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Chocolate for Dinner

Unexpected pairings to help you explore the savory side of chocolate


Who says you can’t have chocolate for dinner? I don’t mean devouring half a dozen Twix bars and counting it as a meal. Polishing off an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream by yourself doesn’t count either. I’m talking about using chocolate as an element in a savory dish. Yes, chocolate playing the role of something besides sweet.

When we think about chocolate, we almost always think of desserts. But chocolate, in its raw form, is anything but sweet. And utilizing it as a savory ingredient is anything but new. Over 2,000 years ago, before it was ever combined with sugar to make the confection we’re most familiar with today, the Aztecs and Mayans consumed chocolate in the form of a thick, bitter drink. Cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then mixed with water and spices to make xocoatl, from which chocolate originally got its name. Chocolate has been, and can be, more than just a candy or dessert.

Incorporating chocolate into your dinner meal isn’t as challenging as you’d imagine. Plenty of savory foods have a natural affinity for cocoa-based flavors. Consider the classic pairing of chocolate with spices and chilies in a Mexican mole sauce. Or take gamey meats like lamb and venison, which marry well with cocoa-driven richness. Often times, the bitter notes in dark chocolate work to highlight hidden flavors and assert depth in a dish that was otherwise missing it.


When cooking with chocolate, it helps to think of it as an ordinary ingredient as you would butter or cumin. Allow it to become a culinary tool and take a starring role in savory dishes. “Using it is a lot like adding Worcestershire sauce to a dish,” said Ally Zeitz, coordinator of the Drexel Food Lab. “The chocolate stays in the background.”

Feel free to be adventurous with chocolate at the dinner table, but be careful. A little goes goes a long way. You don’t want it to overpower the other elements of the meal. Just like adding salt, a light hand is key when preparing a dish with chocolate. You actually don’t want to be able to identify it as a main ingredient. Instead, you want the chocolate to complement existing textures and flavors. If you have too many sweet notes in a dish with chocolate, it will taste more like you melted Hershey’s syrup over your dinner. But when done well, chocolate can elevate the smoky and spicy tastes of a dish.

Recently, Zeitz experimented with chocolate as an ingredient, developing recipes that called for bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate, cocoa powder, and Mexican chocolate. She recreated an Italian eggplant caponata using chocolate to enrich the dish’s sauce. Her chocolate lamb ragu didn’t taste chocolately at all. The chocolate blended into the tomato sauce wasn’t noticeable, but it left a recognizable creamy mouthfeel on the finish. And her savory cocoa dinner rolls, made with cocoa powder and goat cheese, weren’t the least bit sweet. They showed bitter notes similar to pumpernickel bread and were smooth and rich. These chocolate-inspired creations made me wonder why I’ve never experimented with the complex nuances that cocoa carries before.

Whoever once told you that eating chocolate for dinner is not allowed was a liar. It’s totally safe and acceptable to explore the savory side of chocolate and upgrade your dishes with a taste of cacao.

Chocolate Eggplant Caponata with White Chocolate Polenta



For the caponata:
Olive oil
1 small onion, diced small
½ cup raisins
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup tomato paste
1 eggplant, diced
¾ cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped
¼ cup unsweetened chocolate, chopped
Salt to taste

For the polenta:
6 cups water
16 ounces white polenta, instant
Salt to taste
Olive oil to taste
¾ cup white chocolate, chopped
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped


For the caponata:
In a large sauté pan, heat just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and sauté. Add the raisins, cinnamon stick and red pepper flakes. Sauté until the raisins are a little soft. Add the tomato paste and stir to incorporate. Add the eggplant and sauté, seasoning with salt. Continue to cook the mixture, adding a little water if needed, until the eggplant is soft. Add the chocolate and stir to coat the eggplant. Adjust seasonings.

For the polenta:
In a large pot, boil water, then season with olive oil and salt. Whisk in polenta. Keep stirring and add white chocolate, cheese and thyme. Season with salt.

Coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Turn out polenta onto the baking sheet and spread evenly. Refrigerate until firm.

Heat a pan with olive oil about a half-inch deep. Cut the polenta into squares and coat with a little bit of flour. Fry in the oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Serve with chocolate eggplant caponata.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Chocolate-Rubbed Steak with Cocoa Sweet Potato Fries



For the steak:
2 New York strip steaks
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
Salt to taste

For the sweet potato fries:
2 large sweet potatoes, cut to desired thickness
2 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon


For the steak:
Combine the spices and mix well. Place the steaks on a sheet tray and rub the spices onto both sides of the steak. Refrigerate for at least on hour.

Grill the steak over medium heat until desired doneness.

For the sweet potato fries:
Fry the sweet potatoes until golden brown and cooked through. Place in a bowl and toss with cocoa seasoning. Serve with chocolate-rubbed steak.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Chocolate Lamb Ragu



2 large carrots, peeled and diced small
2 celery stalks, diced small
1 large onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 rosemary sprigs, chopped
Olive oil
2 pounds ground lamb
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 cups red wine
4 cups tomato puree
8 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped
Salt and pepper
1 pound penne pasta
Pecorino cheese, shredded


In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil. Add carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and rosemary, and sauté for about five minutes until vegetables start to become soft.

Add the lamb and brown it. Season with salt, pepper, cinnamon, and cocoa. Stir in red wine, bring to a simmer and let the alcohol cook out and the sauce reduce slightly. Once reduced, add the tomato puree, and bring to a simmer. Add the Mexican chocolate and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Let cook for about an hour so the flavors develop.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Heat sauce with a little bit of the pasta cooking water and bring to a simmer. Drain pasta and coat with lamb sauce.

Serve and garnish with cheese.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Savory Cocoa Dinner Rolls



4½ teaspoons active dry yeast
2¾ cups warm water, divided
¼ cup sugar
1 cup butter, softened
8 cups all-purpose flour
1½ cup cocoa powder
1 cup red onion, minced
¼ cup thyme, chopped
4 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons salt


In a small bowl, pour ¼ cup warm water, then sprinkle with yeast and a pinch of sugar. Whisk to combine and let dissolve. Let sit for about 10 minutes until active and foamy.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine ½ cup of water, butter, sugar, cocoa powder and 4 cups of flour. Using the dough hook on low speed, stir in the yeast mixture. Once combined, add the remaining 2 cups of warm water. When incorporated, add as much of the rest of the flour as necessary for a smooth dough to form. Add the salt, onion, and thyme and mix. Turn the dough out onto a clean service and knead until smooth and combined. Place in an oiled bowl and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, portion the rolls into 4 ounce balls. Knead in about 2 teaspoons of goat cheese and form into a ball.

Place each roll onto a parchment-lined, oiled sheet tray. Spray the tops of the rolls with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and allow to proof for 15 minutes.

Place the proofed rolls into a hot 350°F oven for 20 minutes, or until rolls sound hallow when tapped.

Serve alone with butter, or with whole grain mustard and sliced prosciutto.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Photos by Rachel Wisniewski

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on and She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.


  1. maria says:

    this is just the most exciting post ever. I’ll tell you when I try out all these delicious chocolate recipes 🙂

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