this issue. If you want to learn more, here is a very interesting article written by Mark Lynas, one of the most anti-GMO activists of all time, who has now re-thought his position.

Chocolate Gift Parade Kickoff

Thanksgiving is over, so according to the unwritten rules (that other stores have violated, damn them), it is now okay to start talking holiday gifts.

Today’s food for thoughts about gifts starts with the idea of growing your own chocolate inside. VoodooGarden makes it look easy enough (apparently you just order pods).

Since that is too silly for all but the most delusional of males to consider, we also note the latest high concepts with the imprimatur of the Culinary Institute of America, Chocolates and Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan ConfectionerChocolate and Confections; the quick hits in your kitchen ideas from Swedish pastry pizzazzman Magnus Johansson (with pornfully delicious photos from Fabian Björnstjerna), Cooking with Chocolate: The Best Recipes and Tips from a Master Pastry ChefCooking with Chocolate; and the beginner’s kit for ultimate food decon- and then reconstruction, the Molecular Gastronomy Kitmolecular gastronomy kit.

Happy (beginning of the) Holidays (present shopping tensions)!

Questions and Answers with “Bug Chef” David George Gordon

IN addition to ingesting cocoa-coated squirmies, can there be a better, more appropriate way to celebrate Oct. 14, National Chocolate-Covered Insect Day, than to check in with Eat-a-bug Cookbook chef David George Gordon, whose recipes include Ants in the Pants (below), which features baked and then chocolate-pantsed ants.

Currently living in Seattle with his wife (and illustrator), Karen Luke Fildes, and a tank full of tropical fish, the just-a-shade-over-60 Gordon grew up poking and turning things in his backyard before getting a degree in biology, working at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and then Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. Since, he has written on bugs he hasn’t eaten, as well as slugs, dolphins, sharks, and horses … and attained a fair degree of harmonica harmonium. Taking a break from writing, tweeting, making what a 2008 Time magazine article referred to as his “classic dish” of orthopteran (cricket) orzo, and cooking for students and food festival attendees around the world, he was kind enough to answer a few questions and help us celebrate NC-CI Day

Cupid Alley Chocolatieres: How did you get your start as the master of insect recipes?

David George Gordon: I’ve been involved with this topic of entomophagy (that’s bug-eating to you) since 1996, when I started collecting materials that would eventually appear in my Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. Since the book’s publication in 1998, I’ve watched public interest (and media attention) grow by leaps and bounds. I’m currently working on the revised and updated Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, which will be released by Ten Speed Press in July 2013. The climate into which this new book will be born is quite different than for the original edition, which, by the way, is still in print, nearly 15 years later.

CAC: Are there particular bugs or specific ways of preparing chocolate that go best together?

DGG: My best tip is to get the proportions of chocolate and insects correct—too much and you can’t taste the bug; too little and the bugs are overpowering, adding a little too much crunch.

CAC: What kinds of health benefits are there with insects that more people should know?

DGG: From my cookbook [Reading] :

What’s to be gained from a diet of bugs? A grasshopper’s body is more than 20 percent protein. Compare this with the protein in lean ground beef (about 27 percent), and you’ll see why even professional wrestlers could sustain themselves on a diet of food arthropods. Since grasshoppers and their insect relatives contain large quantities of water, their protein content jumps to around 60 percent after these animals are dried — that’s plenty of protein for both John the Baptist and Hulk Hogan to get by.

Many protein-rich bugs are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, and fats. Ladies, are you worried about warding off osteoporosis? Then eat crickets, which are loaded with calcium. Want to avoid anemia? Try termites; they’re rich in iron. One hundred grams of giant silkworm moth larvae provide 100 percent of the daily requirements for copper, zinc, iron, thiamin, and riboflavin. It turns out that animals that eat greens have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids — the “good” fats in our bodies, whose powers as an anti-oxidant can thwart certain forms of cancer and disease. Many insects contain abundant stores of lysine, an amino acid deficient in the diets of people who rely heavily on corn. Could the ancient Aztecs have known this? They sold corn infested with corn earworm (a small green and black striped caterpillar that more modern farmers consider a nuisance) for more money than corn without the nutritionally supportive bug.

CAC: Are there ecologically sensitive and/or fair trade movements in the farming of insects as there are with cacao?

DGG: Not yet, but it’s coming. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is investigating ways of mass rearing (as opposed to wild-harvesting) insects in tropical countries where bug eating is already part of the culture. It’s their hope that the results of the investigation will help to alleviate world hunger. It’s my hope that the FAO “certified” farms will be considerably less harmful to our planet that the farming of more traditional sources of protein — cattle and pigs.

CAC: What is your favorite chocolate bug recipe?

DGG: It’s Ants in Pants. Here’s the recipe from The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook [by David George Gordon; copyright 1998, Ten Speed Press]:

Who knows what inspired Reese Finer Foods to discontinue its product line of exotic fried and candied insect treats. It couldn’t have been from lack of consumer interest; one out of three grown-ups I’ve contacted recalls eating (and, in many instances, enjoying) Reese’s chocolate-covered grasshoppers and ants as a kid.

Alas, I’ve been unable to uncover so much as an empty can from this once-great bug supplier, or even someone who worked for Reese during its heyday. So in the spirit of entomological entrepreneurship, let’s rekindle the lost art (or is it ant?) of fudge making with Formicidae.

In this recipe, wild ants are frozen, baked in the oven, then dressed in tantalizing chocolate “pants.” My only precautionary note: It’s too easy to “overdress” for the occasion, inadvertently burying the tart flavor of the ants with their rich chocolate coating. So don’t be stingy with the ants. They’re a dime a dozen and only slightly more expensive if you purchase them from a biological supply house.

1/2 cup (about 80 to 100 individuals) western thatching ants (Yield: 10 or 12 candies)

(Formica obscuripes) or other large-bodied ants, oven baked

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into chips

1/2 teaspoon Grand Marnier, or orange extract to taste

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 tablespoon corn syrup

1. Combine the chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in the top of a double boiler set over hot (but not boiling) water. When the ingredients are evenly blended, stir in the Grand Marnier. Remove from heat and allow the chocolate to cool to 90°F. The chocolate will be shiny and will coat the finger well.

2. Drip small amounts of the melted chocolate on a sheet of foil or parchment paper, forming 10 or 12 1-inch-diameter discs. Quickly pile up a spoonful of the baked ants in the center of each circle, then cover with the remaining chocolate. Refrigerate.

3. After the chocolate has set, use a spatula to transfer each chocolate bundle of Ants in Pants to a plate

CAC: How are you celebrating this year’s National Chocolate-Covered Insect Day?

DAG: I’ll be playing harmonica with my band at a house party. Hopefully they’ll have plenty of chocolate for the entertainers as well as the guests!

CAC: What are the best and worst bug and chocolate experiences you have had?

DAG: I haven’t had any bad experiences with the chocolate; but I have been attacked by soldier ants while trying to collect their nest mates for my Ants in Pants recipe.

The best experience has been the purchase of my Cuisinart CFO-3SS Electric Fondue Maker Cuisinart electric fondue maker, which allows me to include chocolate-covered bugs on the menu of my traveling bug-cooking demos.

CAC:What’s next for you and bugs and chocolate?

DGG: I have a wonderful new recipe for Chocolate Fondue with Chapulines (small grasshoppers from Oaxaca, Mexico, roasted and seasoned with salt, chile and lime). It and eight other new recipes using insects will be in my updated and revised Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, which will be released by Ten Speed Press in July 2013. In fact, I believe the chocolate-covered grasshopper will the cover photo for that book.

: What kinds of health benefits are there with insects that more people should know?

Colombian Coca/Cocoa Conundrum

It’s not the usual policy choice that rises to national political discourse, but where do the presidential candidates stand on the subject of sub-par cocoa versus cocaine? Do they see a third way?

Colombian farmers are being encouraged to convert from coca to cocoa production. Unfortunately, the move from starting the cocaine chain to initiating chocolate is foundering over a slump in cocoa prices worldwide unmatched by the price of raw coca. One solution is to plant the CCN-51 cocoa as the CIA is encouraging Peruvian farmers to take on — a controversial policy as the particular strain is easier to grow, but a “bulk cocoa” far down far down the taste ladder from the native fine white (yes, “fine” and “white”) chocolate.

So —and accepting that one government should be mixing into the agricultural policy of another nation — the problem is whether the United States should be encouraging a non-native, cheaper chocolate species that could eventually drive out a finer tasting domestic? What to do, what to do? (And, no, we are not suggesting solving the problem by smuggling the cocaine in chocolate candy as did one enterprising NYC airport baggage handler.

Mr. Obama? Mr. Romney? Care to comment?

Savor the Savior

Chocolate as the food messiah is a bit too overhype-hype [Earlier: Headlines Eat It]. Cacao as the panacea to deforestation, is also too, too much. However, as balance to the dark side, planting cacao to supplant cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon is taking place and does offer bits and pieces of hope against the crush of deforestation.

Rays of optimism come from CAPPRU, an agricultural cooperative located in São Felix do Xingu. As detailed in a recent post a few of the more adventurous took a shot at switching from ranching to farming.

What they found — or at least seem on their way to confirming — is that “… the cattle could bring in about $2,500 per year while the cacao would bring in about $10,000 per year. “And with cacao, the farmer also gets other products from the shade trees, like açai and other fruits, Brazil nuts, rubber, and wood.” It should be noted that those amounts don’t appear to include the need for the farmer to work more intensively and with more employees and costs than the rancher or that they have to worry about the local monkeys eating the fruits of their labors.

So, keep on the lookout for the CAPPRU label. We do and will!