- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

For diners who pine through meals, anticipating a chocolate fix at the finish, the wait is over. American chefs are making chocolate a main course.

At restaurants across the country, the rich and creamy indulgence has oozed into entrees. At Zengo in Washington, oxtail is braised in bittersweet chocolate with cinnamon, star anise and espresso. Chef Anthony Bowman of Yankee Pier in Larkspur, Calif., serves baby back ribs in a chipotle-chocolate barbecue sauce spiked with garlic, cocoa powder and port wine embellished with chopped cherries. Seared foie gras tops chocolate brioche as an appetizer at Florida’s Little Palm Island Resort & Spa.

“Chocolate is so versatile,” says Jacob Wetherington, chef d’cuisine at the Resort at Paws Up in Montana, whose kitchen has turned out such sweet-savory combinations as bison and brownie with spicy Korean kimchee and roasted quail over braised greens sprinkled with cocoa nibs. “It’s not just for chocolate truffles or German chocolate cake. It can be used in your contest-winning bowl of chili.”

Chocolate is best known among savories as a key ingredient in Mexican mole sauce. Working its savory side, contemporary chefs have probed chocolate’s universal appeal, sometimes substituting it for other sweeteners such as sugar in sauces and stews and, more commonly, treating it as another condiment in the spice rack, one that provides richness to a dish.

“Chocolate, though seemingly esoteric when used in savory foods, is actually as effective as in sweet applications,” says Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group’s culinary director Taite Pearson, who uses chocolate in entree sauces, glazes and rubs. “The natural bitterness can enhance the depth of meat sauces and mellow the fattiness of foie gras or pork belly. It is a natural for emulsifying into sauces as you would butter because of the high fat content.”

Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate and co-author of the recently released cookbook “The Essence of Chocolate” (Hyperion) has experimented widely with the savory uses of chocolate, down to grating unsweetened chocolate onto eel at a sushi bar and declaring it “delicious.” His book supplements recipes for chocolate confections with instructions on making nib vinaigrette, cocoa rub for meat and poultry, and chocolate enriched barbecue sauce, chili and baked beans.

“Chocolate is constructed of different elements,” says Mr. Steinberg, identifying earthy, nutty, spicy and fruity flavors. “The idea is to use the flavors in chocolate, not to make something taste like chocolate.”

To achieve those ends, don’t reach for a Hershey bar in the grocery candy aisle. Savory dishes call for unsweetened chocolate, either in bar or cocoa powder form. Look for them in gourmet stores or at e-tailers such as World Wide Chocolate, www.worldwidechocolate.com.

Also found at World Wide Chocolate are cacao nibs, which are the roasted and cracked bean from the cacao tree, one step in the chocolate-making process prior to refining it into unsweetened bars. Aficionados describe the flavor as nutty, ranging from buttery macadamia to light peanut, with a crunchy or chewy texture.

“I encourage people to think about nibs in the same ways they use crushed nuts because the composition of cocoa beans is very similar — about 50 percent cocoa butter, which is the same [fat content] for other nuts,” says Mr. Steinberg, who has even made an appetizer of crushed nibs and olive oil spread on bread and topped with a thin slice of prosciutto.

Unbound by stereotypic notions of cocoa, Mr. Steinberg has grated unsweetened chocolate along with Parmesan cheese into a classic Bolognese meat sauce. “It adds another dimension of flavor.” And there’s always more chocolate — the sweet variety — ahead for dessert.

The following recipes are from “The Essence of Chocolate” by Mr. Steinberg and John Scharffenberger.

Goat cheese with nibs

For 1 serving (recipe can easily be multiplied):

to 1 teaspoon cacao nibs (see note)

1 ounce goat cheese

1/4 teaspoon honey, granulated sugar or ginger preserves, optional

Cocoa powder

Crackers or toast points

Crush cacao nibs with a rolling pin and mix them into goat cheese. (Use to 1 teaspoon of nibs for every ounce of goat cheese.) For a hint of sweetness, add 1/4 teaspoon honey, granulated sugar or ginger preserves for every ounce of cheese. Because the flavors will continue to emerge over time, it’s best to combine all ingredients, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

Before serving, spoon into a small decorative bowl or form small disks or balls from the cheese mixture and dust them lightly with cocoa powder. Serve with crackers or toast points. Makes 2 servings as an appetizer but can easily be multiplied.

Note: Cacao nibs are available at specialty food stores and on the Web at www.worldwidechocolate.com.

Baked beans

1 pound dried navy beans, rinsed and picked over

Water

8 ounces bacon, cut in 1/4-inch dice

1 cup finely diced yellow onion

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsulfured molasses

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar

12/3 cups ketchup

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons yellow mustard

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place beans in a large bowl, cover with cold water and let soak overnight.

In a large stockpot, saute bacon over medium heat until browned. Add onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened and lightly browned.

Add molasses, brown sugar, ketchup, mustard and 13 cups water and bring to a boil. Drain beans, add to stockpot and bring back to a boil.

Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 4 to 5 hours, or until beans are tender. Remove beans from heat, stir in chocolate and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 6 cups.

John’s cocoa rub

2 parts unsweetened cocoa powder (natural, not Dutch-processed cocoa)

1 part salt

Uncooked lamb, pork or poultry

Mix two parts unsweetened cocoa powder (natural, not Dutch-processed cocoa) with one part salt. Rub mixture liberally over meat and roast.

This rub works for lamb, pork or poultry. Cook meat in desired way to desired doneness.

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