To parody lyrics to a well-known ditty; ‘Chocolate… what is it good for? Absolutely everything!’ In order to introduce cocoa into all you eat from dusk to dawn, it’s not even necessary to opt for 100% cacao – although undoubtedly for certain dishes nothing else will do. But good-quality dark, milk or even white chocolate can be surprisingly savoury when blended into the right recipe.
Take inspiration from the ideas that follow, and prepare to quite considerably up the cocoa content of your daily diet…
Chilli con carne (con chocolate)
The next time you whip up a batch of the savoury stew, try adding a square or two of deep, dark chocolate – the earthier the better. Or grate in a liberal flurry from a disc of Mexican solid drinking chocolate, whose infused spices work very nicely indeed with the flavours already found in chilli.
Cocoa in barbecue rubs
In spite of the fact that raindrops keep fallin’ on our heads, summer is a’comin’ and there’s no better time to massage your meat (the stuff you’ll be sticking on the barbecue, of course!). Like coffee, cocoa can be a key component in dry rubs, and works well with most proteins; from pork to chicken to lamb.
Rosemary & cacao nib-crusted rack of lamb
If you’re already sold on the combination of lamb and rosemary, try this tack with your neck rack; swiftly sear, brush with a little French mustard; coat in a crust of breadcrumbs blitzed up with olive oil, flaky sea salt, cacao nibs and finely-chopped fresh rosemary; then roast in a hot oven.
This Mexican sauce is as deliciously complex as any Indian masala – a mixture involving an almost-infinite number of ingredients including chillies, herbs, nuts, seeds, spices, and, of course, cacao. Turkey is the traditional meat for it to meet on the plate, but chicken mole can be just as finger lickin’.
SOMETHING FISHY GOING ON?
Salmon and white chocolate
Don’t pull that face – this combination works; whether it’s delicate poached fillets napped in a velvety, warm white chocolate Hollandaise or cold-smoked salmon and hot white chocolate horseradish topping buckwheat blinis. For the latter, Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa-laced condiment is the perfect blend of sweet and spicy.
Scallops and cacao nibs
Some say white chocolate works best with sweet, succulent seared scallops, but I reckon the best bet with the bivalves is bitter cacao nibs; not only offsetting the natural (sometimes too-)sweetness of the seafood, but also delivering a crunch which contrasts with the scallops’ softness.
Caviar and white chocolate
Back in the day – or, rather, the late nineties, Heston Blumenthal revealed a common molecule in caviar and white chocolate, providing a chemical bridge which means the odd couple can be a perfect pair. The chef combined them in a truffle; you might like to create a conversation-starting canape.
Eel, blood and dark chocolate
Sara Jayne Stanes reveals a coshel of creative cocoa creations in Chocolate: The Definitive Guide. Perhaps most unusual of all is this dish, properly called ‘Lamproie a la Bordelaise’; referring to a rich stew of eel cooked in its own blood, enriched with a well-judged quantity of quality dark choc.
VEGETABLES WITH VERVE
White chocolate baba ganoush
Stop squirming! You might argue that sweet, milky white chocolate has no business sharing a bowl with smoked aubergine flesh; I (and Saveur magazine) would counter that it works wonderfully – taming tahini’s bitterness and rounding out garlic’s rough edges, yielding a harmonious whole.
White choc and asparagus
With its bold, grassy flavour and background bitterness, asparagus needs little more than a bit of basic butter sauce or a dribble of Hollandaise. But if you should dare to add decadence by melting a little white chocolate into either of those things, you’ll reap the rewards – as you will should you enrich asparagus risotto the same way.
White chocolate and white veg purees
Both cauliflower and parsnips make marvellous mash – especially when one takes time to sieve and smooth them to a velvety finish. Instead of (or indeed, as well as) multiple blobs of butter, add a little grated white chocolate to piping-hot mash with a good grind of aromatic white pepper – which seasons whilst maintaining the snowy aesthetic.
STARCHES, SNACKS AND SIDES
Double chocolate pesto pasta
A double dose of cocoa gives this perennial family favourite a new lease of life. With Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Cuisine range, you can kill two birds with one stone – picking up a pack of cocoa penne alongside a jar of Boucan Estate-inspired basil and pine nut pesto laced liberally with crunchy cacao nibs.
Don’t let the name mislead you – the addition of unsweetened cocoa powder to a yeasted dough renders this bread a savoury rather than sweet treat. Exceptionally good with ham; blue cheese; or anything else suitably salty, when toasted and well-buttered, it becomes an equally fine foil for bittersweet marmalade.
Cacao nibs in dressings
Simple salads often need a little lift, and crunchy cacao nibs offer both complex bursts of bitter fruity-nuttiness and terrific texture. Choose a fruity green olive oil and a well-aged balsamic for a classic vinaigrette, or go off-piste with hazelnut or pumpkin seed oil and raspberry or fig vinegar. Fling in a few nibs, toss with leaves, and dig in.
Rubbing a cheese rind with any ingredient can imbue it with both colour and flavour. Award-winning Dry Jack Special is made by Vella Cheese Co. in California, available from La Fromagerie in London. Once brined, the hard cows’ milk cheese is rubbed with oils and bitter cocoa; becoming full-flavoured, crumbly and crystalline with age.
Olives and chocolate
With so many types of both olives and chocolate available, finding a pleasing pairing can be tricky. But once you’ve had your tastebuds tickled by a buttery black olive against a rounded, nutty milk choc; or balanced sweet, mellow white chocolate with a bracing, briny queen green olive, you’ll understand the method in the madness.
Chocolate miso marinade
If you loved Paul a Young’s Marmite-chocolate creations, you’ll already appreciate the affinity betwixt salty-savoury umami ingredients and cocoa. Miso is a little less aggressive and more complex than that famous yeast extract; and works wonderfully well when reduced with dark choc and stock; the mixture used as a versatile marinade.
Cacao shell tea
Imagine hot chocolate with a host of health benefits and a fine, fruity flavour; exceptionally energising but with none of the calories. Sound like your cup of tea? It’s literally that. Cacao tea is an infusion made by simply simmering cacao shells with water to yield a luxurious liquid that’s at once intoxicating and virtuous.
I’ve talked on this topic before, and maintain that there’s nowt queer about chocolate beer – or porter, stout or lager, for that matter. Whether the cocoa component serves to build up the body of the brew or add richness and depth to the drink, it’s an addition with potential to enhance a beverage to excellent effect.
Granted, wine that combines fruit from the vine with fruit from the cacao tree is a novel notion. But, executed well, it’s a concept with just as many legs as a wine with a particularly high ABV (i.e., lots). Look for a product which combines the chocolate with sweet, dark cherry or purple fruit flavours.
This list is the tiny tip of the savoury chocolate-cooking iceberg. Don’t be afraid to get creative with cocoa in your cuisine. Just be brave and mumble the same mantra which applies when drinking a Dr. Pepper… ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
- To read more about chocolate and beer pairings and products, click here
- To read about chocolate and cheese combinations, click here
- To read more about weird and wonderful chocolate products, click here
- To read my article on savoury chocolate cooking for Good Things magazine, click here
Image credits: Penne – Hotel Chocolat