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In the world of cocoa, the discovery process is never-ending.

The story of the origins of this “Food of the Gods” (translated from its Latin, Theobroma Cacao) as well as its uses by ancient South American cultures is truly amazing. As are the many varied uses for this bean from the cocoa pod (fruit).

Cocoa History: A Short Primer

By mixing ground cocoa beans with water, black pepper, vanilla and spices the Mayans created a ritual drink to be shared during marriage ceremonies. This is one of the first known links between the reddish powder and the red-hot flames of love. So coveted was the magic of the cocoa that the Spaniards,  kept their discovery of this chocolatey drink a secret for nearly a hundred years.

By the mid-1600s, this cocoa drink had become popular in France and was considered “health food” consumed, of course, only by those who could afford it — the rich. The first hot chocolate shop made its way to London by the 1700s, by an enterprising Frenchman and they soon caught on.

By the time we reach the 18th century, cocoa had gone mainstream with most countries producing chocolatey confections. The introduction of the steam engine, mechanized cocoa bean grinding, making cocoa available to the masses.

Cocoa Fun Fact:

Cocoa beans served as money in early South American cultures, consumed only once the bean was worn. A horse could even be obtained with a stash of a mere ten beans.

Strawberry-Arugula Salad with Cocoa Balsamic Dressing

Though this dressing could be made with any style cocoa (choose your favorite) I chose Savory Spice Shop’s Mexican Cocoa for its beautiful blend of Dutch cocoa, Indonesian cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon and vanilla powder, adding complementary flavors and a subtle intensity to this dressing.

I have added prosciutto and goat cheese to the mix, to make this salad a meal in itself but you can omit them if you’d like to use this recipe as a light side salad or start.

Strawberry-Arugula Salad w/Prosciutto, Chevre and Honeyed Almonds

  •  4 oz nitrate-free prosciutto
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 12-16 medium, ripe strawberries (sliced)
  • 2 tbsp Chevre (soft goat cheese)
  • 1 bunch of fresh baby Arugula
  • 1Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup of chopped almonds
  • 1Tbsp honey

Rinse arugula and drain, wrap loose arugula in a towel to absorb excess water.

Be sure to de-stem, rinse and slice your strawberries .

Cook prosciutto in a skillet with 1tsp olive oil  until crisp. Remove from pan and lay out flat on a plate to cool and finish crisping (as it dries).

Add 1 Tbsp butter to a medium heat skillet, adding your chopped almonds as soon as butter is melted. Stir, until nuts begin to lightly brown and release their waxy nut scent (about 1 to 2 minutes). Add honey and let continue cooking on medium heat, until the honey is bubbly and reduced, clinging to the nuts. Remove nuts from pan and spread them out on a plate or wax paper to solidify to a candied state.

* Salad Dressing NOTE: If you do not have the thicker, sweeter balsamic syrup, place pan back on the stove (unrinsed) on a low heat and add the balsamic vinegar from recipe below. It will deglaze the pan removing any remaining flavors and reduce to a thicker (and slightly sweeter, thanks to the honey!) version of itself. About 5 minutes. Let cool before adding to dressing mixture.

Mexican Cocoa-Balsamic Dressing

  • 1 small  julienne shallot
  • 2Tbsp + 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1Tbsp Balsamic syrup or 2Tbsp Balsamic vinegar reduced
  • 1Tbsp Mexican cocoa
  • 1/8 tsp vanilla

Saute the julienne shallot in 1 tsp olive oil until just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Remove from heat and add to dressing bowl.

Add 2Tbsp olive oil and 1tbsp cocoa and whisk together quickly with fork or whisk. If you have balsamic syrup add it now. If not, make sure your reduction has cooled before adding to the rest of the dressing. Whisk to incorporate syrup.

Add 1/8 tsp of vanilla and salt and pepper to taste.

Salad Assembly

Plate the greens and divide the prosciutto among your plates, crumbling to ensure bite-sized pieces.

Add strawberries, dividing them equally among plates and maximizing for presentation.

Crumble soft Chevre, dotting the salad with small peanut-sized pieces.

Remove nuts from plate or wax paper. These will be stuck together (good!) If you need to pry them up (this won’t be hard) use the edge of a butter knife and crumble over the salads (again in bite-sized pieces.)

Drizzle with fresh Cocoa Balsamic Dressing and serve with a nice glass of white Muscato (for sweet) or red Sangiovese (for a little spice.)

Serves up to 4

Happy Eating!