Announce to your guests that you’re serving chocolate for dessert and they’ll smile in anticipation. Announce that you’re serving chocolate for dinner and they might look confused. But once they taste your savory chocolate dishes, promises Cat Cora, star of Iron Chef America on the Food Network, who cooks with chocolate frequently, their confusion will melt into satisfaction. “Chocolate’s flavor changes when you use it in savory cooking—it brings out unexpected notes in chile peppers, lemongrass, and oranges,” she explains. “It’s a lot like cooking with wine.”
Antioxidant power. Like wine, chocolate is loaded with hearthealthy antioxidants. A study published by the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in 2008 suggests that eating 2.5 ounces every day can lower blood pressure and improve blood flow. Lead researcher David L. Katz, M.D., says you can—and perhaps should—enjoy dark bar chocolate or a cup of cocoa on a daily basis.
Choose dark chocolate
Chocolate’s health benefits don’t come from just any old candy bar. To get the most effective dose of antioxidants, start with bars that are at least 70 percent pure cocoa, often labeled “bittersweet” by manufacturers—the higher the percentage, the more cocoa and the less sugar. And look for a short ingredient list, advises Alice Medrich, author of Pure Dessert (Artisan, 2007). “Along with ‘cacao’ —which may be called cocoa, cocoa beans, cocoa mass, unsweetened chocolate, or ‘chocolate liquor plus cocoa butter’—and sugar, you might see lecithin and vanilla,” she says. “Avoid chocolate that contains fats other than cocoa butter, and anything artificial.” If you’re shopping for cocoa powder, Medrich says it’s even simpler: “The ingredient list should say one thing: cocoa.”
Make a chocolate rub
Although using chocolate in the kitchen is easy, Cora says it’s best to first experiment with something simple—like rubs. “Combine cocoa powder with chile powder and dried herbs and massage them into meats and poultry before grilling,” she suggests. And if you’re looking for new ways to surprise your guests, add some roasted chocolate nibs (the kernel of the cocoa bean), says author Medrich. “Sprinkle them on salads,” she says. “Or toss them with vegetables like green beans, winter squash, or asparagus.”
The secret to cooking with chocolate is to taste constantly. “You have to be careful since it can become cloying as it cooks,” says Cora, author of Cooking from the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). “Keep tasting, and if it starts to get too sweet add salt or citrus to help pull it back a bit.”
Buy fair trade chocolate
Whether you use bar chocolate or cocoa powder, look for the Fair Trade Certified label whenever possible. Certified by TransFair USA, the label ensures that workers who harvest and process cocoa beans are protected from harmful pesticides and paid a living wage. And, of course, chocolate products that bear the USDA organic label will be the most nutritious and flavorful.
When Cat Cora isn’t whipping up wild recipes on Iron Chef America, she’s tending to her pet project: Chefs for Humanity. Started in 2005 when Cora mobilized more than 25 top American chefs to help with the tsunami relief effort in south Asia, the organization also helped feed victims, first responders, and relief workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Cora’s native Gulf Coast. Today Cora serves as Chefs for Humanity’s president and, along with members like Bobby Flay, Katie Lee Joel, and Christina Pirello, is engaged in nutrition education, fund-raising, and emergency relief the world over. To learn more, make a donation, or join the Chefs Corps (volunteers who teach nutrition classes and are on call to provide emergency relief in their areas) go to chefsforhumanity.org.
COCOA NIBS—the kernels of the cocoa bean—are the basis of all chocolate products. After beans are roasted and the husks removed, cocoa nibs are ground and heated into a thick paste known as chocolate liquor.
BITTERSWEET OR SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE is made with chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and sugar. Avoid bar chocolate that contains other ingredients, like milk fats and artificial flavorings. Percentages reflect how much of the bar is pure “cacao” (ingredients derived from the cocoa bean). Researchers recommend you eat dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cacao.
COCOA POWDER is made from the solids that result from pressing cocoa butter from chocolate liquor, then grinding the partially defatted material into powder. Look for natural cocoa powder and not “Dutch process,” which has fewer antioxidants.