The Savory Side of Chocolate

Say chocolate and most people conjure images of something sweet. But the word chocolate actually comes from the Aztec word xocolatl that translates as bitter water. And as an ingredient, chocolate is filled with bitter tones.

The history of chocolate goes back 3,000 years. Some say chocolate was invented, not discovered, and that early civilizations like the Olmecs (in what is now Central America) invented the fermentation, drying, and roasting process. They then ground it into cocoa powder. The Mayas picked up chocolate cultivation, and later the Aztecs used cacao beans as a source of currency.

Cacao pods are picked by hand. Once opened, cacao seeds are removed, dried, and fermented in a two-step process. Fermentation takes five to eight days. It activates the flavors we recognize as chocolate. The seeds are then pounded into a powder. In the beginning, this powder was stirred into water to make a bitter beverage, no sugar added.

Europe imported cocoa beans in the 1500s, and chocolate and sugar later joined forces, creating a new world of sweets. Once the technology was developed to turn chocolate into sweets around 1850, sweet treats quickly eclipsed the savory chocolate recipes.

Chocolate has been a dessert staple for centuries, but Mexicans have always used chocolate in traditional mole sauces. And Italians add chocolate to pasta dishes and stir the powder into sauces and glazes as a thickening agent. More recently, chefs have been adding chocolate to savory dishes, including roasted cauliflower.

But chocolate lovers beware: in savory dishes, chocolate isn’t the star of the show, but a bit player that helps pull all the flavors together. So use a light hand with chocolate in savory dishes. Blend just enough chocolate to balance the other ingredients. And remember, if you taste chocolate or the dish is bitter, you’ve added too much. Temper it with sweet and salty flavors. For pairings in savory dishes, try sweet spices like vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and to kick up the heat, add spicy and smoky ingredients like cayenne and smoked chiles. If you’re looking for vegetable ideas—consider parsnips, cauliflower, winter squash, or sweet potatoes.

Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette

(Makes about ¾ cup or 6 servings)

This vinaigrette tastes amazing over a spinach and pear or strawberry salad with toasted walnuts.

  • ½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
  • ½ Tablespoon cacao nibs
  • ½ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 teaspoons agave nectar
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • Salt to taste

Toast fennel seeds in a small frying pan over medium heat. When the seeds become fragrant, remove from heat and let them cool. With a mortar and pestle, grind the cooled seeds and the cacao nibs into a powder.

Combine fennel and chocolate mixture with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, agave nectar, and cayenne in a blender. Add salt to taste.

Total calories per serving: 104 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Slow-Simmered Black-Eyed Peas and Corn in Barbecue Sauce

(Serves 4)

This easy dish doesn’t take long from start to finish, but you can also start this in a Crock-Pot® in the morning, and dinner is a snap in the evening.

  • 1 ½ cups dry black-eyed peas, rinsed
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 2 cups Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce (see below)
  • 1 ½ cups water

Place ingredients in a Crock-Pot® and cook on low for 6-7 hours. Alternatively, use canned black-eyed peas. Drain, then in a large saucepan on the stovetop combine black eyed peas, corn, smoky barbecue sauce and water, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Serve with a green salad and sourdough rolls.

Total calories per serving: 337 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 69 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 780 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Black Bean and Yam Enchiladas Infused with Chocolate

(Serves 4)

Chocolate adds an exotic touch to these south-of-the-border enchiladas. One can of sweet potato or pumpkin purée can be used in place of the yam.

  • 1 large yam, washed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • ¼ cup salsa
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar (or to taste)
  • One 16-ounce can vegan enchilada sauce (mild or hot)
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • One 15-ounce can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed
  • ¼ cup chopped black olives (optional)
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 8 small corn tortillas

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Poke the yam with a fork and bake for one hour or until very soft. Leave oven on for the enchiladas.

While yam bakes, heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion and oil. Stir and cook until onion becomes translucent. Add garlic, salsa, cinnamon, cocoa powder, agave nectar, and enchilada sauce. Stir and heat for a few minutes. Remove from heat.

Let baked yam cool a bit, then remove skin and mash yam gently with garlic powder and black beans. All the beans don’t need to be mashed; leave a few whole for texture. Stir in the olives (optional).

Heat a nonstick griddle over medium heat. Brush each tortilla lightly with oil before putting it on the griddle. Cook the tortillas until they bubble and soften.

Pour one third of the sauce into a 7 x 9 inch or 8 x 8 inch cake pan. Brush each tortilla (both sides) with sauce before setting the tortilla in the pan and spreading with about 2 Tablespoons of the yam and black bean mixture. Roll the tortillas, lining them up in the pan. Pour remaining sauce over enchiladas. Cover and bake for 30 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 391 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 64 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 884 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce with a Hint of Chocolate

(Makes about 2 cups)

Chocolate pulls all the other flavors together and gives an exotic tone to this barbecue sauce. You can find vegan Worcestershire sauce in natural foods stores. This sauce is perfect over sliced, cooked tempeh or you can add it to black-eyed peas and corn in a Crock-Pot®. The sauce should keep for about a week sealed in the refrigerator.

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • ¾ cup water
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed, or ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan dark chocolate syrup
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, combine ketchup, water, garlic, vegan Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, chili powder, and chocolate syrup. Add hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for a few minutes, and then remove from heat.

Total calories per serving: 23 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 193 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Baked Tempeh in Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce

(Serves 4)

This is one of my favorite comfort foods.

  • 12 to 16 ounces tempeh, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 cups Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce (recipe above)
  • 4 thin lemon slices
  • 4 thin slices of onion

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add oil and let it heat. Carefully drop the tempeh chunks in the hot pan. Cook until browned on bottom, about 5-7 minutes. Flip and brown the other side. When both sides are lightly browned, transfer tempeh chunks to a paper towel to drain remaining oil.

Place tempeh chunks in an 8 x 8 inch baking pan. Pour 2 cups of Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce over the tempeh. Layer onions and lemon on top of the dish, slightly squeezing the lemon as you do this. Cover the pan, and bake for 30 minutes.

Serve over buns with a side of greens and coleslaw.

Total calories per serving: 319 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 777 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Chocolate Mole

(Makes about 2 cups)

In pre-Hispanic times, mole (a generic name for sauce) did not contain chocolate, but many modern versions of mole add chocolate to the mix, striking a sweet and savory balance. In Mexico, mole is often served over meat, so consider serving this vegan version over seitan, tofu cutlets, tostadas, burritos, roasted vegetables, or even try polenta with mole.

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 Tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • 1-2 Tablespoons cocoa powder or dark chocolate syrup
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • One 15-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce

Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil, garlic, and onion. Stir and cook until onions become translucent.

Stir in chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, and chipotle chili powder. Stir until onions are well coated. Add cocoa powder or dark chocolate syrup and salt. Stir and add tomato sauce. Simmer on low for 10 minutes or until the sauce reaches your desired thickness.

Total calories per serving: 16 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 40 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Chocolate-Infused Shepherd’s Pie

(Serves 6)

Always a great comfort food recipe, this version of Shepherd’s Pie has rich-tasting gravy, thanks to just the right amount of dark chocolate. Only the cook will know the secret of this recipe.

  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 small sweet potato or yam, peeled and diced
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • 2-4 Tablespoons salsa
  • 2 Tablespoons canola or olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, diced into small pieces
  • 2 cups cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 Tablespoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ cup no-salt tomato paste
  • 3 Tablespoons whole wheat flour
  • ¾ cup water, divided
  • 1 Tablespoon dark chocolate syrup or unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ cups frozen green beans
  • ½ cup frozen peas
  • ½ cup frozen corn
  • One 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Steam potatoes and sweet potato (or yam) until soft. This should take about 5-7 minutes. Drain and mash potatoes with margarine and salsa until the consistency is smooth and creamy. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Use a skillet that can also be baked; cast iron works well. Add the oil and onions. Stir and cook until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in carrots, cauliflower, chili powder, garlic powder, tomato paste, and flour. Mix until well blended. Add half the water, then stir, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.

Remove cover, stir in chocolate, green beans, peas, corn, kidney beans, and remaining water. Sprinkle salt over vegetables and blend in. Remove skillet from heat.

Smooth the potatoes over the vegetables. Sprinkle smoked paprika over the top and bake for 45 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 326 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 54 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 428 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams

Chocolate Sweet Potato Drop Biscuits

(Makes 12 medium-sized biscuits)

I make these biscuits whenever I have leftover sweet potatoes. Winter squash can also stand in for sweet potatoes. Serve these with soup, shepherd’s pie, or chili.

  • ⅓ cup fresh orange juice
  • ⅓ cup soy, rice, or nut milk
  • 1 cup cooked mashed sweet potato
  • 1 ¾ cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/8 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 Tablespoons maple syrup (reserve 1 Tablespoon for the baked biscuits)
  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • ½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Blend the orange juice and your choice of vegan milk and set aside. When the mixture curdles, blend in the sweet potato.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and baking soda. Mix in the orange juice-milk mixture. Stir to blend. Then stir in 2 Tablespoons maple syrup and oil. Mix until a soft dough forms. Gently blend in nuts, if desired.

Drop by heaping tablespoonfuls onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until biscuits are done. (To test, gently poke with your finger. If the dough bounces back, the biscuits are done. Or you can insert a tester or toothpick in the center of the biscuit. If it comes out clean, the biscuits are done.)

Place biscuits on a cooling rack. Lightly brush the tops with the remaining 1 Tablespoon maple syrup.

Total calories per serving: 111 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 110 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Dark Chocolate Varieties

Unsweetened (baker’s chocolate)

Also called bitter chocolate, baker’s chocolate contains pure chocolate liquor. This is chocolate that is liquefied before sweetening. It does not contain alcohol. This chocolate liquor is mixed with cocoa butter to form a solid bar. Unsweetened and other forms of dark chocolate should be stored in a cool dry room between 60-65 degrees. It will keep for years if stored properly.


This is chocolate liquor with a bit of sugar, cocoa butter, and sometimes vanilla and lecithin (a type of fatty acid) added. Different brands list the percentage of chocolate. The higher the percentage (for example, 80 percent), the less sugar is added to the chocolate.


There’s not a huge difference between bittersweet and semisweet except semisweet is often sweeter because it contains equal parts sugar and cocoa. The percentage of dark chocolate is about 50 percent.

Cacao Nibs

Nibs are the most unprocessed form of chocolate. When the shell is removed, the pieces of the cocoa beans are nibs once they have been roasted. No sugar is added. Nibs taste like slightly bitter roasted nuts or coffee beans. They are ground and made into a thick paste to which sugar is added for processing into solid bars. Look for nibs in natural foods or specialty foods stores.

Cocoa powder

When cocoa beans are roasted and ground, what remains is a paste called chocolate liquor, which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is the powder that remains after the fat is removed. Dutch Processed cocoa powder has had the acids removed and should be used with baking soda when baking. Unsweetened cocoa powder has a milder flavor and is best in savory dishes.


Written by Debra Daniels-Zeller

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal and the author of the Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook.

Written for The Vegetarian Resource Group


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