Cacao Nibs and Cocoa

Lately I’ve been interested in cooking savory dishes with chocolate. This isn’t exactly a new idea–Hispanics have been making mole for more years than I would care to estimate, and I’ve seen recipes for cocoa-crusted proteins in various high-end cookbooks for years. I always resisted these, precisely because of mole; or rather, because of my one experience with mole.

My father is originally from Albuquerque, NM, and when I was young and he still made dinner occasionally, he would often make Southwestern (or at least Southwestern-esque) dishes. For a Fancy Grown-Up Dinner Party once, he made real mole. I’m sure, given that it was the 80s in the midwest, he didn’t toast and grind all of his spices from scratch, but I remember the ingredient list being prodigious, and that it contained one square of unsweetened chocolate. I was in the kitchen when the sauce neared completion, and he offerred me a taste. I don’t know why I acquiesed–I was an incredibly picky child–but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember that I hated it. This was not run-of-the-mill hate, the way I hated lasagne and enchiladas (two things that I have since grown to love), this was a revulsion that was actually shocking and arresting. I think I may even have run from the room to rinse out my mouth. The adults at the dinner party loved it.

Because of that lone incident, one that most likely took place before I even reached the age of ten, I absolutely refused to have anything to do with savory chocolate for nearly 20 years. Even after I grew up and became a voracious devourer of cookbooks and an eater of bizarre foods, I utterly rejected the idea of chocolate in savory preparations. I would read the recipes and curl my lip, thinking: “This chef, in spite of his years of culinary training and critical and popular adulation, is obviously an idiot.” I felt vindicated when I read a Nigella Lawson recipe for a spice-coated salmon in which she confessed that she’d adapted it from another author’s book, removing that author’s addition of cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder on SALMON! The lip curled further). I was comfortable in my superiority.

But at the beginning of February I unexpectedly began to think about savory chocolate. I’d like to say that it was inspired by the Valentine’s week episode of Iron Chef, or by the lovely new Scharffenberger chocolate cookbook that I just checked out of the library, but the interest arose before I ever saw either. I was making an otherwise unexceptional salad with avocados and oranges the other week, and for some reason threw in some cacao nibs.

It was very good.

I didn’t have a revelatory experience that caused me to fall to my knees and recant, but I did enjoy the flavors. And when I saw a Cooking Light recipe for a beef stew that included cocoa powder in the spice rub, I thought for a moment, then gave it a try. Also very good. The cocoa doesn’t add anything like an aggressively chocolate flavor (if I hadn’t tossed it in myself, I’d never recognize the cocoa) but in combination with what are really prodigious amounts of coriander, it adds an ineffable _something_. It being a stew, there was a vast quantity left over, and I’ve been eating it all week long for lunch, enjoying it just as much each day. Like all tomato-based stews, the flavors mellowed and melded, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

It still wasn’t a religious conversion, but I’m now definitely in favor of trying more savory foods with chocolate–or at least with cocoa. Maybe I’ll even add the cocoa powder back to Nigella’s recipe for salmon.

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment