Hot Chocolate: Chocolate lends its unique flavor to savory dishes, too

When I think of beets, I don’t think chocolate. David Lawrence, co-owner and head chef at Pestalozzi Place, does. A beet salad, sprinkled with shaved unsweetened chocolate and accented with chèvre and champagne vinaigrette, makes up one of the restaurant’s more unusual and, yes, popular menu items. It may sound strange, but the final product is intoxicating.

Last February, Lawrence and co-owner Steve Graef introduced a conceptual menu, Chocolate Fest. (It’s back again this month.) Starting on Valentine’s Day and running through Mardi Gras, the Tower Grove East restaurant served chocolate everywhere on the menu, from butternut squash with mole sauce (pronounced “mo-lay”) – a traditional Mexican sauce using chocolate – to the beet salad (pictured at left).

“A lot of our friends give up chocolate for Lent,” Lawrence said. “If you give up something, you need to have a lot of it beforehand to survive the six weeks of Lent. We thought since people have such an affinity for chocolate on Valentine’s Day, we’d focus on chocolate.”

Chocolate is very versatile and becoming a popular item to experiment with in non-traditional chocolate dishes, such as chocolate vinaigrette dressing or lamb with chocolate sauce. Chocolate offers a unique, balancing flavor that is perfect for savory dishes.

“I like the undercurrent that kind of tickles that taste bud and reminds you of something,” Lawrence said. “Chocolate evokes memories for people. They may not remember the past event, but it’s the experience you’re going for.”

Chocolate contains chemical compounds that elevate moods and stimulate endorphins, according to Dan Abel, owner of Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, which has 13 locations in the St. Louis area. It is also known as an aphrodisiac, making it the perfect ingredient for a Valentine’s Day meal.

“Chocolate gives you the feeling of love,” Abel said. “It masks pain.”

Until recently, chocolate was always used as a dessert in America. Now, that’s changing, but chocolate has been used in savory dishes for centuries in other parts of the world. Graef said if you look at cookbooks from different cultures, you won’t find a lot of recipes for chocolate desserts.

Mexico is responsible for one of the most popular chocolate dishes, mole sauce, made of dried chile peppers, nuts, spices and, of course, chocolate. Mole, which originated in the Mexican state of Puebla, can be red, green or even yellow, depending on the region. It traditionally accompanies poultry, such as turkey or chicken, according to Moni Ramos, assistant manager of Pueblo Solis in South City. Ramos said mole is time-consuming to make because it requires so many ingredients. The restaurant buys it premade, but Ramos learned the recipe from his mom and makes it occasionally at home.

Chocolate is also popular in some European dishes, which is how Kevin Vizard, owner and head chef at Vizard’s on the Avenue in New Orleans, discovered it. Vizard enjoys discovering the origins of Creole cuisine, which is primarily derived from French, Spanish and African food. When he looked at Spanish cookbooks, he noticed the use of chocolate in savory dishes. Now, it’s one of his favorite ingredients to play with, and its popularity is growing.

“We have the chef movement, and the popularity of the Food Network has driven a lot of people to begin experimenting,” Vizard said. “The fascination with food is there.”

Experimentation is how Vizard came up with his Black and Blue, a flourless chocolate cake filled with blue cheese and topped with a port reduction sauce. “The chocolate molten is something really different, and I just kind of stumbled on it during a port tasting,” Vizard said. “Some ports have a chocolate taste. So, I put some chocolate and blue cheese in a small cup and finished it with the port sauce. I tasted it and said, ‘Wow, this is really good!’”

Vizard has found that chocolate really finishes a sauce and adds a unique flavor to relatively simple dishes, such as the New Orleans staple, shrimp Creole. Vizard adds a little chocolate at the end, which darkens the Creole and “does something wonderful.” To keep his menu inventive, Vizard reads cookbooks and talks about new ideas with fellow chefs while prepping. The key is being open to possibilities.

Anyone can cook with chocolate – but not just any chocolate. You probably won’t be using sweet milk chocolate, like a Hershey bar. Semisweet chocolate won’t provide the flavor you’re looking for, either, or a smooth emulsion. Lawrence suggested using bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. They are the purest forms of chocolate. Which one is best for which dish is really up to experimentation.

Chocolate, just like butter, will add sheen and richness to sauces. For example, a tomato sauce can be runny, and butter will richen and thicken it so it sits on the tongue longer. Chocolate does the same thing, according to Vizard. It tightens the flavor and gives you more time to savor.

Chef Barton Philipps, chef de cuisine at the Missouri Athletic Club in Downtown St. Louis, said chocolate is ideal for balancing flavors in savory foods. Philipps frequently worked with chocolate in pastries and desserts while working at the Hershey Hotel Resort in Pennsylvania, but he’s since seen an evolution in the use of the dark stuff for savory dishes. He uses just a hint to accent other flavors, not to overwhelm a dish with chocolate. Philipps warned not to overuse chocolate because the taste can be overpowering. A little goes a
long way.

For example, in Philipps’ cocoa-encrusted scallops, he coats the scallops with cocoa powder and cayenne pepper. The spice and chocolate, both aphrodisiacs, add a strong flavor to the naturally sweet scallops without overpowering one another.

“Look at what typically goes well with chocolate, cherries, orange flavor and other fruit flavors,” Philipps said. “Incorporating fruit is one of the easiest ways to add chocolate to your savory dish. I also make a beef tenderloin with a dried cherry and chocolate sauce.”

Philipps said the best way to learn to use chocolate is to experiment. He suggested starting with what you like, whether it’s chicken, beef tenderloin or fish. Then figure out how to best incorporate chocolate in that dish. Coating works best for firm items, such as scallops, that will then be seared. Other preparations, such as dishes that will be roasted, are best topped with a sauce.

Philipps recommended coating something with chocolate before trying your hand at sauces. He said breadings are easier to work with than sauces, which require a little bit more finesse. Mix bitter cocoa powder with any spice you wish, though chocolate works very well with spicier flavors such as cayenne pepper. Tone down the flavors if you’re going for a more Italian-style dish.

“You have to think of how chocolate is going to work with whatever meat or fish you want to use,” Philipps said. “You want to use as few ingredients as possible. Simplicity is a factor in this. It tends that the more items you put in, you get away from the original thought of what you want to accomplish.”

Anybody can experiment with chocolate at home. Whether you want to make a romantic chocolate menu for Valentine’s Day or just experiment with cooking, chocolate is a great avenue to explore. Using chocolate in savory foods offers a chance to explore the more creative side of cooking.

“Keep it basic and just enjoy the creativity of it,” Philipps said. “Using chocolate in savory dishes is a relatively new field that isn’t used a lot, but I believe it has a lot of possibilities that can be used in everyday menus. It never hurts to stand out in a crowd.”