Chocolate is like sex or pizza: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. There are those who prefer light, refreshing desserts after a big meal, but I think those people are crazy. I always gravitate to the most decadent dessert on the menu, which is usually laden with chocolate. And while I love the stuff, there is nothing sadder than giving or receiving a box of boring chocolates on Valentine's Day. Each year, men and women shamefully duck into grocery stores and pharmacies to grab a box of assorted chocolates. Because nothing says "I love you" quite like chocolate from a gas station.
I'm not going to suggest cutting chocolate out of Valentine's Day, but what about combining two things that will impress your significant other more than anything else: chocolate and a home-cooked meal? Over the years, I've learned that going out to dinner on Valentine's Day can be quite an ordeal. Long wait times, overpriced specials and servers who would rather be spending Valentine's Day with their own significant other than waiting on you. The solution? Make dinner yourself. She/he will love you for it.
Which brings us back to chocolate. Put it in the main course rather than a box.
If you've tasted a piece of extremely dark chocolate, you know that it has the potential for much more than just dessert. It has an earthy, bitter taste that may be tough to enjoy on its own. But that depth of flavor works quite well in savory dishes.
Keep in mind, this is dark, unsweetened chocolate, not wrapped pieces of sugary candy.
While the Olmec Indians are credited with being the first to grow cacao beans as a crop, the beans' popularity soared after Hernan Cortes brought them back to Spain along with the equipment and knowledge he obtained after conquering Mexico in 1519. From there, chocolate spread throughout Europe. And you can imagine what it did for chocolate sales in 1624 when Johan Franciscus Rauch of Vienna declared chocolate to be a food from the devil that drove humans to be consumed with passion.
The most common savory dish that uses chocolate is Mexican mole. As with any good legend, there are varying stories on why people started using chocolate in mole. The most common is that a group of panicked nuns in Puebla threw together a dish for a visiting archbishop with the few ingredients they had on hand. This included chilies, nuts, bread, spices and, of course, chocolate.
I was introduced to the use of chocolate in savory dishes by my wife, who, by her own admission, does not cook. But she grew up outside Cincinnati, where she learned about a chili you don't see every day. While she may not cook it, she likes to eat it. So I learned how. Cincinnati chili contains beef and tomatoes. Beyond that, though, it's unlike what most of us think of as chili. It's filled with cinnamon, allspice, cloves ... and dark chocolate. The chocolate imparts a depth that brings out all of the unusual flavors in this dish.
If chili isn't your idea of a romantic night, try the short ribs or the pork loin, both of which make an elegant presentation. If nothing else, these playful dishes will help start a fun conversation that will lead to a memorable Valentine's Day. Just make sure to leave room for dessert.
Chocolate- And Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs
When you think about the earthiness of dark chocolate, it makes sense that it would pair very well with a classic piece of red wine-braised meat. If you want to make this hearty dish for your valentine, make sure to get a head start on the cooking. It requires a lengthy braise. You can even make the dish a day or two before, but don't add the chocolate to the sauce until you intend to serve.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 pounds bone-in short ribs
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup finely chopped carrots
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups dry red wine
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1 fresh thyme sprig
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons shaved or grated bittersweet chocolate
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper on all sides.
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add ribs and brown on all sides.
Transfer ribs to a plate, then to the pot add onions, celery and carrots, and stir until softened but not brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Carefully pour in the wine, bring to a boil and cook until reduced to about 1 cup. Add stock, thyme, bay leaf, ribs and any juices they have released back to the pot. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and let simmer for about an hour and a half. Uncover the pot, and let ribs continue to simmer for another hour and a half, or until meat is extremely tender.
Remove ribs from the pot. If you wish, you can strain the sauce, but it's not necessary. Strain the fat and raise heat to medium. Add chocolate and cocoa powder into the sauce and stir to incorporate. When chocolate is melted, sauce is ready. Either spoon sauce onto ribs or put the ribs back in the pot to warm up in sauce.
Recipe: Cocoa-Jerk-Rubbed Pork Loin
The fruity, spicy mix of jerk seasoning is a perfect foil for the cocoa powder in this recipe. While you can use this jerk seasoning on many different cuts of meat, a pork loin stands up to the intense flavors of the rub.
For the jerk seasoning, combine all the ingredients and mix well. If not using right away (or if you have leftovers) store in an airtight container.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large, ovenproof pan, heat oil over high heat. Thoroughly rub jerk seasoning all over the pork loin. Brown the loin on all sides and transfer to the oven. Roast until the pork's internal temperature reaches 155 degrees, which should take about an hour.
Remove from the oven and let pork rest for 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and slice to desired thickness.
Recipe: Cincinnati Chili
My wife lived near Cincinnati for many years when she was growing up. She introduced me to this unusual style of chili that seems unrelated to the spicy bowl of red many think of as chili. It's filled with an interesting mix of spices. Further distancing itself from other chili, it's typically served over spaghetti with a mound of finely shredded cheese, diced onions and a side of oyster crackers. While this might not be the prettiest dish to serve on Valentine's Day, it's a fun way to use chocolate where you wouldn't expect it.
Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 pounds ground beef chuck
Salt and pepper
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped unsweetened chocolate
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground pepper
12 ounces cooked spaghetti
1 pound grated cheddar cheese
In a medium Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and half the chopped onions and cook until soft, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add chili powder, paprika, cumin, allspice, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne and cloves. Cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add beef and cook mixture, stirring, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add crushed tomatoes, bay leaf and water, and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. Add chocolate, cider vinegar and Worcestershire and cook until mixture is thickened but still soupy, about 15 more minutes. Remove bay leaf.
Divide the spaghetti among 8 bowls and top with chili, remaining onion and cheddar. Serve with oyster crackers.
Recipe: Chocolate Mole
This recipe is adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris (Broadway Books, 2009) by David Leibovitz. The sauce is complicated, but for your trouble, you'll be rewarded with a deep, complex flavor. I like to put this on grilled chicken, though it works well on a variety of entrees.
Makes enough to smother a cooked chicken or a pork shoulder
Soak chilies in very hot water until soft, about 30 minutes. (Make sure they're submerged by setting a lightweight bowl on top of the chilies.)
In a small skillet, saute onion in vegetable oil until soft and translucent. Add garlic and saute another minute. Add dried spices and herbs and cook, stirring constantly, about 30 seconds, being careful not to let them burn.
In a blender, grind together the almonds, cooked onions, tomatoes, spices, raisins or prunes, sesame seeds, salt, pepper and water. Puree until smooth.
Remove seeds and stems from the chilies and puree very fine, passing the chilies through a food mill. (If you don't have a food mill, press the puree through a mesh strainer to remove any skins. Some people just puree them, but they can be tough.) Blend the chili paste into the mole along with the melted chocolate and add additional water, as necessary, until the consistency is smooth and slightly pourable.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
About The Author
Peter Ogburn is a radio and television producer who loves food and cooking for his family. Originally from South Carolina, he has a soft spot for a good biscuit, pork products and his mama. He will go to great lengths to find out why we eat the things we eat. He also enjoys daring his two young sons to eat things they might otherwise find gross. He lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, boys and giant dog.