Last weekend, I participated in Portland’s annual ChocolateFest. If you’ve never been to a chocolate festival and you like delicious things, I would recommend checking one out sometime. The Portland ChocolateFest, which I have been told is one of the largest in the country, is what I imagine a farmers’ market would look like if Willy Wonka put on farmers’ markets. As you might suppose, ChocolateFest is flush with sweet treats, confections, and rich sugary goodness, which is why I decided to highlight the other side of chocolate in my cooking demonstrations. The following recipes (along with the usual scientific and culinary snidbits), presented to both the denizens of this year’s ChocolateFest and the loyal patrons of this pub, are what I like to call The Meat Lover’s Guide to Chocolate.
Chocolate Brined Pork Medalions with Walnut Pistou
Several years ago brining became the new “it” thing to do, especially for our Thanksgiving turkeys. I suspect a Bon Appetit or Gourmet magazine looking for a holiday angle is responsible for the sudden surge in brines. I find the sudden excitement over brining a little funny since dedicated barbecuers everywhere have been using brines regularly for quite a long while. Only they call them marinades. Confused? Let’s clarify.
A brine is at its very essence a salt solution. The simplest form of this is salt water, but really any liquid can be used. The idea behind the brine is to introduce salt into your meat as well as a little extra juiciness. If a flavored liquid is used, we are incorporating flavor as well. How about a marinade then? A marinade is obviously there to add flavor, but it also adds some juiciness and tenderness to your meats. As you all know from my post on how to perfectly cook a steak1, it is crucial to salt your meat ahead of time. This true if you are marinading your steak as well. So let’s assume we are doing things right with our marinade. In that case, we have a liquid base, generally with some kind of flavoring, and salt that we are soaking our meat in. Sounds somewhat briny, doesn’t it?
So what’s the difference?
The main difference is really how much liquid is used. Typically, a brine has a lot of liquid and marinades not so much. And this is where I have a problem with most brines. Say we drop a pork chop into a brine. As it sits it sits in the brine, the liquid works their way into the fibrous network of the meat. The brine is relying on this. If it didn’t happen, we would get any salt into the meat. Downside, we now have a bunch of water in our meat as well, which effectively waters down the flavor of the meat. But Ben, you say, let’s just use a liquid with some flavor then. Better, yes, but the make up of most of our liquids is water. While we add a bit of other flavoring, we are still significantly diluting the flavor of our meat. Marinades, with their lower water content, won’t dilute the flavor of our meat as much. Since the flavor of the marinade is more concentrated we end up adding more flavor from the marinade as well.
Now that I have convinced you that marinades are better than brines, the next obvious question is why are we brining our pork instead of marinading it? Well, you got me there…or did you?
While it is true that most liquids are water-based, melted chocolate is not. We will add enough liquid to keep the chocolate solution in a liquid state even when cold, but that’s it. A large portion of this chocolate brine is fats, in the form of cocoa butter and the flavoring from the cocoa solids. There is no bright line distinction between a brine and a marinade. We’re calling it a brine because there is a lot of it compared to the amount of meat and…well, it sounds better on the menu. “Chocolate brined” evokes some mystery and intrigue. “Brined? How do you brine something in chocolate?” “Will is be salty? I love salty chocolate.” “Is that what happened to Augustus Gloop in the chocolate river?”
You can hardly fault chefs for getting a bit poetic with menus. And, yes, that is what happened to Augustus. He would have been incredibly tender, juicy, and flavorful, hypothetically speaking, of course.
Chocolate, Chorizo, and Olive B’stilla
B’stilla is a traditional Moroccan meat pastry, most often made with chicken and topped with an orange-based sauce. Few cultures do the sweet-savory-spice blend better than Morocco, and b’stilla might just be the height of the art. This version uses braised chicken as its base with some spanish chorizo for some spiciness, olives for savory brininess, and chocolate for…uh…chocolatiness. At this point, there might be a few folks out there with concerned looks on their faces, skeptically mouthing “chorizo, olives, and chocolate?” Yes. And you will like it. At least you’ll like it if you like delicious things. I mean, do you like juicy and tender braised chicken mingled with smoky spices, a subtle hint of salty brine, deep rich savory flavors smacking of mocha and roasted nuts with just the right amount of sweetness and citrus undertones all wrapped in crisp buttery layers of phyllo? Or do you not like tasty things?
For the most part, this recipe is simply going to ask you to mix a bunch of ingredients together. The only really key steps are braising the chicken and layering the phyllo.
The chicken is a pretty standard braise. We learned all about braising in my post on braised turkey for Thanksgiving2. The only extra advice I have for braising the chicken is for when we get to shredding the chicken. The old standby two fork method does work just fine, but, if you are needing to shred a lot of chicken (or any meat for that matter), you can speed up the process with a stand mixer. Simple throw the meat into the mixer bowl and use the paddle attachment on it. This will pretty effectively shred the meat in about thirty seconds.
We are all probably most familiar with phyllo dough from the Greek dessert baklava. While I am, in general, a big fan of homemade over store-bought, phyllo dough is definitely a buy-from-the-store situation. You can make phyllo dough at home, I’ve done it. It is a difficult process and the result is usually inferior to what we can buy from the freezer section in a grocery store. When working with phyllo, be sure to let the dough completely thaw before using it. It is brittle enough as is without trying use it while frozen. Phyllo also dries out incredibly fast. Once we have the package opened, cover the pieces not being used with plastic wrap and a damp towel. Last little tip on phyllo: don’t throw out the cracked and torn pieces. About a third of the sheets will be cracked or torn – universal law of phyllo. However, when we start layering the phyllo sheets, the overlapping pieces will patch the cracks.
Chicken and Mushroom Ravioli with Homemade Chocolate Pasta
The chocolate in this dish is solely in the pasta dough and not actually from full on chocolate, but from cocoa powder. Chocolate is essentially made up of two main parts: cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cocoa butter is the fat in chocolate and is entirely responsible for snap, shine, and melt in the mouth quality of chocolate. The cocoa solids are a starch and contribute the flavor to the chocolate. When we separate the cocoa butter and cocoa solids from each other, we call the cocoa solids “cocoa powder.” Because cocoa powder is a starch, it is pretty common to see it incorporated into baked goods simply by removing a portion of flour and replacing it with the cocoa powder. That is what we have done in the chocolate pasta recipe.
It is very important to allow the pasta dough to rest before rolling it out. Like all wheat flour based doughs, kneading the dough will develop the gluten. Just like we discussed in the focaccia post3, the glutens provide structure to the dough, but are elastic. If we try to roll the dough before resting the dough and allowing the glutens to relax, the dough will spring back and be counter productive. I highly recommend using a pasta roller to roll out you dough.
It is absolutely possible to roll it out with a rolling-pin, it is simply a long process and much more difficult. If using a rolling-pin, you will need to rest the dough periodically, since the repeated rolling will tighten the glutens.
Hopefully you can take away some new uses for both your meat and your chocolate. Just remember, chocolate is the new bacon – everything is better…Mmmm, chocolate and bacon…sorry what was I saying?
1. What do you mean you didn’t read it?!? Don’t tell me you’re still feeding your family imperfect steak. Go read it now before you end up torturing any more beef on your grill. I’ll wait.
2. You didn’t read the turkey post either?!? What do you do with your time? Well, do it now. I’ll wait…again.
3. Okay this is getting ridiculous. I am seriously considering biting my thumb at you. Go read the post. Now! My thumb is poised for biting.