If you're tired of the frigid, bleak winter we've been having this year, it's time to set your sights on some treats that will help add a little heat and romance to your world. And yes, I'm going to focus on that most quintessential of Valentine's edibles -- chocolate. Yes, it's decadent, but it's got enough health benefits to be fitting for American Heart Month.
The Real Deal
In addition to its rich, addictive flavor, there's plenty of reason to love chocolate -- specifically the dark stuff. Milk chocolate has some benefits too, but they're watered down by the addition of milk and cream. White chocolate has none of the health benefits of its darker cousins, so enjoy it in wee amounts. As for dark chocolate, it's rich in heart-protective flavanols, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease. Chocolate may also help keep your skin hydrated and your brain sharp.
Chocolate contains the bone-building minerals magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc and phosphorus. And while chocolate does contain some saturated fat, it's mainly stearic acid, and unlike most saturated fats, that type does not increase cholesterol levels.
[Read: How to Serve Aphrodisiac Foods.]
The Good Stuff
A true romantic will understand that actually making something from scratch for your love is a much sweeter gesture than buying them chocolates in a box, no matter the price tag. And trust me, you don't need to be a pastry chef to make this Nutty Chocolate Bark from my new cookbook, "Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family." All you need to do is melt the chocolate, stir and freeze. Simple! And in addition to being addictively delicious, this bark also boasts anthocyanins from the tart cherries, heart-healthy fats from the nuts and, of course, all the benefits of dark chocolate I listed above. Anthocyanins are a type of phytonutrient that give cherries their deep red color and tart flavor, and also provide anti-inflammatory benefits.
Nutty Chocolate Bark ingredients:
9 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, chopped
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped
1/2 cup dried tart cherries, chopped
3 tablespoons flaked unsweetened coconut
1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1. Place water in the bottom of a double boiler and bring to a boil. (If you don't have a double boiler, place a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl isn't touching the water.) Meanwhile, chop the chocolate into large chunks. Set aside 1 tablespoon each of the pistachios, hazelnuts, cherries and coconut to top the chocolate. Place a Silpat mat or sheet of parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet; set aside.
2. Melt the chocolate in the top of the double boiler, stirring occasionally. Once the chocolate is completely melted and smooth, turn off the heat and stir in the pistachios, hazelnuts, cherries and coconut. Pour the chocolate mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading it out with a spatula to an approximately 8-by-10-inch rectangle. Sprinkle the reserved 1 tablespoon each of pistachios, hazelnuts, cherries and coconut evenly on top. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the chocolate.
3. Transfer the baking sheet to the freezer and freeze for 1 hour, until completely firm. Using your hands, break the chocolate into chunks and enjoy, or transfer to a sealed container. Store in the freezer for best results.
FAT 12 grams saturated; 6.3 grams monounsaturated; 1.7 grams polyunsaturated fat; 0.6 grams
PROTEIN 3 grams
CARBOHYDRATES 17 grams
FIBER 4 grams
CHOLESTEROL 0 milligrams
IRON 1 milligrams
SODIUM 59 milligrams
POTASSIUM 49 milligrams
CALCIUM 8 milligrams
Send it with Love
Maybe you're not in close proximity to your darling, but you still want to send him or her something healthy and delicious. Done! It's now easier than ever to find better-for-you options from online retailers. One that I'm a fan of is NatureBox. The company offers several dark chocolate treats that won't leave anyone feeling guilty, including Dark Cocoa Almonds, Dark Chocolate Berry Trail Mix and Cherry Ganache Granola (love a little chocolate for breakfast!). All the NatureBox goodies are made with either dark chocolate or real cocoa powder.
If you need to find a treat for that grown up with the discerning palate, who also enjoys an old-school treat, s'mores are a great option. You could put your own care package together with a chocolate bar, marshmallows and graham crackers, or you could up your game with the s'mores kit from Recchiuti Confections. Each kit comes with nine handmade vanilla bean marshmallows, eight graham crackers and a Recchiuti bittersweet chocolate bar, which is enough for four s'mores sandwiches -- perfect for a romantic evening. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a fire pit out back, you can roast the marshmallows the old-fashioned way. If not, place a piece of chocolate and a marshmallow on top of a graham and stick it in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 to 5 minutes. Heck, even if your hot date is in the same town, the decadent fun you'll get from making these is enough to warrant buying a kit.
However you celebrate this Valentine's Day, I hope it's chocolaty and sweet!
[Read: Best Heart-Healthy Diets.]
Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.