Well since roughly 2006, chocolate and chili in oh-so-many renditions has been a presence in both the realms of the savory and the sweet. Go to your local Whole Foods and you’ll undoubtedly find no less than five varieties with the combination of sweet and sultry and spice, from dark chocolate with cinnamon and red chili pepper flakes, to chocolate with chipotle, Ancho and Guajillo chilis. So is this a trend that’s got some staying power or are we looking at inclusion into the culinary cannon?
Bear in mind, cocoa and chili or chile are not strangers. Since at least 1500 BC, peoples in the Americas were consuming cacao. The Olmecs were probably the first to consume Theobroma Cacao (meaning “food of the gods”) followed by the Maya who consumed cocoa based drinks on their plantations in what is now eastern Tabasco and yes, chili is also another indigenous plant.
“Chocolatl” made of roasted cocoa beans, water and some spice was the main way in which the cocoa bean was prepared in the pre-Columbian era. Even then the cocoa bean was prized and even used as a commodity for trade. Chocolatl or cacahuatl (as it was called by the Aztecs) was believed to have healthful properties as a “divine drink which builds up resistance and fights plague. A cup of this precious drink permits man to walk for a whole day without food.”
Flash forward a few hundred years and Mexican Mole retains that mixture of cocoa and spice with an array of other ingredients in one of the most satisfying and complex of all Mexican dishes. Peanuts, roasted sesame seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds, garlic, bay and onion are the most common additions to the recipe, with some calling for more than 20 various spices.
Tex-Mex has also made the most of the divine bean with many Chocolate Chili con Carne recipes popping up on the web and on various Food Network shows. Chef Michael Chiarello’s recipe calls for bittersweet chocolate alongside beer, masa harina (Mexican corn flour), jalapeno peppers and cinnamon. The dark chocolate is said to work well with the bright heat of the jalapeno peppers, offering a nice dimension to what would otherwise be classic chili.
Even Chef Emeril Lagasse has his own Chocolate-Ancho Chili Flourless Cake. Right when flourless chocolate cake was “the thing” and Ancho chili way on the fringe, Lagasse made the best of both worlds, harmonizing rich decadence with the aromatic, passion of the Ancho which adds depth, a bit of earth and smokiness to the mix.
The chocolate chili “trend” has paid its dues. Lasting more than five years, what was once a “hot new something” has become a beloved flavor experience for many. From cupcakes, to moles to sauces to serve with steaks and fries, the chili really enhances the flavor of the cocoa bean and in the presence of cocoa butter (of full-fledged chocolate), cuts through the rich, sweet, fat flavor to impart direction and dimension (see steak recipe that follows). Try it yourself! Just bear in mind, different chocolates and different chilies pair differently. Tasting the chocolate you plan on using in consort with various chilies or chili oils should enable you to provide the correct amount of heat and achieve the flavor you desire.
Chili and Cocoa Marinated Flank Steak with Chocolate Merlot Sauce (Servings: 6 – 7)
2 – 2.5 lbs. Flank Steak
1.5 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 bunch Fresh Cilantro
3/4 cup Chipotle Pepper Powder
3/4 cup Cocoa Powder
1 Medium Onion, Diced Small
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 cloves Fresh Garlic, Peeled and Minced
2 Fresh Jalapenos (Roasted, Peeled and Seeded)
4 cloves Fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Onion Powder
1.5 ounces Worcestershire Sauce
3 Fresh Limes, zested and juiced
2 cups Merlot Wine
1 cup Beef Broth
1 oz. Semi-Sweet Chocolate, Chopped
4 oz. butter
Place garlic and cilantro in food processor and puree, then add oil in a stream while blending, then add remaining ingredients and process until well blended, this mixture will be thick. Coat the Flank Steak with puree and marinate overnight. Scrape off excess marinade and grill on a hot grill to sear and then move to a medium heat to finish to desired doneness. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing (against the grain for the most tender eating).
Sauté the onions over medium heat in the oil. Add the garlic and pepper and sauté for 1 minute, then add the wine and reduce by half. Add the beef broth reduce by half again. Take off the heat. While still very hot, whisk in the chocolate and butter. Stir until completely melted and absorbed (you can puree this sauce if you like with a blender). This sauce has very intense flavor and just a little on the flank is best and quite delicious.
Note- Adjust seasoning to taste with salt pepper and a little sugar till it’s perfect.