We’re used to seeing chocolate on the dessert menu, but chocolate’s complex flavour lends itself to savoury recipes as well, bringing new dimensions to main dishes. Last fall, the West Coast Chocolate Festival in British Columbia provided a showcase for some of the less common uses of chocolate.
“When we look at North American or European chocolate, it’s always sweet,” says Bernard Casavant of Ciao-Thyme Bistro in Whistler, B.C. “Hot chocolate in Mexico has a real bittersweet flavour. The only reason it’s sweet at all is because tourists demand it be sweeter.” In Mexico, where chocolate was discovered by the Aztec and Mayan cultures, chocolate was traditionally enjoyed on the bitter side – not unlike our coffee, Casavant says.
Some of the classic uses of chocolate in savoury dishes are Mexican and Spanish. One of the most celebrated is mole: a dark, intense sauce made with chillies, spices and chocolate. Its traditional use is on chicken, but it is also used with turkey.
The combination works because the chocolate has a denser flavour, and the chillies – usually smoked ancho chillies – have a lively spice to them, Casavant says.
French cuisine also uses chocolate in a main course: duck with chocolate sauce. This classic dish, called gastrique, uses cocoa powder in a red wine reduction. The sauce is finished with butter, Casavant says.
Beyond these traditional uses, chocolate is showing its not-so-sweet side in modern interpretations as well.
“There is also chocolate curing,” Casavant says. This method uses cocoa in a dry rub for seasoning chicken breasts or salmon filets. These dishes use a purer form of cocoa that has no hint of sweetness.
Tamas Ronyai, executive director of the British Columbia Chef’s Association and corporate chef for Rational Canada, says savoury chocolate is becoming trendy on the international scene. Ronyai recently attended a week-long chocolate tasting program in France featuring seven-course meals in which every course used chocolate—from shrimp with bitter chocolate and ginger, to roasted pork with chocolate.
“I’ve been lucky enough to experience many so-called savoury chocolate dishes,” he says, adding that the flavours must balance and not be too sweet.
It’s excellent with hot and spicy dishes, but savoury chocolate also compliments duck and game, Ronyai says. These dishes shine when paired with a lightly sweet flavour, such as duck with a sauce of sour cherries, jus de veau, and chocolate.
Ronyai is also using chocolate with seafood. One dish uses prawns seared with orange zest, finished with orange zest and chocolate. He also makes chocolate vinaigrette seared scallops. The vinaigrette is made with chocolate, shallots, balsamic vinegar reduction and light syrup infused with mint.
But chocolate doesn’t have to be saved for elaborate and ambitious main dishes. Ronyai has even made a meatloaf with chocolate and sundried tomatoes.