Long before the first Valentine's Day, ancient Maya and Aztecs understood the allure of chocolate. Though the chocolate we eat today is radically different from that of ancient times, we are still seduced, especially in the days leading up to Valentine's Day, when Americans will purchase close to 60 million pounds of chocolate almost exclusively in the form of candy.
A glittery, heart-shaped box of chocolates certainly is charming, but that isn't all there is. Take a page from the ancients' cookbook and give your loved one a series of savory chocolate pleasures.
The Maya and Aztecs began eating chocolate, or more specifically cacao beans, more than 2,000 years ago. Rather than the dark, sweet confection we adore, here's what they experienced: They harvested and split cacao pods from cacao trees to reveal the beans inside (technically the seeds, as cacao pods are fruit). They fermented the beans for several days, then dried and roasted them.
The roasted beans were ground into a paste, mixed with water, spices, seeds and nuts and transformed into a thick, bitter drink called xocoatl that was prized by rulers who believed it possessed magical, aphrodisiac and perhaps divine powers. Indeed, Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree, means "food of the gods."
It wasn't until the 1500s that Spanish explorers combined chocolate and sugar. Sweetened chocolate ignited a culinary revolution. European cultures including the Spanish, French and Italian used chocolate and cocoa powder to flavor stews and braise meats such as venison and rabbit.
Chocolate also was used as a more flavorful thickener for sauces and glazes. Italian agrodolce, for example, a sweet and sour sauce made from reduced vinegar or wine and chocolate, is a complex sauce typically served with pork or game meat.
Perhaps the most well-known savory chocolate foodstuff is mole, a lusty Mexican sauce made with an impossibly long list of ingredients including tomatoes, chilies, spices and chocolate.
While Central American and European cultures have long appreciated chocolate's savory qualities, Americans are relative newcomers. Thanks to innovative chefs, we're starting to appreciate simple savory dishes such as toasted bread with melted dark chocolate, olive oil and sea salt as well as more sophisticated dishes such as cacao-nib-coated goat cheese.
About The Author
Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. Her latest cookbook is Recipes Every Man Should Know. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
At this point, you may be salivating for savory chocolate foods, or you may be thinking: She's crazy. Chocolate belongs with caramel and ice cream, not with goat cheese or beef!
Combining sweet and salty or sweet and spicy foods makes sense, though. There's a reason we love kettle corn and barbecued chicken wings. That's why pairing bittersweet chocolate with salty meats such as pork or with spicy foods such as chilies is so scrumptious. Like good spouses, they bring out the best in one another.
So this Valentine's Day, be a rebel. Skip the heart-shaped box of chocolates and indulge your sweetheart with a variety of edible bliss-inducing chocolate dishes. I can't verify their aphrodisiac powers, but how can eating chocolate-, chili- and wine-infused dishes not make your heart flutter, even just a little?
Tips For Cooking With Chocolate
Exercise caution. More is not always better. Chocolate should add depth of flavor to the dish, not overpower it. Often 1 or 2 ounces of chocolate are all that is needed for stews and sauces.
Balance flavors. Chocolate tempers the heat of chilies, which is why it's such a popular ingredient in Latin American cuisine. Its sweetness is an ideal foil to brawny meats such as oxtail, boar, venison and beef. When added with a delicate touch, it's a lovely complement to duck, chicken, pork and even some seafood dishes.
Unless a recipe calls for a specific brand or cocoa percentage, such as 64 percent or 72 percent, use any quality dark chocolate, labeled bittersweet or semisweet. Generally, the higher the cocoa percentage, the more intense and bitter the chocolate. Milk chocolate lacks the acidity and complexity of dark chocolate.
For moles as well as many Mexican or Spanish dishes, consider using Mexican chocolate, a distinctive confection made from sugar, cacao nibs and spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, which can be found at Mexican specialty markets and online.
Unsweetened cocoa powder adds fullness to sauces, glazes and rubs as well as stews, chilis and roasted vegetables, including winter squash and root vegetables. Look for labels that read "natural cocoa" or "100 percent cocoa" rather than "dutch processed," which neutralizes the acids.
Cacao nibs, touted for their health benefits, are roasted cacao beans that are separated from their husks and broken into tiny pieces. They are marvelously crunchy, potent and aromatic, with hints of chocolate, nuts and red wine. Sprinkle them on top of roasted winter vegetables or hearty salads, or mix them with spices such as anise, fennel or espresso for full-bodied meat rubs. Cacao nibs can be found at chocolatiers, specialty organic markets and online.
Ancho chili powder, a mildly hot chili powder, is a delicious foil to both the bitter cocoa and the sweet acorn squash. It's available at Mexican specialty markets as well as the spice section of most major supermarkets. If you like a smokier, earthier flavor, try chipotle chili powder instead, which also is readily available.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy clean up.
Slice acorn squash in half, lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and discard. Brush the flesh with olive oil and place flesh side down on baking sheet. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork. Cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
Using a spoon, scoop out the flesh and place in a medium bowl. Add remaining ingredients and whisk until well blended. It's OK if it's a little bumpy. If you want it completely smooth, puree it in a blender. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
Made with sharp cumin, tangy apple cider vinegar, rich dark chocolate and sweet stewed tomatoes, this is a seductive cousin of traditional ketchup-based barbecue sauce. It's lovely on all types of meat, including pork spareribs, beef tenderloin and lamb chops.
1 cup tomato sauce or 1 cup stewed tomatoes, drained and pureed until slightly thickened
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ancho or pasilla chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 ounce 72 percent semisweet dark chocolate of your choice, broken into small pieces
4 chicken cutlets, about 4 to 6 ounces each
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper, for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Position a rack in the center of the oven.
For the barbecue sauce: In a small pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add minced garlic and onion, and saute 1 minute or until just golden and fragrant but not browned. Add tomato sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, chili powder, cumin and salt. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add cilantro and chocolate, stirring until chocolate is completely melted. This is a thick sauce, ideal for clinging to the chicken. If you prefer it thinner, add a little water or chicken broth until the desired consistency is reached. Allow to cool slightly.
For the chicken, pour oil into a deep 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Dip one chicken cutlet at a time in the barbecue sauce, until evenly coated. Place inside the oiled baking dish. Repeat with remaining cutlets. Discard any leftover barbecue sauce. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the chicken is cooked through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Humble beef stew suddenly seems sexy when made with luxurious dark chocolate and port. Enjoy it plain, or serve it atop cooked rice or polenta. Pepitas are Spanish pumpkin seeds available at Mexican specialty markets as well as many major supermarkets. Pumpkin or sunflower seeds make good substitutes.
1 to 1 1/4 pounds top round or chuck steak, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, seasoned with a little salt and black pepper
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 celery stalks, thinly sliced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 cup port of your choice
1 cup beef broth, plus more as needed
1 (14-ounce) can stewed tomatoes with juices
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 ounces dark bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 tablespoons pepitas
In a large, deep pot over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Dredge meat in seasoned flour. Cook until browned all over, 5 to 7 minutes. (Don't overcrowd meat or it'll steam.) Transfer browned meat to a bowl. In the same pot, add garlic, onion, celery and carrots and brown for 3 to 5 minutes. Deglaze the pot by adding the port and using a wooden spoon to scrape the brown bits from the bottom. Return browned meat to the pot. Add broth, tomatoes, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and salt.
Cover and cook on low for 50 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally until meat is very tender. Stir in the chocolate until just melted. The stew should be thick and richly colored. If you'd like it soupier, add a little more heated beef broth until desired consistency is reached. Serve plain or atop cooked rice or polenta, and sprinkle each serving with 1/4 of the pepitas.
Antioxidant-rich cacao nibs, dubbed a Mayan superfood, are roasted cacao beans that are separated from their husks and broken into tiny pieces. They are intensely aromatic with hints of chocolate, nuts and red wine and are ideal for creating bold rubs for meats such as lamb chops, chicken breasts and pork or beef tenderloin. They can be found at chocolatiers, specialty organic markets and online.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line the inside of a roasting pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. If you don't have a roasting pan, a deep ovenproof dish will do. The dish does not have to be lined.
Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, grind the cacao nibs and fennel seeds until coarse. Place in a small bowl, and add remaining ingredients through cayenne pepper. Stir well.
Using your hands, rub the tenderloin all over with 1 tablespoon canola oil. Rub all over with the cacao nib mixture, massaging it into the meat until well coated.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm remaining tablespoon of canola oil. Place the tenderloin in the skillet and cook, turning it over to ensure even browning on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to the roasting pan and cook until a meat thermometer inserted at the thickest part of the tenderloin reads 145 degrees, about 15 minutes. Pork tenderloin cooks quickly, so it's a good idea to check it with the thermometer after 10 to 12 minutes, depending on your oven's heat.