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    Ask the Chef: Can cacao be used in savory recipes?

    By Julie Morris, Navitas Organics Executive Chef | February 15, 2016

    Can cacao be used in savory recipes?

    When asked to think of chocolate, most of us smile, immediately conjuring up thoughts of cookies and cakes, puddings and sauces, and generally all things sweet and wonderful. But chocolate's ancient roots actually lead this ingredient to a much different application: savory recipes. Indeed, ancient Mayan cultures regularly made unsweetened chocolate drinks made from ground cacao beans and spices, and even today, chocolate continues to make unexpected appearances in Central and South American cuisine in recipes that stretch far outside of the dessert realm.

    The key to using chocolate with a savory function in mind is to start out with a great quality chocolate. Not only will last year's Halloween candy not cut it from a flavor standpoint, but all that added sugar will compromise your recipe too. For best results, you'll want to get your hands on either an unsweetened baking chocolate, or better yet, pure cacao powder (cacao will have a more complex flavor than regular cocoa). In a few places, cacao nibs (crushed cacao beans) can also be used, though more rarely. Here are a few ways you can enjoy chocolate in a whole new light!

    Sauces: If you've ever had a mole, a classic Mexican sauce composed of often over a dozen spices, you've had a savory chocolate recipe! True mole contains a little bit of cacao or cocoa powder, used almost like a spice, to go along with chili peppers, tomatoes, herbs, and other flavorings. You don't have to limit yourself to making a mole though - there's all kinds of sauce riffs you can make, such as adding a little cacao to barbeque sauce, marinades, and tomato-based glazes.

    Soups & Stews: Cacao goes extremely well with tomatoes and onions, so hearty stews or beany chili's are also a great place to sneak in a little cacao for a nice flavor nuance.

    Savory Baking: Non-sweet baked recipes like a chili cornbread, zucchini drop biscuits, or buckwheat rolls, are all examples of recipes that could be zipped up with a handful of cacao nibs tucked inside for both crunch and complimentary flavor. What an excellent way to make a side dish the star of the show!

    Plant-based Proteins: The grounding notes of chocolate can liven up all types of rich protein dishes. I like to put a little bit of cacao powder in “grain-balls†made from cooked freekeh, nuts, and spices, and sauté them a marinara to dish out on top of quinoa pasta -- an exemplary superfood spin on “spaghetti and meatballs.†Cacao powder is also wonderful worked into vegetable burgers and tempeh dishes.

    When using cacao in non-sweet recipes, just remember to use a light hand - a couple tablespoons is probably all you need to hint at the chocolate flavor, without it being overpowering or bitter. Try my Chili Con Verduras to get started with this fabulous world of savory chocolate!