Bring Out Chocolate's Dark and Savory Side with These Cold-Weather Recipes
Shake up your kitchen with two cool-weather entrées that bring out chocolate's darker, savory side.
As a cook, I approached my life with chocolate somewhat hesitantly. Sort of like an arranged marriage, it was a relationship forged by financial necessity and timely opportunity. Chocolate and I were in the right place at the right time, and so we made a pinky finger promise that we’d give it a go, with hopes that we would find true love along the way. Honestly, between you and me, at the beginning of this affair I was never that into the stuff.
But then, to my surprise, chocolate wooed me. It proved to me that it was good for more than just candy and cake. Chocolate had depth and maturity. It was complicated, but it could solve all sorts of problems. Sure, a truffle wouldn’t be a truffle without it, but it could also be a great partner in a savory kitchen. Before I knew it, I was head over heels in love with the stuff, for reasons quite outside the box.
As an ingredient in savory recipes, chocolate has a lot going for it. It comes to us dried, aged, and roasted. A good quality “single origin” bean will carry the subtle flavors of the particular region in which it was grown as well as the individual characteristics of the plant varietal. If it has been dried, aged, and roasted with care, these unique flavors— well-preserved in the considerable amount of fat the bean contains—naturally bloom and concentrate. In a quality, single-origin bittersweet chocolate, sugar is added judiciously to celebrate the unique flavors of the bean, rather than merely offsetting the bitterness. It is ground for optimum smoothness, and the use of even a small amount will not only add a pleasantly lingering and noticeable umami to savory sauces and stews but also improve their texture.
When using chocolate in savory recipes, resist the urge to use that wrapped and re-wrapped unsweetened “baking” bar that has been sitting in your cupboard forever. Instead, choose a not-too-bitter bittersweet chocolate. I suggest a 55%–65%, well-balanced with noticeable sweetness. Most chocolate contains lecithin, and that comes in handy when we’re using chocolate in sauces and stews. Lecithin is an emulsifier and so will naturally smooth out texture in a stew, or add body to a sauce. The fat in chocolate—otherwise known as cocoa butter—is an exceptional vehicle for flavor. It not only carries and preserves all those subtle notes that existed in the bean itself, but it enhances the other flavors in your recipes and helps spread them throughout the dish, especially if you give it some time to work. Just make sure that the bar you choose is actually made with cocoa butter, and not (as some are) an inferior variety of vegetable oil.
If you want chocolate’s unique umami in a dry rub (such as the one in the recipe for Cornish hens), use unsweetened cocoa, but be sure to balance its bitterness with something sweet. I use honey for the hens, but it could be as simple as adding sugar to the rub.
Above all, experiment and taste. You may find as I did that chocolate has more seductive powers when you explore how to cook with it outside of the (candy) box.