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'Chocolate Obsession II'

Chocolate's persona typically is pure comfort. When paired with pasta, cheese or bacon, maybe not so much.

"You just can't believe that this would be good," says chef and cooking instructor Sandy Dowling. "You can really get outside your comfort zone."

Dowling challenges diners to enjoy an entire meal infused with chocolate every year at her Willows Cooking School in Central Point. The concept of savory and sweet courses incorporating chocolate will be repeated March 1 at the ninth annual Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland. Home cooks can create their own chocolate entrees for Valentine's Day — or anytime — by starting with obvious complements: chilies, coffee and sea salt.

"You can do so many things with it," says Dowling. "If I say chocolate to you, do you think of caramel, do you think of raisins, do you think of nuts?"

Chocolate-covered fruits are an obvious garnish on a salad dressed with chocolatey vinaigrette, says Dowling. Just be sure to use a very mild-flavored lettuce, such as butterhead, skipping bitter greens, she says. Oranges, in particular, are ideal salad-course fodder for chocolate, she adds.

"Chocolate and orange are always so magical together."

While sweet potatoes and winter squash handily carry off chocolate, very few vegetables can, says Dowling. But zucchini surprisingly does, she says. Beets, fennel and asparagus are featured on the Chocolate Makers' Dinner menu, crafted by Larks restaurant chef Damon Jones for the chocolate festival.

Appetizers also can be "tricky" to prepare with chocolate, says Dowling. For the first course of her Feb. 19 class, the chef plans to bake a chocolate-chipotle cookie wafer-thin, sprinkle it with sea salt, then top it with a bit of cheese, maybe Rogue Creamery's chocolate-stout or lavender cheddar.

"You would not believe how good that tastes," says Dowling. "There's an explosion in your mouth."

Spice, for good reason, is one of chocolate's best friends. Traditional Mexican recipes, notably molé, are ideal vehicles for unsweetened chocolate, which ancient Aztecs considered not only aphrodisiac but medicinal.

Tamales and other Latin dishes played heavily into chocolate-dinner menus about five years ago, says Jones. More recent events, he says, have veered away from the "easy route," particularly since he spent some time away from Ashland as executive chef at the country club in Hershey, Pa., where chocolate is a way of life.

"This is probably the most challenging menu to write because of the chocolate in it," he says. "Most people's idea of chocolate is milk chocolate, and that's not really what we're using."

Pure cocoa is too bitter for consumption in bar form, says Jones, but it's "amazing to cook with." Cinnamon and chilies balance the bitterness, and cumin or smoked paprika accentuate chocolate's warm, rich earthiness. Cooks should reach for unsweetened cocoa powder, which is fairly acidic, or cocoa nibs, bits of dried cacao beans that have been roasted and crushed.

Hearty proteins — beef, pork, rabbit and wild game — all benefit from a dark-chocolate braise or rub. Dowling's menu will meld bacon and chocolate.

"Those are two things that people absolutely love," she says.

And because chocolate is most beloved in dessert, Dowling plans to include at least two in the seven courses. Participants will digest plenty of chocolate lore and tips, plus wine.

Wine is not included in the Chocolate Festival dinner, which costs $62 per person, including tax and service charge. For reservations, call Ashland Springs Hotel at 541-488-1700.

Reach Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.