Dark chocolate has intense flavor, health benefits

Chocolate fondue can be made with dark chocolate, heavy cream and brandy. BY JACK CLEMONS
February 13, 2012

Valentine’s Day falls in the middle of the week this year, perhaps not the most convenient time to schedule a romantic dinner out on the town. And, if you do make reservations at a restaurant, it’s more likely you’ll be dining in a crowded room. Why not create a special meal at home? With a little planning and preparation, you can build a delicious menu for an elegant evening.

The first step is to choose a theme. You could focus on a favorite food, a seasonal ingredient, or (my vote) the holiday signature - chocolate. I’m not suggesting three courses of overly sweet, high-fat, chocolate candy bars, but dishes with a sophisticated blend of flavors that just happen to feature chocolate.

Before we start cooking, let’s clarify our ingredient: dark chocolate with high cocoa content. As you may know, over the past several years medical researchers have found specific compounds called plant phenols and flavonoids play a positive role in cardiovascular health. Those found in dark chocolate (gallate and epicatechin) help lower blood pressure, keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels and slow the immune responses that lead to clogged arteries.

When shopping for dark chocolate, look for cocoa content of at least 75 percent. Avoid semi-sweet, which will have added sugar and other ingredients. Choose packages labeled bittersweet or unsweetened. This is an ingredient that is well worth the cost, so go ahead and splurge on the good stuff.

Back to the menu. For appetizers, we’ll serve figs stuffed with blue cheese, topped with shaved dark chocolate and a pinch of sea salt. The most obvious main course to incorporate chocolate is the classic Mexican specialty, chicken mole. From the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, molli translates as concoction. Mole sauce is a smooth blend of onion, chilies, ground seeds and Mexican chocolate typically served with poultry.

Like all traditional ethnic dishes, there’s a wide range of ingredients and methods for this recipe. You’ll discover many complex, time-consuming approaches to mole sauce and dozens of regional variations, most of which take hours and hours to assemble. Since you don’t want to spend the entire day in the kitchen, I’ve included a version that takes a few short cuts without sacrificing the rich texture and flavor of the original.

Because Valentine’s Day is meant to celebrate our sweethearts, it’s only fitting to have a shared dessert. Fondue (from the French fondre, to melt) has its origins in Switzerland, where a pot of melted Gruyere or Emmental cheese and wine was eaten with chunks of French bread speared on the end of a long fork. Chocolate fondue replaces the cheese with bittersweet chocolate and the wine with a splash of liqueur. Instead of cubed bread, the creamy mixture is collected onto strawberries, bananas or pieces of pound cake.

Although the presentation is prettier in a fondue pot, you don’t need one to make this decadent treat. If you use a double boiler, make sure to keep water droplets and steam away from the chocolate to avoid an unpleasant grainy texture. Don’t use a wooden spoon, as it may have retained moisture from the last time you washed it. The cooking temperature should be very low and slow to prevent the chocolate from seizing or clumping up.

You’ll find all sorts of additions to chocolate fondue, from chopped nuts to sweetened condensed milk. The recipe in the photo includes the three essentials: high-quality dark chocolate, heavy cream and brandy. Try experimenting with other liqueurs to vary the flavor profile and use your imagination to find the perfect items to dip in the molten chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Chocolate Fondue

10 oz dark chocolate

1/2 C heavy cream

2 T brandy

Fill a saucepan with about 2 inches of water and place on medium heat. When water begins to simmer, reduce heat to low. Pour 1/3 cup cream in a bowl and place the bowl on the pot rim, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Heat until cream is just at a boil. Remove bowl from heat and add chocolate. Let the chocolate stand in the hot cream until softened, about 5 minutes. Whisk together the chocolate and cream (adding remaining cream, if needed); stir in liqueur. Transfer mixture to a fondue pot set over very low burner. Serve with fruit, cookies or pretzels for dipping.

Stuffed Figs

4 large dried figs*

2 oz blue cheese

1/2 oz dark chocolate

pinch sea salt

Slice the figs in half lengthwise and place on a serving dish cut side up. Crumble the blue cheese and sprinkle about 1 t of cheese on top of each fig. Using a vegetable peeler, pare off short curls of chocolate, placing one or two on each fig. Sparingly dust sea salt over each fig. *Note: be sure figs are soft and not dried out. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.

Chicken Mole

1 lb skinless, boneless chicken thighs

1 oz blanched almonds

1 oz shelled pumpkin seeds

2 T sesame seeds

2 t olive oil

1 small onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 seeded jalapeno, minced

1 seeded poblano pepper, minced

2 t chili powder

1/2 t cinnamon

1/4 t cloves

1/4 t cumin

1 16-oz can chopped tomatoes

1 1/2 oz Mexican chocolate

Place the chicken in a skillet and add water to cover. Heat to a simmer, then reduce heat to low. Poach until cooked through, about 12 minutes. Drain out water, cover skillet and set aside. In a dry skillet, toast the almonds over medium heat until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Shake the pan regularly to avoid scorching. Place the toasted almonds in a small bowl; set aside. Repeat with pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium. Add onions and peppers; sauté until softened. Add the garlic and cook another few minutes. Stir in the seasonings and cook for a few more minutes.

Scrape the onion mixture into a blender or the bowl of a food processor along with the toasted nuts; pulse until smooth. Drain the tomatoes, reserving the juice; add tomatoes to blender and process until smooth. Return mixture to skillet along with reserved tomato juice and bring to a simmer over low heat. Add chocolate and stir until sauce is smooth and dark. Shred the poached chicken into the sauce and cook just until heated through. Serve over rice.

Yield: 2 to 3 servings.