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Sweet adds depth to savory

My current obsession with all things chocolate started when I went shopping recently to replenish my supply of Laura’s Gourmet Granola. I couldn’t resist the allure of the newest flavor, Hot Chocolate Crunch, and that made me wonder whether my body was trying to tell me something.

Namely, that I needed more chocolate in my diet.

If you’re one of those people who are similarly inclined, I’ve got some great news for you. More and more, chocolate is appearing in savory cooking. Most of us think that chocolate is just for baking and sweet treats, but that just isn’t the case. Folks are finding out what the Mexican people have known for hundreds of years, like with their national dish, mole poblano, which blends chocolate and chilies for a deep rich taste. Simply this: Chocolate tastes great in savory cooking, too.

It adds a silkiness and complexity to dishes. That’s right. Chocolate helps round out flavors and adds depth to dishes. It subtly complements other ingredients, making them come to the fore. Can you say “marinated Brussels sprouts with dark chocolate cayenne sauce”?

People need to break out of the mindset that chocolate is candy. It’s its own ingredient, like cumin or butter. Of course, due to its bitterness, it’s usually paired in dishes with sugar. And because of that telltale bitterness, it’ll never be the predominant flavor in a dish.

Generally you want to use powder or chocolate shavings, usually dark chocolate in around the 65 to 80 percent range (percent refers to the bar’s weight that actually comes from cacao bean components). And chocolate is great for drizzling or grating over dishes.

It’s been said that 9 out of 10 people like chocolate. I’m a big-time chocolate lover, and have been ever since I was a little tyke. I wasn’t just “cuckoo” for Cocoa Puffs, I was completely gaga. I had Bosco chocolate syrup running through my veins, and I could have built a treehouse out of my used Fudgsicle sticks.

My tastes haven’t evolved very far since then. For me, the chocolate croissant represents the very epitome of haute cuisine—and Nutella takes its rightful place as one of the six basic food groups.

In fact, I love chocolate so much, a couple of years ago I got a seasonal job at a gourmet Belgian chocolate shop. The candies were all filled with creams and caramels, fruits and liqueurs, and possessed such come-hither names as Passion, Temptation and Seduction.

Of course it turned out to be one of those “dirty jobs” you hear about. By the end of my shift, my clothes were covered with unsightly brown cocoa dust and my hands were smeared with dark, sticky chocolate. And that was just from the bonbons I’d eaten myself!

You see, I was encouraged to sample as much of the store’s inventory as I pleased—in order to better describe it to customers. My employers appreciated my diligence so much they gave me a key to the store. Hey, they probably should have locked the chocolate cases and thrown away the keys the moment they saw me coming!

But try as I did, I never became a big fan of white chocolate. So, when I recently ran across a recipe for baba ghanoush that called for white chocolate, I wasn’t tempted to try it. However, Fine Cooking’s Rib-eye Steaks Rubbed With Coffee and Cocoa had my name written all over it. I used espresso powder I had in the pantry, as well as some Scharffen Berger natural cocoa powder I usually reserve for baking. I rubbed the spice mixture into the steaks and let them stand for an hour.

Being a chocoholic means I didn’t have the patience to wait quite that long, but no matter. Those finished steaks had an indescribably rich-tasting char that lent a marvelous complexity to rib-eye I’d never before experienced.

Next, the Chocolate–Bean Chili recipe I found online called for 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate. So I chopped up the Ghirardelli chocolate I use for making brownies. It also listed brown sugar for balance, and some ancho chili powder and beer. I used the Bell’s Stout I’d picked up for dinner, which made for an even thicker, richer, bitterer chili. I’d recommend going with a lighter beer, an ale or lager. You couldn’t taste the chocolate per se, but it gave the chili a delightful smoothness and depth I don’t usually associate with the dish.

I’d never tried my hand at caponata, the classic sweet and sour eggplant dish that’s sweetened with caramelized onions and golden raisins. The version from Saveur magazine called for finely grated unsweetened chocolate, so once again I employed my trusty bar of Ghirardelli. The chocolate got further balanced with sugar, tomatoes and fresh basil. Though you couldn’t quite place the chocolate taste in the final product, it gave this rustic dish a nice luster and elegance.

One thing’s for sure: I won’t be sparing in the future when it comes to adding chocolate to savory dishes. And sometime, when I have a whole day at my disposal, I’m going to tackle the granddaddy of all chocolate dishes, the labor-intensive mole poblano. After all these years, I’m still loco for cocoa.



Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon finely ground espresso coffee beans or espresso powder

1 tablespoon pure ancho chili powder

1 teaspoon natural cocoa powder

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon turbinado or brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 boneless rib-eye steaks, 1¼  to 1½ inches thick (about 2 pounds total)


1. In a small bowl, combine the espresso, chili powder, cocoa, garlic, cumin, sugar, fennel, allspice, 4 teaspoons Kosher salt and 2 teaspoons pepper.

2. Rub 1½ tablespoons of the mixture all over each steak. (Reserve rest of spice rub for up to 2 months in airtight container at room temperature.)

3. Cover and let steaks rest for 1 hour at room temperature.

4. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill fire for indirect cooking over medium-high heat (400-450 degrees).

5. Grill the steaks over direct heat until grill marks form on one side, about 2 minutes.

6. Flip and grill the other side for 2 minutes more. Move the steaks to indirect heat, cover and continue to cook until the internal temperature registers 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (for medium-rare), 1 to 3 minutes more per side.

7. Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and tent loosely with foil. Let rest for 10 minutes and then cut each steak in half and serve.

Recipe adapted from: Bruce Aidelis from Fine Cooking, Issue 112



Prep time: 20 minutes (plus marinating time for the meat)

Cooking time: 90 minutes

Makes 8 servings

8 cups red or pinto beans, with their liquid

2 pounds beef stewing meat, such as boneless short ribs or chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes

3 teaspoons salt

1 fresh chili, minced

About 2 tablespoons cooking oil

2 medium onions, peeled and diced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2–3 teaspoons red chili powder

1 teaspoon ancho chili powder

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cups beer

2 (15-ounce) cans crushed or diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

3 tablespoons cider vinegar or lime juice


1. Put the cubes of beef in a freezer bag with 11/2 teaspoons of salt, massage gently and refrigerate overnight.

2. In a large casserole or Dutch oven (at least 6 quarts) heat the oil. Working in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, brown the pieces of beef, resisting the urge to turn them until they are truly dark on each side. (Browning adds a great deal of flavor.)

3. As the meat browns, remove the pieces to a separate plate and brown the remaining pieces. If necessary, add a bit more oil to the pan as you go.

4. Once all the meat is browned, fry the onions in the pot until they are wilted, about 5 minutes.

5. Add the garlic as well as the remaining 11/2 teaspoon of salt, chili powders, oregano, cumin and paprika and cook for another minute, stirring constantly to release the flavors of the spices.

6. Add the beans to the pot along with their liquid, as well as the chilies, beer, tomatoes (and their juices), brown sugar and chocolate.

7. Simmer the chili at the absolute lowest temperature possible for at least 1 hour, or until the meat is tender. When done, stir in the vinegar or lime juice. Taste and adjust any seasonings.

8. Serve plain or over rice, with bowls or sour cream, sliced green onion, grated cheese and chopped cilantro.

Recipe adapted from: davidle



Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 60 minutes

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 cups olive oil

2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 rib celery, roughly chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons tomato paste, thinned with 1/4 cup water

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup crushed canned tomatoes

6 ounces green olives, pitted and roughly chopped

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons finely grated unsweetened chocolate

1/2 cup finely shredded basil

2 tablespoons pine nuts


1. Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add eggplant and fry, tossing occasionally, until browned, 3–4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggplant to a large bowl; set aside.

2. Pour off all but 1/4 cup oil, and reserved for another use. Return skillet to heat, add onions and celery, and season with salt and pepper; cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 10 minutes.

3. Reduce heat to medium, and add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until caramelized and almost evaporated, 1–2 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and continue cooking for 10 minutes.

4. Stir in olives, vinegar, raisins, capers, sugar and chocolate and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 15 minutes.

5. Transfer to bowl with eggplant, along with basil and pine nuts, and mix together. Season with salt and pepper, and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Recipe adapted from: