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The Day I Was Pleasantly Surprised at a Chain Restaurant

Posted Aug 06 2011 12:00am
Looking at the cover of this novel, you can tell right away that it's not going to be a bloody murder mystery, or a tense psychological thriller, or a benign children's fairy tale.  The cover image is a freakin' wedding dress.  Hanging on a tree, swaying gently in the breeze.

So you know it's going to be chick lit.

That being said, this is not a run-of-the-mill, lighthearted romp - you know the kind, with ditzy damsel-in-distress women whose biggest problem is burning a birthday cake or keeping their impulsive purchases a secret from their tall, dark and handsome cookie-cutter boyfriends.  There are some elements that you'll find in any chick lit novel - a central female character dealing with an inner struggle who calls on her friends to help her out, women laughing about things that men just don't understand, several clichéd stereotypes that you wish people would stop writing about - you know, stuff like that.  But I think what makes this more than a typical chick lit novel is the problems that these women face.  The main character, Julia, has led a life full of abuse, starting with her druggie mother and most recently with her fiancé, whom she fled from on the day of their wedding (hence the wedding dress in the tree).  One of the other women is a minister's wife who can't keep up the perfect facade any longer, another is stuck in an abusive marriage but is afraid to leave, yet another gets breast cancer...but it all works out in the end...hmm...

...Okay.  The more I write this the more is sounds like a "Shopaholic" novel with PMS (the depressing kind of PMS, not the I-can-kill-you-just-by-looking-at-you kind).

So maybe this is just another chick lit novel.  Either way, I enjoyed it, especially the parts that talked about chocolate.  In the book, Julia has a knack for making chocolates that are "better than an orgasm," her eccentric aunt says several times throughout the chapters.  (Have I mentioned that I don't like comparing food to bodily functions, even the good kind?  I don't know, it just weirds me out for some reason).

It's pretty obvious what kind of dish this book inspired me to make.  Chocolate.  I thought long and hard about what type of chocolate recipe to make: cookies, cake, cheesecake, candies...  Then it occurred to me that the story lines in this particular book weren't all that sweet: Runaway brides?  Abuse?  Cancer?  So I decided to take my chocolate in another direction; to showcase how it can add a layer of intrigue to a savory dish by confusing our taste buds which are so hard-wired to think of it as a sweet treat.  Adding chocolate to chili, for example, gives it a depth and an earthy characteristic that is hard to achieve with any other ingredient.

Lesson learned from reading this book:

Life isn't always sweet, but there's always a place for chocolate in it.

Cincinnati Chili
(6 - 8 servings; 10 minutes prep time, 20 minutes cook time.  Adapted from a long-ago edition of Food Network Magazine)
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 - 1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 lbs ground bison (or beef)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 6-oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 Tbsp chopped unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 12 oz cooked whole wheat thin spaghetti
  • 1 19-oz can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 lb grated cheddar cheese
  1. Heat oil in a heavy pot over medium heat.  Add half the onions and all of the garlic and cook until soft (~ 5 minutes).  Add chili powder, paprika, cumin, allspice, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, and cloves.  Cook, stirring until fragrant.  Add bison and cook through (~ 5 min).  Season with salt.
  2. Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, bay leaf, and 1 1/2 cups of water.  Simmer until slightly thickened.
  3. Add chocolate, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce, cooking until thickened but still soupy (~15 minutes).
  4. Discard the bay leaf and season the chili with ground pepper.  Divide the spaghetti among bowls and top with chili, beans, remaining onion, and cheese.
The layers of flavors in this dish are rather complex (at least to my palate), thanks to the numerous spices and, of course, the chocolate.

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