Tradition: Sourdough with Butter, Watermelon Radish, and Salt

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

-As tasty as they are pretty to look at.-

"Your mom will eat slightly spicy food right?" I probably should have asked before I ground up the Tien Tsin chili pepper, a Chinese pepper known for its incindiary flavor. One is enough to add piquancy to any dish along with a slap of cheek-blushing fire. "I'm just using one of the Chinese peppers for the whole pot so it shouldn't be too bad." Assuming, of course, that no one counted the teaspoon of crushed Sichuan peppercorns I added, which, really, aren't even spicy-hot as they are tingly-hot.

"Yeah," BF called out, "she should be fine."

BF's mother is a somewhat picky eater discretionary consumer in alimentary situations, so I was doing my best to address her likes and dislikes accordingly. Cooking for in-laws can be somewhat stressful as any of you who have can understand.

Of course, it wasn't really an issue as I didn't mind cooking around peoples preferences. When cooking for my own mother I've learned to avoid certain dishes. Last Christmas when I cooked for the whole family for Christmas Eve, giving my mom her first Christmas Eve dinner off in thirty-five years, I learned of her total disinclination and disgust towards butternut squash.

-These radishes are in season in Winter and on through early Spring.-

"What do you mean you don't like butternut squash?" I said incredulously. In my entire memory I couldn't recall ever hearing my mother say she disliked any particular food.

"I mean, I don't like it," she turned her head towards me as she sat on the couch and made a face.

"Since when?"

"Since ever. Why don't you think I ever made it for you guys when you were kids? I hate squash," she made a little shudder at the thought of it.

I thought back to my childhood and realized it was true. Not once could I recall a single instance she served us any sort of Winter squash. Summer squash and spaghetti squash steamed to a grey, immoral, nearly unconscionable mess, sure, plenty of times. It was why still to this day I never eat them. Never Winter squash though, and as an adult I ate those all the time. Apparently, my love of them was proof enough to the fact that she never did cook it, otherwise I would be just as terrified of pumpkin and butternut as I am of zucchini today.

"Well, I've bought it and already cut it up. I'm making it and your trying it." Good lord, I thought to myself, I'm turning into my parents with my parents. I decided to ignore the meta-psychological implications and continued to chop up the butternut. "You just have to try a bite."

"I won't like it," mom said and she turned back to her magazine.

"You haven't had it the way I make it. It's roasted in brown sugar and butter. You just have to try one bite. If you don't like it you don't have to eat it." I rolled my eyes and continued to work.

"Fiiiinnneee." she moaned. I could hear her sigh.

I brought my mind back to the present and added some chopped scallions to the slow cooker before popping the top on and setting it for 10 hours. "I'm sure your mom will like it," I said to BF, but also to myself.

-Even the pickiest eaters will love this recipe and these radishes.-

I looked at the rump sitting in the crock pot. It wasn't the family flank steak recipe, but, then again, this wasn't a usual holiday. This would actually be my first Christmas without any of my family. Due to work at the bakery, a profession that doesn't really take holidays into consideration except that you might get more hours than normal, I wasn't going to be able to make the trip to Southern California. The whole situation was a bit depressing. Sure, I had had Christmases away from most of my family where just my mother or brother came up to visit, but never had I actually been without a single person from my side of the family. It was a break in tradition for me.

Instead, I would be spending it with BF's family; absolutely lovely people whom I adore and who would be arriving in just a few hours. BF and I had insisted that we prepare Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner was the biggest holiday event for my family, but for BF's family it wasn't so. So this season would be a mix of old and new for everyone. For me, a big family get-together without my side of the family, and for them a big get-together on a night usually spent inconsequentially.

Normally, Christmas Eve dinner is defined by my Grandmother's recipe for flank steak. When she passed it became my mother's job to prepare it, and the last few years the task was passed down to me. Unfortunately, the recipe really requires a barbecue, something that neither BF nor I have. Hence, the slow-cooked, Sichuan-spiced rump roast.

At this point, I figured, one might as well throw out tradition all together and go crazy. For some, the idea of doing away for tradition, even for just one season, is simply inconceivable. Traditions, especially holidays ones, can only be experienced one time a year. They're something we look forward to. They embody memories and family history, and we cherish the significance they posses. Traditions are part of what define who we are.

-It's not so much about breaking traditions as it is about starting new ones.-

But let's be real for a minute. Really, will one year without dad's famous mashed potatoes really kill us all? One Thanksgiving without a turkey? "But Garrett," you may cry, "Thanksgiving is the only time of year we have turkey!"

Well, why is that? Turkey is delicious any time of year. Dad can always make mashed potatoes tomorrow. Why not make those special dishes a different night or different season of the year? Why relegate them to just one meal? It might seem odd, even radical to consider the act of breaking with tradition, but it offers that chance to create new traditions. New foods and activities may become family canon or they may become canon fodder, but who knows until you try?

This Christmas Eve dinner there was no flank steak. No Marian's green bean casserole. No salads made at the last minute or pumpkin pie picked up from the store. No family from Southern California coming up to visit.

Instead, Christmas Eve dinner was rump roast slow-cooked in Sichuan spices, Brussels sprouts sauteed in duck fat, cranberry sauce with vanilla and tangerine, and potatoes au gratin. The meal would be finished with an upside-down cranberry walnut cake flavored with orange bitters and a chocolate-toffee cheesecake. Not just a break in culinary tradition for everyone at the table, but a total shattering of it. Yet once everyone started eating there wasn't a single complaint to be heard.

The meal began, however, with something incredibly simple and flavorful: slices of freshly baked sourdough bread, buttered and adorned with wafer-thin slivers of appropriately named watermelon radishes, topped with a small flurry of Fleur de Sel.

-These are also great in salads, sandwiches, and on a cheese plate with a creamy Brie.-

It's a simple preparation that has a huge following in France and parts of Canada, but exists in near total obscurity in the United States. The salt and butter sooth the raking flavors of the radish and make for an outstandingly flavorful snack. Watermelon radishes, an heirloom variety that can be found at nearly any Farmer's Market in the U.S. and some specialty grocery stores, has a sweeter snap to it than most other varieties of radish and can be eaten raw without any hesitation. When sliced open its colors are simply breathtaking. The obvious name, watermelon radish, is well-deserved for both appearance and flavor.

There is no real recipe to this dish; more of just a method. You can use any bread, but I find sourdough to best match the bitter flavor of the radish. Any variety of radish is fine (except, perhaps, black radish) as the harsh, sulfuric flavors will be mellowed by the salt and butter.

I encourage you to use this recipes the next time tradition calls. Try something new. Try anything new.

Sourdough with Butter and Watermelon Radish

Spread some unsalted butter at room temperature over slices of sourdough bread. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, thinly slice a watermelon radish and lay on top of the bread. Sprinkle with a good quality salt like Fleur de Sel or Sel Gris and serve.

Craft: Yuzu Gin Fizz Cocktail Recipe

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

-A contemporary twist on a classic cocktail.-

Blair, a friend of mine from college, was the first person to teach me what a real cocktail was. He was one of the few people I knew who was taller than me, and he had the build of a guy who you could guess wrestled in High School. I always thought he looked exactly like the ideal image of what someone of Scandinavian decent must look like, icy eyes and blond hair as soft as his demeanor. I don't recall exactly how we met but, regardless, he quickly became a part of my life and was eagerly welcomed by my circle of friends. Soon part of our clique we were spending every weekend together watching bad horror movies and whipping together new cocktails. The boy was simply sweeter than honey and as naturally endearing. He still is, in fact.

Blair, like everyone else who first came to my apartment, was staggered by the liquor cabinet my roommates and I had assembled. The cabinet, more of a set of display shelves inlaid into a small inset of living space wall, was packed full with bottles; everything from Anejo and Midori, to Amaretto and Gin. We had it all, and our collection could rival many small bars. Freshmen would look upon it in awe and realize they had come to Nirvana with a swizzle stick. To most college students it was akin to coming across a burning bush and hearing God's voice come out of it. Only, in this case, it was Captain Morgan's voice coming from behind a bottle of Cinnamon Schnapps.

The imbibing impetus for this collection was a small book on cocktails that we had. Every weekend my friends and I would look through the book and decide to concoct something new from its pages. This more than likely meant that we would have to stop at the liquor store for more spirits on our way back from picking up a copy of "Revenge of the Killer Tongue" or other B-horror flick. This meant every single weekend, for about four years, we bought one to three new bottles of liquor. By senior year our bar was beyond epic.

At the time, none of us had any inkling of using fresh anything in our cocktails. This was clear when you realized that we had raspberry, lemon, vanilla, cranberry, and apple vodka sitting on our shelves. For the most part, I think that this is pretty common amongst college students. Home bartending for the student is a means to an end and not a craft. To us the art of craft was saved for Sarah's epic nights of spinning yarn, Andrew's leather working, or my afternoons at gymnastics and fencing. Cocktails were merely flavorful and creative ways to get toasted.

-Small fruit on a tree with huge goddamn thorns. Seriously, be cautious when picking these.-

Unlike my other friends Blair didn't see it this way. With a near limitless supply of liquors and spirits he saw brushes and canvas and near limitless colors with which to paint. On one of his first nights over I watched the way he carefully looked through each and every bottle. Every so often he would pull one down and try to tell us what he had learned about the liquor; where it came from, what grain was used, or the details of the infusion process. If he didn't know he would go online and research it and read aloud what he found. "So that way we know what we're doing when we mix it," he would say before grabbing the shaker and some ice. We would simply nod then go back to scaring ourselves with the newest Silent Hill video game. We would only pause a few minutes later when Blair came back with a round of expertly shaken drinks.

Cocktails were craft to Blair, and everyone was happy to have met someone who saw it that way. It made me happy to see someone who enjoyed his mixology - that was what Blair called it, a term I was at the time unfamiliar with - and took pride in it. His commitment became evidently clear when he arrived one night with a bag of lemons. I liked the way he shooed me away when I presented him with a bottle of lemon vodka and he genially pecked me on the forehead, spun me around, and smacked me on the bum to get me out of the kitchen.

So, from the other side of the counter that separated the living space from the kitchen, I watched Blair begin his preparation. It was thoughtful, the way Blair was about everything from what he picked from a menu to simply which road was the quickest to the gas station. I think I was the only one who realized how serious he took this process. Blair was always smiling his broad smile that made you think that the next sentence to come out of his mouth would be a laughing "Aww, shucks." When mixing drinks this smile faded into pursed lips pressed so hard they went from pink to white. He was concentrating so hard that disturbing him, which I probably did a lot of, became taboo. I reasoned that he was dealing with booze and so this was the self-inflicted curse of any viticulture and eneology major.

Crafting simple syrup, spritzing oils, carving off thin twirls of lemon peel, juicing lemons with an actual lemon juicer, and deftly rimming glasses with sugar seemed so easy for him. He scraped and shook and cut and poured until, finally, he presented me with a Lemon Drop.

-Floral and fragrant the smell of yuzu is reminiscent of tangerines and grapefruit. Dwarf yuzu grow great in cold climates and dwarf trees run about $30.-

I sipped and was dazzled. Life became lemon; sweet and sour and no hint of alcohol burn it slipped across the tongue and screamed of citrus candy. I looked at Blair, "Oh. My. God."

"That's what a lemon drop is supposed to taste like," he said.

I've taken these lessons to heart and heightened my cocktail crafting. With the exception of a few artisan, small batch flavored vodkas I always rely fresh fruit to flavor drinks.

A year ago I potted a dwarf yuzu tree on my patio. Yuzu is a type of citrus hailing form East Asia and is used in primarily Korean and Japanese cooking. It is incredibly aromatic and has a flavor profile of mandarin and grapefruit.

One of the prevailing and most valued qualities of yuzu is its use in cooking. While many other types of citrus juices burn easily in cooking - especially in stir fry - and become bitter the juice of a yuzu can withstand high heat and retain its fragrant sweet-sour flavor. It's also a key ingredient in ponzu sauce.

However, the amount of juice per fruit is sparse - about one teaspoon. The interior is mostly seed. However, the skin is packed with yuzu oil. As such, the skin is often candied or zested into baked goods.

-I love citrus and I love gin. Thus, I love this cocktail. I also love Blair for teaching me to use fresh produce for cocktails.-

My tiny tree gave me three fruits this year and all of them are fragrant and bursting with flavor, as if someone crammed and entire citrus stand into a single sphere.

I decided to tip my hat to Blair and use one in a cocktail. The bright yuzu pairs well with nearly any liquor, but I went with a floral gin that complimented the citrus. Considering how little juice is in a yuzu I had to muddle the whole fruit so hard my hand cramped but the work was well worth it as the oils were coaxed out to mingle with the gin. A small squeeze of lemon added a bit more sour to complete the drink. The result was a yuzu gin fizz that highlighted the sunny citrus fruit.

If you find a yuzu be sure to treasure it and use it wisely. Same goes for your favorite amateur bartender in your life.

Yuzu Gin Fizz Cocktail
2 ounces Gin
1 yuzu
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
carbonated water

Cut the yuzu into quartes and place in a shaker with the gin. Using a muddler or a pestle grind and smash up the gin and yuzu together until very well mixed. Add the sugar, lemon juice and some ice and shake vigorously. Pour and strain into a highball glass and top with ice and carbonated water.

Overcoming Trauma: Poached Quince Recipe

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

-Oh, the drama of trauma.-

Before I met BF I wasn't looking to date at all. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with men. Previous experiences had left me burned out. My first long term relationship ended in a fit of exploding meth labs, identity theft, running for my life from a giant sumo-like bouncer armed with a pipe, and a mohawked pornstar trying to ring me into an orgy. Of course, this is just the stuff that I was able to take in stride. The rest is simply unfit to publish on a food blog, or probably any blog for that matter.

To say I was traumatized would be the same as calling RuPaul only slightly eccentric. The idea of trying to let someone into my life was somewhat daunting. For the most part dating turned out to usually be a total waste of time and only left me with colorful stories to regale friends with.

Having been horribly immersed in the dankest cesspools of gay culture by my ex I had, apparently, gotten a bit of a name for myself. Infamy isn't exactly a hard thing to wrack up in a small city with a small community. Yet, at least - or so I was told - I was talked about in good light. Though I was with the sketchiest crowd I was informed that I was considered to be the smart, responsible, trained in first-aid and CPR, good guy of the group. That is assuming you actually wanted to hang out with anyone from the t-drudge. But, then again, why would you?

I chose to remove myself from the social world for a good year before dating in earnest. It gave me a chance to disappear and then reemerge forgotten. That's the great thing about social circles, people cycle in and out so often that there are always new people who have no idea who you are. Those you do know eventually forget everything about you except some vague recollection that you met at that one guy's party. We met before, right? I don't recall everything, but I remember liking you. What's your name again?


Still, I was a bit nervous about trying to romantically engage with someone for the long term again. I pushed myself to continue dating based on a fear of a future where I ended up a photography subject for Daine Arbus after decades of spinsterly, single living. The dating pool, however, sucked. Until I met Collin, that is. Or Jason. Depends on who you talk too. I knew him as Collin.

-No, the picture isn't fuzzy, but the quince sure are.-

I met Collin online. We had had some witty banter and after a few weeks of talking we decided to hook up one fateful night. It was amazing. Fireworks. Epic nights under the covers (and on top of them, and once or twice on the staircase, oh, and once on the kitchen table) that sent vibrations though us both and left us glowing and rattled for days after.

I didn't give much thought to what it was. I simply assumed he was a friend with benefits. If we were both free he would come over and we would have sex, then afterwards we would spend a few hours just talking in bed naked before getting up and going for a bite to eat. Our meals would go for another hour or two and we would make each other genuinely laugh. It was quite wonderful really. It was like having a boyfriend without actually having a boyfriend. No commitment or responsibility on either one of our parts.

A few weeks later I got sick though. Working with children all day I was constantly surrounded by whatever the newest strain was and while I was normally resistant to them one particularly nasty bug took me down hard. Collin called and asked if I was free. I explained that, no, I was not and that I was sick. I apologized and told him to call in a few days.

An hour later there was a knock on the door. Before I could get up I heard it open and then heard Collin calling my name. I was surprised and walked down the stairs to meet him standing there soaked from the rain and carrying a thermos. "Chicken broth. I made it myself," and he smiled.

As I stood there, flush with cold, unshowered for two days, and clothed in little else but old flannel pants and a blanket I smiled back. So that night, as he sat with me in bed while I ate homemade chicken broth, he became my boyfriend.

-Vanilla bean, cinnamon, and star anise flavor these rosy quince. Oh, and a bottle of Riesling.-

Things were good for the four months we dated. I never went to his place. He said he had a roommate and that they both had an agreement not to bring guys home. I found it odd, but simply accepted it. His work, something about creating firewalls for government computer systems, a job that required frequent travel, kept him out of town three or four days out of the week. When he was in town it was just us. Nothing else in the world. He would make me laugh and surprise me with nights on the town. I secretly learned how to cook a few Italian dishes so I could surprise him with his favorite foods. We became that horribly, damn near insufferable lovey-dovey couple you just hate.

I was overjoyed to discover that I could be this happy again and my faith in the male sex was revived.

Then one day at work my personal phone beeped and a text message from an unknown caller popped up. "Cheat!" was all it said. I assumed it a wrong number and deleted it. A moment later another message appeared, "Why?" I looked down and wrote back that my name was Garrett and that they had the wrong number. Almost immediately my phone rang with the same incoming number. I picked it up. "Hello?"

"Why are you trying to destroy my marriage?" said the voice.

"Excuse me?" I replied with total befuddlement. "Look, I think-"

"You're sleeping with Jason. I know it," accused the voice.

"I don't know a Jason." I composed myself and began to explain in a calm voice, "Sorry, but you have the wrong number. I'm dating someone named Collin. I am going to hang up now."

"Collin is Jason's middle name!"

I paused, "What?"

"Jason is my husband and I want to know why you are trying to rip our marriage apart!"

-Quince are in season from mid to late Fall, but you can still find a them in December if you keep an eye out.-

Over the next two hours I learned that Collin's name was actually Jason. The voice belonged to his husband who had become curious of Collin/Jason's overnight work meetings in Reno (translation: sleeping with me) and strange behavior. I learned that Jason had not only lied about his name, but also his job, what pets he had, his mother being dead, his hometown, college, and job. Everything. The person I was dating, Collin, did not exist. Only his true to life doppleganger in disguise, Jason. Through the entire discussion I could feel my entire insides collapse on themselves like a dying star, the light going out, and my body barely able to support itself. I had to sit down.

I explained that I had not known any of this. (The husband even asked if I had never looked him up on Facebook to which I replied that I didn't have one.) As his husband cried and sobbed I did my best to reassure him that I never, ever knew this and that I wish that I had known i would never had even met with Collin, or, I meant Jason. I couldn't figure out which name to use.

After a while, the husband told me he was going to leave Collin. Jason. I promised that I would cut all ties. I hung up the phone and crashed on my bed (I had left work shortly after the revelation in order to deal and freak out in the privacy of my own home). I texted Collin. No answer. Normally he texted back in thirty seconds. For the first time ever the phone was silent. I sent e-mails, phone calls, more texts, all looking for an explanation. Still, no answer.

Frustrated, I finally went online to Facebook and looked up Collin under his real name, Jason. There it was. Jason. There with his picture and real name was his whole life. Husband, honeymoon in France, a golden retriever, job in downtown Sacramento with a mortgage lender, and an adopted child whose paperwork was just being finished. Jason's whole life. Collin was a lie. I cried.

Later that night my phone rang again. It was the husband. "He denies everything you told me." I could hear him choke back the tears and anger.

I was more furious than I had ever been in my life. At that point the only thing that mattered in my life was hurting Jason as much as possible. He had to be destroyed.

"Did he? Look, I know you must be hurting, but your husband is a fucker and an asshole. You need to know just what kind so that when you divorce his ass and you can get everything. What's your e-mail?"

He gave it to me. With it I sent a copy of every text message, sexy photo, and romantic e-mail I could find. I even scanned and sent a copy of a sweet morning post-it note he left for me when he had to get up early one morning. I signed the e-mail, "Have him disprove this. Sorry you have to see this, but he's a liar and you should know. I know you hate me, but please know I did not know you even existed. I am so sorry. If you kill him make sure it hurts. He broke my heart too."

I never heard from the husband or Collin ever again. No apology or I am sorry was ever given. The last thing Collin said to me was, "See you tomorrow," before kissing my forehead and leaving for work.

-Alice Waters approves of quince, but probably not of cheating on your spouse.-

I didn't go out much the next few months. The exception was the doctor's office when I went to get an STD test. We had been safe, but who knows how many other people he had been with? I was embarrassed, angry, and heartbroken that someone who could lie that much could even exist.

"Screw the world," I thought to myself. I was convinced there was no love in it. Cheats, twinks, losers, and druggies was all that out there.

Then, one day, I ran into an old friend I hadn't seen in years. We got together for dinner and had a wonderful time.

It's almost two years later and BF and I are as happy as ever.

Trauma can certainly make you weary to try something out again. Why wouldn't it? We don't want to suffer the shame and horror we faced before. It's common sense.

So it is for me and quince as well. Maybe not as dramatic or nearly as full of heartbreak, but my first quince experience was traumatic all the same.

The first time I picked them up I was so eager to get them home. I decided I would poach them so I could best get an idea of what their core flavor was.

-Not pictured: Worms of the wriggly or human kind.-

I grabbed my knife and crunched in through the mantle of the fruit. It was fibrous and hard, like cutting through a raw butternut squash. Applying a little more preassure the knife slowly made its way through when suddenly it slipped right through the core of the quince with an unappealing squishing sound followed by the tap of the knife hitting the cutting board. I pulled out my knife and saw it was covered in murky-colored juices. Now, I had never worked with quince before but I knew this wasn't right. I opened the two quince halves and gasped in terror. The entire core had been eaten out and turned into a writhing colony of worms. There had to be nearly a hundred of them and I had just cleaved through their tangled mass. Their ichors streaked down the fruit and onto the cutting board as their still wriggling halves angrily flailed for their missing parts.

I never bought a quince again. I was too put off and disgusted. The bad experience left me without any desire to wade into the world of quince. Who needed it?

However, last weekend I ran into a friend, Kira O'Donnel, a smart woman who knows her pies, at the Farmer's Market. She noted that she was planning to buy some quince. I told her my aversion and she insisted that I had simply had one bad experience. She took me to a vendor and pressed some quince into my bag and sent me on my home with instructions to poach them in Riesling and spices.

I decided to get back on my pomme horse I did as she instructed. Perfumed and heady with spice the quince tasted ethereal, like the very idea of fall and winter softened and warmed in a kettle. I had overcome my quince trauma.

Sometimes, after something truly awful happens, you just have to stick it out and try again because what happens as a result can be and taste absolutely amazing.

-Store in the poaching sauce to deepen the floral flavor of the quince. Reduce the sauce into a bitchin' syrup for cocktails or pancakes.-

Poached Quince
4 quince
3 cups Riesling
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeded
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
peel and juice of 2 tangerines

1. Place the Riesling, water, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, honey, sugar, and tangerines in a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. While the pot heats peel, cut and core the quince into eight pieces. Slip each into the poaching liquid. Cover the pot with a round of parchment paper with a walnut-sized hole cut in the center and place it on top.

3. Simmer the quince (do not boil) for at least an hour, until the quince are cooked through and can be pierced with a fork. Serve warm.

-Dear Collin/Jason, seriously, if I ever see you again I will kick you in the balls. Love, Garrett.

The Results of Impulse: Hungarian Heat Hot Chocolate Recipe

Monday, December 6, 2010

-Hot chocolate with smoked paprika, cloves, and white pepper.-

The thing about impulse decisions is that you never really know where they're going to lead you. Sometimes they take you into situations that you never really thought yourself being in. They can be absolutely terrifying and horrid situations where you realize you've gambled everything away on a lark and that, in fact, following that impulse was one of the greatest mistakes of your life. Of course, other times, these decisions can lead to the grandest adventures that fill your days with excitement. On these decisions you realize that you would need infinite notebooks and a never-empty pen in order to chronicle each colorful detail and exquisite memory.

Then there are simply those delightful times where you simply taste something really great and get to share it with friends. This is the one I plan to focus on today.

During a recent blogging conference Casey, Sarah, and I found ourselves all crashing together with our food blog buddy, Stephanie, whom many of you know as Wasabimon. We had all met in Mexico and during a week of sand, surf, and more tequila that is normally proper before 10 AM we had bonded and become quite close friends. This conference was a chance for us all to come back together and have a small reunion

-Melted chocolate doesn't really look that appetizing in a pot, but darn if it still doesn't make you hungry for it.-

It was our first big night together and we wanted to go out and spend it having fabulous food. As we were in Oakland, Stephanie's stomping ground, we relied on her to be our guide. Now, contrary to belief, Oakland really isn't all that bad. Some of the food there is absolutely amazing. Its Farmer's Market is lush and expansive with more protein and produce that you can count or identify. Plus, hot food trucks and stands line the entrances so the intense perfumes of potatoes and chilies from piping hot samosas mingle with the cinnamon-sugar scent of freshly made kettle corn. The restaurants here are ethnic and intense. Many immigrant groups gather in Oakland and they don't pull any punches when it comes to their food. If you want to find cuisines that haven't been Americanized, well, Oakland is a good place to go.

Our original plan was to have lamb burgers and poutine, but sadly the woodworked restaurant we dropped in on had taken them off the menu. Never ones to admit defeat, especially when it came to our dinner, we all piled back into Stephanie's car and looked for something else appetizing. We peeled around a few quarters of the city before seeing out of the corners of our eyes a place called I Squared. It looked sleek and modern, and it was open at 8:30 on a Thursday night, so it was already leading the pack for choices.

"It's fusion Iranian and Italian food," said Stephanie. "I've heard that it's really good."

As none of us had ever experience Iranian food - let alone Iranian-fusion - we all eagerly voted yes for I Squared. A quick, slightly illegal U-Turn and we parked a block up. We piled out and began to meander over to the restaurant. Immediately, suddenly, we were enticed by the muted smell of chocolate under the crisp Bay Area air.

"Oh my God," moaned Stephanie, "I love Bittersweet."

"What's Bittersweet?" I asked.

"It's a local chocolate shop in Oakland. They make the most amazing peanut butter hot chocolate."

"We're stopping in," I said. Before anyone could protest, and regardless if the restaurant might close soon, I opened the door to Bittersweet and went in. Homey and winsome, it smelled of chocolate and baked goods. The curtains were hand made, and the floor was a bit beaten, which only added to the charm. The menu consisted of various pastries, chocolates, and holy-crap-the-special-of-the-day-is-salted-caramel-hot-chocolate!

I'm pretty sure I said that out loud at the time, too.

-...or else!-

As I'm a huge hot chocolate fan I immediately made an impulse decision to buy some and share it with the girls. There were other options such as the peanut butter hot chocolate or hot white chocolate, but hot salted caramel sounded just right on a cold night.

The hot chocolate was warm with the taste of good salt and burnt sugar. The flavors just enrobed your tongue in thick ribbons of chocolate. Truly epic stuff.

We left the store and made our way to I Squared where we had a truly delicious meal. We learned about Iranian food, got a lesson from the chef about preserved black limes, and discovered the most amazing dish called fessenjoon. (However, that is a different post.)

As we waited for our order to come though we continued to pass and sip the hot chocolate. "I don't think this would be hard to make," noted Casey.

"No, it would be easy. Just make a wet caramel, add some fleur de sel or sel gris, and then add it to some bubbling milk and melted chocolate. Done." I took my sip and passed the cup to Sarah.

Sarah put her nose over the cup and inhaled deeply. "Oooh!" she perked up suddenly, "We should all try to make this at home and each make a post about it!"

"That would be great," Stephanie said impulsively.

"I would!" said Casey eagerly.

"It would be boring if we all did the same recipe," I said. Not intending to be too much of a wet blanket I clarified, "I mean we should all do a hot chocolate post, yes. I think, though, that each of us should do a different recipe and only one of us do salted caramel."

-Canadians, Hungarians, Austrians... what is it about cold weather countries that make them love paprika the way they do?-

And, so, we all agreed. It was an impulsive decision for sure. I agreed to post a day early. I'm breaking my routine here, people! This is huge for me. Impulsive and crazy we are here at Vanilla Garlic. This blog likes to spice things up, and because of that we spiced up some hot cocoa.

This recipe comes from Michael Turback's book, Hot Chocolate. It is one of my favorite cookbooks. While I'm normally not a fan of such narrowly focused cookbooks I do love hot chocolate and Turback has done an excellent job of collecting recipes from famous chefs world wide in this one. All types of hot chocolates are here: classic, modern, spiced, boozey, frozen, baked, white, dark, bittersweet; it's all contained in this little book. Turback also did one better by adding plenty of recipes for various cookies, marshmallows, and whipped creams to enhance the hot chocolate experience. It's a fabulous little text that you can buy cheaply and love forever. (I found mine for $6 at Borders. One of the best scores ever.)

This recipe, Hungarian Heat hot chocolate, comes from Joanne Morgridge, a chocolatier from Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada. It's a bit odd that she didn't call it Canadian Heat as all the spices involved in this recipe are loved by Canadians. (Seriously, the Canadian side of my mom's family loves their paprika and cloves. Still, Hungarian Heat has a pleasant alliteration to it.) If you want to try a hot chocolate recipe that's vigorous with spice and wholly different from any hot chocolate you've had before than this is a recipe for you. Be impulsive and give it a try.

Hungarian Heat Hot Chocolate
adapted from Joanne Morgridge, via Michael Turback from Hot Chocolate

4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon smoked paprika or Hungarian hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
7 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

In a saucepan over medium-low heat combine the milk, paprika, white pepper, and cloves together and heat until almost boiling. Add chocolate and stir in with a wooden spoon and continue to stir until the chocolate is fully melted. Whisk to a froth and serve immediately.

Here are everyone else's hot chocolate recipes. Be sure to check them out.
Gingerbread Hot Chocolate with White Pepper by Sarah Olson, A Beach Home Companion
Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate by Casey Barber, Good. Food. Stories.
Peanut Butter Curry Hot Chocolate by Stephanie Stiavetti, Wasabimon
Hot Chocolate Primer, over at Simply Recipes

-Also, photographing hot chocolate is a total bitch. Try it sometime!-

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