Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chocolates for V-Day

originally posted Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is it just me, or is Valentine’s Day a totally different experience for boys than it is for girls? Does V-day put women and girls into a state of natural and easy reverie, while men and boys find themselves embarked on an onerous quest to prove their love worthy?

Last year, after seeking as much candid council as I could from my significant other, I decided that I would impress upon her the level and intensity of my devotion by cooking her a five-course meal, each course containing some form of chocolate.

My rationale was, admittedly, a little bit type-A: at the time, she worked in a chocolate confectionery; therefore, not only could she provide the chocolates I would require for my love feast at a discounted price (and thusly fulfilling her end of the Valentine’s Day-gift-exchange), but I could attempt to feed her the chocolate in such forms as she would never have access to at work. It was the perfect plan, making the absolute most of the chocolate theme already inherent in the Valentine's Day experience. And hell, we would probably even save money on going out.

By my third trip to the store I realized that wasn’t going to be the case. The booze alone accounted for nearly half of my expenditure, and some extra groceries were simply going to be required in order to make this dinner different and special. I still had the idea in my head that she would walk in the door to our humble apartment after a long day at work (selling last minute chocolates to procrastinating Romeos) to a beautifully set candlelight dinner, and I would make for her her first cocktail, with the second soon to follow. Then I would delight her with one after another course of sweet and savory chocolate-inspired dishes, titillating her to a giggling culinary culmination by the time we got to dessert. I even imagined silver covered platters for each dish, and we don’t even own anything like that.

Needless to say, I bit off a little more than I could chew. By the time she got home I had just managed to hurriedly set a table for two, I hadn’t yet lit candle one, and I hadn’t even started on the first two courses. In fact, I even had yet another trip to the store on the itinerary, but I soon decided to make due without it. In the end, my five-course extravaganza turned into a four-course marathon, and ultimately dessert was omitted entirely due to over-filled bellies from over-sized portions.

Sometimes, however, we find success in failure. The sheer enormity of my undertaking was enough to satisfy my beloved that I was really into her, and watching me work frantically let her see that dedication for herself. If the romantic dinner for two could be a metaphor for my love, then it was clear that my love for her was a little more than I could handle.

So what was the menu? Aside from chocolate there were two things I knew my girlfriend appreciated: alcohol and hot spicy foods.

My original idea was to purchase a couple of bottles of vino for the occasion, but after I ran across a recipe for chocolate martinis, wine was out the window. Instead, I bought a half gallon bottle of good quality vodka.

The very first thing I “cooked” were chocolate ice cubes – chocolate, milk, water, espresso and blood orange zest. I put the ingredients into an ice cube tray, speared sour cherries onto toothpicks, and stuck one toothpick into each cube. When it came time to serve the drinks, the ice cubes were perfectly frozen, and melted slowly in the drinks for a nice effect, but if I had it to do over again, I would use less zest or none at all. In order to prevent another trip to the store, I went with coffee liqueur instead of crème de cacao, as the recipe had called for. So when I finally added a splash of cherry juice, the drinks became more accurately described as mocha cherry martinis. Whatever works.

The first course, an appetizer featuring one Bartlett pear, one Asian pear, bananas and raspberries seared in sugar syrup and dressed with melted buttermilk chocolate sauce, was pushed back to be joined with the ice cream and chocolate mousse dessert for sheer lack of time. Skipping that, it was on to course two: salad. I melted some chocolate and squeezed the juice out of my blood oranges, added salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil, and presto: chocolate blood orange vinaigrette. A couple pinches of chopped basil, red lettuce, tomato, zucchini (I usually prefer them over cucumbers), broccoli, red onion, raspberries and a little feta cheese crumble made up the rest. I usually butter and bake a couple slices of bread for last-minute croûtons, and this time was no exception. As it was, the first course went over quite well.

Done with that and on to the next dish, I couldn’t help but be somewhat exhilarated with anticipation. It was only supposed to be a precursor to the main course, but would end up being the favorite for us both: chocolate chili. At first the idea frightened me, but, intrigued, I read up on the recipe and couldn’t resist.

My girl loves spicy foods. When I was at the market and asking questions in Spanish about the different fresh peppers and dried chipotle chiles to a grocery stocker who spoke zero English, he asked me if my girlfriend was latina. Upon learning that no, she was indeed una guera, his eyebrows lifted in astonishment that was very entertaining. Was it even possible? he seemed to be thinking. Yes, it is. My girlfriend prefers her spicy food to be registered with the federal government as a chemical weapon. My suffering in order to eat with her would have to be another test of my adoration.

Good chili, with or without chocolate, requires time for the flavors to synergize, but luckily, by the time I served it up, it was tastier than I could have predicted. The basic chili: browned meat (I used top sirloin), garlic, onions, small red beans, chiles and peppers (I used fresh jalapeños and serranos, and dried chipotle chiles of hot and hotter varieties, reconstituted in water), parsley, tomato paste, red wine vinegar, cumin, oregano, tarragon, salt, pepper and water, all combine with semisweet cooking chocolate to create a palette of flavors guaranteed to, as my girlfriend put it, “win any chili cook-off.”

Not to be out-spiced or out-chocolated by course two, course three really had to come with it, and it did: top sirloin topped with spicy chocolate mole sauce. Although somewhat similar to the chocolate chili, with the whole chocolate-meets-spicy-steak kind of thing going for it, this dish would differ in that the steak would be seared to medium rare and the sauce poured over it would be much stronger in flavor, including heat intensity. It really worked out well. The juicy meat was kept pristine from the chocolate and peppers of the previous course, so that it could then be reintroduced to those components one bite at a time, depending on how much sauce you wanted.

I just combined all of the ingredients for the mole sauce: extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onion, red bell pepper, chiles and peppers as per the last dish (although I used more of this and less of that chile in order to give the mole its own distinctive flavor), tomatoes, chicken or beef stock (I happened to have some homemade chicken stock in the freezer), cumin, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, honey mandarin orange zest, chocolate, salt and pepper, into a food processor (it all just barely fit), then transferred it to a medium-sized pot and let it cook slowly. I waited until it was time to serve this course to cook the meat, then poured the slow-cooked sauce over it and added a dollop of sour cream.

In all humility I must confess, by the time we ate this course, which went over quite well also, we had drank a few mocha cherry martinis, and optioned out of having dessert at all. The workload had been a bit much, so I wasn't too disappointed, and she was never much for sweets anyway. I would have done well to plan ahead a little more, and to have divided my workload into smaller, more manageable portions. As it was, our appetites were more than satiated, and dessert was redefined as brunch the morning after, but was delightful nonetheless.

All in all I’d have to say, sometimes you really can never have too much chocolate, and nothing says I Love You like a messy kitchen with chocolate all over everything.

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