Chocolate for Dinner, An Italian Tradition

(Published by Tribune Media Syndicates, 2009)
by Francine Segan

Most of us think of chocolate as something just for dessert, but the Italians have been adding it to pasta, risotto, polenta and meat dishes for centuries.

"Chocolate, the 'food of the gods,' conquered not just the candy shop, but also the kitchen" says Riccardo Magni of ICAM, one of Italy's premier chocolate makers, based in the city of Lecco in the northern region of Lombardy.

This is not so surprising when you consider that the cacao bean, from which chocolate is made, is not itself sweet. Or, as G.B. Mantelli, marketing director at Venchi, an artisanal chocolate company based in Turin, puts it, "Like so many other seeds -- pepper, fennel, cardamom and caraway -- cacao beans are a spice."

Italian chefs noted this fact back in the 1500s when cacao beans first arrived from the New World. They immediately began experimenting with chocolate, adding it to many savory dishes.

"It's only the addition of sugar that makes chocolate sweet. Fine dark chocolate, like fine wine, has an amazingly complex taste profile, with hundreds of distinct nuanced aromas and flavors," Mantelli says. "Chocolate is, or should be, in everyone's spice rack."

Among the most classic and simplest uses of chocolate in savory food is as a topping to certain pasta dishes. One simple recipe is to toss cooked pasta with ground walnuts and gorgonzola cheese and top it with grated dark chocolate. Chocolate is also incorporated into fillings for ravioli, such as the Italian fall favorite pumpkin-chocolate ravioli served with a brown butter sage sauce.

"Chocolate adds a lovely toasted flavor and a delicious aroma as well as infusing a dish with a silky finish," notes Riccardo Ferrero, executive chef at Turin's historic Del Cambio Restaurant. "Chocolate adds a lovely shine to sauces, much nicer than butter. It can be a prized flavor component for any course, in everything from antipasto to dessert. It's wonderful in salad dressing too, because chocolate mellows the vinegar's acidity."

One of Italy's popular savory chocolate creations is agrodolce, "sour and sweet" sauce for pork or wild game, made from reduced vinegar or wine seasoned with dark chocolate.

"In Tuscany, chocolate is a key ingredient with venison and wild boar," says Remo Vannini, executive chef of Florence's L'Incontro at Hotel Savoy. "Like wine, vinegar or lemon juice, chocolate provides just the right touch of acidity. We Italians add a hint of chocolate to many sauces. Chocolate acts not only as an emulsifier, adding natural thickness to sauces, but also enhances the other flavors. It is wonderful with game meats, but lovely, too, with chicken and beef."

Fabio Picchi, owner and chef of Florence's famed Cibreo restaurant, waxes poetic on the subject of cooking with chocolate.

"Besides its spectacular flavors, chocolate also has emotional resonance," he says. "Chocolate for dinner? Yes! It's every child's dream, a dream we Italians have made come true for centuries!"

How to Cook With Chocolate

Sprinkle cocoa nibs on polenta, rice, stuffing or baked potatoes. Add them to salads and soups for crunch, texture and nutty flavor.

Add a square or two of semi-sweet or dark chocolate to meat dishes, such as beef stew, chili, BBQ or pasta meat sauce, for an unexpected rich deep taste.

Add cocoa powder to your favorite bread recipe. Unsweetened chocolate bread is great with cheese.

White chocolate, which is made with cocoa butter, is delicious with seafood or cheese. Add a little to macaroni and cheese or cream soups, or melt it over baked fish.

Pasta with Sage and Chocolate

Chocolate adds an unexpected rich, deep flavor to this simple pasta sauce. The recipe is courtesy of G.B. Martelli of the chocolatier Venchi S.p.A.

  • 1 pound spaghetti or fettuccine
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
  • 4 shallots, finely minced
  • 20 fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish
  • Freshly ground black pepper or crushed red pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 to 2 ounces Venchi Chocaviar bits, or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely grated

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and saute the shallots and sage leaves, for about 8 minutes, until the butter is golden brown.

Toss the pasta with the sage-shallot butter and about 1/4 cup of the pasta's cooking water. Season with pepper.

Serve topped with the cheese and a generous sprinkling of Chocaviar or grated chocolate. Garnish with sage leaves.

Makes 6 servings.

Roasted Parsnip White Chocolate Soup

This is an amazingly delicious soup with just the perfect hint of white chocolate sweetness -- a wonderful autumn treat. The recipe is courtesy of ICAM S.p.A.

  • 2 pounds parsnips (about 4 or 5 large parsnips)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin oil
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
  • 2 large Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup white chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill leaves

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel and cut the parsnips into 1-inch slices, put on a baking sheet, and brush them lightly with 2 tablespoons oil. Roast the parsnips until they begin to soften, for about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large stockpot and gently saute the onion until translucent, for about 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, vanilla and roasted parsnips, and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper, cover and let cook until the parsnips are very soft, for about 20 minutes.

Stir the white chocolate into the soup and cook until melted, for about 5 minutes.

Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the cream. Using an immersion blender, blend until smooth. Add the lime juice. Garnish with fresh dill.

Makes 8 servings.

Risotto with Apricots and White Chocolate

Apricots add a lovely tart tang to this velvety white chocolate-accented risotto. It's a wonderfully festive, beautiful first-course dish. The recipe is courtesy of ICAM.

  • 5 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 3/4 cups Arborio rice, about 12 ounces
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa butter (available online or in health food stores) or butter
  • 3 to 4 dried apricots, very finely minced
  • 4 strands saffron, optional
  • 4 ounces white chocolate, preferably ICAM
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Salt, to taste

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the cocoa powder with 4 cups water and bring to a low boil. In a medium saucepan, combine the rice and butter, and heat over medium heat until the rice is slightly toasted, for about 6 minutes.

Add 1 cup of the hot cocoa water and stir until the water is absorbed. Add more, a little at a time, until the rice is tender, for about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, simmer the apricots, saffron (if using), white chocolate and cream until warm. Cover and reserve.

Remove the rice from the heat and stir in the white chocolate mixture. The rice should be fairly loose, almost like thick soup. Season with salt. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Chocolate Pasta

The trick is making chocolate pasta is to add the cocoa powder after the pasta dough is formed. It will be easier to work with and will taste better. Serve the pasta with a simple sauce of finely ground walnuts and butter, or with gorgonzola cheese thinned with milk, or with your favorite meat sauce. The recipe is courtesy of Alessandra Bertucci, Pastificio Piemontese.

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 4 large eggs, with 1 egg separated
  • Water
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder

Mound the flour into a large bowl. Make a deep well in the center of the mound and add 3 whole eggs and 1 yolk into it. Beat the eggs with a fork, and then mix them into the flour. Work the egg and flour mixture together with your hands, adding a teaspoon of water at a time to hold the dough together. Add more flour, if needed.

Knead the dough, for about 10 minutes, until it feels silky. Then, working in sections, pass it through your pasta maker, following the manufacturer's instructions. After you have passed it through once, begin to sprinkle the cocoa powder onto the pasta sheet and pass the pasta through the machine again. Repeat until all the cocoa powder is fully incorporated and the pasta dough is a uniform color.

Cut the pasta into the desired shape and toss with flour to keep it from sticking.

Makes 1 pound.

Crostini with Gorgonzola, Pears and Chocolate

Gorgonzola's sharp tang is perfectly mellowed by the chocolate in this simple, elegant and unusual Italian appetizer. The recipe is courtesy of Venchi.

  • 4 ounces dark chocolate
  • 6 ounces gorgonzola cheese, room temperature
  • 8 slices of crusty bread, toasted
  • 2 ripe pears, cored and thinly sliced
  • Pinch of white pepper
  • Hazelnuts, toasted and crushed

Just before ready to serve, melt the 4 ounces chocolate in the microwave or over a double boiler. Reserve.

To assemble: Spread the gorgonzola on each piece of bread and top with a few slices of pear and a pinch of white pepper. Drizzle the chocolate over the top and garnish with a few bits of crushed hazelnuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette

This dressing tastes as though it were made with super-expensive aged balsamic. The chocolate nicely mellows the tang and acidity of the vinegar. It's wonderful on all sorts of salad greens or steamed vegetables. It's also great as a glaze on roast chicken. The recipe is courtesy of ICAM

  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 ounce dark chocolate (63 to 85 percent cocoa solids)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the vinegar and chocolate in a small saucepan, and heat over very low flame until the chocolate is melted and the vinegar reduced, for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the oil and season with salt and pepper.

Makes 1 cup.