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Of Chile and Chocolate


Virginia wine and spicy custard

Virginia's sweet wines are the perfect match for this spicy custard! Photo by Sylvie Rowand.

Peppers (aka chiles) and chocolate are products of the Americas – unknown in Europe until the Spanish conquistadors brought them home in the 16th century. Can you imagine Belgium or Switzerland without chocolate? Calabrian or Greek cuisines without hot peppers?

Cocoa was an expensive beverage – and an acquired taste, too, since it was served without sugar or milk, both unknown in Mesoamerica, but with hot chilies and vanilla, both Mesoamerican native spices. Expensive, bitter and spicy, it’s no wonder cocoa was considered a medication.

Yet, once the Europeans added sugar and milk, hot cocoa, as we know it today, took off. Starting in the 18th century, various processes were developed to form chocolate bars and candies. The modern eating chocolate bar was born in the mid-19th century.

As other tropical areas of the world started to grow the cocoa tree for its seeds, the cocoa bean, which is dried and fermented, chocolate’s popularity was sealed.

Chiles and cocoa work great together indeed: a number of chocolatiers are teasing our taste buds by adding the spice to their gorgeous chocolate confections. You can do it at home too! Add unsweetened cocoa to your favorite chili recipe. Throw a pinch of hot ground chile in chocolate desserts.

I make no claim for their health benefits nor for their possible aphrodisiac qualities, but I can assure you that chocolate and chilies, alone or together, are wonderful winter fare. As both recipes below can be prepared in advance, they are as appropriate for Monday night football as for Saturday dinner with friends. In fact, no occasion needed.

* chile = hot pepper; chili = meat dish using chilies and other spices.

Virginia wine is a perfect match for chili

What better way to warm up this winter than with a bowl of chile and a glass of your favorite Virginia wine? Photo by Sylvie Rowand.

Chili with Vanilla and Cocoa
Serves 8 to 10

3 tablespoons lard (more as needed)
1 pound unseasoned ground pork
2 pounds ground beef, preferably pastured (or bison or venison)
1 dry ancho pepper
2 to 8 dry cayenne peppers to taste
1 large onion, diced finely
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
4 large plump garlic cloves, minced finely
4 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or ½ dry)
2 14-oz can diced tomatoes
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
½ vanilla bean, split in half
Tomato juice as needed
Salt to taste
Chopped cilantro to garnish

Remove stem end and seeds of the chile. Cover with boiling water. Let stand 30 minutes. Puree in the food processor with 1 cup of the soaking water. Reserve any remaining soaking water.

Melt 1 tablespoon lard in a Dutch oven. Add sausage, brown over high heat, breaking the meat in small pieces. Don’t overcrowd the pan to avoid steaming the meat.

Once pork is browned, remove with a slotted spoon. Add 2 tablespoons lard, brown the beef as above, in several batches. Add more lard as needed. Remove the meat once browned

Lower heat to medium, add onion and whole cumin seeds to pot. Cook 8-10 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic, paprika, coriander, cumin and thyme, stirring well after each addition.

Add pork, beef, chile puree, diced tomatoes (and their juice). Stir to combine well. Lower heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

Add cocoa. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean and add them (along with the bean) to the pot.  Salt to taste. Add soaking water from chile and/or tomato juice as needed: I like a thick chili, but you may prefer it more stew-like. Simmer for 2 hours.

Serve with rice or polenta. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

This chili calls for a robust wine. Try it with Veranda from Amrhein Cellars. This blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petit verdot makes a full-bodied wine with flavors of black plum, chocolate and coffee. Then again a Beaujolais-Villages-style wine, or even something like Potomac Point’s La Bella Vie Rose, with its light body and crisp strawberry flavors, would work, too. I do either at my house… depends on the mood.

Spicy Chocolate Custard

6 servings (a generous ½ cup each – or stretch this very intense custard to 8 smaller servings)
3 eggs, preferably from pastured hens
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
dash each of salt, cinnamon and cayenne
2 cups whole milk, preferably organic from pastured cows
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (or chopped eating-quality bittersweet chocolate – maybe even try with a chopped handmade chocolate from Glass House?)

Put water to boil in a kettle.

Warm up milk until barely simmering. Add chocolate, stirring constantly until completely melted – about 1 minute.

Whisk eggs, salt and spices in a large bowl. Slowly pour in the hot milk, whisking briskly and constantly to avoid curdling the eggs.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Pour custard back into saucepan, whisking constantly while the oven is preheating.

Distribute custard among 6 small ovenproof containers. Place containers in a deep ovenproof pan, ensuring they do not touch. Pour hot water in pan until it reaches ½ way up the custard containers. Carefully transfer to oven. Bake 30 minutes.

Let cool. To sweeten (if desired), offer maple syrup and freshly whipped cream.

This intense barely-sweet custard provides a grown-up taste, with a spiciness that lingers in the mouth. It works well with Virginia port (maybe Horton’s vintage Port or Veritas’ Othello) although I also like it with a snifter of Wasmund’s whiskey. (Mary Ann adds: Go all out with the chocolate theme and try Glass House Meglio del Sesso – a chocolate dessert wine made with Norton, Chambourcin and Cab Franc grapes and real chocolate!)