Playing with the flavor of smoke

My kitchen smells like pot, but there's nothing going on here to concern the Police Department. Maybe the Fire Department.

I'm taking a gizmo that looks like a toy gun, stuffing wood shavings into the top and lighting them afire. My motivation is not pyromaniacal but gastronomical: getting the flavors of applewood, cherry, hickory and mesquite into foods that can't stand up to conventional smoking.

Like salad greens. Soup. Goat cheese. Ice cream.

The $99 Smoking Gun is a strange combination of high-tech and primal, a molecular gastronomy gadget that delivers a flavor known since cavemen first put woolly mammoth flesh to flame. But its focus on smoke is hardly unusual.

Smoke is seeping into more restaurant dishes and drinks, sometimes in unexpected ways. And in home kitchens, smoke would be the new salt if it weren't, in fact, already one with salt. Smoked sea salts are just one of many smoked spices whose sales are hot.

"Smoky is totally on trend for flavors for consumers right now," said Laurie Harrsen, a spokeswoman for McCormick, the Sparks-based spice company that in the past three years has added smoked paprika, chipotle pepper powder and a half-dozen smoked rubs, marinades and seasoning blends.

Smoked paprika, introduced 31/2 years ago at the height of the "Spanish tapas craze," has grown so popular that it recently cracked the company's list of top 10 best-selling items, Harrsen said. Sales of chipotle pepper, made with smoked jalapenos, have "exploded."

"They see it called for in magazines and the Food Network," Harrsen said of smoked spices generally. "We believe it's definitely a consumer trend we don't see slowing down any time soon."

Part of the appeal is that smoky seasonings are different, but not too different, Harrsen said. For a home cook already familiar with paprika, a bottle of smoked paprika is not the stretch a jar of garam masala might represent.

"I just think consumers are looking for new flavors all the time," she said. "And I think smoky is something that is not an idea that's foreign to them. … People are looking for all this depth of flavor. Nobody wants to have just plain chicken anymore or plain steak."

Which isn't to say smoke doesn't also appeal to adventuresome eaters, home cooks and chefs. Who else would shell out for a smoke-shooting gun? And armed with that, who else would make, consume or even conceive of smoked chocolate ice cream, something Chicago pastry chef Kriss Harvey recommends doing with the Smoking Gun.

Too skeptical of that concept to make a smoked homemade ice cream without a trial, I scooped dark chocolate and dulce de leche Haagen-Dazs into zipper bags and filled them with smoke from Earl Grey tea leaves. That produced the aforementioned aroma of weed if not, alas, an edible dessert. The ice creams tasted like cigarettes.

I had tastier results with other foods, and have good reason to expect even better things from the gun after getting pointers last week from chef Bryan Voltaggio, who has been using it for two years at Volt, his Frederick restaurant. Voltaggio and his brother and fellow "Top Chef" contestant, Michael Voltaggio, have been promoting the gun for Williams-Sonoma.

Made by PolyScience, the Illinois-based maker of lab equipment that branched into cookery with sous vide systems, the gun has a little compartment in the top for wood shavings and a battery-operated fan that sucks the smoke out and into a tube.

A small instruction pamphlet tells users to put whatever they want to smoke into a dish or pot with a lid, or a bowl sealed with plastic wrap. One end of the tube is slipped inside. The fan is turned on, the wood shavings are lit and the smoke quickly fills the bowl. The fan is shut off and the food is left for a few minutes to soak up the smoke.

I found the device worked very well on a salad of spinach, goat cheese and apple, with the applewood smoke imparting a flavor reminiscent of bacon. A cloud of mesquite enhanced a pan of sauteed mushrooms.

Before trying it out on homemade soup, I threw half a can of Campbell's tomato in the blender, filled it with smoke, and whirred the smoke in to great effect. But the smokiness couldn't penetrate a large pot of homemade corn soup I made next. It only came through when I smoked it in bowl-sized batches.

The smoke also failed to seep into roasted pecans, hazelnuts and diced, cooked chicken. (And that was before a metal screen in the gun clogged so badly that the smoke could no longer get through. The screen is supposed to come out for cleaning, but even my mechanically inclined husband couldn't remove it. Voltaggio has assured me a tweezers will do the job.)

Some foods will absorb smoke better if they are warm when smoked, Voltaggio said, explaining that heat makes them more porous. (Following that suggestion, I smoked a pork chop and some roasted nuts while they were still hot and found they soaked up the smoky flavors much better.)

Voltaggio uses the gun a little differently than PolyScience and Williams-Sonoma instruct. He makes two holes in the plastic wrap that covers his smoking containers, one to insert the hose into, the other to serve as a vent. Then, instead of just running the gun the few seconds it takes to fill the bowl with smoke, he keeps the fan going until the chips burn out. For dense foods, he'll repeat the process several times.

"If it's not a continuous flow [of air], you get a weird, sooty flavor" because the soot can't escape, theorized chef Jeff Smith of Chameleon restaurant, who has played around a little with smoking, though not with the Smoking Gun, and not always with success. (Don't even ask about the time he tried to smoke whole eggs over a wood fire in the restaurant. They exploded.)

Voltaggio uses the gun to flavor meats, fish and even mixed drinks.

"We smoke ice cubes," he said, explaining that water absorbs more smoke as frozen cubes than in liquid form because there's more surface area. The cubes turn up in Manhattans. They're also melted and used in Scotch and water, complementing the Scotch, which, the chef noted, "is already very peaty."

In addition to wood shavings, Voltaggio smokes pine needles, dried apple leaves and parsnip peels to flavor duck, squab, partridge and foie gras. He'll smash cinnamon sticks with a hammer and smoke those into cream that goes into caramel ice cream. (For the record, he's not a fan of smoked chocolate ice cream.) He sometimes serves freshly smoked foods in a covered dish, removing the top tableside with a dramatic, smoky flourish.

"Even at home now, even in a restaurant setting, we can instantaneously change the characteristics of a dish," he said.

Not everyone thinks a gun is the way to get smoke into food.

Chef Michael Gettier serves a smoked asparagus soup at Antrim 1844's Smokehouse Restaurant in Taneytown. He gets the smoke in there the old-fashioned way: He takes 40 pounds of chicken bones and smokes them over three pounds of hickory chips for the better part of an hour. Then he makes a stock out of the bones and uses the stock in the soup.

"We're smoking half of Taneytown out of town," he said.

Gettier is familiar with the Smoking Gun — his wife is manager of the Williams-Sonoma store in Towson, and she's brought one home for him to try out — but he'd sooner use Liquid Smoke.

"To have a little gun and go, 'Whooo,' come on, now," he said. "It would be like take a puff on a cigarette and blowing against a piece of food. That might work better."

Chef Bryan Voltaggio's Smoking Gun tips

•Make two holes in the plastic wrap that covers smoking containers. Insert the hose into one. The other will serve as a vent.

•Keep the fan blowing smoke into the bowl until the wood chips burn out.

•Repeat the process for dense foods like meat.

•Warm certain foods, like nuts or meat, to help them better absorb the smoke.

•Use tweezers to remove clogged filters