Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grilled Summer Peaches with Pearl Mozzarella Salad

My foodie friend Carl Mindling is not only a top notch, full time Master of Ceremonies and wedding DJ, in his spare time he's a great home chef who regularly treats me to his latest dishes!

This salad is as easy to make as it is gorgeous! It only requires four ingredients. CLICK HERE to find out what they are on his cooking column over on The Flirty Guide.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

A Bay Area Cheap Eats and Secret Menu Food Adventure

This month Carl and I decided our food adventure would be to visit our favorite, least expensive places to eat. We decided to share where we go when we want something that's not necessarily healthy or particularly fancy but is a great deal in the neighborhood of $5.

Last month's food tour in Palo Alto was our most expensive to date so we were both ready to economize a bit in July. LOL

We also liked the idea of choosing some chain restaurants also available outside the Bay Area so that some of you might be able to check them out where you live or maybe when you're traveling.

You can read Carl's recap "July Food Adventure: All About Cheap Eats & Secret Menus" by CLICKING HERE

Currently 266 Locations in Arizona, California, Nevada Texas and Utah

We set out bright and early at 10:30 AM heading to the In-N-Out burger in Sunnyvale, CA.

The menu is shockingly small to first timers. But if you live in a city with an In-N-Out chances are you're well aware the menu is larger than this. . . Much larger. Maybe you've heard of it before? By "it" I mean the infamous In-N-Out Secret Menu.

Carl had the brilliant idea to pose for this picture. I Photoshopped the sign to ham it up.

I discovered the secret menu by accident. Three times. LOL.

The first time was back in the mid-90's. I had already stopped eating beef and was in the habit of going to fast food places like Burger King and McDonalds and ordering Whoppers and Big Macs with no meat.

My Favorite: The Grilled Cheese with Raw Onions ($2.10)

So I figured it wouldn't be a problem to order a meatless cheeseburger at In-N-Out. When I placed my order for a meatless cheeseburger the cashier said "Oh you want a Grilled Cheese!"

It's a nice soft bun with two slices of melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato slices, In-N-Out's spread (very similar to Thousand Island dressing) and your choice of grilled onions, fresh onions or no onions. I get the fresh onions.

Messy Animal Style Fries ($3.30)

Then one day I was on the phone talking to my friend Christina when she asked me to hold on because she needed to place a to go order at an In-N-Out drive thru window. I heard her order something "Animal Style" so I hopped on Google and did a quick search which led me to web pages talking about the In-N-Out secret menu. WOW. I had no idea!

My favorite drink: The Lemon-Up ($1.50)

My third accidental discovery was when I ordered my standard drink at the drive thru window. When I go inside and order a "meal" I'll fill my cup 50/50 with lemonade and 7-up. It's kind of a poor man's French lemonade. When I'd go through the drive-thru I'd just get lemonade because I didn't want to be a bother. One day I wanted the 50/50 mix so bad I asked for it at the drive-thru. "Oh, you want a Lemon-up" the cashier cheerily said. Bingo. Another secret menu item!

There are many versions of the secret menu on the internet but none seem complete so I've compiled several of them and link back to each one at the end. Note not every item is guaranteed to be available at every restaurant but I think it's safe to say most are.

The Most Complete In-N-Out Burger Secret Menu:

Secret Burgers:

  • 2x4 - The first number denotes the number of beef patties, the second the number of slices of cheese. That makes a 2x4 two beef patties and four slices of cheese
  • 3x3 - Three beef patties, three American cheese slices, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun
  • 3 by Meat - Three beef patties no cheese
  • 4x4 - Four beef patties, four American cheese slices, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun (This is the largest burger they will make. There is no 5x5 or 6x6 due to maintaining quality control.)
  • Double Meat - Two beef patties, lettuce, tomato spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional, on a freshly baked bun
  • Flying Dutchman - Two slices of American cheese melted between two beef patties. No bun. Other toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion can be requested
  • Grilled Cheese - Two slices of melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato, spread, onions (grilled or fresh) optional on a freshly baked bun
  • Plain - Beef Patty with no toppings
  • Protein Style - Popular with people on the Atkins diet, this burger replaces the freshly baked bun with lettuce leaves
  • Wish Burger (aka Veggie Burger) - Is a produce burger with no meat or cheese on a freshly baked bun

Secret Burger Customization:

  • Animal Style - Any burger with lettuce, tomato, mustard grilled beef patty, extra pickles, extra spread and grilled chopped onions
  • Buns - Default is toasted but you can request them extra toasted, lightly toasted or untoasted 
  • Chopped Chilies - Cascabel (hot) chilies chopped and added to the bottom of the burger
  • Cold Cheese - Unmelted slices added to your burger
  • Cut in Half -  Each half is wrapped in a separate paper wrapper. Great for kids splitting burgers
  • Dump Truck - The scrapings from the grill
  • Extra Everything - Extra tomato, lettuce, onions and spread 
  • Medium Rare - Medium Well Done is standard but you can customize the "doneness" of your patty
  • Mustard Grilled Patties - As your beef patty grills the other side is spread with mustard before grilling so when it's flipped over the mustard cooks right onto the burger
  • No Salt - No salt added to beef patties
  • Onions - Raw rounds, grilled rounds or grilled chopped onions caramelized in the meat juice from the griddle

Secret Fries:

  • Animal Style - Grilled onions, two slices of melted American cheese topped with spread. (Must be eaten with a fork)
  • Cheese - Fries topped with 2 slices melted American cheese
  • Chopped Chili Cheese - Chopped Cascabel chilies with melted American cheese slices
  • Lemon - Go find the container of lemon wedges near the ice tea machine and squeeze some fresh lemon over your fries
  • Lemon Pepper - Same as above but add pepper
  • Lite (aka Light) - Cooked less than standard fries
  • Light-Well Done - Fried more than standard fries but less than Well Done
  • Mustard and Ketchup - Their "spread" is the default condiment but you can ask for mustard and/or ketchup instead
  • Salt Free - No salt added
  • Scooby Snack - A beef patty (usually chopped) on top of an order of fries. The site I read about it on warned "This may not be available at all locations"
  • Scooby Snack - (Improvised) If the cashier doesn't know what a Scooby Snack is ask for a flying dutchman chopped and fries. (Thanks Richard W.)
  • Well Done - Extra crispy

Secret Drinks:

  • Tea-Ade (aka a Arnold Palmer) - Lemonade and Iced Tea Combo
  • Black and White Shake - Chocolate and Vanilla
  • Creative Lemon (aka Homeless Lemonade) - Cup of free water, take some lemons from near the ice tea machine add and mix in a couple packages of sugar
  • Extra Shake Syrup - As per Wikipedia not all employees know how to do this but if you can find one who does you can get extra chocolate or strawberry syrup in your shake
  • Half and Half Shake - Combine any two flavors of chocolate, strawberry or vanilla
  • Lemon-Up - Half lemonade, half 7-up
  • Neapolitan Shake - A combination of all three shake flavors: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla
  • Root Beer Float - Vanilla shake and half root beer
  • X-Large and Large Shakes - Utilizes the larger sized drink cups over the standard sized shake cup which means the large shake uses a medium drink cup and an X-large shake uses a large sized drink cup

Secret Extras:

  • In-N-Out Hat - Just ask for a paper, one size fits all, In-N-Out hat
  • Pre-packaged Spread - Their Thousand Island syle burger spread in a to go package
  • Pre-packaged Cascabel Chilies - Small, hot, yellow/green colored, pickled chilies to spice up any dish packaged in cellophane like a to go fortune cookie
  • Side Salad - Order extra lettuce, tomatoes and onions on the side. They'll come in a sandwich wrapper. Add a side of the pre-packaged spread and you have an instant side salad with Thousand Island dressing.
  • Stickers - Two styles available one with their classic palm trees and the other with a view of an In-N-Out parking lot

Secret Menu Sources:

While I did some of my secret menu research on my iphone Carl gave up on me and decided to try planking in the restaurant. His is almost as bad as my hubby's first attempt that I blogged about last week.

The Cheese Steak Shop has 27 Locations in Northern, CA

Next we headed over to the Sunnyvale location of the Cheese Steak Shop.

I love this place. LOVE it!

Their rolls are really soft like light, little clouds of bread and they taste good too! They're shipped in from Philadelphia's famous Amoroso's Bakery. I don't think you can make bread like this in California (it's something in the water).

Sandwiches come in 7", 10" and 15" lengths. 

Walk in and you'll spot the menu on the wall and a small indoor seating area. There's a couple of tables outside but it seems like most people come in and pick up their orders to go.

We started chatting with a couple of guys at the table next to ours when they saw us taking photos of our package of Tastykakes. Turns out Mike is from PA so he knows exactly what a Philly Cheese Steak should taste like. He's a regular and said these are the best he's had in California and that they're a "good value."

Before I became a vegetarian I used to order the "Chicken Hoagie" ($4.99 for the 7") which is chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and melted provolone cheese. Additional options (at no charge) for any sandwich are sweet and/or hot pickled peppers and grilled onions.

For vegetarians there are two menu options. Up top is the "Original Vegetarian Sandwich" ($4.29 for the 7")  filled with spinach, mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, mayo, mustard, grilled onions, hot and/or sweet peppers.

 Below is the "Zesty Veggie Sandwich" ($4.29 for the 7") Roasted Chili peppers, cheese, mushrooms, whole roasted cloves of garlic, tomatoes and your choice to add grilled onions, hot and/or sweet peppers.

The thing is, I don't care for either of them. I don't like mushrooms, and even though I really like fresh spinach I don't care for it grilled. And I'm just not a fan of the peppers.

So I have my own "secret menu" item at the Cheese Steak Shop. It sounds kind of weird but I swear it's really delicious! I order a "Grilled Lettuce Hoagie" ($4.29 for the 7") which is lettuce grilled so there's something to melt the provolone cheese on, salt and pepper, tomatoes and mayo. I LOVE THIS SANDWICH! There's seriously no other like it. I think I like it even more than I did with the chicken :D

My hubby thinks I'm absolutely weird (and Mike who we met that day probably will too after he reads this) but I don't care :)

Tastykakes Butterscotch Krimpets ($2.19)

Also imported from Philly along with the buns are the pickled peppers for the sandwiches and these little gems, that's right, I think the Cheese Steak Shop may be the only place in the Bay Area that sells Tastykakes!

I only knew about them because I have friends who live back east. They are an east coast classic I suspect many of us west coast folks have never heard of before. They carry several flavors in a display case right up at the counter.

So if you need a Philly fix this is the place to hit. From their imported from Philly rolls, peppers and Tastykakes, they're the real deal.

A recent new favorite for healthful, affordable, fast food is The Pita Pit. 

At The Pita Pit their Lebanese-style pitas are made to order and filled with lean, grilled meats, unique flavorful cheese, a larger selection of fresh veggies and a multitude of sauces to chose from. They also invented their own special way to fold and roll their soft, thin pitas so that the wrap is never too thick and doesn't open up while you're eating.

The Downtown San Jose Location

There are close to 240 restaurants in AL, AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MI, MN, MT, NC, NH, NM, ND, NV, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, Washington DC, WI, WV, WY - Click to View Map

19 Locations in Alberta, Canada - Click to View

So far the Hummus Pita ($4.99) on wheat with cucumbers, spinach and Tzatziki sauce is my favorite.

Here's how it works at The Pita Pit. You walk up to the counter and place your order then go to the side to let them know exactly what fillings, sauces and cheese you want.

Carl loves a breakfast pita called the Morning Glory ($5.79) filled with scrambled eggs, avocados (where available), sautéed tomatoes, hash browns, grilled green peppers & onions and your choice of cheese and sauces. I tried it. It's really good too!

One tip if you're in a hurry: Because the San Jose location is downtown try to avoid the noon lunch rush. The day we were there a to go order had come in for what Carl said looked like 30 pitas for one of the downtown office buildings. The employees were working as fast as they could but you can imagine an order of 30 would slow things down a bit.

Walk up and place your order.

Imagine it's dark out. You're tired. You're hungry. You may be a little drunk. You're driving through the darkness (unless you're drunk, then a sober friend is driving) and the bright yellow (facing north) faded yellow (facing south) Taco Bravo sign glows in the night like a beacon, drawing you in like a moth to a flame for some hot, good during the day, blow your mind fantastic after dark and a few drinks, affordable Mexican food.

Yes, we went to Taco Bravo, the epitome of "cheap eats" located on Bascom Avenue.

When the bars and dance clubs close this is the place to chow down. Which explains their unofficial nickname of "drunk food" to describe when (er, why?) you'll find people scarfing down tacos ($1.49 - $5.59), burritos ($1.69 - $4.14), toastadas ($1.49 - $5.89) and nachos ($1.45 - $5.89) from 2:00 to 3:00 AM.

As a professional wedding DJ, Carl often doesn't head home until somewhere after midnight so Taco Bravo has always been the perfect spot to grab a quick, late night bite.

There's both outdoor and indoor seating. Neither is glamorous but really, it shouldn't be. Fancy would be all wrong.

A Super Burrito (vegetarian) with Red Sauce ($4.09)

The fare is pretty pedestrian. Carl swears it tastes best after 2:00 AM. I don't know, I thought the Super Burrito with red sauce we had tasted pretty good and it was only 3:00 in the afternoon.

We took a break and briefly met up with our friend Ron Grandia who suggests to always get plenty of extra sauce to drench whatever you're eating with and he told us about the Taco Bravo secret menu! Carl didn't even know about it and he's been eating there for years!

If you go after 10:00 pm you can order two oversized and overstuffed burrito options:

The Boneyard: A two-tortilla-long burrito with your choice of filling for $8

The Kamikaze: An overstuffed, three-tortilla-long burrito filled with anything and everything the night staff feels like putting in it for $10

I was tempted to go back and order a Kamikaze just to photograph for this post but then I'd have nobody to feed it to. Hubby won't eat anything that "interesting" and I'm guessing they toss in all kinds of meat so I wouldn't eat it either.

Mitsuwa Market currently has 8 locations in CA, IL and NJ.

To wrap up our day we headed to my favorite and cheapest of cheap eats meals. A Japanese grocery store on Saratoga Ave near HWY 280 called Mitsuwa Market. They offer a type of rice ball called "Omusubi" (aka onigiri) which is a handful of lightly salted rice, usually shaped into a triangle and filled or topped with some type of meat or vegetable.

When I have over $5 cash on hand I might choose something from the to go deli selection. But if I only have $3 you can bet I'm heading to those Omusubi baskets for the Shio Konbu rice ball. Translations are "shio" means salt and "konbu" is a type of kelp seaweed pronounced cone-boo.

Can you see the price? They're only $1.39 each and one or two are enough for a meal.

While not particularly eco-friendly I love the packaging. See how the wrapper says "1 Pull" at the top and "2" and "3" along the bottom corners?

It's because if they wrap the nori seaweed directly onto the rice it will get soggy. . . So they use a two piece, split, plastic wrapper to keep the nori separated from the rice.

You unwrap it then wrap the rice into the crisp, toasted sheet of nori.

OK, it's not pretty but it tastes great! Come to think of it I'm probably wrapping it all wrong but that's ok. I don't mind the messy look.

The pickled konbu seaweed is inside the rice ball. Unlike sushi rice which is seasoned with vinegar, omosubi rice is either plain or lightly salted. The konbu is savory, tasty and I love, love, love it. Sometimes I buy just a package of the seaweed at Mitsuwa and make my own organic brown rice nigiri at home. It's a perfect snack food or sometimes I make it larger turning it into a shio konbu breakfast burrito wrapped in seaweed.

And that was the end of our July Food Adventure. As always we were full and tired and I needed a nap. I hope reading along was fun and informative and if you haven't already been to these restaurants, I hope you'll be able to try some of them where you live or when you go on vacation. You'll have to come to San Jose to try Taco Bravo. If you do and you order a Kamikaze be sure to take a picture of it and send it to me so I can show what one looks like in this post :D

In-N-Out Burger
604 E El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Click Here for the Nationwide Restaurant Locater

Cheese Steak Shop
832 W. El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA
View more locations on their Website

The Pita Pit
151 South Second St.
San Jose, CA 95113
Click Here to View More US Locations and HERE for locations in Canada

Taco Bravo
1950 S Bascom Ave
Campbell, CA 95009
Yelp Reviews for the Campbell and San Jose Locations

Mitsuwa Market
675 Saratoga Avenue
San Jose, CA 95129
Click Here for More Locations

If you enjoyed this food adventure post you'll probably like these too:

• A Palo Alto, Epicurean Food Tour

• Our May, East Bay, Berkeley and Oakland Food Adventure

• Meet the Kids on The Harley Farms Goat Dairy Tour

• Beyond Sushi: A South Bay Japanese Food Adventure

• Beyond the Beach: A Santa Cruz Food Adventure

• Gourmet Meat Street Food & Vegetarian Food Truck Favorites

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More on Missing Blogger Photos and Google+ (Update 2)

If you know anyone who uses a Blogger/Blogspot blog please forward this post to them before they join Google+. It is a follow up to two previous posts:

Synopsis of Problem: As more people join Google+ many bloggers who use the Blogger/Blogspot platform are inadvertently and irretrievably deleting all of their blog images from the Google+ interface. Some have been blogging for years and there is no feasible way for them to go back and re-add the hundreds or thousands of missing photos back into their blog. Especially if they didn't keep copies of their original image files.

If however you only changed your privacy settings from "Public" to "Limited" simply re-setting the album back to "Public" will make the images visible once again. You can do this from Google+ by clicking on the "Photos" link in the black tool bar at the top of your browser. Select the "Actions" then "Album Properties" and look for the visibility option in the lower left corner of the dialogue box. Re-set to "Public on the web."

Despite assurances from a Google Team Member in the "Recovering Deleted Photos" below that a warning was added to the Google+ end where users were seeing and deleting the albums, others have posted in other forums that even since the warning went into place they have not received it and deleted their albums without realizing the connection they had to their Blogger blogs.

Sources where I read about this problem include:

The Problem in Pictures

Here is a screenshot that clearly shows the problem. Look at the upper left corner. It shows the Google+ logo and some of the Picasa photo albums that contain my blog images. They showed up automatically when I joined Google+.

Now look at the upper left corner when I'm on Picasa. It shows the Picasa logo and the same photo albums.

Apparently, Google assumed viewers would know they were looking at their original photos being stored for their Blogger blog on both websites. The problem is, a lot of people didn't. In fact many thought the albums on Google+ were duplicates of their images on Picasa and deleted them, thus deleting all of the images forever as Picasa had no backup of the files that could be retrieved when the problem was discovered.

To add to the confusion a lot of Blogger bloggers did not, and some still don't, realize that Blogger stores their uploaded blog photos on Picasa.

In Picasa I did receive this dialogue box that alerts me that the Picasa and Google+ are somehow connected. But, some people are reading this box, thinking they don't want their photos shared with their Google+ friends sharing their photos in their circles:

"Albums you've shared can in turn be tagged and shared by others"

The way this line reads seems to remove all privacy options for the original owner of the photos. So, people started deleting the Picasa account or some of the albums not realizing that as they did they were irretrievably removing the photos from their Blogger blog.

Some users went to Picasa for the first time and saw duplicate images.

Also, unbeknownst to a lot of Blogger bloggers, when you use the built in photo uploader you can delete an uploaded image from a blog post but Picasa will continue to store that image until you go to Picasa and delete it from your photo album there. If you upload an image multiple times, this results in multiple copies of the image being stored.

After joining Google+ other users went to Picasa for the first time and saw duplicate images like the sample above. Not wanting to store unneeded photos and not seeing a way to delete individual images while on Google+ they begin deleting entire albums not realizing they were deleting all of the images from their Blogger blog.

The comments by those this has happened to are, especially for fellow bloggers, pretty heartbreaking. Imagine if I lost all of my photos from five years of blogging because I deleted my albums by accident. Ugh. Someone would have to come find me and console me. I can't even imagine how upset I would be.

I will continue to update on this topic until a fail-safe warning or retrieval system becomes available because I don't want to see this happen to any other Blogger bloggers out there.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I was a Tasting Judge for the Bridal Chocolate Salon 2011

Imagine being invited to be a tasting judge for Taste TV and the International Chocolate Salon's annual awards of excellence in their "Bridal Chocolate Salon 2011" competition. I had to pinch myself. For a chocolate lover like me it would be a dream come true. Seriously? Yes! I was asked to sample a whole pile of chocolate and vote for winners in several categories. They didn't have to ask me twice!

Tasting and judging required a knife and sticky  notes.

I thought it would be delicious and fun. It was. But it was also a lot of work because in total I was sent over 50 different samples of chocolate from 12 different companies and judged them in 17 categories. I brought in an assistant as the task of tasting, scoring and tracking all of the samples was going to be more challenging than I first thought.

In the end, 42 samples (I skipped samples of flavors I knew I wouldn't care for) and 90 minutes later It was time to fill in my score card. You can view the winners at the Taste TV website by CLICKING THIS LINK.

William Dean Chocolates is the total package. Literally. Their painted and molded chocolates are works of art and their packaging was so impeccable it took their beautiful and delicious chocolates to a whole new level of presentation. And I've seen and tried a lot of chocolates.

This was my favorite flavor, a PB & J (Peanut Butter and Jelly) described on their website as:

"Milk chocolate and peanut butter with bits of peanut brittle topped by a blend of 3 jellies."

It was neat because the flavors are nostalgic but this is a sophisticated rendition of the sandwiches I ate as a kid. The jelly portion was not soft like actual jelly, it had the consistency and texture of a Fruit Gelée which if you've never had one is similar to a Sunkist Fruit Gem jelly candy. If you've never had them, imagine a texture like a gumdrop, only more soft.

A William Dean PB & J Bar

The PB & J chocolate looks similar to this inside. You can see the "jelly" on top and even the crunchy bits of peanut brittle if you look really closely.

These images are from the www.ForteChocolates.com website.

I have always loved caramels. This was a tough category to judge because there were over a dozen caramels to sample. Some were classic while others were uniquely flavored.

I'll mention a few others in a bit but hands down I LOVED Forte's Sea-Salt Caramels. They were my favorite of the classic caramels. The tasted exactly the way a rich caramel should and the texture was the perfect chewiness caramel should be. It had some density to it but was soft enough to chew and would slowly melt in your mouth as the chocolate and sea salt melted into it.

www.NicoleLeeFineChocolate.com offer a romantic wedding favor gift boxes!

Because this was the "Bridal Chocolate Salon," selecting chocolates appropriate to use as wedding favors or as a bridal gift set made the packaging and imagery of romance especially important.

I could most easily imagine Nicole Lee's gorgeous, petite, heart shaped chocolates with a flake of 24 kt edible gold leaf, packaged in an impressively well finished, paper covered and lined, custom printable, two piece box as the most attractive, thematic and beautifully presented option of all the samples I received to give as a favor. (← Was that a run on sentence?)

I also liked that the red and white hearts would be less likely, then a milk or dark chocolate, to cause dirty finger prints that could stain silk or satin gowns if they were served on the wedding day.

The interiors were delicious soft and silky smooth. The red had a dark chocolate filling and the white had a citrusy white chocolate key lime infused center.

The open box "Las Paves" photo was taken from the Nicole Lee online store.

Another favorite by Nicole Lee was her "Las Paves" tiny truffle cubes. Rolled in Belgium cocoa powder they literally melt in your mouth and their petite size makes it easy to ration yourself to one cube a day. OK, maybe I ate two a day (or three or five) but who's counting?

Fig in Roasted Walnut Bon Bons by www.Cocotutti.com

I love figs. I love Fig Newton cookies and fresh figs sliced on pizzas. Now I love fig candy. I was not familiar with Cocotutti before but these Bon Bons have put them on my chocolate map. They were one of my favorites when it came to flavored chocolates. In fact, I was torn trying to decide between these Figs in Toasted Walnut truffles the PB & J I showed you earlier and a few others as "The Most Delicious Ingredient Combinations."

A Perfect Gift for Any Occasion by www.SweetChocolot.com

Chocolot was another company that has gone well beyond the typical when it comes to their packaging. Their gift box was beautifully finished, their painted chocolates equally so and the flavors were truly mouth watering.

Favorites here were the first two on the left, their Fleur De Sel Caramel and just after, in the green stripes, the Mint Leaf. It's described on their website as "A flavorful infusion of refreshing, organic mint leaves and creamy white chocolate." Imagine the humble Campfire or York's peppermint patty all grown up, refined and sophisticated and that's what Chocolot's Mint Leaf is like. The flavor is refreshing and bright and really tastes like fresh mint.

A Trio of Flavorful Caramels from www.AmellaCaramels.com

Billed as the "World's First Cocoa Butter Caramels" Amella's surprising trio of cake-flavored caramels were rich with a perfect, chewy caramel texture. For weddings the filigree decorated packaging with cellophane windows makes for an attractive favor idea and would definitely give your guests something to talk about. I mean who's ever heard of Carrot Cake Caramels before? I hadn't.

Of the three flavors the Carrot Cake was my favorite. It tasted just like fresh carrot cake and the texture was similar but in a caramel'ish kind of way! Amella's website describes them as:

"Taste a medley of fresh carrots, roasted pecans, and cocoa butter with creamy caramel. Blended into a smooth body of white chocolate, this is an exquisite rendition of the classic American favorite."

www.JTruffles.com's Veracruz Orange is both citrusy and spicy.

We received three sample of architectural pyramids by J Truffle. The white chocolate covered Veracruz Orange's center is a winning combination of fresh orange flavor and spicy chili powder. It had a really nice little bite to it. For me, it was another strong contender in the "Most Delicious Flavor Combinations" category and for weddings, I saw on their website favor boxes are available.

How in the world could I choose just one favorite?

The www.PlumeriaFlours.com Hibiscus Flower Caramels really surprised me.

Normally I don't like flower flavored food. For instance I don't care for lavender or rose flavored desserts or dishes. But I really liked these Hibiscus flavored caramels!

They weren't as sweet as the rest of the caramels I sampled which, when I did the everything-in-one-night tasting, kind of worked against them. But when I sampled them again a few days later without having eaten any other chocolates beforehand the caramel had more depth than the other caramels and they tasted just sweet enough without being overly so. I would definitely purchase them if I spot them around town.

Best Chocolate Bars

Chocolat's Trail Mix Artisan and Forte's White Chocolate Cloud chocolate bars were both winners in my book.

The candied orange in the Chocolot bar offered both a flavor and texture that I loved. I only wish they made a bar where every bit contained the candied orange. It was that good.

And the Forte white chocolate bar was easily the best and most delicious white chocolate I've ever tasted. I had no idea white chocolate could be so good. It wasn't waxy the way others I've had in the past were. It was smooth, creamy, light and sweet.

Living in the SF Bay Area I can shop at Ghirardelli Square or online at www.Ghirardelli.com.

While Ghirardelli (pronounced "Gear-ar-delly") may not be considered an "artisan" chocolate, it is a historic chocolate company whose origin dates back to 1852.

Their "Caramel" Filled Squares have always been one of my favorites. I didn't know they now had flavors like "Truffle" and "Dark & Sea Salt Caramel." Did you? The Sea Salt was particularly interesting because unlike every other salted caramel chocolate I've ever had, the salt is not applied as flakes to top, I think it was mixed into the liquid caramel center. It makes for a stronger more infused salt flavor, different than the more typical burst a few salty flakes on top creates.

Both Hallett's and Beijo de Chocolat sent small gift boxes with many different flavors inside and were favorites among the judges for "Best Milk Chocolate."

Want to try some new chocolates and a few unusual caramels? Halletts has Habanero, Grey Sea Salt and Huckleberry caramels available online and possibly at their Chocolate and Coffee House in Spokane, Washington.

Beijo de Chocolat, located in Chicago, IL offers soft, smooth and creamy chocolate truffles, a Brazilian specialty, called "Brigadeiros." They will literally melt in your mouth.

OMC (Oh My Chocolate). By now we had sampled over 40 chocolates in 90 minutes. Can you even imagine eating that much chocolate in so little time?

And last but certainly not least, it was hard to judge "toffee talk's" almond toffee against the many chocolates and truffles because it seemed like it should be in a category all its own. Still, I wanted to recommend it to you because it was soooo delicious! The toffee was crunchy, rich and buttery and melded with the flavor of the nuts and chocolate perfectly. It's definitely the kind of treat you want to eat slowly enough not only to taste, but to really savor.

CLICK HERE to view the awards of excellence.

And that wraps up my experience as a tasting judge for the Taste TV and International Chocolate Salon's Bridal Competition for 2011. I hope my judging was helpful and that many more people will discover these companies. Some are very established having been producing chocolates for decades while others are newcomers to the world of chocolatiering.

I joked on Facebook I have found my dream job. Well, it was a fun (and very filling) dream job even if it was just for one evening. And more thanks to Harpreet for helping me out that night. It was a tough job but someone had to do it. I was happy to have him join me.