CHOCOLATE IS not just for dessert. You can have it as an entree mixed with shredded pork. Or you can toss it down before dinner as a chocolate martini. That is what I learned at the Chocolate Affair, the 13th annual fest and fund-raiser for the Center for Poverty Solutions, held last week at M&T; Bank Stadium.
Every February, as Valentine's Day approaches, Baltimore-area restaurants and caterers create dishes that pay tribute to the deep, delicious and sometimes sinful flavor of chocolate. Not surprisingly, if you put up booths offering 40 or so different tempting morsels of chocolate, the craving masses will come. I did.
Assisted by Sun intern Elizabeth Piccirillo, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, I was among the 15 lucky souls who were tapped as celebrity judges. Sampling all the chocolate at the event was our duty.
One of the more intriguing dishes I ate was a crepe stuffed with braised pork and seasoned with Callebaut chocolate and drizzled with a bitter lime creme fraiche sauce. It was like eating an upscale burrito, with the flavor of the pork melding with dark, tangy notes of the European chocolate.
The chocolate was 70 percent cocoa butter and solids, which is the mark of the good stuff, according to Michael Broglio, the chef at the Brass Elephant restaurant who made the creation. The dish won the Loco Cocoa prize of the event, the honor going to the dish that provided the most creative use of chocolate as an ingredient.
Another surprising place chocolate showed up was in a martini. This beverage was dreamed up by Chris Bialczak and the Aramark crew that works at the Ravens stadium. A shot of dark chocolate creme de cacao was served in an edible martini glass, made of dark milk chocolate. It was the first time I had eaten a cocktail glass deliberately, and it was a pretty pleasing experience. The crowd liked it as well.
According to Aramark's Beth McCarthy, about 750 chocolate martinis were served during the event. The chocolate martini garnered the prize for Chocoholic's Dream that goes to the most visually enticing treat.
Honors for Hot Chocolate, or the top treat of the event, went to dishes served by Chef's Expressions Catering. One creation was a drink, a thimble-size chocolate shooter made with a mixture of Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur, and DGF , a French chocolate, that, according to John R. Walsh Jr., executive chef at the catering operation, had 73 percent cocoa butter and solids.
When it comes to downing drinks, usually a thimble doesn't do it for me. But this drink was so rich that the container was just the right size. The other dish was a mixture of strawberries, a splash of Campari, a touch of white chocolate and a dash of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. It is not every day that I let vinegar touch my strawberries, but, in this case, I figured the chef knew what he was doing, and I was right. There was also an award for best-looking chocolate display, called the Sweet Booth, which was won this year by Innovative Gourmet. When it comes to chocolate, few folks look but don't touch, and this display of voluptuous truffles was properly ravaged by the end of the evening.
For most of us, chocolate does not show up as an entree or as a cocktail. Instead, it is dessert. That may be conventional thinking, but it has its rewards. For instance, I spent much of the evening compiling my list of favorite desserts.
I compared and contrasted the flavors of the dueling chocolate bars, the heavenly Tropical Turtle brownie made with Guittard chocolate, fresh pineapple and macadamia nuts served up by Roy's Baltimore restaurant, with the celestial bar of semisweet chocolate and ground macadamia nuts served up by Charles Levine Caterers.
Traveling in the geography of desire, I sampled the perfect squares that mix semisweet chocolate, almond cake and orange cappuccino mousse as Midnight Operas, served by the Classic Catering People. Then there were the rectangular pleasures dispensed by Linwood's called hazelnut crunch bars, and the cylindrical delight from Absolutely Perfect Catering that started with a bottom layer of saffron-flavored poundcake and then moved upward.
I also pursued the bread-and-chocolate theme, devouring bowls of the dark-chocolate bread pudding served by Peerce's Planation and the simple but favorable servings of crusty Italian bread covered with hazelnut-chocolate spread dispensed by La Scalia Ristorante Italiano.
It wasn't an all-chocolate, all-the-time evening. I made a few palate-cleansing pauses to sample rice noodles and mint at Sascha's Catering, wasabi tuna at Cuisine Catering and raw vegetables at Great Occasions. Downing one radish amid the 30-plus servings of chocolate was, I figured, a healthy ratio.
The chicken bathed in homemade pomodoro sauce, a savory mix of tomatoes, basil, garlic and chicken broth, served by Ciao Bella restaurant, won the prize for best Sweet Relief, or best non-chocolate dish.
But eating all the rich food takes its toll. By the end of the evening, I was getting the booth serving truffles mixed up with the one serving tuna. And when hosts Karen Parks and Harold Fisher of Fox 45 passed out the honors, they accidentally flipped a couple of awards. Tony Gambino, owner of Ciao Bella, ended up with a plaque honoring him for inventive use of chocolate as ingredient. The pomodoro sauce he served with the chicken came, he said, from his grandmother in Sicily and has many wonderful ingredients, but not a gram of chocolate. His grandmother, Gambino said, would not tolerate putting chocolate in her pomodoro sauce.
Gambino quickly realized that he had been presented the wrong plaque, and exchanged awards with the Brass Elephant, which had his rightful honor.
When an evening starts off with a chocolate martini, things easily get flipped.