Chocolate Wins the Versatility Contest

Chocolate wins the versatility contest

Operators find chocolate has a place in both sweet and savory dishes — as well as beverages.

If there were an Olympics for the most versatile food item, chocolate would win. You can eat it, drink it, cook with it and pair it with almost any flavor imaginable.

For decades, chefs have competitively created delicious desserts and sweet snacks. Lately, however, culinarians have moved to a different area of the menu, pairing unusual flavors with chocolate for delicious savory dishes. These pairings work for all segments, from quick-service chains to independent fine-dining restaurants.

“Chocolate is the fifth most-loved flavor or ingredient overall, according to our FLAVOR database,” says Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager at Datassential, a Chicago-based industry market research firm. “Today it appears on nearly 70 percent of menus. With a flavor that ubiquitous, it's no surprise that we're seeing a lot of innovation on menus. Chefs want to give their customers the chocolate flavors they love, but in a way that is unique and gives them a reason to visit their particular restaurant again.”

Pairing chocolate and savory dishes

The savory side of the menu can benefit from the rich, velvety flavor of chocolate. Whether it is grated, flaked or in powder, chocolate gives familiar entrées and sides a new twist. There are no limits. AOL Lifestyle points to such unusual pairings as:

  • Chocolate-covered sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Chocolate calamari soup.
  • Chocolate and cauliflower.
  • Chocolate sweet potato oatmeal.

Chef Jason French of Ned Ludd in Portland, Ore., features chocolate on several entrées. He grates dark chocolate on roasted quail with savory cabbage, blood orange and fermented chiles. He also sprinkles cocoa nibs on lamb shank and on a spiced cod dish. In a leek and parsnip soup, which contains parsley and pimenton, he adds cocoa brioche croutons.

Karen Malody, a principal with Culinary Options in Portland, Ore., says she is seeing more variations on the classic mole, the popular Mexican chocolate-infused sauce. “Although mole is not ‘new’ by any means, I have now seen it served as a sauce with eggs, both baked and poached, with cornbread toast,” she says.

Chefs are adding chocolate to barbecue sauce, soups, sauces and pasta. Malody also cites pumpkin-filled chocolate ravioli with sage brown butter, pears and hazelnuts. Imagine chocolate ravioli made by mixing cocoa powder in the pasta dough. Cooking celebrity Paula Deen even has a recipe for chocolate chili.

Or even look to chocolate to give steak a smoky flavor by letting it sit overnight covered with a rub of ground coffee and chocolate flakes.

“Recently I saw a pepper-crusted beef tenderloin served with a dark chocolate port sauce,” she says. “One recipe featured roasted baby carrots with balsamic-bitter chocolate syrup. This can be prepared with other root vegetables too. [Chefs] also claim that the bitter chocolate balsamic syrup enhances the flavor of beef, lamb and pork. It’s amazing what can be done with dark chocolate.”

Sweet and spicy flavors marry well with chocolate

There are literally hundreds of flavor pairings which can give desserts and snacks new life. In addition to the usual sea salt caramel, dark chocolate can be married to spices like wasabi, chipotle, jalapeño or black sesame seeds. Any number of fruits like figs, grapes, bananas or dried currants come alive when a little chocolate is introduced.

Malody has also seen:

  • Dark chocolate brownies with candied ginger and wasabi served with bacon-balsamic ice cream.
  • Dark chocolate, black sesame and fig brioche bread pudding with coffee crème anglaise.
  • Dark chocolate paired with such Italian cheeses as Gorgonzola, caciocavallo and Taleggio, together with lemon-scented crostini.

“I see more and more scones with dark chocolate chunks and herbs and citrus — and more esoteric citruses like kalamansi and sweet lime,” she says.

Datassential’s Kostyo says, “Looking at what some of the most innovative restaurants across the country are pairing with chocolate, we see next-level fruit pairings like cranberry, grape and rhubarb. Popcorn and cereal are being used as a fun, nostalgic crunch factor in plated desserts featuring chocolate at chef casuals. We're also seeing a surprising amount of corn in desserts overall, and that includes chocolate desserts. At Townsman, in Boston, the sweet corn pudding is paired with cherry and chocolate.”

And let’s not leave out alcoholic beverages. Bourbon has been growing as a partner with chocolate, Kostyo adds. At Brick House Tavern & Tap, a Landry's concept, the Chocolate Bourbon Cake is soaked in Woodford Reserve Bourbon and served with house-made caramel sauce. Port is also growing as a flavor or ingredient to pair with chocolate at innovative restaurants across the country. “We're seeing a lot of these toasty, smoky flavors show up with chocolate, and that includes trendy caramelized or roasted white chocolate,” he says.

Clearly, chocolate has proven to be a popular and highly versatile ingredient, adding an unmistakable appeal to savory dishes, desserts, beverages and snacks — and one that is limited only by the creativity of your operation.

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