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.
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.