Sbraga has created a special valentine for diners: a menu with chocolate featured in each of four courses.
The idea piqued our curiosity - and our taste buds.
Could such a menu match the hotel's sophisticated standards? Or would it be mere promotional kitsch?
Suffice it to say, since sampling the innovative chef's efforts we are taking chocolate more seriously as a seasoning - and are sharing his recipes here. Each has subtle flavors that some diners might not even recognize as chocolate.
(The chef's chocolate dinner, four courses for $45, is available through February along with the Grill's regular menu, except for Valentine's Day, when an even more special offering is planned.)
Lately, as with wine, distinctions of terroir - growing region, climate and such - have made single-origin beans the focus of chocolate-makers and connoisseurs.
For Sbraga, that translated to using Equatoriale, a chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Equador, to accent one of that country's national dishes, scallop seviche.
Another unique offering: a sweet-and-sour broth of coconut milk and white chocolate served with black bass fillets.
More familiar to some might be the chipotle mole made with spiced Ibarra chocolate and served with grilled flank steak.
A classic chocolate souffle caps off the meal.
Plenty of chefs are creating interesting examples of savory chocolate dishes, from pepper-crusted beef tenderloin with a sauce of port, shallots and chocolate to sauteed salmon fillets complemented by a sauce flavored with white chocolate, lemon juice and green peppercorns.
Crunchy cocoa nibs (crushed bits of roasted cocoa beans) add a nut-like, earthy quality to foods, especially salads.
And grated garnishes or shavings of chocolate can add the hint of flavor that turns an ordinary soup or side dish into a stunning success.
We could go back a few centuries to chocolate's first food applications outside the Americas, when Italians used it to season meat pasties. Later it became the sweet in a sweet-sour sauce for game meats such as boar.
The combination of cocoa flavor and cocoa butter with its mildly bitter acidity complements many foods. Cocoa powder solids help to thicken sauces while enriching the flavor and hue of food preparations.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Mexican mole (MO-lay) sauces - blends of tomatoes, chilies and spices with a little chocolate added to give a silky rich finish.
High-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolates are best in bolder meat dishes, Sbraga says. The lighter flavor of white chocolate, while not truly chocolate, is favored with fish and in cream sauces. Premium brands such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Callebaut are recommended.
For more chocolate-food pairings, see chef Sbraga's accompanying tips and remember, keep it simple. And subtle.
Chef Kevin Sbraga will headline a valentine dinner tomorrow at 7 p.m., at the James Beard House in New York ($155), producing a Valrhona chocolate-themed menu with food-
forward dishes like the black bass from the Grill's February menu.
Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at email@example.com or call 215-854-5743.
The Chef's Notes on his Chocolate Menu
Selected chocolates used to season chef Kevin Sbraga's dinner menu include:
1. Equatoriale 55% chocolate - An all-purpose chocolate from Ecuador with subtle flavor and sweetness, it accents the country's signature dish, ceviche.
2. Ivoire chocolate - A premium white chocolate. The sugar balances the "sour" lime and spices in the sweet-sour broth served with black bass. Good as a grated garnish and flavor accent for many cream soups.
3. Ibarra chocolate blend - Spiced chocolate with hints of cinnamon and coriander, ideal for mole sauces. It goes with meats and spicy/hot foods. Also used in authentic hot chocolate.
4. Extra Bitter 61% - A bittersweet chocolate suitable for a classic rich, yet delicate chocolate dessert souffle.
When melting chocolate, use bars or chunks, not chips. Chips are designed to hold their shape, so they contain less cocoa butter and don't melt as easily.
Unless melting chocolate directly into a heated sauce, use of a microwave oven is suggested for better heat control and timing. Cooking with chocolate is tricky: Too high a temperature can scorch it, and leave a burnt flavor.
To melt, break the chocolate into small pieces and heat for 30 seconds at 50% power. Stir, then repeat. Remove chocolate from the microwave before it's fully melted and stir it smooth.
- Marilynn Marter
Scallop Seviche with Equatoriale Chocolate
Makes 4 servings
For the Seviche:
4 U-10 scallops, very fresh, diced (6 to 8 ounces total)
1 teaspoon each: finely diced jalapeno, red bell pepper and red onion
4 tablespoons each: olive oil and lime juice
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons grated Equatoriale chocolate (55 percent cacao)
For the Tostado de Maiz:
1/4 cup dried corn (see Note)
1 teaspoon bacon fat or oil
1. For the Seviche: Gently combine the scallops, jalapeno, red bell pepper, red onion and olive oil. Stir in the lime juice and salt, to taste. Let stand to marinate for 30 minutes.
2. For the Tostado de Maiz (Toasted Corn): In a saucepan over low heat, melt the bacon fat. Add the dried corn. Cook on low heat to a deep golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Season with salt, to taste. Drain on paper towels to absorb excess oil.
3. Divide the seviche on scallop shells or small plates and sprinkle with the toasted corn kernels.
4. Grate or shave the chocolate over top to garnish.
- Kevin Sbraga, chef de cuisine, the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia.
Note: Large dried corn kernels (tostado) are available at Hispanic markets such as Supremo. In lieu of bacon fat, the chef suggests using olive oil. Any size fresh scallop may be used, including tiny bay scallops, which may be left whole.
Per serving: 211 calories, 8 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 0.4 gram sugar, 16 grams fat, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 73 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Baked Black Bass with Sweet-Sour Coconut Broth, Eggplant and Tapioca
For Sweet-Sour Coconut Broth:
1 ounce galangal or ginger
1 ounce culantro (see Note)
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 Thai chili
1 stalk lemongrass, optional
1 quart ice
8 ounces (1 cup) coconut milk
2 tablespoons lime juice
Bones and trim of 1 black bass
2 ounces white chocolate
For the Tapioca:
2 quarts water
2 ounces large pearl tapioca
For the Eggplant:
1 medium Japanese eggplant
2 cups water, mixed with
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon rice flour
Oil for deep frying
4 black bass fillets, 1/2-inch thick (1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
1. For the Coconut Broth: In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepot, sweat the galangal, culantro, shallots, chili and lemongrass at medium heat. Stir in the ice, coconut milk and lime juice. Add the fish bones and bring to a low simmer for 1 hour. Strain the broth. In a blender, whisk the hot broth with chunks of the chocolate until the chocolate melts into the sauce. Keep warm.
2. For the Tapioca: About 1 hour ahead, bring 2 quarts water, the lime juice and chili to a boil. Whisk in the tapioca. Cook until almost translucent, about 30 minutes. Strain. Set aside.
3. To prepare the eggplant, slice 8 center-cut, 1/2-inch thick rounds and soak in salted water overnight. About 20 minutes before serving, drain the eggplant and pat dry on paper towels. In a deep skillet or fryer, heat the oil to 375 degrees. Dredge the eggplant in rice flour. Fry until golden and crisp, 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, for the fish, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the fish portions in an ovenproof baking dish with a little of the reserved broth until just opaque, about 6 minutes.
5. To assemble, place 2 slices of the fried eggplant and a portion of the tapioca in a shallow soup bowl. Set the bass fillet on top and surround with the broth. Serve at once. If desired, grate a little extra chocolate over the fish for garnish.
Note: Culantro is an Asian herb similar to cilantro, but milder with longer leaves. If not available, cilantro may be substituted, but reduce the amount by about one-third.
Per serving: 397 calories, 5 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 326 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Grilled Flank Steak with Chipotle Mole
For the Chipotle Mole:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium or 1/2 large white onion, diced
2 ripe roma tomatoes
2 chipotle peppers in adobo
1 teaspoon each: coriander and cumin seeds, toasted (see Note)
1 ounce Ibarra spiced Mexican chocolate, chopped
For the grilled steak:
1 flank steak, about 1 1/2 pounds
Extracted juice of 1 large red pepper, optional
1. Prepare the Mole: A day ahead, heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the garlic and onion until translucent, a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, chipotles, coriander and cumin seeds and salt and cook on medium-low heat for 20 minutes. On low heat, stir in the chocolate to melt. Cook about 10 minutes more. With a blender, puree the sauce until smooth. Let cool.
2. Marinate the steak: Add the steak to the mole, coating and marinating it for at least 6 hours or overnight, refrigerated.
3. When ready to proceed, remove the meat from marinade and, on a medium-hot grill, cook the steak medium rare or to an internal temperature of 125 degrees, 6 to 8 minutes, turning once. Let the steak rest, off the heat, for 5 minutes before cutting it on the diagonal (against the grain) into thin slices.
4. Meanwhile, reheat the remaining mole/marinade. Bring it to a simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes.
5. To serve, portion steak slices on serving plates with some mole sauce over or to the side. Or, if desired, whisk red pepper juice to a foam and spoon over the meat.
- Adapted from Kevin Sbraga, chef de cuisine, the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia.
Note: Toast coriander and cumin seeds in a hot, dry skillet. Stir or shake until lightly browned and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes.
Per serving: 406 calories, 39 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 73 milligrams cholesterol, 109 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Hot Chocolate Mousse & Cinnamon Churros
For the Hot Chocolate Mousse:
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 large egg yolks
1/4 cup cocoa powder
5 egg whites
3 tablespoons sugar
For the Cinnamon Churros:
1 cup water
4 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick, plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 3/4 cup flour
3 large eggs
1. For the mousse: Melt the chocolate and butter over a double boiler, remove from heat. Then slowly add in yolks, but be careful not to scramble the eggs. Next add cocoa powder and stir. Whip egg whites and sugar to soft peaks (meringue). Fold the meringue into the chocolate mix, place in cups, and bake at 375 for 4 minutes.
2. For the churros: Bring water, sugar, salt, and butter to a boil. Stir and the flour and cook for 1 minute. Place the mixture in a mixing bowl and slowly incorporate eggs one at a time. Place the batter in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe the batter into a fryer (or a pot filled with frying oil) set at 375 degrees. Fry until golden brown, and dust with cinnamon sugar.
3. Garnish the hot chocolate mousse with the churros. The churros are meant to be dipped in the mousse.
Per serving: 1,125 calories, 29 grams protein, 107 grams carbohydrates, 53 grams sugar, 73 grams fat, 521 milligrams cholesterol, 583 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.