February is a good month to talk about chocolate. For most of us, chocolate means dessert, but it can also be an ingredient in savory dishes. For example the flavorful mole sauce from the Mexican tradition is a different way to work in some healthy dark chocolate.
We do not often see in American cuisine the different flavors from garlic, tomato, peanuts, chili peppers and chocolate combined into a single dish. But in fact not only are these flavors complimentary, this sauce is a wealth of health promoting ingredients.
We have heard how red wine and green tea lower our risk of heart disease. They contain the molecule polyphenol. Well guess what, dark chocolate has more polyphenols than red wine or green tea. Studies have shown that people with pre-hypertension (Defined as consistent readings over 120/80 and less than 140/90) can expect to see some reduction in blood pressure by consuming small amounts of dark chocolate on a regular basis. This may be due to the vasodilating effects of chocolate. When our blood vessels relax, our blood pressure goes down.
The health promoting ingredient in dark chocolate is cacao. Look for chocolate that is 70% cacao or greater to get the most health benefit. People who eat as little as half an ounce per day (That’s literally a couple of bites.) lower their risk of heart disease.
Another health promoting ingredient in mole is the chili pepper. In Mexico it is a myth that chilies are used to make dishes hot and spicy. Rather they add a full rich flavor. There are over 150 varieties of chili peppers many of which are not hot. If you want to reduce the spiciness but retain the flavor and nutrition of the chili, remove the seeds before adding them to your dish. Remember to wear gloves or be careful not to touch the seeds because a casual eye rub can turn into a severe irritation.
Chili peppers are high in vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and fiber. The flavor that they bring to mole sauce can best be described as a warm glow. They are a rich background flavor to the symphony of the garlic, tomato, nuts and chocolate.
Find dried chilies in the spice section of your grocery store or in a Mexican grocery store. Fresh varieties will be on the produce aisle. The Ancho chili is a dried version of the fresh pablano pepper and is the most widely used chili in Mexico.
Whether you enjoy a bite of dark chocolate after a meal, as an afternoon snack or prepared in an exotic sauce like mole, the health benefits and rich flavors are sure to excite your palate. Try something different this month. This mole goes well on any lean meat; chicken, pork loin or lean beef. Who says eating healthy is boring?
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin. The Polk Center provides education on diabetes, heart disease and weight loss and sponsors monthly classes and support groups on healthy lifestyle. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations featuring Tim Scallon and the celebrated Chef Manuel Marini. Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 46 cities and online at http://www.memorialhealth.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information. Call 639-7585 for more information.