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Archive for January 31, 2013

NEWS: Almost Famous Chef Competition

Last year’s finalists’ dishes. Photo courtesy
San Pellegrino.


We love watching “Top Chef” on television: The creativity and skill (not to mention energy level) of the “cheftestants” is inspiring.

“Top Chef” draws its contestants from the kitchens of fine restaurants nationwide. But where do you turn for recognition if you’re not yet a chef, sous chef or even a line cook?

There are culinary school competitions, of course, and at least one of them—the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition—has a spectacular prize: $20,000 (nice) plus a year of paid internship at the restaurant of one of the finals judges (a great career opportunity). Contestants prepare a signature dish and are judged on technical skill as well as creativity and presentation.

While there’s only one top prize, every contestant is a winner, gaining exposure to prominent local chefs and members of the media who judge and mentor them along the way. As everyone knows, in life it’s not only about the talent, it’s about the connections. Everyone who enters gets to make good contacts. Since it was established in 2002, the program has helped to launch hundreds of culinary careers.


Last week we were invited to attend the Northeast regional competition, which crowned a regional winner and a People’s Choice winner. The 10 regional winners go to the finals in Napa Valley, held March 8-10 at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Judges for this year’s finals include executive chefs Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, Jean Joho of Everest in Chicago, Susur Lee of Lee Restaurant in Toronto, Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia in Chicago, Mark McEwan of One in Toronto, Rick Moonen of RM Seafood in Las Vegas and Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C.

The national winners from 2011 and 2012 both hailed from Kendall College in Chicago, and are now working at two of Chicago’s finest restaurants: Blackbird and Everest. The 2010 regional winner is now teaching at Kendall College.

However, the Kendall winning streak was interrupted this year: While a Kendall College student won the regional People’s Choice Award, the regional winner headed to Napa Valley hails from from Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky.

See the beautiful food and the winners on the Almost Famous Chef Competition Facebook page.


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VALENTINE GIFT: Honey Chocolates

How about some honey-sweetened chocolates for your honey…or for anyone who doesn’t like refined sugar?

One of our favorite booths at a particular trade show is Queen Bee Gardens, which makes delicious honey-sweetened chocolates and other confections.

The older, homespun couple at the booth differ from the trendy staff at other booths. But their chocolates are always a welcome respite on the tasting trail. We always stop for a sample, passing by many other booths with “been there, had that, pass ‘em by” chocolates.

In northern Wyoming, in a valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains just east of Yellowstone National Park, sits the small farm where Clarence and Bessie Zeller raised a family of six. To support the family, they produced honey.

The hives were started from angry wild bees Clarence’s father found along the Shoshone River.

In 1976, the Zellers decided to expand into honey candy, using an old family recipe from Bessie’s ancestors in Scotland.


Queen Bee Gardens chocolate contains no sugar, just honey. Photo courtesy


More recipes were developed. Pecan Pearls are melt-in-your-mouth honey pecan pralines. Truffles, English toffee and other mouthwatering confections also delight.

A red heart-shaped box of chocolate truffles is $25.17. The Queen Bee Gardens website is very plain, but these farm folks know how to make confections that are anything but plain.


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TIP OF THE DAY: Sweet & Salty Brownies, Fusion Food

A fusion of two favorite food groups:
brownies and salty snacks. Photo courtesy


The verb fuse, derived from Latin, means to combine or blend by melting together.

Along that line, fusion food refers to the combination of widely differing ethnic or regional ingredients or techniques. Examples include French-Thai fusion cuisine, Japanese fusion sushi* and a wide variety of pizzas: Thai chicken pizza and BBQ pizza, for example.

We love all good fusion food, but can’t name too much in the fusion baking category. Perhaps granola cookies or Rice Krispies treats count. But we knew we’d hit the jackpot with this recipe created by one of our favorite baking blogs, Bella Baker, the opus of the gifted baker Lauryn Cohen.

The recipe fuses sweet, fudgy brownies with crunchy, salty snacks—a terrific idea that just may become part of our annual Super Bowl party fare.
*The California Roll, for example, is Japanese-California fusion. Avocados did not grow in Japan.




  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1-1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup all purpose flour

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 4 ounces semi sweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoon butter, room temperature, cut into 4 pieces

  • Potato chips
  • Thin pretzel sticks
  • Plain popcorn (not kettle corn or other flavored/sweetened corn)


    1. CENTER a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Generously butter a 9×13 glass baking pan.

    2. PLACE the butter in a microwave safe bowl and top with the chopped chocolate. Microwave for 45 seconds, then remove and stir vigorously with a whisk until the ingredients are just melted. You don’t want it to get so hot that the butter separates.

    3. MICROWAVE for another 30 seconds, if needed to melt the chocolate completely.

    4. STIR in the sugar with a whisk. Whisk in the eggs one by one. Add the vanilla extract and whisk vigorously to bring the batter together and give it a shine before gently stirring in the salt and flour; stir only until incorporated.

    5. SCRAPE the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the rubber spatula.

    6. BAKE the brownies for 30 to 33 minutes, or until the top is dull and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. (The tip of the knife may be a touch streaky.)


    These memorable brownies may well become part of your yearly Super Bowl fare. Photo courtesy


    7. TRANSFER the pan to a rack and cool to room temperature. While the brownies are cooling, make the ganache. Put chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Once the heavy cream has reached boiling, pour half of it over the chopped chocolate. Let sit for 30 seconds, then gently stir chocolate and cream together with a rubber spatula in a figure eight motion.

    8. POUR the remaining heavy cream over chocolate and continue to gently stir. Add the butter, one piece at a time, until the ingredients are fully incorporated and the ganache is smooth and glossy.

    9. POUR the ganache over the brownies; smooth with a rubber spatula to completely cover the top of the brownies. While ganache is still wet, sprinkle potato chips, pretzels and popcorn on top.

    10. REFRIGERATE brownies for one hour until the ganache has set; then cut into squares.

    Find many more ideas on the Bella Baker blog.



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