Photos by Leigh Beisch

Some foods are just foods ... and then there are those that ascend into the realm of obsession. Chocolate, the sweetened and processed form of cacao tree fruit, is one such ethereal substance. Savored, craved, given as a token of love—surely chocolate is more akin to a delirious dream than a mere food.

For generations cooks have linked chocolate with dessert, and for good reason: Sugar tames cocoa's natural astringency and bitterness, turning it rich and mellow. But that association has also lent chocolate a reputation as a naughty indulgence.

Fortunately, recent research pinpoints cocoa's healthy properties. It's a natural source of flavonoids similar to those found in tea, and it contains substances that help prevent blood clots and coronary plaque. Chocolate also seems to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels (Free Radical Biology and Medicine, 2004, vol. 37, no. 9) and contains small amounts of magnesium, potassium, protein, phosphorus, calcium, and iron.

But let's be honest—we eat chocolate because it's unbelievably delicious. This fact has inspired cooks to incorporate chocolate not only into desserts but into savory dishes as well, where it makes a distinctive, gutsy addition. Chocolate's richness livens up meat dishes and brings out the sweet tang of squash and beans, especially when enhanced with spices (cinnamon, cloves) and fruit flavors (orange, cherries, raisins). Its earthy complexity grounds sauces and dishes tinged with alcohol (brandy, rum, cognac), and it makes a surprisingly pleasing partner with pungent ingredients, such as ginger and cardamom. To cook with chocolate this way is like taking a fresh look at an old friend.

Chicken Breasts with Brandied Cherry-Chocolate Sauce
Serves 4 / Wow your sweetie by making this decadent dinner for Valentine's Day. Brining the breasts before cooking helps the chicken retain moisture.

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons salt
4 cups water
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/3 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons brandy

Chocolate seems to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and contains small amounts of magnesium, potassium, protein, phosphorus, calcium, and iron.

1. Mix salt into water in a large bowl or zip-top plastic bag until dissolved. Add chicken and allow to brine for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Remove breasts from brine, rinse with water, and pat dry with paper towels.

2. Preheat oven to 200°. Pour flour onto a plate or pie pan and roll each breast in flour, patting gently to lightly coat.

3. Heat butter and oil over medium-high heat in a heavy 12-inch skillet. Swirl to mix, and cook until butter begins to color. Lay breasts in pan and cook, undisturbed, until brown, about 5 minutes. Turn chicken pieces over and cook on second side, undisturbed, until juices begin to clot around pieces, 5–7 minutes. Remove chicken and keep warm in the oven while making sauce.

4. Add chicken broth to skillet, scraping to release any brown bits. Boil until reduced to 1 cup, 8–10 minutes. Add cherries and vinegar; boil until spoon scraped across pan bottom leaves a visible path in sauce, 8–10 minutes. Stir in chocolate and add brandy. Spoon over chicken breasts and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 384 calories
% fat calories: 40
Fat: 16g
Saturated Fat: 7g
Cholesterol: 85mg
Protein: 31g
Carbohydrate: 24g
Fiber: 2g
Sodium: 499mg

Chocolate-Almond Truffles
Makes about 36 / The better-quality chocolate you use, the richer and more delectable these simple, not-too-sweet truffles will taste. If almond flavoring isn't your favorite, substitute Frangelico or orange liqueur for the amaretto; roll in crushed hazelnuts or cocoa laced lightly with orange zest.

1 cup vanilla soy milk
16 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3-4 tablespoons amaretto, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 cup raw almonds
Pinch of salt

1. Heat soy milk in a saucepan until hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolates until smooth. Add amaretto and almond extract, if desired, and whisk. Place in refrigerator and cool for 2 hours or until firm.

2. Preheat oven to 300°. Toast almonds for 10 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. Cool. Transfer almonds to a food processor and add a pinch of salt. Grind until fine.

3. When chocolate is firm, scoop out portions and roll quickly between your palms, forming walnut-size balls. Roll each ball in crushed almonds, pressing into sides. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and keep cool until ready to serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1 truffle):
Calories: 119 calories
% fat calories: 64
Fat: 9g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 2g
Carbohydrate: 9g
Fiber: 1g
Sodium: 4mg

Pork Medallions with Chocolate-Orange Sauce
Serves 6 / The combination of orange juice with fresh ginger and a hint of earthy chocolate is stunning with pork medallions. This is a dish simple enough for a weeknight supper and gorgeous enough to serve to guests, all of whom will wonder just what's in your magical sauce. The hardest part of this recipe is cooking the medallions in batches and deglazing the pan with orange juice between the second and third batches; this important step prevents the pan juices from burning and ruining your sauce.

2 pounds pork tenderloins
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
1 cup orange juice, bottled or fresh
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1. Rinse tenderloins and dry well with paper towels. Cut off fat and any silver skin with a sharp paring knife. Cut tenderloins into even 1-inch slices and pound each gently with the flat side of a knife until 3/4-inch thick. Sprinkle slices with salt and pepper. You will have 24–28 slices total.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet until surface shimmers. Add 6–7 pork slices (no more or they won't be able to brown completely) and sear on one side for 90 seconds or until brown. Turn slices over and sear for another 80–90 seconds. Remove cooked slices to a plate and cover to keep warm. Repeat with 6–7 more slices.

3. After cooking and removing the second batch, pour in orange juice and scrape up browned bits with a wooden spoon. Pour orange juice mixture into a bowl and reserve.

4. Pour remaining 2 tablespoons oil into skillet and heat until shimmering. Repeat cooking process with third and fourth batches of tenderloin. After final batch is seared, remove from pan; add orange juice back into skillet, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Boil until thickened, 3–5 minutes.

5. Stir in chocolate and ginger until smooth; add pork slices and heat through for 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 308 calories
% fat calories: 51
Fat: 17g
Saturated Fat: 4g
Cholesterol: 96mg
Protein: 32g
Carbohydrate: 5g
Fiber: 1g
Sodium: 76mg

Weeknight Mole Sauce
Makes about 2 1/2 cups / Traditional mole recipes call for a mile-long list of ingredients, such as exotic chilies, pumpkin seeds, and whole spices, each of which must be individually toasted and ground. This much-simplified recipe uses pantry staples to produce a complex, delicious sauce. Serve over cheese quesadillas, bean burritos, or turkey, garnished with cilantro, avocado slices, and lime wedges.

3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2 large or 3 small onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons chili powder
1-2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes (optional), crushed in the hand to release oils
1 teaspoon natural cane or granulated sugar
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons natural peanut butter
1 tablespoon tahini (or peanut butter)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
3 tablespoons raisins, finely chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic (2–3 cloves)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano

1. Heat oil in a heavy skillet or saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Sauté onion until deep brown, reducing heat if onion starts to scorch, 8–10 minutes.

2. Stir in cumin, coriander, cinnamon, chili powder, red pepper flakes (if using), and sugar. Cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes or until fragrant. Stir in chocolate, peanut butter, tahini, chicken broth, tomatoes, raisins, garlic, and salt. Let sauce simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

3. Stir in lime juice and oregano and remove from heat. Transfer mixture to a food processor and purée in batches until smooth.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/2 cup):
Calories: 292 calories
% fat calories: 59
Fat: 20g
Saturated Fat: 5g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 8g
Carbohydrate: 24g
Fiber: 7g
Sodium: 671mg

Citrus Cocoa-Nib Salad
Serves 6 / Antioxidant-rich cocoa nibs—crushed, roasted cocoa beans—are available in natural foods stores and specialty shops. They aren't at all sweet but add a lush, flavorful note to simple salads like this one. You can also sprinkle them on granola or cereal, blend into smoothies, or use as a substitute for nuts or chocolate chips.

3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
Pinch of salt
8 cups mild salad greens, such as mesclun or red leaf lettuce
2 tablespoons cocoa nibs
1 avocado, sliced

1. Mix citrus juices and whisk in olive oil in a slow stream until dressing is thickened. Add salt.

2. Wash greens and place in a bowl. Pour dressing over greens. Add cocoa nibs and toss. Arrange avocado slices atop greens and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 158 calories
% fat calories: 80
Fat: 15g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Protein: 2g
Carbohydrate: 7g
Fiber: 4g
Sodium: 10mg