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Playing matchmaker with odd flavors

A pie its fragrant ingredients Sweet Cakes Bakery 901 N. Damen. (Keith Hale/Sun-Times)

A pie and its fragrant ingredients at Sweet Cakes Bakery, 901 N. Damen. (Keith Hale/Sun-Times)

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Looking to get busy in unexpected ways this Valentine’s Day? Turn to these strange bedfellows.

• Try raw oysters with a pinch of horseradish or wasabi, paired with ice wine. According to Amy Reiley, author of Fork Me, Spoon Me & The Love Diet, the combination of sweet, briny, bitter and hot affords an “absolute explosion of sensuality.”

• Emily Smith of Sweet Cakes Bakery suggests turning breakfast in bed on end — by making goat’s milk cheese-apricot quiche.

• Keep it casual but quirky by braising pork shoulder for tostadas. Serve them topped with roasted corn, pickled red onions, avocado and cilantro-chocolate sauce. This comes courtesy of chef Ryan Repplinger of Gold Class Cinemas in South Barrington, who favors the commingling of sweet, salty, buttery and sour.

• Concoct a kooky cocktail, such as Mon Ami Gabi’s Russian Love Affair, made from muddled grapes, lavender-infused simple syrup, grape vodka, Marie Brazzard Parfait d’Amour and white grape juice.

Jennifer Olvera

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Updated: May 10, 2011 4:46AM

The countdown to Valentine's Day is on, and you're coming up empty. All those purported aphrodisiacs, left as is, seem uninspired, never mind the luxury ingredients you haven't the foggiest idea how to prepare.

To the rescue: Chicago chefs, with some strange, tasty stuff.

Wave chef Kristine Subido has always had an appetite for the off-kilter.

"I'm used to eating sweet-savory things," says the Filipino chef. So while her friends devoured potato chips, "As a kid, I'd dip French fries in frosting as a snack. Meanwhile, my mom made potato chip cookies."

One of Subido's earliest cooking memories involves watching an episode of "Great Chefs of Chicago," during which an Italian-born toque prepared eggplant as a dessert.

"He salted, floured and pan-fried it in olive oil," she recalls. "Then, he sprinkled it with powdered sugar. It intrigued me, so I prepared it myself when I was in seventh grade."

Subido has since traced the recipe's origins to the Amalfi Coast.

"Monks dipped eggplant in liquor mixed with herbs, spices and sugar," she says. "When chocolate was brought to Europe from the New World in the 16th century, the Amalfi people began dipping their eggplant in that."

Subido has since perfected her own rendition, and finds it makes perfect sense.

Of course, peculiar food pairings also happen by accident. Ryan Poli of Perennial in Lincoln Park recently devised a dish of celery root tortellini with wild mushrooms and brussels sprouts in mushroom broth.

"Something was missing," he says. "I decided to play off the bitterness of the brussels sprouts, so I brewed some coffee, added it and the dish was done."

Poli also conceptualizes dishes thematically, which explains why he folds rose petals into brownies (it's important to use petals that have never been treated with pesticides). He serves them with rosewater-infused whipped cream.

"It's a sensual, romantic dessert, but it's not necessarily extravagant," he says.

With oysters - a veritable home run for the lover's holiday - Poli suggests accenting the sweet, juicy essence of Kumamotos with a small dice of cantaloupe and tarragon.

"It would be a nice counterpart to the cucumber-y, salty finish of the oysters," he says.

At Sweet Cakes Bakery in Ukrainian Village, Emily Smith punches up cherry-dried apricot pie with thyme and black pepper, while "Top Chef" alum Dale Levitski complements goat cheese with the flavors of pear, macadamia nut and licorice at his Lincoln Park restaurant Sprout.

Stephanie Izard is shaking things up in similar fashion at Girl and the Goat. Her rosemary-accented sugo of goat, pork and veal - served atop pappardelle with cape gooseberries - is one such example.

The goal when working with disparate ingredients, say chefs, is to strike a balance of texture and flavor, to accentuate certain attributes or - in the case of rich meats - dial them down with something acidic or sweet.

But keep in mind: Less can be more.

"I like to build a dish around one or a few items , usually seasonal produce," says Paul Virant of Vie.

Perhaps that's what Boka chef Guiseppe Tentori's wife was going for when she used Hamburger Helper as a sauce base for lasagna. Come to think of it, that's probably not an advisable way to woo.

Jennifer Olvera is a Brookfield free-lance writer.

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