From sweet to savory: A personal quest to have chocolate for dinner
It started years ago with my first molé encounter. A friend's mother had made it from scratch, and out of the probably thirty-plus ingredients, it was the smokey, bittersweet hint of chocolate that sang to me. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. I'm a big fan of interesting flavors and learning how to use them in the kitchen. That experience moved chocolate from sweet to savory in my mind, and it's been a wild, delicious ride ever since.
I've tried different varieties, melted it, made recipes from traditional cookbooks and chocolate competitions at culinary schools in Texas, used powders and cacao nibs, put it in sauces and stirred it in with other spices -- and it never fails to make a thrilling dish that tickles the senses. Just like any other bold ingredient, though, it won't work for everything. A few things to keep in mind:
- Complementary flavors: As a flavor, chocolate goes well with smoky and spicy cooking. If you're just looking for heat, cayenne or a standard crushed red pepper will work just fine. If you want to accentuate the smoky side of things, go for chipotle peppers, cumin, paprika and roasted ingredients. Add cinnamon to bring out earthy flavors in meats and chilis.
- The right chocolate for the job: I tend to use cocoa powders most often, but you've got cacao nibs and sweetened and unsweetened chocolate bars to choose from, too. Powders are great for me because they help me think of chocolate as the spice it is, but my mother recommends chocolate bars -- particularly for melting. My Suggestion: start with what the recipe calls for and experiment when you feel comfortable with the flavors.
- Cocoa powders: You'll usually find both natural and Dutch-processed cocoa powder. While both will be bitter out of the box, natural chocolate has a fruitier taste in cooking, compared to the more mild flavor of Dutch-processed powder. If I'm cooking with fruit or citrus flavors, I like to use the natural powder. For smokier recipes, I use Dutch-processed.
- Sweetness: Only if I'm using chocolate to add smokiness to a fruity sauce or marinade will I add something sweet like honey or agave syrup to the dish. Other than that, I find it's important to be weary of making things too sweet -- there are plenty of great ways to enjoy sweetened chocolate for dessert.
Bringing chocolate to dinner
Here are a few great ways to bring chocolate into your cooking without too much craziness in the kitchen:
- Barbecue sauce: The sweetness and smokiness of chocolate plays very well with barbecue flavors.
- Rubs: Spice rubs for meat and vegetables add a lot of flavor to when you're in a grilling mood. Try adding in some cocoa powder next time.
- Home-made pasta: Add some cocoa powder to your pasta dough when making noodles. (I recommend an earthy white sauce.)
- Mushrooms: Chocolate sings with truffles and truffle oil, but it also gets along very well with other, smoky mushroom dishes.
- Sauces: Got a sweet, smoky or fruity sauce that could use a little thickening up? Cocoa powder acts an emulsifier, and you know you want to throw some in.
- Marinades: Cocoa powder in an orange glaze makes almost anything taste incredible.
My biggest piece of advice when it comes to cooking with chocolate: be adventurous. You might be surprised with what you come up with.
"Chocolate's Savory Side," Gourmet, Michael Laiskonis, January 13, 2009, http://www.gourmet.com/restaurants/2009/01/michael-laiskonis-savory-chocolate?printable=true
"Savory chocolate recipes: more than just dessert," SheKnows, Diana De Cicco, March 24, 2009, http://www.sheknows.com/food-and-recipes/articles/808265/savory-chocolate-recipes/