The love-struck will express their dying affection with more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate come Valentine's Day. Actually, the cocoa route isn't a bad one if you're hoping to stir up those lovin' feelings.
Simply put, chocolate makes us feel good, and not just because eating it causes the brain to release endorphins, a natural chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness. A creamy piece slowly melting in your mouth can be a sensuous experience, and who among us hasn't also had the pleasure of licking some sort of chocolaty treat -- icing, mousse, melted M&Ms -- bit by delicious bit off your fingers?
No wonder chocolate has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac, even if modern science hasn't yet discovered a measurable link between chocolate consumption and desire and/or performance.
In the early 1500s, the Aztec emperor Montezuma is said to have quaffed 50 goblets of chocolate each day to boost his sexual performance, and the great Italian lover Casanova also was a huge fan -- legend says he drank it daily to keep him on top of his game. He also gave it to the many women he was about to seduce, along with Champagne.
Presenting your love with a box of chocolates, though, or baking or melting it into a chocolate dessert is kind of old school, don't you think? On this red-letter day, shouldn't you be stepping it up a notch?
This year, why not consider setting the mood with a different kind of chocolate dish: one that's served at the beginning of dinner or even as the entree?
It's not as weird as it sounds.
Chocolate is a pretty versatile ingredient, adding as much depth to savory dishes as it does to sweet. The warm, velvety flavor of dark or semisweet chocolate makes meat dishes such as chili, stew and barbecue taste richer and smoother; rich, complex Mexican mole, made with ground nuts, dried chili peppers and chocolate, has long been a favorite sauce for turkey and other meats, including chicken and pork.
You also can add cocoa powder to spice rubs (it brings out the spicy flavor of chili and garlic) or grind a few tablespoons of cacao nibs (broken-up chunks of roasted cacao) with a little sea salt to make a tasty crust for steak. Or, sprinkle them on top of baked potatoes, salad or soup for some added crunch. Surprisingly, when melted and mixed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, dark chocolate also make a killer vinaigrette for greens.
The delicate taste of white chocolate, which is made with cocoa butter, pairs especially well with seafood and fish, and can add an unexpected creaminess to macaroni and cheese. If it's too sweet, add a squeeze of lemon.
Chocolate also is pretty darn tasty in a cocktail and beer.
One recent, extravagant display of chocolate's versatility was dished up at the 9th annual Chocolate Dinner Extraordinaire at The Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa. During the five-course meal on Feb. 1, guests enjoyed everything from Cocoa-Fennel Cured Salmon Gravlax with White Chocolate Creamed Cucumbers and Smoked Chocolate BBQ Glazed Shrimp to Potato-Parsnip Bisque with White Chocolate. For the main course, they chose between Cardamom-Cocoa-Rubbed Red Snapper with Curry-Chocolate Sauce or Grilled Tenderloin of Beef with White Chocolate-Apple-Potato Dauphinois.
OK, so you expect the premier event of a month-long celebration of all things chocolate in America's Chocolate Capital to include a few surprises. But chocolate in non-dessert dishes regularly show up on local menus, too.
At Meat & Potatoes, Downtown, for example, the sweetbread tacos are crusted in a mixture of cocoa and chile, while at Garfield's Salt of the Earth, chef Kevin Sousa has been running a cocoa-spice-rubbed venison. Chocolate-flavored pasta also seems to be a favorite seasonal Italian dish, as evidenced by the Cocoa Fettucine in an aglio e olio sauce with cauliflower, leeks, gorgonzola and pistachios on the winter menu at Girasole. Recently featured at Avenue B was a special of Cocoa Tagliatelle with roasted beets and bok choy. (Both restaurants used pasta from Fede Artisan Pasta of North Huntingdon.)
It's too late to sign up for yesterday's Aphrodisiac Cooking & Wine class at Osteria 2350 in the Strip District, which included chef Joe Belardi demo-ing chocolate ravioli filled with butternut squash. But there's still time to try your hand at the recipes below.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
Potato-Parsnip Bisque with White Chocolate
At last week's Chocolate Dinner Extraordinaire at The Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa., Executive Chef Ken Gladysz paired this luscious soup with Dark Chocolate Braised Pork Shank and Fried Celery Root. But it's quite delicious on its own, with bread or saltines for dipping.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 ounces leek, trimmed, medium diced, washed (white part only)
8 ounces parsnips, peeled, trimmed and medium diced
2 ounces white wine
24 ounces potato, peeled, and medium diced
48 ounces water or blonde vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon white pepper, fresh ground
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 ounces heavy cream
2 ounces white chocolate, grated (I used chips)
Place medium-size sauce pan over medium heat. Add oil and allow to heat. Add leeks, mix well and lightly saute for 2 minutes. Add parsnips, mix well and sauté for 2 minutes. Add wine, mix well, and reduce by half. Add potatoes, stock, bay leaves, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well. Turn heat to high, bring to boil, and then reduce to simmer. Cook for 15 minutes until potatoes and parsnips are tender.
Add cream, mix well, turn heat again to high, and then reduce to simmer. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn heat off, and let bisque sit for 5 minutes.
Remove bay leaves, and carefully blend bisque smooth using a traditional blender or stick blender. Once bisque has been blended, pass it through fine strainer. Return bisque back to sauce pan, and place back on stove over medium heat. Heat bisque to almost a boil then fold in white chocolate by continually mixing.
Taste bisque, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Ladle into bowls and serve.
Makes 2 quarts.
-- Ken Gladysz, executive chef of The Hotel Hershey
Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette
It's wonderful on all sorts of salad greens or steamed vegetables. It's also great as a glaze on roast chicken.
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 ounce dark chocolate
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine the vinegar and chocolate in a small saucepan, and heat over very low flame until the chocolate is melted and the vinegar reduced, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the oil and season with salt and pepper.
Makes 1 cup.
-- Gretchen McKay
Cacao Nib-encrusted Steak or Filet
This rub is absolutely terrific. I cut the steak against the grain into thin slices and served it, fajita-style, with mango salsa, cilantro rice and warm tortillas.
3 to 4 tablespoons cacao nibs per steak (available at Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip District)
Sea salt to taste
2 choice steaks or filet (I used rib-eye)
Grind cacao nibs with sea salt in coffee grinder. Brush steaks with olive oil. Coat meat completely with nibs and sea salt.
Transfer seasoned steaks to a hot grill, and cook for 4 to 6 minutes on each side for medium-rare, longer if desired. (Medium-rare is recommended.) The cacao nibs and sea salt will encrust the meat, and the inside will be tender and juicy. Simple and delicious!
-- Amy Rosenfield, Mon Aimee Chocolat, Strip District
Hershey's Cocoa-Chili-Rubbed Chicken Breasts
I tested this recipe on my parents, who aren't always keen on spicy dishes. They loved it.
1/3 cup Hershey's cocoa powder
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
8 six-ounce skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Combine all dry ingredients and mix well for 5 minutes, until fully incorporated. For best results, use a small mixer on low speed. Lay chicken breasts out on a clean sheet pan. Evenly and completely coat each breast with the rub.
Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add oil and evenly coat. Add chicken breasts carefully, one at a time, skin-side down. Return heat to medium and sear for 3 minutes.
Carefully turn chicken breasts over, then place saute pan into pre-heated 375-degree oven for 8 minutes or until breasts are completely cooked.
Makes 8 servings.
-- Ken Gladysz, executive chef of The Hotel Hershey
Chocolate-Covered Cherry Martini
1 1/4 ounces Godiva Chocolate Liqueur
3/4 ounce Amaretto
1/2 ounce Pinnacle Vanilla Vodka
1/2 ounce Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur
Maraschino cherry for garnish
Cherry juice (optional)
Add first 4 ingredients to a cocktail mixer with ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry. If desired, sweeten the cocktail by adding a splash of cherry juice.
Makes 1 martini.
-- PA Wine & Spirits
Chocolate Lava Cake with Salted Caramel
You didn't really think we'd do a story on chocolate and not include at least one dessert recipe, did you? Me neither.
This warm, gooey cake is a show stopper. At least it would have been, had I not waited until the last second to look for -- but not locate -- my pastry bag/nozzle. (I didn't have a plastic baggie, either.) Once I stopped cursing, I ended up spooning the caramel filling on top of the cake instead of squirting it inside the ramekin. No problem: it still was a decadent, if messy, treat.
2 tablespoons soft butter, plus 3/4 cup butter, cubed
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
6 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Prepare 6 to 8 ramekins by brushing them with soft butter and then dusting with the cocoa powder. Make sure to tap out all the excess cocoa powder.
Melt chocolate with cubed butter in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring occasionally. Alternatively, melt chocolate and butter in microwave on low.
Combine brown sugar and flour in bowl. Mix melted chocolate with eggs, followed by flour and sugar, Divide mixture between ramekins 3/4 full. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Make caramel filling: Sprinkle a thin layer of sugar over bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan and place on medium heat. Once sugar starts to melt, add some more sugar. Repeat a couple of times until all the sugar has melted. Continue heating the caramel, swirling it around in pan (do not stir). When caramel is almost a Coca-Cola color, add cream and salt (be careful as caramel may splatter). Cook until temperature reaches 226 degrees, or until caramel coats the back of a spoon, then pour into a dish and leave to cool a little.
Once caramel is cool, transfer to a piping bag fitted with a small round nozzle, or to a heavy-duty food bag (just snip off corner to use). Pop the nozzle into the middle of the chocolate mixture in each ramekin and squirt in the filling. The mixture will rise almost to the top.
Bake in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until edges are firm and the centers slightly runny. Test by inserting a toothpick in the center; it should come out wet. Leave to rest for 2 minutes before turning the cakes out of the ramekins onto plates. Serve immediately.
Serves 6 to 8.
-- "The Little Paris Kitchen: 120 Simple but Classic French Recipes" by Rachel Koo (Chronicle, Feb. 5, 2013, $35)
Turkey mole is traditionally made with a whole turkey, but Beard's version, with turkey parts, is much more practical. The turkey wing will add extra flavor to the mole, much more than using the breast half by itself. Serve on top of polenta or rice, or with warm corn or flour tortillas.
I couldn't get the sauce to thicken properly (I'm thinking I added too much water to the pot with the turkey) so, on Chef Bill Fuller's advice, added another cup of ground cashews plus some additional chocolate to balance the flavors out.
2 1/2-pound turkey breast half, bone in, skin on
1-pound turkey wing, cut apart at the joints
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat or vegetable oil
1 cup ground almonds, walnuts, peanuts, or cashews
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 garlic cloves
1 small dried hot chile pepper
1 cup drained, ripe pitted California olives
Place the turkey breast and wing in a deep pot, add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface.
Meanwhile, brown the onions in bacon fat in a medium skillet over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Add to the pot along with the almonds, chocolate, chili powder, garlic, and dried chile.
Cover the pot and simmer over medium-low heat until the sauce is thickened and the turkey is tender, about 30 minutes more. Ten minutes before serving, add the olives and heat through. Season with salt and more chili powder, if desired. Transfer the turkey breast and wing to a carving board. Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces, discarding the skin and bones, and return the meat to the pot. Serve hot.
-- "The Essential James Beard Cookbook" by James Beard (St. Martins, Oct. 2012, $35)
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published February 7, 2013 5:00 AM