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►  Chocolate gets first addition to color palette in 80 years

A breakthrough by a Swiss chocolate maker expands the industry’s hues beyond just dark, milk and white.

Barry Callebaut AG, the world’s largest cocoa processor, has come up with the first new natural color for chocolate since Nestle started making bars of white chocolate more than 80 years ago. The Zurich-based company refers to the product with a pinkish hue and a fruity flavor as “ruby chocolate.“

The new product may help boost sales in a struggling global chocolate market that producers hope has touched bottom. As Hershey cuts 15 percent of its staff and Nestle tries to sell its U.S. chocolate business, ruby chocolate raises the possibility that next Valentine’s Day may arrive with store shelves full of naturally pink chocolate hearts.

The innovation, based on a special type of cocoa bean, comes after about a decade of development, Chief Executive Officer Antoine de Saint-Affrique said. Unveiled Tuesday in Shanghai, the chocolate has a natural berry flavor that’s sour yet sweet, according to the company, which works behind the scenes to produce chocolate sold by all the major producers including Hershey and Cadbury.

“It’s natural, it’s colorful, it’s hedonistic, there’s an indulgence aspect to it, but it keeps the authenticity of chocolate,“ the CEO said in a telephone interview. “It has a nice balance that speaks a lot to millennials.“

The new product may also appeal to Chinese consumers, a nascent market for chocolate, De Saint-Affrique said. The company has tested the product in Britain, the U.S., China and Japan through independent consumer research carried out by Haystack and Ipsos.

“We had very good response in the key countries where we tested, but we’ve also had very good response in China, which for chocolate is quite unusual,“ he said, noting the color is attractive in that market.

Innovations in chocolate often take years because of the complex structures and the challenge of maintaining texture and taste. Nestle scientists have found a way to reduce the amount of sugar in chocolate by as much as 40 percent, though it won’t be available in confectionery products until next year. Barry Callebaut also sells chocolate that withstands higher temperatures, a goal chocolate companies had sought to achieve for decades.

Barry Callebaut’s research department came across the possibility of ruby chocolate by chance about 13 years ago as it studied cocoa beans, and Germany’s Jacobs University in Bremen cooperated in the development.

“It could be excellent news if the taste works for consumers, as it offers a new branch of manufacturers to explore,“ Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Duncan Fox said. “If they can use less sugar to make a nice bar, then it will an addition to the current market.“

The beans used to make ruby chocolate come from Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Brazil and the unusual color comes from the powder extracted during processing, De Saint-Affrique said. No berries or colors are added. While other companies including Cargill already produce red cocoa powder, this is the first time natural reddish chocolate is produced.

“You could try and copy the color and try to copy the flavor, but making a real chocolate, which is just made out of your normal chocolate ingredients, with that taste and with that color would be extraordinarily difficult,“ De Saint-Affrique said.

The development comes at time when a large global surplus has sent cocoa futures traded in London more than 30 percent in the past year, resulting in a crisis in Ivory Coast. The top grower earlier this year cut the price paid to farmers by 36 percent for the smaller of two annual crops that started in April.

“If Africa is going to extract more value from cocoa, it has to move away from being a bulk supplier of generic beans and instead focus on enhancing its speciality production,“ said Edward George, head of soft commodities research at Lome, Togo-based lender Ecobank Transnational Inc. “This has much higher margins.“


►  Starbucks wants to sell you a sushi burrito with your Frappuccino

Starbucks has tried it all: First came cake pops, then truffle mac and cheese, and earlier this year, avocado toast.

Now the coffee giant is banking on another food fad to drum up lunch and dinner business: The sushi burrito.

The chicken maki roll - which the company says, is “a classic California burrito with a twist” - comes with cooked chicken, pickled cabbage and avocado, and is rolled in sushi rice and wrapped with seaweed. It is currently part of the Mercato lunch menu at a handful of stores in Chicago and Seattle, where Starbucks is based.

But first it has to overcome a substantial hurdle: Convincing customers its food is worth eating.

Despite repeated - and often novel - efforts, analysts say Starbucks has yet to find much success hawking meals alongside its coffee. The challenges are logistical - Starbucks stores don’t have kitchens, for example - as well as behavioral. Over the past four decades, Starbucks has trained its customers to run in, grab coffee and run out. Getting them to think beyond beverages, or linger for a meal, has proven more difficult, particularly as modern customers demand locally sourced, freshly made food.

“It’s been decades, but Starbucks is still trying to figure out food,“ said Stephen Dutton, an analyst for market research firm Euromonitor International. “The short answer is, Starbucks food is never going to be better than the hot, made-to-order meals you’re going to get at a place like McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts.“

The company’s new Mercato menu includes grilled cheese sandwiches with burrata, and chicken and quinoa soup.

“It’s all about providing higher-quality, fresh food at lunch,“ Scott Maw, the company’s chief financial officer, told CNBC in June.

But analysts say the offerings raise a number of questions: Selling croissants with coffee is one thing, but how do you premade customers to pair their afternoon lattes with pre-made sushi? And how willing are customers to shell out $10 for lunch when they could just as easily go elsewhere?

“Nobody goes to Starbucks to buy food,“ Dutton said. “When they do buy something, it’s usually because they’re like, ‘I’m starving and I have to get to work, so I’m going to pick up this yogurt.‘“

But that’s not to say customers aren’t shelling out, especially for breakfast. Roughly 20 percent of Starbucks’s revenue - which last year was $21.32 billion - comes from food sales, up from 16 percent five years ago. In recent years, the company has been successful in beefing up sales of breakfast foods, thanks in part to its purchase of La Boulange bakery for $100 million in 2012. But analysts say growth has plateaued as the company struggles to break into fiercely competitive lunch and dinner markets.

“There is a perception that Starbucks is selling an inferior product,“ said Nick Seytan, an analyst for Wedbush Securities. “Customers are saying, ‘How good can that salad or sandwich be if you’re not making it in front of me?‘“

Earlier this year, the company said it would stop selling beer and wine, as well as small plates like truffle mac and cheese and bacon-wrapped figs at its stores. Those additions, rolled out with much fanfare a few years ago, had failed to resonate with customers.

Will sushi burritos help change that? Dutton says he remains unconvinced.

“This is one more way of outsourcing the problem instead of solving it,“ he said.


►  Two indispensable ingredients also make nice kitchen decorations

Onions are an easy crop, one that doesn’t require much attention. Water and weed – that’s about it. But toward the end of summer, you need to watch them to see whether they’ve flopped. When the leaves lie down in the row, it means the bulbs have stopped growing and are ready for harvest.

When this happens, check the weather. It’s best to pull onions during a sunny spell. Simply lift them and lay the whole plants on the ground in tidy rows to dry out and cure. The idea is to let the tops turn brown, all the way down to the bulbs, so that the necks will tighten and seal the bulb against deterioration. A brief shower is harmless, but if genuine rain is coming, bring them under cover to finish the job. Spread them on a floor, table or screen in a place that’s well ventilated and dry.

Soft-neck garlic can be harvested like onions. Hard-neck garlic is pulled when the tops start to brown but there are still about six green leaves on top. Bring both under cover right away to dry and cure.

New onions and garlic can be eaten immediately and are outstanding when fresh, but their main virtue is that they last many months in storage. An ideal space is dark, cold and frost-free, but not moist like a root cellar.

Like many cooks, though, I don’t feel secure unless I have a working stash of onions and garlic within easy reach. In the kitchen, there’s always a bucket, bin or basket – anything that works, but never the fridge, where too much moisture might make them rot.

You can also treat them as a kitchen display. This concept appeals to anyone who likes rustic kitchen decor, but even if the theme is stainless-steel modern, the sight of onions and garlic in a kitchen gives one a feeling that the cook cares about flavor and that the upcoming meal will not be bland. (You might have already sensed that upon entering, from the pungent aroma of a bubbling pot.)

Hanging food pantries are picturesque, especially if your kitchen ceiling has exposed beams from which to suspend them, but they have limitations. Ristras of dried red chiles look gorgeous at first, before they lose color from too much light. So do bundles of upside-down herbs, which, if too close to the action, crumble from the careless swish of a tea towel. Both gather dust.

But none of that happens to onions and garlic, which are neatly protected by their skins. So you can braid their tops to form a tidy hanging column and snip off one at a time as needed.

Normally you would cut off your onions’ dry foliage as soon as the necks have cured, but if you’re going to braid them, leave it on. The simplest way to do this is to tie three onions tightly together at the neck with tan-colored jute or sisal twine, which will last as long as the onions will. Then braid the three clumps of leaves just as you would a pigtail, alternately bringing the left and the right one to the center.

After each movement, bring a new onion in, above the center onion, adding its top to that strand. So even as you rise above the tops of the lower onions, the upper ones carry on the work. One way to give the column more strength is to leave a long piece of twine when you make that bottom tie, and braid it into one of the continuing strands.

If you’ve ever fiddled with long hair, you probably know that braiding in new strands as you go is called making a French braid.

Heads of garlic can be braided the same way, but only if you have grown soft-neck garlic, which has pliable foliage like that of an onion. They’re easier to work with than onions because they weigh less. The result is charming.

If you grow hard-neck garlic, which has long, very stiff stalks, you’ll see that it doesn’t lend itself to braiding. Instead, you might bundle the stalks together at the top and bottom and hang them up, keeping hand pruners at the ready to snip off a head.

But I don’t hang them at all. I put them in an upright vase with the heads on top, like a bouquet. Nothing could be simpler than that.

If you have always had short hair, especially if you are male, the idea of the French braid may be a little baffling, but you’ll catch on. Who knows? The next big thing, after the ponytail and the “man bun,“ might be the French braid. And you’ll have practiced on onions.

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