Perfect pairings for dark chocolate

February is the month for chocolate. But do you know dark varieties of chocolate are actually good for the heart, too? Here’s why

The darker the chocolate, the healthier it is for you. Cacao beans contain nutrients such as iron, potassium and fiber, as well as antioxidants. The higher the percentage of cacao in a chocolate bar, the darker the chocolate, and the higher it is in flavonoid antioxidants. These flavonoids appear to have beneficial effects on the body, such as relaxing blood vessels, promoting healthy circulation and playing a role in healthy blood pressure levels.

As with many of the finer things in life, less can be more. The health benefits associated with dark chocolate consumption have been seen in modest consumption of approximately one ounce a few times per week.

Darker chocolate’s characteristic bitterness is best appreciated through pairing it well with complementary flavors. If you’re new to dark chocolate, start with a lower percentage dark chocolate and work your way up to higher percentages of cacao over time.

Try some of these perfect dark-chocolate-with-food-and-drink pairings; you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of these combinations:

1. Fruit: Known for its bitter bite, dark chocolate helps neutralize very sweet fruits such as strawberries, bananas and dried apricots. However, its properties also create a combo with citrus fruits that pack an edgy punch.

2. Nuts: Nuts in chocolate desserts make an interesting addition from both taste and texture points of view. Add roasted hazelnuts, almonds and/or walnuts to a chocolate bark recipe (such as the one listed below) for added crunch and a delicious nutty bite.

3. Cheese: The sweetness of chocolate can sometimes overwhelm the palate, which is why aged cheddars, Gouda, Havarti and Parmigiano-Reggiano have a strong enough flavor to balance perfectly.

4. Coffee: Dark chocolate can have some very strong coffee undertones. And, since these two favorite foods are grown in similar regions of the world, coffee and chocolate have flavor profiles that tend to naturally complement each other. Dark chocolate goes well with a bold coffee, such as Italian roast. Serve small chunks of dark chocolate with freshly brewed coffee for a sweet and ultimately satisfying end to a meal.

5. Wine: Pair chocolate and wine according to the darkness of the chocolate. Like food, follow the general rule of wine pairings: the darker the chocolate, the darker the wine. Red wines (like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel) are ideal for dark chocolate.

For beer drinkers, dark chocolate pairs well with dark beers, like oatmeal stout.

Salted Caramel

Chocolate Bark

Makes 3 dozen (1-1/2-inch) pieces

All you need:

2 cups chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (or chips)

12 caramel squares

1 teaspoon water, divided

teaspoon sea salt

Chopped nuts (optional)

All you do:

1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. (Take care to avoid wrinkles!)

2. Place chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl; microwave on MEDIUM for 1 minute. Stir, then continue microwaving on MEDIUM, stirring every 20 seconds, until melted. (Alternatively, place in the top of a double boiler over hot, but not boiling, water. Stir until melted.)

3. Combine 6 caramel squares and teaspoon water in a small bowl; microwave on HIGH just until melted, 30 to 60 seconds. Immediately stir the melted caramel thoroughly into the melted chocolate. Scrape the mixture onto the foil and spread it into a 9-inch square.

4. Combine the remaining 6 caramel squares with teaspoon water in the small bowl and microwave on HIGH until melted, 30 to 60 seconds. Immediately drizzle the caramel over the chocolate and sprinkle with salt (and nuts, if desired). Refrigerate until set, about 30 minutes.

5. Transfer the bark and foil to a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces.

Nutrition information per piece: 52 calories; 3 g fat (2 g sat , 0 g mono ); 0 mg cholesterol; 8 g carbohydrates; 4 g added sugars;1 g protein; 1 g fiber; 20 mg sodium; 6 mg potassium

Adapted from: Eating Well

Katie Wilhelmi is a registered dietitian at the New Ulm Hy-Vee.

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