Fruit of the Month: Cacao
Covered in a sweet, creamy pulp, cacao seeds are used to create some of the world’s most delicious chocolate treats. The cacao plant, which has a long history in Latin America, was once considered a valuable currency among Meso-American cultures. Today, the plant is valued more for its culinary worth – even fresh off the tree, the cacao pod’s silky white pulp makes for a delicious snack.
After falling prey to a rampant fungal disease several decades ago, Costa Rica’s cacao crop diminished considerably. Luckily, the country’s Caribbean coast held on to old traditions and today, this region is the nation’s hotbed for organic chocolate production. To share their ancient knowledge and love of this valuable crop, indigenous families host daily cacao tours. Learn about the cacao plant’s history, participate in harvesting pods, grinding beans, and extracting creamy cocoa butter.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is considered one of nature’s top brain foods: the bean is rich in iron, magnesium, chromium, manganese and zinc. These minerals may help balance blood sugar, boost the immune system, fortify the liver, and promote healthy skin. Raw chocolate is the only known plant to supply the endorphin anandamide, a chemical that induces bliss. Additionally, the plant contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid, as well as serotonin – a neurotransmitter known to improve mood.
In Costa Rica, fresh cacao pods are seasonally available at your local farmers’ market or grocery store. Organic cocoa powder and bar chocolate – both the bittersweet and milk varieties – are available at many local supermarkets and at small farms located in the country’s tropical regions, especially along the central and southern Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Though there are myriad ways to enjoy Costa Rican cacao, one of my favorites is rich, creamy hot cocoa:
Homemade Hot Cocoa
1/3 cup organic, unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup raw cane sugar
1/3 cup boiling water
3 1/2 cups 2% milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup evaporated milk
Pinch of salt
Mini marshmallows (optional)
Combine cocoa powder, raw sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Slowly add in the boiling water, whisking constantly to incorporate completely. Reduce heat to medium and continue stirring. Bring the chocolate mixture to a boil; be careful that it does not scorch. Add milk and continue stirring until the mixture is very hot but has not boiled. Remove from heat, add vanilla and divide between three or four mugs. Add evaporated milk to achieve desired creaminess.