Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Valentine's Cake, 2009


As I'd hoped, I got yet another decadent, heart-shaped cake from my Valentine this year!

The cake itself was comprised of a layer of crunchy chocolate biscuit, a salted caramel ganache center surrounded by a dark chocolate mousse and topped with a poured chocolate ganache. The decorations are piped white chocolate, gold leaf, and "bronze" chocolate covered raw cacao beans. The chocolate used is Michel Cluizel's Hacienda Vila Gracinda, 67% Cacao—an amazing single origin couverture from the Vila Gracinda plantation on the island of São Tomé.

Mixing Purpose with Pleasure at the Global Giving Circle's Chocolate Tasting Extravaganza

On Valentine's Day, before my romantic dinner at home, I made my way to Side Bar in Union Square to attend the inaugural fundraiser for the Global Giving Circle, a Chocolate Tasting Extravaganza benefitting Project Hope & Fairness, which in turn works for fair trade in the cacao growing industry. A long-time supporter of fair trade coffee, I didn't hesitate at the invitation to attend this benefit for fair trade in yet another industry I couldn't live without, the cacao bean industry.

While just the first event for the Global Giving Circle, this new group of highly motivated philanthropists managed to secure donations of chocolates from NYC's top chocolatiers, including Jacques Torres, Marie Belle, and Vosges. What's more, the Global Giving Circle's Chocolate Tasting Extravaganza drew in a crowd that even the organizers couldn't have anticipated. I'd like to thank Shawna Dressler, Jill Bluming and Jennifer Kohanim for their evident hard work and tenacity in making the Global Giving Circle's premier event such a huge success. Not only were the myriad chocolates a crowd pleaser, but there was indeed a crowd to please!

Always one for mixing purpose with pleasure, I especially appreciated the Global Giving Circle's idea to host a chocolate-tasting fundraiser for the benefit of those who suffer for our chocolate enjoyment—the farmers who grow cacao beans for much less than a living wage. I believe that we can eat chocolate guilt-free, but my idea of guilt doesn't come from calories, it comes from knowing that fair trade is not industry standard. Kudos to the Global Giving Circle and Project Hope & Fairness for working to ensure that chocolate is as good for the growers as it is for us consumers.

James Beard Awards, Semi-Finalists Announced

I'm proud to announce that my life-long best friend, Derek Emerson, Chef/Owner of Walker's Drive-In in Jackson, Mississippi has been named as a semi-finalist by the James Beard Foundation for the category of Best Chef in the South.

In the coming weeks I'll be doing an interview with Derek and will share it with my Sagacious readers. I hope that in the interim, we get news that Derek has made it to the next stage in the James Beard Awards process! Objectively speaking, he deserves it. I'm too critical of all things culinary to just support him because he's my bro—I support him because he's an excellent chef who changed this Yankee-So Cal-Big City gal's opinions about Southern cooking.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Valentine's Day Dinner Guide: My Stimulus Package for Romance

I'm really looking forward to Valentine's Day this year, it'll be nice to think of something other than the economy and big bailouts when I hear the words 'stimulus' and 'package.' At least for one day, and night, stimulation will be aided by food and lead to the recovery of romance.

Although a romantic Valentine's dinner should always include one or two items deemed aphrodisiacs, to serve course after course of aphrodisiacs could send the wrong message—if you need all those special foods to get excited, what's that say about your date? Valentine's dinners, like Valentine's dates, should be a reflection of personal taste, not a reflection of what others say you should like, and they should always stimulate romance.

For these reasons, when I was thinking about a menu for Valentine's Day to share with my readers, it hit me that no one menu could possibly work for all the lovers out there. So instead, I've chosen to provide guidance rather than a strict menu, a stimulus package—so to speak--for a romantic evening.

Appetizer Course

Valentine's is a special occasion dinner, so don't skip the appetizer course. It takes a bit more effort, but isn't your honey worth it?

Besides the famed aphrodisiac oysters, other great foods for amorous appetizers are baked Brie, caviar, smoked salmon, Prosciutto, steamed artichokes, dips, olives and other similar savories that pair well with bread or crackers. The point being to eat your appetizer with your hands, thus inducing the need to lick your fingers with each bite. My advice for this course is to go with the bread / cracker accompaniments you both love, serve the course on the coffee-table and seat yourselves on the couch, then keep the flatware and napkins on hold.

First Course

Depending on the size of your appetite, you may choose to skip a first course and move straight from the appetizer to the main course. The advantage of adding a first course is that it gives you some extra wiggle room time-wise—and otherwise—in case you're delayed getting yourselves to the table.

For this reason, I like soup for a first course. Soup's a pretty independent food, you can make it days in advance, and it can sit and wait on your stove until you want to serve it—it won't get overcooked or cold waiting for you. Any soup you love enough to say "Mmmm" and "Ahhh" while you eat it will do the trick. To up the Valentine's factor, find some heart-shaped bowls or ramekins and serve the soup in them, or make heart-shaped croutons using a small cookie-cutter.

Main Course

For Valentine's dinner, you want something absolutely delicious and not normal weeknight fare, but maybe you don't want something too fussy or requiring too much work à la minute. In this case, a Braise is a perfect main. Braises cook slowly, don't need basting, and the longer they simmer in the oven, the better they get. While I love veal Osso Buco, there's hundreds of braises made with all kinds of meats (and vegetables), so just choose your favorite and let it take care of itself while you take care of your date.

Some couples truly enjoy cooking with each other, even on romantic occasions—perhaps especially on romantic occasions. If you're in this category, you may want to get yourselves in the kitchen together, wear sexy aprons (or scant little under your normal aprons), then make a mess and have some fun. In this case, just choose a main course you both love, one that evokes those Mmmms and Ahhhhs—sounds similar to those we make when... well, you know— then turn up the heat and get creative.


There's no skipping dessert on Valentine's Day. As with everything else you choose to make, dessert ought to be something you both love. Perhaps one of the most romantic (and easy) desserts to share at home is a Chocolate Fondue, complete with a bowl of Chantilly (melted chocolate and whipped cream, you catch my drift). Chocolate is another famed aphrodisiac, and Fondue can be accompanied by long-stemmed strawberries, cherries, amoretti, biscotti, meringues, ice cream, and whatever else your hearts desire. You can make the accompaniments yourself in advance, or just buy them if you're short on time.

Me personally, I love cake, so of course my Valentine's dinners are followed by a heart-shaped cake made with love by my man. You can make almost any cake in advance, or simply go out and buy one from your favorite bakery or patisserie. I also want a box of chocolates at dessert, my favorites being Recchiuti Confections, La Maison du Chocolat and Jacques Torres Chocolates. My man and I also like to make our own confections, our favorite for this Valentine's Day being salted chocolate caramels.


What would Valentine's Day be without Champagne? I don't remember, and I don't want to be reminded! As I recently wrote a feature on Champagne, I'll just refer you to this article for more on real French bubbly.

Valentine's Day coming in winter, I love to end the evening with a steamy cup of spiked hot chocolate. But my idea of hot chocolate doesn't involve powder, it involves real chocolate. It's simple enough, just heat your milk almost (but not all the way) to boiling, remove it from the heat, and drop your chopped chocolate straight into the milk. Wait a minute for it to melt a bit then whisk it, then add the liqueur of your choice. I use about 2oz of dark chocolate per 8oz of milk, my favorite being El Rey of Venezuela, followed by Scharffen Berger of Berkeley, California. Then, of course, I top the cup with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkle of cocoa powder or chocolate shavings (cut a heart shape out of some paper and sprinkle the cocoa/chocolate through it).

Whatever you choose to make for Valentine's Day, remember it's all about the love. Loving the person, loving the process of cooking and baking, and loving to eat. While aphrodisiacs have their place in a Valentine's dinner, they shouldn't be the only thing that stimulates romance, the entire evening, and every course served, should be planned and carried out with love in your heart, and lovin' on your mind.

All of the heart-shaped cakes featured in this article were made for me by Chef Patissier Damien Herrgott, Executive Pastry Chef at soon-to-open Bosie Tea Parlor. The pink cake is Pierre Hermé's famed Ispahan, which Damien fell in love with during his four years as Chef Adjoint at Pierre Hermé in Paris, the other two are his own creations.