By ALISON LADMAN
A box of chocolates? A slice of chocolate cake? So very been-there-done-that.
This Valentine's Day, up the ante with your expression of love via chocolate.
Rather than simply end the meal with a sweet hit of cocoa, why not use it as the inspiration for the entire menu? Start with slices of soft goat cheese sprinkled with a blend of unsweetened cocoa powder and chili powder, then topped with a Peppadew pepper.
Then move on to our flank steak rubbed with ground cocoa nibs, coffee and pumpkin seeds. Accompany that with a warm, soft polenta spiked with chopped dates and cocoa butter.
Then finish the meal with a simple chocolate tart, chocolate martinis, or a plate of dates and figs to dunk in a pot of hot fudge sauce.
Cocoa-coffee flank steak
Start to finish: 2 hours 20 minutes (20 minutes active)
1 tablespoon cocoa nibs
1 teaspoon ground coffee
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces flank steak
Using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind the cocoa nibs, coffee, chili powder and pepitas until a fine powder. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the oil and salt. Rub the spice mixture over all the steak, then set it on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to overnight.
When ready to cook, heat a skillet to medium-high. When the pan is hot, coat it with cooking spray and add the steak. Sear for 3 minutes per side, or until cooked to desired doneness. Allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then thinly slice.
Nutrition information per serving: 430 calories; 220 calories from fat (51 percent of total calories); 24 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 50 g protein; 580 mg sodium.
Cocoa butter-date polenta
Start to finish: 20 minutes
2 ounces food-grade cocoa butter (sold as chunks at natural foods shops)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup cornmeal polenta (not instant)
1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram
1/3 cup chopped dates
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the cocoa butter. Add the shallots and cook until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the milk and bring to a simmer. While whisking, pour the polenta in a thin stream into the simmering milk. Stir in the marjoram and the dates.
Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened and the polenta is tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.
Nutrition information per serving: 500 calories; 270 calories from fat (54 percent of total calories); 31 g fat (18 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 50 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 28 g sugar; 10 g protein; 230 mg.