About Gayle Keck
Lowell Thomas Award-winner Gayle Keck has sipped fermented mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan, dug for truffles in Italy, crafted wine at Napa Valley’s “Crush Camp” and munched her way through every continent except Antarctica, which seems far too focused on frozen food.
She has written for Gourmet, National Geographic Traveler, Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants 2010, and is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other major newspapers.
Gayle has visited 49 US states (sorry, North Dakota) and more than 40 countries - though her favorite trip was a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, when she met her future husband on the airplane. She also blogs at Been There Ate That
Latest Posts by Gayle Keck
When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, Russell Stover was the “swanky” candy. I remember my dad buying big, red, heart-shaped, boxes of it for my mom every Valentine’s Day. We kids would each get a little box of something – maybe the less prestigious Whitman’s Sampler.
Well, chocolate (and I!) have come a long way since then. Give me a wicked-dark bar from Poco Dolce or Dandelion, and I’ll see hearts. No need for a froofy box.
And yet, I was delighted when a pal visiting from St. Louis brought a heart full of old-school chocolates from Crown Candy Kitchen – my hometown’s oldest soda fountain (celebrating its 100th birthday this year). Look, nonpareils with colored sprinkles!
Sometimes memories taste good, too.
Tea has been around for thousands of years and, yet, the folks at Numi have managed to do a brilliant new thing with it. Meet their Savory Teas, in six flavors that star vegetables as the key ingredient, with support from herbs, spices and decaffeinated tea. They’re like the lovechild of tea and vegetable bullion, with a subtle, well-rounded flavor profile. These inventive new tea bags easily earned my “best new product” award at this year’s Fancy Food Show.
Fennel Spice is the most expected, with licorice and orange notes – but it gets more interesting after that. Broccoli Cilantro has a bit of a kick, with cilantro and celery. Spinach Chive is perhaps the most complex, with lime, coriander, dill and green tea. Beet Cabbage not only has the crimson color you’d expect, but gets a lot of personality from mustard seed, coriander, clove and apple. My two favorites are Carrot Curry (who wouldn’t love carrot with ginger and turmeric?) and Tomato Mint, which has a Greek feel to it, with lemon peel and cinnamon. Fortunately, they’re available in a sampler pack, as well as boxes of individual flavors, so you can easily try them all. Boxes of 12 teabags are expected to retail for about $7.99
Packaging for Numi Savory Teas – six flavors plus a sampler pack.
The tea bags need to steep longer than regular teas, eight to 10 minutes, to hydrate the ingredients. The taste is light enough to enjoy with a sandwich, but might be a little funky with a chocolate chip cookie. The Numi folks also suggest the brewed tea can be used to cook rice or noodles. Interesting. If you try them, let me know what you think!
Forty-plus chocolatiers. As many as six tastes from each. Well over 200 bites of chocolate. Yes, there can be too much of a good thing – especially when you’re a judge trying to pick the best of the best, in 20 different categories.
Last week’s San Francisco International Chocolate Salon was an over-the-top indulgence of luxury and artisanal goodies. The final results of the judging were out this week, with a surprising amount of agreement among the judges.
You can check out the official winners here – but first, here’s a taste of my favorites:
Chocolates of my dreams
Everything I tasted from Gateau et Ganache (Palo Alto) was exceptional. Chocolatier Anni Golding seems to have a magic touch for creating filled chocolates with vibrant, perfectly nuanced creamy centers that burst with fresh flavors. Her lavender/Earl Grey truffles were spectacular, as were her new lime/tequila truffles. The French-style caramels had just the right balance of salt (quite a few others I tasted elsewhere went overboard). Gateau et Ganache was my best of show.
Seeds of a great idea
Motombo chocolates, from Nicaragua, had some exciting flavored rough-ground truffles, including green chili and tamarind. But what really blew me away were their hand-peeled, chocolate-coated cocoa beans. I bit into one and it shattered into a crunchy, intense burst of chocolate heaven. Available at the Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto.
Hipster Willy Wonka & Chocolate Elvis
These guys from Lulu’s Chocolates not only make some tasty raw chocolate products (plus cocoa butter balm and a wicked chocolate essence perfume), they also had the best outfits at the show. Now where’s my golden ticket??
Susan and Wendy Lieu, of Socola Chocolatier, were some of my favorite chocolatiers to chat with. The first-generation Vietnamese-Americans pull from their heritage (Vietnamese coffee or Sriracha truffles) and their imaginations (Stout or applewood-smoked bacon truffles). Starting as teenagers, they grew their hobby into a business, and their enthusiasm and passion left me excited to see what they’ll come up with next.
Best (mini) salespeople
Kids were front and center at NewTree chocolate’s booth – and what a great job they did! The young daughters of company principals chatted up visitors and told them about the various bars, some with add-ins like pink peppercorns (one of my favorite combos with chocolate). They did such a great job, I suspect they could be taking over the company before they’re old enough to drive!
The bars from Divine Chocolate are not only delicious, they’re fair trade product from a co-op of 45,000 farmers in Ghana, who also own a share in the company. So, while you enjoy creative flavor combos like orange-ginger chocolate bars, you know you’re helping empower farmers who never got a fair deal before. Tasty!
Honey, that’s expensive!
Amano, always a big winner at the Salon for their single-origin bars, is now producing gorgeous, jewel-like truffles (see photo at top). In one, you’ll find what they say is the world’s most expensive honey ($85/pound), from Yemen. It has an interesting, complex flavor that unfolds in tandem with the chocolate. Let’s say there’s going to be a lot of BUZZ about these!
Here are some interesting, attention-getting products worth a taste:
Salt Side Down – Umami #5 truffles, made with the umami paste of the same name, these hop back and forth across the line between savory and sweet.
William Dean – filled chocolates with lychee pate de fruit and jasmine ganache – and some of the most beautiful packaging at the show.
Her Coconess – Bittersweet Nibby Rocky Road rises far above a generally disgusting genre with house-made marshmallow and the inspired use of nibs.
Saratoga chocolates – strawberry/balsamic caramels had a lot going on, but it worked. I wasn’t crazy about the couverture choice, though.
CJ’s Toffee Talk – not just great traditional almond toffee, but pecan toffee that was even better.
Jade Chocolates – Thai basil and jasmine truffles are great first forays into new products for this company that creates wonderful, intriguing flavored bars (my favorite is the fabulous Jade Dragon’s Breath).
Neo Cocoa – old-school, undipped truffles are supremely silky, with subtle, compelling flavors like toasted coconut, almond butter topped with smoked sea salt and mocha cinnamon.
Goat Milk Candy Co. – new dried figs stuffed with goat cheese blended with orange zest and honey, then dipped in chocolate. Yes, it sounds like a bit much, but boy, did it ever taste good!
Vice Chocolates – their pear-ginger caramels totally wowed me!
Amano – their Dos Rios dark chocolate bar makes you taste chocolate in a whole new way.
Choclatique – these guys are sure having fun, making truffle flavors like PB&J or root beer float. But I happened to really like their tongue-tingling 91% chocolate (yes, you’re supposed to eat it, not bake with it!). Astonsihing, but it’s not bitter like most chocolates would be at that percentage.
Madécasse – milk chocolate even a dark chocolate lover (me!) could enjoy.
Kika’s Treats – the fabulous dark chocolate-covered caramelized graham crackers are still my all-time favorite among their products. Irresistible!
Clarine’s Florentines – as good as Florentines can get – and that’s pretty darn good!
Valrhona – it was nice to see this pioneer of single-origin chocolates at the Salon – as always, a class act.
I’d been warned. A friend had traveled to Ireland a few years back. “I got black lung,” he told me, with typical hyperbole. The pubs billowed with cigarette smoke, he said, burnishing the walls with a nicotine patina and wrapping the patrons in drifting eddies. You could barely tip a pint before having to dash outside and gulp in the chill, damp night air, he complained.
“And then, there’s f**k,” he tossed off, almost as an afterthought.
“F**k. They say it practically every other word.” Then he adopted a lilting accent worthy of the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “F**kity, f**k, f**kin’ f**k!”
Turns out, Ireland blessedly banned smoking in restaurants and pubs before my first visit. No similar statute has been enacted regarding f**k. It rings out over the tar-colored, creamy-topped glasses of Guinness in every Dingle pub. It bounces off the walls flanking narrow pedestrian streets in Galway. It rattles around Dublin restaurants.
I suppose I should have gotten a heads-up when Irish actor Colin Farrell first made the rounds on U.S. talk shows, spewing extravagant riffs of bleeped obscenities. Sure, Ireland jumped aboard the high-tech bandwagon, but all along they were manufacturing a surplus of good, old-fashioned f**ks. It was only a matter of time before exports spiked. I began to wonder if I should start spouting a few myself, just to help the U.S. balance of trade.
Deploying the f-word in true Irish style requires practice. What comes naturally to those with a gift for gab and a rich literary history didn’t just trip off my tongue. “Finnegan’s F**in’ Wake,” I muttered experimentally. “The F**kin’ Ballad of Reading F**kin’ Gaol.” Wilde might have appreciated my efforts. I’m not so sure about Joyce.
It’s crucial to nail the pronunciation, too. The Irish “f**k” rhymes with “clock.” The “g” at the end of “f**king” is always dropped. And of course, a proper brogue is essential. You should also note that in Ireland, f**k doesn’t require gall or outrage. “It’s a f**kin’ gorgeous day, so let’s get the f**k outside,” someone might suggest – “F**k yes!” being the proper response.
Mostly, I listen and learn at the feet of the masters. A few years ago, I happened into Vaughan’s pub at Kilfenora, County Clare, just as the TV announced a new pope was about to be revealed. A tweedy, leathery-faced clientele was glued to the proceedings, the heels of their mucky rubber boots hooked into the rungs of the barstools.
As we all waited for the pope’s identity to be revealed, the bartender regaled me with tales of his recent visit to the U.S. “Las Vegas is f**kin’ brilliant,” he confided. “I won enough at blackjack to pay for me whole f**in’ vacation!”
Rumor had it an African cardinal was in the running. “Is it a black pope or a white pope?” a ruddy farmer inquired, pushing through the pub door.
“Actually, he’s f**kin’ green, for a change!” a patron shouted back.
“Why’s it takin’ so f**kin’ long?” another inquired.
“Those cardinals will all be huggin’ and kissin’ him for a while now before we f**in’ get to see him,” the barkeep replied.
Finally, at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the thick velvet curtains were pulled aside. The Vaughan crowd’s calloused hands gripped their glasses of Guinness a bit tighter as the new pope stepped forth.
“It’s a freakin’ German!” a man exclaimed, slamming his palm on the bar.
A freakin’ German? Freakin’?
I had just found the limit of the seemingly unlimited fount of f**ks. The pope was freakin’ sacred. Even if he was a German.
F**k has been around for a long time. The earliest cited usage occurred around 1500. Versions of the word show up in Germanic languages, French and Italian. Shakespeare even alluded to it. But this visit to a pub in Kilfenora sealed the deal. The Irish are the masters, reigning with style – and yes – even a speck of restraint.
I never did join the fray. Sure, in the privacy of my rental car, I’d send a few practice phrases tripping off my tongue. “It’s a f**kin’ manly scent, but I like it, too!” I’d try, dredging up one of the classic ad slogans of my youth. Even kissing the Blarney Stone didn’t give me the confidence to let loose like a local. I would be an absolute failure in some hip, updated version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
Will the U.S. ever close the f**k deficit? I fear we lack the lyrical chops. But we may be carving out our very own niche. A little book called On Bulls**t rode the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Could it be that bulls**t is our country’s special calling?
“F**k, yes!” the Irish would say.
By Gayle Keck
OK, the Winter Fancy Food Show is just a memory (except to my thighs), and I’ve finally had a chance to post my picks for the top trends. Maybe I’m the last person to weigh in – but I’m betting Ive caught a few trends (and gained a few pounds) that some others might have missed.
Everybody’s a (Mini) Cake Boss
The cupcake explosion has given birth to the cupcake decoration explosion, and it could put your eye out: sprinkles, candy toppers, chocolate bits in every shape and color, even deely-boppers everywhere. What next? An airbrush kit from Ace of Cakes, Duff Goldman. Yes, if you bake it, they will come.
Working in a coal mine kills your taste buds, according to a cheese-selling chap from Wales. All the dust meant that Welsh miners’ lunch foods needed to have a strong flavor. Thus was born Collier’s Powerful Welsh Cheddar, which I’d call extra-extra-extra sharp. I could see its tang giving a nice kick to recipes.
This isn’t new, but I’d not noticed it before – a smoked blue cheese. According to vendor Rogue Creamery, their Smokey Blue was the first smoked blue cheese ever. Nice. And if you’ve got a good palate, you might even detect that it’s smoked over hazelnut shells.
More unusual ingredients are showing up in cheeses too – for example, lavender or stinging nettles – and a tasty one called “Barely Buzzed” from Utah’s Beehive Cheese Co. that’s rubbed with espresso and lavender. Trust me, it’s good!
Unusual Chips, Ahoy!
Last year’s gluten-free mania continues to spawn new and stranger chips. Kale chips – maybe not, especially considering the strangely high calorie count. Black bean chips, from Beanitos – yes, please! These are delicious, crisp and savory – with 5 grams of fiber per ounce. Plus the company is bringing out tasty new flavors, like cheddar and chipotle.
Granola chips? Yeah, it sounds odd, but Granola Flats, little planks of crispy goodness, won me over. They are high in fiber, packed with more nuts than typical granola and come in snack-sized bags like potato chips. Yet they satisfy your hunger much more thoroughly and would be perfect dipped in yogurt or (for those of us not mired in New Year’s resolutions) slathered in peanut butter or cream cheese. Bonus: The name sounds like the novel John Steinbeck would write if he came back in this century.
The (Snack) World is Flat
And, once you’ve flattened granola bars, why not flatten a few more things. There are now flat, crispy brownies (Brownie Brittle) and thin, dried slices of quick-type breads, called Slims (banana; cranberry-orange; cocoa). These products all seem to be at the intersection of crispy meets calorie-conscious. Some – like that last one – should stay out of the intersection. They are getting run over.
Glazed and Confused
Many balsamic glazes this year, in a wide variety of flavors, and from all corners of the world. Will consumers pick up on them? I have my doubts. There’s a lot of education to be done. Maybe home use pick up with more restaurant use.
Designer Comfort Food
Tarting It Up
I have a sweet spot for tart cherries, so maybe I’m overly sensitive – but they seemed to be popping up everywhere, from jams to a surprisingly delicious 100% Montmorency cherry juice concentrate from Cherry Bay Orchards that makes a fabulous, refreshing drink.
Beverages: The Sweet Retreat
I’m glad to see more and more beverages are cutting the sugar, creating refreshing, intriguing flavor profiles. Herbal influences are cropping up frequently in this new batch of entries, too. Thyme, geranium, lemongrass, lavender. All expanding our palates without cloying sweetness.
My favorites were the new sparklers from Ayala’s Herbal Water – with intriguing flavors, like cinnamon orange peel, ginger lemon peel and lemongrass mint vanilla. Also loved their still line’s lavender-mint and lemon verbena-geranium.
And, if you want to clear your palate, there’s SanTasti, created for wine professionals and tasting rooms. They’ve come out with a cucumber flavor, which is refreshing even if you’re not trying to erase the taste of anything.
Wines That Aren’t
There was a surprising number of non-alcoholic wine products from around the world – and carbonation seemed to be in. Spain’s Emina (you don’t want mix up any letters in that name!) Zero had sparkling red, white and rose entries (the rose was fun; the red was downright weird). It also has zero calories and contains polyphenols – both nice bonuses.
Vignette Wine Country Soda comes in Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir – all sparkling – but too sweet for my taste.
12 Noon to Midnight is a sparkler developed by Chefs David Burke and Alfred Portale to be a wine-like accompaniment to fine foods (with a price to match). It even comes in vaguely wine-like colors and a very wine-like bottle. The taste is intriguing and sophisticated, thanks to a complex, but subtle, blend of herbs, spices, fruit juices and teas.
Perhaps echoing the DIY phenomenon, there seems to be a bevy of new products in the jam/jelly/conserve category. Some whacky attention-getters, like two-tone products; others exploring exotic fruits (mango, soursop, rosella) or “Superfruits” from Crofter’s (I rolled my eyes, but they were good!).
I was blown away when I tasted French “jellies” (actually the consistency of honey) made from herb flowers (thyme, basil, sage) by Jean-Luc Sibille of La Ferme d’Alizée. In fact, the aroma alone made me swoon. I would seriously consider wearing them as perfume! The maker told me they’re good for glazing savory items, too, like roasted chicken. Somebody, please import these into the U.S.!
The French confectioner Francis Miot (winner of a Meilleur Confiturier de France medal) also deserves a mention, both for making intense, sugar-free jams and for the wonderful taste combinations (raspberry, almond, ginger) he blends.
UP NEXT: My favorite things I tasted at the Fancy Food Show – plus upcoming coverage of my trip to SIRHA and the Bocuse d’Or!
It’s tempting to judge dishes at the Bocuse d’Or on sight, but remember, there is a total of 40 points for taste and only 20 points for the visual aspect. All the presentations were spectacular, so these must have tasted really superior.
I watched Anthony Bourdain gobble his way through Madrid. Then I saw the finale of Top Chef. And to make matters worse, I posted a story and slideshow about the blowout food event I attended this month – my last hurrah before the Hunger Challenge started. It was an orgy of bacon, heirloom tomatoes and burrata cheese. Aaaargh!
Can you imagine what it must be like to be surrounded by amazing food all the time – at stores, in ads, people chowing down on the street – and know you can’t have it?
What’s more, I’ve flipped into nervous, food-hoarding mode. This always seems to be my state in the middle of this Food Challenge. I’m paranoid that I might not have enough food to last the week, even though, rationally, I know we’ll be OK. At lunch, for example, I ate one egg, a piece of celery and a piece of toast.
Dinner was better. I made a big pot of spaghetti sauce. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet: My hypothetical food bank allotment allowed me to buy more of the kinds of items I usually purchase. The canned diced tomatoes that went into this recipe were organic, as was the tomato paste. I bought chicken sausage that was much lower in fat than pork sausage. These are more expensive items that I never could have afforded without my “handout.” I was lucky to find whole grain pasta on sale for $1.20/lb, too – more filling and more healty. Why did I use sausage, rather than less pricey ground chicken? It comes complete with lots of seasonings, so I didn’t have to lay out extra cash for those.
Healthy Chunky Spaghetti Sauce
1 onion, diced (“free” from the food bank)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb spicy fresh chicken sausage (I use Trader Joe’s)
1 can tomato paste
2 28-oz cans diced tomatoes
3 tsp dried basil (or fresh if it’s in your budget)
Water (or wine or chicken broth if you’re not on the Hunger Challenge!)
Salt to taste
Remove sausage meat from casings and brown in a large pot, breaking it up into small pieces. When it starts to brown, add onions and garlic. Continue to sautee until onions soften and get translucent. Add tomatoes, paste and basil. Add a small amount of liquid to get the sauce consistency you prefer. Simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes. 4 servings (or 6 if you’re not feeding the Bottomless Pit!).
Speaking of the BP, he skipped lunch again today, but grazed willfully at an event he attended after work. “Mini-cheese sandwiches – with truffle oil!” he announced gleefully when I asked him if he’d been noshing. A glass or two of wine, too, no doubt.
Perfect capper to my food masochism day!
The beloved Hakuna Firtata! It had to make an appearance sometime during the Hunger Challenge! I saved it for the last day, so the Bottomless Pit and I could both have it for brunch. The BP gave this fritata (a riff on a recipe by Hunger Challenger Vanessa Barrington, who has a new book out, BTW) it’s name due to the tangle of spachetti inside it that resembles a lion’s mane.
A handful of cooked spaghetti
1 carrot, small dice
1 green onion, sliced
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 Tbs parmesan cheese (or 1/4 C grated cheddar cheese)
Any oher veggies you feel like tossing in
Optional: leftover pasta sauce
In a non-stick skillet, aute the vegetables until softened and lightly browned. Add the spaghetti and saute until warmed through. In a separate bowl, beat eggs wtih a fork. Add egg mixture to skillet and tilt to distribute evenly. Sprinkle cheese on top. Turn heat down and cover. Cook until just set. Serve with warm pasta sauce. Serves 2.
I wasn’t sure if the chunky pasta sauce I’d made a couple of days ago would be good with the Hakuna Fritata – but wow! It was delicious!
We ate pretty well today, partially because of my paranoid hoarding of Days 5 and 6. There were strawberries and tomatoes and a pear left. We had the two leftover stuffed acorn squash for dinner.
We have leftover bread, milk and pasta. There are a few stalks of celery and two carrots. The BP has an uneaten peach! How could he not eat that peach?!