Editor’s note: This is fourth in an occasional series in which Washington area chefs create simple dishes that incorporate nutritious ingredients.
A pair of enterprising chefs have chosen the challenge ingredient we’ve been waiting for: dark chocolate.
Its antioxidant (polyphenols, flavonols) properties, said to be greater than those of many other superfood fruits and seeds, are among the reasons for its healthful status. Although it’s not all that difficult to consume the recommended 100 calories’ worth per day, it is good to discover ways of working dark chocolate into creations that aren’t full of fat or sugar.
Jeff Witte, 33, and Jeremy Anderson, 32, have spent a combined 20 years or so working in the kitchen at Airlie, a 1,000-acre under-the-radar retreat in Warrenton, Va. Named after a Scottish castle, the 53-year-old private conference center and hotel has played host to big thinkers, policymakers, global leaders and historic initiatives such as the first Earth Day. (Even locals have long thought the place was owned by some top-secret government agency.)
About year ago, Airlie began extending its special-events hospitality to the general public as a weekend getaway spot handy to Virginia’s wine country, although its lovely grounds and dining opportunities seem sufficient draws on their own.
As executive chef, Witte in 1998 helped launch Airlie’s Local Food Project, an educational effort to promote foods of the Mid-Atlantic that includes a four-acre organic garden and a hoop house, both on-site. In January, he was promoted to culinary director, a move that prompted Anderson’s takeover as head chef.
“We were totally up for this challenge. We’re about eating healthfully, buying locally and sustainably,” Witte says.
“Keeping things simple is key,” Anderson says.
Both of them say they’re lucky to be able to gather foodstuffs from more than 30 farms and artisanal producers nearby, in addition to the blueberries, artichokes, apples, radishes, squashes, gourds and impressive array of herbs that are right outside their door. The chefs have so much mint at their disposal, in fact — a 20-by-6-foot hedge of several varieties — that it appears in three of their four challenge recipes.
Anderson crafted a dark chocolate mousse that’s just as rich-tasting as the classic French kind he was trained to make, but it uses almond milk instead of heavy cream, and egg whites instead of whole eggs. Witte was keen to bring dark chocolate to the first meal of the day, so for granola it is melted and poured over a quickly baked mixture of oats, flax seed and almonds.
A few experiments with another superfood, honey, led them to an interesting choice for the competition’s second superfood ingredient: tea, from Seven Oaks Lavender Farm in Catlett, Va. “The complexity in their lavender-lemon tea turned out to be just right for a take on vegetarian pho,” Anderson says. The tea-infused soup has a lovely finish on the palate. Rainbow chard sauteed along with mushrooms colors the latter a soft, winy pink. The vegetables rest on a nest of rice noodles.
The chefs ventured into cocktail territory — another welcome first in this challenge — by blending a lavender-chai tea with elderflower liqueur and gin, and serving it over ice with a soft, chewy mint leaf. They were so pleased with the result that it’s on the spring beverage menu at Airlie.
“It’s a healthy amount of tea, at least,” Anderson says.
Airlie hotel and conference center is at 6809 Airlie Rd., Warrenton, Va. 20187. 540-347-1300. www.airlie.com.