Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dark Magic

Volcán de chocolate (soft-centred chocolate cake) has been done to death by restaurants worldwide and more recently, in Buenos Aires. I predict cocoa nibs, actually a wonderfully versatile ingredient, would be the next target by culinary tourists.

Cocoa nibs (nibs de cacao) are simply roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into small bits. They are the essence of chocolate. Nibs add crunch and chocolate flavour without the added sweetness from sugar.

I first came across cocoa nibs in early 2003, in Chantal Coady's book Real Chocolate. Ms Coady is one of the founders of The Chocolate Society in London and the owner of Rococo on King's Road, Chelsea. Rococo was the first supplier of cocoa nibs in London.

In her book, Ms Coady uses cocoa nibs in a brioche which makes a perfect partnership with foie gras.

As they say, you are only really famous if you're famous in the U.S.A. Sad but I can see a grain of truth somewhere in there, so naturally cocoa nibs' meteoric rise to fame has to be credited to U.S. food writers. Michael Recchiuti, in his book Chocolate Obsession, caramelises these dark gems and uses them in a cocoa nib ice-cream. Another writer/ baker/ chocolatier, Alice Medrich uses this ingredient liberally in chocolate mousse, cookies and ice cream; all included in her recent book, Bitter Sweet.

In short, one could experiment by adding these nibs in savoury dishes or play safe (but not boring) by replacing nuts, chocolate chips or dried fruits with them in baking and dessert making.

Being a recipe hoarder, I had resisted collecting recipes using cocoa nibs; the simple reason being that of difficulty sourcing it in this city. However, I have no reason to resist anymore!

Buenos Aires based Chocolate Fenix now sells cocoa nibs online, along with their wonderful Salgado line of Grand Cru Chocolates. They are so named because each bar contains single origin, 70% cocoa solids. Like fine wines, each has a distinctive character. My personal favourite is Carenero Superior.

With an increasingly large number of sweet recipes featuring cocoa nibs, I am tempted to explore a little further.

Adding bitter chocolate to caponata, a Sicilian version of the French ratatouille, is nothing new but adding a handful of cocoa nibs? Um, I'll find out...

This recipe is adapted from Zazu in Santa Rosa, a roadhouse restaurant surrounded by 150 of Sonoma County's acclaimed wineries.

1/3 cup Pinot Noir
1/3 cup yellow raisins
1/4 cup olive oil
1 eggplant, diced, salted for 1/2 hour and patted dry
2 garlic cloves, minced
a pinch of chili flakes
2 celery stalks, diced small
1/2 medium red onion, diced small
2/3 cup diced canned tomatoes
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
30g dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup caper berries, rinsed
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, minced
2 tbsp cocoa nibs
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

In a small sauce pan on high heat, bring the pinot noir to a boil and pour over the raisins to plump. In a large sauté pan on medium high heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic and chili flakes, stirring until fragrant, about a minute.

Add the onions and celery, and saute until the onions are transluscent, about 5 more minutes. Add the eggplant and saute until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, vinegar, and chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is completely incorporated.

Add the yellow raisins, capers, parsley, and cocoa nibs and stir to combine.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow to cool. Serve room temperature with grilled rustic bread and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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