Chocolate with a Conscience: Endangered Species

IMG_9548I am a chocolate snob. You will never catch me buying a bar from a grocery store nor will you find me ordering a chocolate dessert out on the town. Every once in a while I step into an artisanal chocolate shop out of curiosity but nine times out of ten you will see me walk out just as quickly because my nose has already caught whiff of that generic confectioner’s waxy cocoa smell that I know translates to a lack of richness on the tongue. What you WILL find is my ever present and strange collection of Tupperware containers underneath the living room coffee table with their traditional three types of Valrhona cooking ovals: blondie, caramel and fruity dark Manjari. That’s right, I eat the chef’s variety straight from the shelves of Epicure Imports’ yearly warehouse sales.

But last month while sitting in my Adirondack chair and enjoying my latest issue of Yoga Journal, I noticed an ad for Endangered Species chocolate bars. My interest was piqued because of the packaging printed with photos of adorable sea lions, mischievous baby foxes, sassy red nosed parakeets and honey colored bees. That and the words “Coconut Crème Filled” on one of the wrappers—coconut being an instant magnet for my tongue—were enough to build my curiosity. I contacted the company to learn more.

What I discovered was that Endangered Species donates 10% of their net profits to organizations that fund species and habitat conservation as well as other humanitarian efforts. They choose different partner entities to receive money for a three-year period thus allowing for a multitude of causes to benefit from their altruism. Currently this includes the African Wildlife Foundation, the Xerces Society, and See Turtles (which is particularly wonderful to me as turtles of all kinds hold a special place in my heart!). If that weren’t enough reason to give this company support, they just announced that they are now, proudly, America’s first chocolate brand made with fully traceable fair trade cocoa from West Africa.

So I decided to step out of my candy box and try the crème filled varieties of which the coconut and almond butter were delightful. I am not a person who typically likes fruit with chocolate but was impressed that the lime filled bars actually tasted tart like real lime rather than sweet and medicinal like citrus-flavored chocolate so often does. I think I might even take a further step into the dark side and try the dark chocolate with sea salt and almonds next before heading back under my coffee table for my tried and true Valrhonas.

In my opinion, it is always nice to push ourselves out of the familiar routine every once in a while to do something nice for the world around us.

Soul Warming Saffron Kheer

IMG_9537Growing up my American girl breakfasts consisted of two things. Either pour a box of sugary, other worldly colored cereal into a bowl with 2% milk (my parent’s attempt at being healthier) or have a classic scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and butter plate. I don’t remember either giving me the same sense of satisfaction or fortification that I find today through my preferred morning meals made from years’ worth of dabbling in the Asian and East Indian cultures.

It all started for me while reading Jumpa Lahiri’s prize-winning novel Interpreter of Maladies in my early thirties. I was enamored by her descriptions of the everyday breakfasts of rice and nurturing spices or mid morning snacks of puffed rice with chilies and turmeric. I went on to study traditional Chinese herbalism and discovered the Asian culture’s penchant for  jooks and congees (rice porridges) full of savory bits of vegetables and meat or sweet chunks of dried fruits, beans and nuts. Breakfast seemed so much more meaningful when viewed not as a sugar rush to warp speed the day, nor as a lumberjack worthy carb and fat overload, but something hearty to fill the engine with goodness for endurance, brain power and belly warmth.

I experiment often with recipes that combine all the cultures I admire in this vein but of late, my favorite morning starter has been a simple and convenient Indian Kheer. The dish is basically a rice pudding spiked with nourishing goodies and can be played around with in content but I have been elevating mine most recently by using oatmeal instead and adding precious saffron threads brought home to me directly from India by a dear friend. Saffron does something soothing to the soul, and usually ends up in my favorite risotto, but of late has been making its appearance in this morning bowl, instantly boosting my mood for the day.

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SOUL WARMING SAFFRON KHEER

½ cup quick oats
1½ cups almond milk
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup dark raisins
Pinch of saffron
2 teaspoons of honey
1 tablespoon chopped almonds

1. Add the oats and almond milk to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Lower to medium-low and stir in the cardamom, raisins and saffron. Cook for 5 minutes.
3. Drizzle with honey and top with chopped almonds.

Makes one big bowlful.

 

Beyond Pork Chops and Apple Sauce

IMG_9525When it comes to feeding ourselves in the home, most of us are less adventurous than we think. Even though our palates may broaden at the restaurant table, widen into the exotic while on vacation to foreign places, or take stabs at something new while browsing bustling gourmet food courts or marketplaces, we tend to pull from the same, standard repertoire of dishes when cooking in our kitchens. Most of us, single, coupled, or married with children, typically maintain a cadre of tried and true recipes we learned from our parents, simple things we learned to make for ourselves when suddenly on our own in the world, and special dishes that are more complex and pride-worthy to make on special occasions. Most of us rely on these and rarely step out of the box.

My kitchen used to operate that way when I lived alone. Goodies from mom’s childhood that I inherited into mine included Swedish pot roast and salmon patties with creamed peas. These shared calendar time with a bevy of chicken dishes I had taught myself in my twenties: piccata breasts, spicy Thai thighs, lemon-pounded tenders. Bamboo steamed sticky rice with soy baked tofu and various pots of Americanized spaghetti rounded out that list. The rest of my food came ready made from the gourmet to-go counters at Whole Foods, Lemonade or Gjelina. In my late thirties, my ordinary menu had become quite boring.

When the film Julia & Julia came out showcasing a woman combing through a cookbook and making every single recipe, I was completely inspired by the idea of perpetually making something new. So when I moved in with the CG I made a vow never to make the same thing twice. This plan has held up well with one tiny aberration being my repeating pot of arduous saffron risotto (precious dishes like this one are hard to refuse). This credo has produced a wild journey at our dining table full of delicious and surprising favorites like last week’s unctuous brick chicken and pepper roasted cauliflower as well as some comically, dreadful flops like my overly dried Wellington equivalent to $50 of beef down the toilet. But even when a meal is bad, I am still happier for having tried something new. And it makes the next great meal even better in comparison.

On the flip side, the Cute Gardener has been a huge inspiration for me in teaching me to look at an ordinary dish and to unfold its elements in order to see if something new can be created from it. This has become a fun game in our household. Last night, when presented with the ingredients for traditional pork chops and sautéed vegetables, the CG turned the result around into an astonishing and homey Asian noodle soup. The pork was braised into fatty, tender, fall apart nuggets, poured along with the meat’s cooking juice onto a pile of boiled udon noodles with slightly flash boiled petals of bok choy. It only takes a little imagination to see the flip side of a meal yet many of us are intimidated by striking out into the unknown.

I like the idea that, at 41, I could very well have double that amount of years left to sample myriad culinary pleasures. In a world full of uncertainties on many other fronts, it gives me comfort knowing that simple joys are available to me in my kitchen and that my nightly meals will never be something I take for granted.

Breakfast of Champions, Nightcap of Queens

IMG_9377When you think about the cycle of a day as a metaphor to the cycles of life, there is an opening that occurs in the morning and a closing, which appears at night. When we arise, we are meeting a new day like a blank slate and when we close our eyes at night to sleep we are leaving the past 24 hours in our wake as our subconscious factory starts its overnight duty of processing the emotion and existential influences of the day. I like to partake in a daily solo sacred ritual at both bookends of my day to sanctify both the beginning and the end and to pay homage to the body I live within that allows me to function and enjoy my life.

The first thing I do when I wake up every morning is to go downstairs and boil a pot of water. I get out my earthy ceramic cup that feels like a warm stone between my palms when I fill it with fresh brewed tea. I choose different teas depending on the day: soothing green if I am hunkering down to dreamily write for hours, energizing gingko biloba if I need to focus on technical production of my artwork, or bitter and hearty reishi mushroom if I am feeling low on energy. I also take out a tiny porcelain cup and fill it with a teaspoon dollop of organic honey and a tablespoon of Bragg’s organic apple cider vinegar. I pour a fourth cup of left over boiling water into the mix and stir it all up. This vinegar concoction, sweetened by the honey, is a magical elixir to the digestive system and keeps it working properly alongside managing the flora and fauna of the body’s natural bacteria. It keeps the elimination process regular and everything flowing smoothly. Then, I boil a little more water and cook a heart and belly warming spot of cereal. Sometimes it is oatmeal with a scattering of walnuts, raisins and coconut palm sugar swimming in a dash of almond milk. Sometimes it is Chinese lutein cereal, stirred into hot water until creamy with slight cocoa and rice notes. Sometimes it is a bowl of organic brown rice sweetened with coconut milk, chopped up dates and cinnamon. Sometimes I will wash this all down with a small bottle of kombucha by my favorite kitchen witch Sanandra Black to give me a jump start of buzzing bee exhilaration throughout all of my cells. While I enjoy this daily ritual I boot up my computer and casually read my emails for the day. This not only takes care of my physical system for the hours to come but it is a sign to my soul that I love it and wish to properly care for its being. Instead of jumping head first into the to do list and gobbling down convenience foods or coffee, it prepares me slowly and steadily and imparts a sense of grace to what may come. I leave the table feeling renewed, nurtured, and prepared to face whatever will come.

IMG_9380At the end of my day, I do something similar. After all the art and writing work has been done, exercise exhausted, errands run, chores conquered, dinner enjoyed and house shut down, the Cute Gardener and I will spend our time doing something together that we enjoy. During this down time stoked with my love, I like to pay homage to another great day gone by with another cup of tea and a treat. The act of warming up a cup of chocolate purhea to dip fresh baked French cocoa sable cookies into signifies the end of my day. It is now time to shut off my brain, enjoy the art of the dunk, and let my brain rest until tomorrow.

These simple acts of hello and good-bye assure that I never go to bed angry, wake up stressed and afraid or clog up the normal rejuvenation cycles of existence with toxic emotions — I have come to utilize these tiny food rituals to make me slow down, breathe, nourish, and learn the gentle art of staying in the present knowing everything else is simply stuff to let go.