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Smoked olive oil doesn't sound quite right and in fact, "tasted strange for a couple of years," admitted Brenda Chatelain.

Chatelain's husband, Al Hartman, developed the idea as so many inventors do: "It was 3 in the morning and I couldn't sleep," he said.

But after four years of tweaking, the Napa Valley couple says they've got it right. They have a patent pending on the process, which Chatelain says smokes the oil without exposure to heat, light or air. And they're at the annual National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show (ending today at McCormick Place), sampling their three varieties of smoked olive oils -- which don't taste at all strange.

The oils, made in California, are ideal for finishing or marinating, rather than cooking. Their best-selling Sonoma variety is all satiny smooth on the tongue; Chatelain offered me a tiny hunk of bread dipped in the oil. I tasted it and immediately wanted a loaf of bread and a dipping bowl. The Napa has a brighter finish, good drizzled over pasta or vegetables, Chatelain suggested. And the Santa Fe has that bit of heat that tickles the back of your throat, thanks to chile de arbol.

The oils already have gotten a bump from celeb chef Tyler Florence, who uses them at his restaurants and has offered a testimonial, which Hartman and Chatelain are gladly using all over their promotional materials, and from Williams-Sonoma, which carries the original Sonoma variety nationally in its stores. A 200-millileter bottle costs $26 ($24 online).

The couple isn't done smoking. They have a smoked brown sugar that should be on the market in two months.

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If we stoked your competitive fires with last week's cover story on cooking contests, you might want to take note of a few more contests, big and small, with deadlines approaching.

Rhapsody Mother's Day Contest
The restaurant at 65 E. Adams is putting out a call for your mom's or grandma's best brunch, dinner or dessert recipes. E-mail recipes by noon April 22 to rhapsodyinfo@gmail.com, with your name and contact information.

Chef Dean Zanella will test the recipes and choose as many as six winners, whose dishes will be served at the restaurant on Mother's Day. Those winners also will eat free on May 8. There's no prize money but hey, you're doing this for Mom.

Cook's Country Holiday Cookie Contest
It's never too early to start thinking holiday cookies. The magazine is seeking recipes by April 30 for seven categories: drop; rolled; bar or square; icebox or log; sandwich; chocolate, and "other." cookie08-CST-1208-5.JPG

Include a 250-word essay on why your cookie is so special. For more details or to enter via e-mail, go to cookscountry.com/emailus.asp; or mail your entry to Holiday Cookie Contest, Cook's Country, Box 470739, Brookline, Mass., 02447.

There's a $1,000 grand prize, six $100 runner-up prizes and the distinction of seeing your recipe in the magazine.

Saveur.com Home Cook Challenge: Best Sandwich
No PB&Js here. Contenders thus far in the magazine's online contest (there's a different contest each month) include a Green Goddess grilled cheese and an onion, fig and prosciutto panini.

The deadline to enter is April 25; top prize is a $500 certificate to Sur La Table. Sending in a photo of your sandwich is optional, but probably a good idea.
For details and to enter, go to saveur.com/RecipeContest/contestIndex.jsp.

Gnarly Head Rippin' Ribs Competition at Ribfest Chicago
The barbecue circuit is pretty hardcore, so be prepared. Submit that pork ribs recipe you've been perfecting by May 15. If your recipe is chosen, you'll compete in the June 11 contest at Ribfest in North Center, which actually is the regional cook-off for the 2012 Memphis in May Barbecue Competition.

There are all sorts of cash and other prizes, but the grand-prize winner gets a spot on a team that will compete in Memphis. For more details and to enter, go to rippinribs.com.

potatosalt.jpg
[photo courtesy Dirk Flanigan]

Both recipes in Mike Austin's cover story celebrating the versatile, beloved potato call for roasting potatoes on a layer of kosher salt.

Why do this?

Mostly for flavor, says Seasons chef Kevin Hickey. Some cooks also say the salt ensures even roasting, and thus tender flesh.

Though you might be loath to empty out half your box of salt, relax -- you can re-use the salt after roasting. Just pour it back into a pinch bowl, a resealable bag, whatever.

If you didn't notice, today's Food section was overwhelmingly starchy for obvious reasons, with our Low Mileage Kitchen column also offering potato lore and two more recipes and a corned beef (and potato!) recipe in Swap Shop.

Still didn't get your fill of spuds? Head to the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, at 10 a.m. March 26 for a potato lecture given by culinary historian Andrew Smith. He's the author of the book, Potato: A Global History. Admission is $5. Call (312) 286-8781.

A few more notes from the International Home and Housewares Show, which ended Tuesday at McCormick Place (and what you won't read about in today's Food section):

* Green Toys, an eco-friendly California toy company, has ventured into kids' tableware made from curbside-collected milk jugs. The pastel-colored line of plates, utensils and cups ($5.99 to $12.99) are BPA-free and dishwasher-safe. Sales director Steve Markey says the company was getting so many requests from parents who confessed they were letting their kids use the toy dishware at the actual dinner table. I have no clue what they're talking about . . . Perfect-Portions-Food-Scale-Nutrition-Facts-Photo-1.jpg

* For weight watchers, Design Manufacture Distribution, based in St. Louis, exhibited a Perfect Portions digital food scale ($49.95) that incorporates the familiar Nutrition Facts panel on its surface. It comes with a book listing USDA values for about 2,000 foods (more than other similar scales, says inventor Chris Chupp); you plug in the code for whatever food you're weighing, and it gives you the nutritional breakdown. "What's really valuable is it's re-training people's eyes so they know how much a serving size is," Chupp says.

Scoot - cutting pizza.jpg * If you're in the market for a $15 pizza cutter, Joseph Joseph, a London company whose products have a Michael Graves feel to them, has just the thing. The Scoot does away with the handle of the typical pizza cutter. Push the center button, and the blade cover opens; the cover rotates back and locks in place for safe storage.

* I always try and stop by the Lodge cast iron booth to see what's new but also, I think, because I'm in love with cast iron. And Lodge is this Tennessee company that's been around for more than a century. And the first pan I bought with my own money was a Lodge skillet.

Two years ago, the company came out with these adorable mini-pans. They're got a petite guitar-shaped pan this year (a carryover from a promotion country singer Alan Jackson did with Cracker Barrel, spokesman Mark Kelly tells me), as well as the obligatory silicone in the form of pot holders and trivets. My eyes, however, were drawn to Lodge's ever expanding line of enameled cast iron, the same stuff sold by the deluxe French company Le Creuset. Lodge's 6-quart Dutch oven is $97; the Le Creuset 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven retails for as much as $315. Good to know.

* These candy eyeballs from Wilton need no description. It's just hard to believe someone at the Woodridge-based company didn't already think of these.

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house-FOO-0309-02.jpg [Bodum locking lid containers. | photo by Jean Lachat/Sun-Times]

Back from the International Home and Housewares Show at McCormick Place, where the breadth of reusable food containers -- stackable, collapsible, microwaveable -- was impressive. It gives me hope. Maybe people are cooking more, and thus producing leftovers that need containing.

But I know better.

Harry Balzer, vice president of the market research firm NPD Group and the guy I turn to whenever I want to know how people are really eating because he has the data to prove it, tells me what we are doing more of is eating at home.

And, he says, what we're eating more of are frozen foods. And the fastest-growing "preparation method" ("cooking" is such a loose term these days -- see Exhibit A, Sandra Lee), not surprisingly, has been warming and heating.

So kudos to these kitchenware companies who are paying attention and building nifty vents into the lids of their space-saving, eco-friendly containers.

Some day, when we're all actually cooking, we'll have somewhere to put the food.

[photo by Al Podgorski/Sun-Times]

Love to cook? Hugh Amano wants you. Haven't a clue how to cook? He wants you. Love to eat and talk? You're in, too.

Amano, a Chicago food blogger and cooking school instructor, is starting what he's calling a food-based "salon series" that he hopes will draw both novices and pros to the table to cook, eat and converse. 3-24-09_podgo_food_53.jpg

"It's a setting somewhere in between a class and say, an underground dinner, presenting simple food, instruction, then the sharing of the meal over conversation," Amano says.

His Lincoln Square apartment will be the salon, and he will provide the ingredients and equipment.

It's meant to be intimate -- roughly six at a time -- and "non-exclusive," and geared toward making you a better cook, he says.

"I want to connect those of you who are experts in, say, theater, with those of you who keep bees. Those of you who eat regularly at places like Alinea, and those of you who visit taquerias and hot dog stands on a daily basis," he wrote on his blog, Food on the Dole.

Amano started the blog in late 2008 after being laid off from his sous chef job. His theme, on the blog and in life, has been about eating well on limited means by cooking at home. To that end, he has organized occasional potlucks and "pie-offs."

He hopes to turn the salons into a weekly event, adding morning sessions and, come summer, trips to farmers markets to precede the cooking and eating.

The first Food on the Dole salon is March 10, and the cost is $50. Roast chicken will be the main course.

For location details and to sign up, e-mail hughamano@yahoo.com or go to foodonthedole.blogspot.com.

8:31 Frost Brownies.jpg

Why mess with a good thing? [Sun-Times file photo]

A bunch of students from Evanston Township High School got sick after eating pot-laced brownies. School officials say one kid baked them and brought them to school, according to a story on our website.

Sigh.

Not being versed in the culinary possibilities of marijuana (which exist, according to pot proponents), I can only urge the students next time to lay off the pot and just bake the brownies. It's proven that chocolate makes you happy. Happy is a high, isn't it?

My current favorite brownie recipe comes from Tcho. Bake these, kids, and you won't get sick. Fat, maybe, but not sick.

Recipe after the jump.

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[photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times]

Before she was infusing ganache with wasabi and coating marshmallows in pretzel-and-beer brittle, truffle truffle owner Nicole Greene made a living as a Defense Department analyst, briefing policy wonks on high-level security sort of stuff.

So that diagram you see above, that's a little of Nicole Greene the defense analyst coming out.

She was briefing me the hows and whys of tempering chocolate, as background to her guest column and accompanying video in today's Food pages. It was selfishness on my part to ask her to show me; I'd never tempered chocolate before. But I also was hesitant, because what's second nature to chefs is almost always not so much to the rest of us.

"Tempering is really intimidating. In some ways, it still is to me," Greene acknowledged before adding, "It's mostly intuitive."

When you temper, Greene explained, you move chocolate through a temperature range within a compressed time frame -- heat, cool, heat again -- to achieve a certain structure.

Why do it? If you're making candies or truffles, and you want that nice, shiny chocolate coating that, when set, has that certain "snap."

Again, Greene empasized, the process was mostly intuitive; no two pastry chefs temper the exact same way. But she quickly showed me and of course, she made it look easy. And then I went home and did it and ... success.

A few points: A thermometer is key (for me and you, at least; pros like Greene can do without). Keeping even the tiniest drop of water out of the chocolate is essential.

Here's Greene's method, which I hope works for you, too:

Start with high-quality chocolate in a dry bowl; set aside a small handful or chunk of chocolate for later. You'll see why.

Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat until about 90 percent of the chocolate is melted and the temperature hits about 123 degrees for dark chocolate (118 or 119 degrees for white).

Remove the bowl from heat and stir gently to melt the rest of the chocolate.

Then take that unmelted chocolate you've set aside -- in pastry chef parlance, this is your "seed" -- and toss it into the bowl. This chocolate, which already is tempered, "is going to give the melted chocolate a way to behave," Greene said.

Stir until melted; check the temperature again. When the melted chocolate cools to around 90 or 91 degrees, you've reached the tempered state.

"Flash" the bowl over a burner just a few times to warm it a few degrees, and you're done.

The chocolate should look satiny and shiny and, when it sets, will have that snap.

05-08-10-kim-roti01.jpg [photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times]

Itching to stretch those snowbound legs? Join a walking spice tour of Devon Avenue from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.

The intrepid tour leader is Anupy Singla, a former reporter for Bloomberg and CLTV, contributor to our Food pages, cookbook author, mother of two and all-around life force.

Singla left the news business four years ago to shift her focus to her two young daughters. As she explained to me when we first met in 2009, her girls' eating habits had veered from the healthy, home-cooked lifestyle that was always Singla's goal but not always possible with her journalist's schedule. So, she got cooking to get them back on track.

At the time, she already was tossing around ideas for a couple of books, one of them a cookbook on using the Crock-Pot to make Indian food -- the secret weapon in every Indian home cook's kitchen. In no time, she snagged a publisher, collected her family's recipes, started testing them and plying her friends and neighbors with food (all hilariously detailed on her blog and Facebook page). Within a year, warp speed in the publishing biz, her book, The Indian Slow Cooker, was on bookshelves. I did say 'life force,' didn't I?

Singla's working on a second book, still blogging, teaching occasional cooking classes. And her family is eating better than ever. The other day, Singla wrote on Facebook how one of her girls wouldn't stop eating the raw okra Singla was prepping for dinner.

Join Singla, if you can keep up, tomorrow in front of Patel Bros., 2610 W. Devon.

The tour is $42. For more details and to sign up, go to indianasapplepie.com/tours.

Missing Swap Shop recipe

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Readers of today's Food section who live downtown, on the North Side or in the northern suburbs likely noticed a goof in the Swap Shop column: The recipe for Chocolate Popcorn Biscotti is missing.

You'll find it in the online edition as well as below. Our apologies.

Chocolate Popcorn Biscotti
MAKES 24 COOKIES

1 cup egg substitute
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 cups air-popped popcorn, ground in food processor or blender
2¼ cups flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 teaspoons baking powder

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray.

In large bowl, combine egg substitute, vanilla and 1 cup sugar; mix well. Add popcorn, flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder; mix well (dough will be stiff but continue mixing until all ingredients are well combined).

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons sugar on work surface; divide dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll dough into 8-by-4-by- ½-inch logs; roll in sugar lightly on all sides. Transfer logs to baking sheet, leaving space between them. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow logs to cool 5 minutes.

Cut logs diagonally into ½-inch slices. Arrange in single layer on baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes; turn cookies over and bake 5 to 10 minutes longer, until lightly browned and crisp on both sides. Cool biscotti; store in airtight container. Serve with hot cocoa.

Popcorn Board

Nutrition facts per cookie: 106 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugars, 3 g protein, 209 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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