Chocolate and pasta clasped in a warm embrace? The pairing might sound doubtful, but the truth is, cocoa deserves a place in cooking beyond cakes, cookies and desserts. After all, chocolate is sweet only because manufacturers cram it with sugar and muffle its cocoa notes with milk and additives. In their natural state, cacao beans — the precursors to chocolate — carry a wealth of flavors that can deliver contrast, brightness, richness and depth to a raft of savory dishes. If we let them.
In fact, chocolate for dinner is nothing new. We can probably trace its sticky history right back to cooks in the Americas 2,500 years ago or more. Archaeologists believe these ancient people, who revered cacao as a gift from the gods and sipped it in ceremonial drinks, also used chocolate in cooking. Fragments of ceramics found in Honduras, for example, bear traces of cacao alongside remnants of turkey and fish. And a platter typically used to serve tamales has been unearthed in Mexico carrying ancient cacao residue. (We can thank theobromine, one of more than 1,000 compounds in cacao, for this knowledge: Its distinctive biological fingerprints can survive on artifacts for millennia.)
In the two years I spent researching my book Cocoa: An Exploration of Chocolate, With Recipes, I made many chocolate-scented discoveries. I learned that salty-sweet blue cheeses with a robust tang — gorgonzola dolce, for example — yearn for the bitter notes of 100% cacao or semisweet chocolate. When you melt the cheese into a gooey sauce for pasta, add chopped toasted walnuts for a rubble of texture and milky bitterness, and then grate a dark nest of chocolate on the top, the result is a flavor bomb greater than the sum of its parts.
I now understand that tomato and chocolate are amiable companions, too. Both carry green aromas, and combining them brings out the best in each other, while chocolate also smooths out the acidity of tomatoes, adding depth and richness to their umami, or inherent savoriness. Grate a little dark chocolate into tomato soup or the classic Sicilian vegetable stew, caponata — go on! — and you will thank me.
Much like a pinch of salt allows you to perceive sharp or acidic notes more clearly, cacao nibs — broken-up toasted cacao beans and a sadly underutilized ingredient — add a touch of bitterness and a welcome counterpoint in savory salads studded with fruit or cheese.
Unsweetened chocolate, the one that's marked as 100%, is the unsung hero of this dish. Lacking sugar, it adds smoky and earthy notes to this rich and punchy pasta dish, lending a nice counterpoint to the salty funk of Gorgonzola. For crunch add some blitzed cacao nibs — and watch your perception for chocolate-as-sweet-ingredient dissipate forever.
Pasta With Gorgonzola, Walnuts, Rosemary and Chocolate
1 ounce walnuts
8 ounces tagliatelle or pappardelle pasta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped
⅓ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons white wine
¾ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese, plus more for serving
6 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
Finely grated zest of ½ lemon
Ground black pepper
100% cacao chocolate, grated OR about 1 teaspoon finely ground cacao nibs, for serving
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes, shaking the sheet halfway through, until lightly toasted. Transfer to a bowl to cool, then roughly chop.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for 1 minute less than the package instructions indicate. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water, and return the pasta to the pan.
Meanwhile, in a small frying pan over medium-low heat, combine the butter, garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring a few times, until sizzling and fragrant, being careful not to burn the garlic.
Add the cream, wine and ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water and gently simmer for about 1 minute. Add the gorgonzola and parmesan and cook gently, stirring, until the cheese has melted. Add more pasta water, if needed, to make a loose but creamy sauce. Add the lemon zest and a generous pinch of black pepper. Taste and season with more pepper and/or salt, if needed.
Combine the cooked pasta and the sauce and quickly toss together, then fold in most of the nuts, adding a little of the reserved pasta water to loosen, if necessary.
Serve, topped with more gorgonzola, the remaining walnuts and a generous grating of chocolate or cacao nibs.
Makes 2 to 3 servings.
Food on 10/23/2019
Print Headline: Chocolate doesn't have to be relegated to dessert