For a couple of weeks now, I have been acutely attuned to the sound of the UPS truck motoring down my street. That's because it has been offloading packages for me, and inside each has been some kind of gourmet treat.
The mother-haul came one day when the driver left two Styrofoam coolers and a large, heavy crate. The coolers held boxes of frozen dough for sweet potato, cream-cheese and chocolate biscuits, as well as for sticky buns and cinnamon rolls. The large box contained several varieties of shortbread. In the last weeks, I've also received Cuban food, cheeses from Switzerland, artisanal chocolates, Vermont maple syrup and Japanese miso.
How, you ask?
It's all courtesy of the Summer International Fancy Foods show, held in Washington, D.C., in early June. Hundreds of vendors, representing companies worldwide, arrange elaborate displays of everything from ice cream to olives, to attract supermarket and gourmet-food distributors and interest the press.
I'm the press.
It's impossible to sample everything, or even see everything, at the show in one day. The stomach fills, the palate becomes exhausted. Did I just taste proscuitto, or was it a chocolate-dipped pretzel? Is that crabmeat pasta you're handing me, or another cup of gelato?
The vendors are more than happy to send samples before or after the show, to accommodate a food writer who has tasted more than her fill. The challenge then becomes what to do with it all.
It's easy enough for my husband and myself to snarf our way through a couple of boxes of chocolate or cookies. But the spices, the condiments, the odd ingredients require ingenuity. My husband says that Food Network television could build a program around me similar to "Chopped," the show in which chefs must make meals from such odd mystery ingredients as gummy candy and chicken intestines.
Nothing quite so weird as poultry guts has hit my doorstep. But I did fool around with a couple of things that turned out well.
Miso concentrate became the base for a tasty chicken dish made easily in the crockpot. I took boneless thighs and arranged them in a single layer, meaty-side up, with no more liquid than the water that clung to them from rinsing. I then took the product, called misoandeasy, a concentrate that is packaged in soft pouches, and squeezed it over the chicken meat to cover. I covered the crockpot and set it on low for two hours.
To finish the dish, in the third hour I uncovered the pot, shook garlic powder over the meat, recovered it and set the pot on high. The result was meat tender enough to cut with a fork, with a savory crust not usually possible with crockpot cooking. The miso had provided enough salinity, so no added salt was necessary. And in cooking it had reduced and crusted.
The next challenge involved a condiment made from crystallized Vermont maple syrup, blended with savory ingredients including garlic, to make a spice mix. I shook it all over pork chops, rubbed it in and let the chops marinate for about an hour. Then I panfried them. They were okay, but the pan sauce that resulted afterward was divine. To the drippings in the pan, I added a good half-cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup of pure maple syrup and a couple of teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, which I whisked and reduced.
You could pour that over an old shoe and it would be good.
The savory-sweet trend remains vigorous in gourmet food. From a Cincinnati company called Queen City Cookies, I received shortbread both sweet and salty, in flavors including rosemary sesame and chocolate-chipotle. Salt was also part of a milk chocolate bar from San Diego-based chauo chocolatier, that was otherwise a classic rocky road combination of caramelized almonds and marshmallows. And bacon is in everything, from chocolate to sticky buns.
Personally, I'm ready for that trend to abate. I enjoy a chocolaty chocolate bar without salt and to add texture to a sticky bun, pecans are perfectly fine.
I believe there is still frozen Thai food, gourmet nuts and more chocolate headed my way on that wonderful brown truck. I'm eating as fast as I can. My mother tells me I'm going to need larger clothes. And a kitchen annex.