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Long before the first Valentine's Day, ancient Maya and Aztecs understood the allure of chocolate. Though the chocolate we eat today is radically different from that of ancient times, we are still seduced, especially in the days leading up to Valentine's Day, when Americans will purchase close to 60 million pounds of chocolate almost exclusively in the form of candy.
A glittery, heart-shaped box of chocolates certainly is charming, but that isn't all there is. Take a page from the ancients' cookbook and give your loved one a series of savory chocolate pleasures.
The Maya and Aztecs began eating chocolate, or more specifically cacao beans, more than 2,000 years ago. Rather than the dark, sweet confection we adore, here's what they experienced: They harvested and split cacao pods from cacao trees to reveal the beans inside (technically the seeds, as cacao pods are fruit). They fermented the beans for several days, then dried and roasted them.
The roasted beans were ground into a paste, mixed with water, spices, seeds and nuts and transformed into a thick, bitter drink called xocoatl that was prized by rulers who believed it possessed magical, aphrodisiac and perhaps divine powers. Indeed, Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree, means "food of the gods."
It wasn't until the 1500s that Spanish explorers combined chocolate and sugar. Sweetened chocolate ignited a culinary revolution. European cultures including the Spanish, French and Italian used chocolate and cocoa powder to flavor stews and braise meats such as venison and rabbit.
Chocolate also was used as a more flavorful thickener for sauces and glazes. Italian agrodolce, for example, a sweet and sour sauce made from reduced vinegar or wine and chocolate, is a complex sauce typically served with pork or game meat.
Perhaps the most well-known savory chocolate foodstuff is mole, a lusty Mexican sauce made with an impossibly long list of ingredients including tomatoes, chilies, spices and chocolate.
While Central American and European cultures have long appreciated chocolate's savory qualities, Americans are relative newcomers. Thanks to innovative chefs, we're starting to appreciate simple savory dishes such as toasted bread with melted dark chocolate, olive oil and sea salt as well as more sophisticated dishes such as cacao-nib-coated goat cheese.
At this point, you may be salivating for savory chocolate foods, or you may be thinking: She's crazy. Chocolate belongs with caramel and ice cream, not with goat cheese or beef!
Combining sweet and salty or sweet and spicy foods makes sense, though. There's a reason we love kettle corn and barbecued chicken wings. That's why pairing bittersweet chocolate with salty meats such as pork or with spicy foods such as chilies is so scrumptious. Like good spouses, they bring out the best in one another.
So this Valentine's Day, be a rebel. Skip the heart-shaped box of chocolates and indulge your sweetheart with a variety of edible bliss-inducing chocolate dishes. I can't verify their aphrodisiac powers, but how can eating chocolate-, chili- and wine-infused dishes not make your heart flutter, even just a little?
Tips For Cooking With Chocolate