“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” — Charles M. Schulz

With Valentine’s Day upon us, a conscious cook’s thoughts turn to that perfect expression of sublime satisfaction; chocolate. More particularly dark chocolate, a supreme ingredient not only in valentine dishes, but all year long.

Love is a many splendored assortment of chocolate, and hearts will flutter when presented with a gift of divine, dark deliciousness. A wonderful assortment of fair trade, organic chocolate is widely available in nearly every market today, perfect for sharing with your sweetheart.

Dark chocolate differs from milk chocolate in that it contains little or no milk solids. Also known as bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, dark chocolate containing 70% or more cacao offers seductive, sensational flavor, while providing specific health benefits.

The antioxidants and nutrients found in dark chocolate may have a positive impact on the body by possibly aiding circulation, reducing diabetes, protecting skin from UV rays and reducing the risk of melanoma. Dark chocolate contains iron, which produces new red blood cells to transport nutrients and oxygen to organs, bones, brain and tissues, as well as magnesium, which may reduce anxiety and muscle aches, while aiding digestion. Consuming dark chocolate may enhance brain and cognitive function, enhancing your intelligence level, always an attractive asset!

Perhaps the most appealing benefit of eating dark chocolate is its feel-good factor. A supreme mood enhancer, dark chocolate will surely guarantee an evening of pure happiness! For a simple, yet super sexy dessert, assemble a tasting plate of dark chocolate squares with increasingly high cacao content. Pretty up the plate with fresh raspberries or strawberries and a mint leaf or two. Taste one small square at a time, letting each morsel melt slowly. Close your eyes and relax into the experience as the individual nuances of each chocolate are revealed. Delight your valentine date with warm, dark chocolate fondue. Serve with bright orange Cutie mandarins, sweet, crispy apple slices, perfectly ripe bananas and light, lovely angel food cake for dipping. Or if your palate prefers, prepare a dark chocolate bark studded with pomegranate and chopped pistachios, or tiny bits of ginger and dried blueberries or cherries.

If your appetites are clamoring for more substantial fare, dark chocolate lends itself brilliantly to savory short ribs, steaming, smoky chili, coffee- and chocolate-rubbed baby back ribs or roast turkey breast with mole poblano, or add grated dark chocolate to eggplant caponata for an engaging hors d’oeuvre.

Capture your lover’s heart with captivating dark chocolate and share the joy of preparing a delicious life!

Charming Chocolate Fondue

2 cups half-and-half (or heavy cream if you are feeling very indulgent)

12 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao or more), chopped

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons Frangelico, Amaretto, dark rum or kirsch (optional)

¼ teaspoon orange zest

Heat the half-and-half or cream in a saucepan over low to medium heat until quite warm, but do not bring to a boil. Add chopped chocolate and vanilla and stir until all the chopped chocolate has melted and is quite smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in orange zest and any liquor if using. Transfer to a pretty pot if desired, or leave in the saucepan and serve with fruits, angel food or pound cake, berries, pretzels or grapes.

For more on Robin Glowa, HHC, AADP. “the Conscious Cook,” go to www.theconsciouscook.com.