Monday, November 3, 2014

Meet Your Makers: Paula Garcia of OMed Olive Oil

Paula Garcia knows a thing or two (or ten, twenty, a hundred!) about good olives and their oils. She’s a fourth generation olive grower and her family has been harvesting those green gems for decades now. Interestingly enough they’ve only recently begun producing and selling their own product…previously harvests were sold to oil co-ops that didn’t speak to their true potential until the Garcias took the reins themselves. O-Med stands for many things, among them being small yield, which you’ll come to know is the best way to appreciate the full flavor of these olives. Nathan from our staff was able to talk with Paula and find out why O-Med is a philosophy, not just a family business.

PFW: For starters I just wanted to say how happy we are to be carrying such fantastic olive oils from such a historically-rich region as Granada, Spain. As a family-owned business operating smaller olive groves in the southern region of your country, what would you say O-Med values most through your oil production?

O-MED: I would like to say as well, that for us it is a great pleasure to be present in one of the most emblematic shops in Chicago...I still remember the first time we did a tasting in this shop. O-Med [will] always be grateful, as Provenance trusted our products since the beginning. Regarding your question: in O-Med we value first raw quality.. As you know all of our products are early harvest when the olives are still very green.. We sacrifice quantity of olive oil for obtaining a great and fresh olive juice..We want to [show] consumers of O-Med our passion for food, and more over for olive oil. We like that the consumers see olive oil not just an ingredient. But far more than this, it’s really a product that can make a dish!

PFW: With so many commercially-produced olive oils on the market, many consumers are oftentimes left with bottles of bland, flat, unexciting versions on their pantry shelves. One thing we love so much about O-Med oils is the concentration of aromas and flavors in your bottles…is this because you limit the amount of product you eventually release to the market?

O-MED: The key of our production method is the early harvest. As you know an extra virgin olive oil is a ‘juice of olive’. As it happens with other juices… such as an orange juice... the fresher the fruit the fresher the juice… for the olive oil is the same. We try to really find the optimal point of ripeness of the olive to obtain the best juices of olive! To obtain complex aromas and flavors, it is very important as well to control two parameters during the production; temperature and time. As you know, all components of the aromas are thermolabil, meaning, sensitive to temperature. So it’s is important to work always under low temperatures and as quick as possible, so the fruit is freshest as possible.

PFW: While O-Med prides itself on being a young, dynamic company, there is certainly a notable sense of skill and craft in your olive oils...prior to founding the business, was olive oil something that was always made in your family?

O-MED: Our family has been in the olive oil business since generations, actually we are the 4th generation. Until 2005, we controlled everything but the processing of the olives... the actual production of olive oil. My dad used to sell the olives to a cooperative, so up to then we could not control anything on the production! In cooperatives your olives are treated the same as they treat them for other is difficult to guarantee high quality. The dream of my father was to be able to control everything, even the production. Having been grown up surrounded of olive trees, he knew all about it...and he just needed the tools for it!

PFW: We make it a point to carry products made by smaller, artisanal producers for a variety of reasons. One of them being that there is always a story worth sharing when we offer a product that was made by people who believe large-scale, commercially made products often lack character, history, complex flavors or quality. Being small producers yourselves, why do you feel it is important for your family business to operate on the scale it chooses to be at? Do you feel O-Med wouldn’t be as successful as it is if it were a big-box, large commercial producer?

O-MED: O-Med is not just a company, for us it is a tradition, a passion! We fight to educate people not only about our olive oil, we would like to see expansion and the cultivation of a culture that uses and has knowledge of extra virgin olive oils. O-Med produces only a limited quantity of its extra virgin olive oils (Arbequina and Picual). If we choose to produce massively, it would be impossible to keep having the aromas and flavors as we do now. O-Med is for our family like our little spoiled child. We want it to be in the best hands as possible, stores and retailers that care about quality and the story which is behind the product.

PFW: Shortly after the actual olive harvest out in the groves, they’re taken to the nearby mill for processing (in under an hour and a half no less, impressive!). From there in the groves, what are the next steps taken to get your product into bottles?

O-MED: one of the biggest enemies of extra virgin olive oil is oxygen. We bottle by order and until then we keep our olive oils in tanks [to avoid] oxidation. In this way, we can assure to our clients that the extra virgin olive oil is as fresh as just harvest.

PFW: One of the varietals you use in your oils, Arbequina, offers fruity, grassy aromas with notes of banana leaf and green apple skin…complex oil indeed! How or why did you decide on the specific olive varietals you use in O-Med products?

O-MED: AS you know Spain was the first producer of olive oil in the world. It produces 60% of the whole production worldwide. Within it all Spanish production is concentrated in the south of Spain, in Andalucía, in the cities of Jaén, Granada and Córdoba. Among all the varieties in Spain, two of the most characteristics varieties are Picual and Arbequina for sure…That is why we decide to choose them to produce our mono-varietal olive oils. As wines, depending on the olives varieties the olive oils are so different...In this case Picual and Arbequina are totally different in itself... Arbequina is soft, fruity and mild, whereas Picual is spicy and bitter with a great balance and complexity, both of them very different, and able to satisfy the most exigent palates.

PFW: With your October harvest coming up soon, what sort of preparations does O-Med take in the olive groves or in the production mill? How does an early harvest affect the flavor or quality of your oils?

O-MED: For obtaining premium quality olive oils it is important to have an early harvest…The greener the olives the fresher the juice. Before that you need to prepare the groves, irrigate and so on…It is very important that all the machinery is impeccable to start with the production.

PFW: With olive oil being one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean Diet, the benefits of using it go far beyond just flavor and versatility in the culinary world. Are there health benefits to be enjoyed from O-Med oils in addition to their complex flavor profiles, such as essential vitamins and minerals found naturally in olives?

O-MED: Exactly, although olive oil is a fat, and we have to take care of the consumption, it is the healthiest fat that exists, proven [to fight] such illnesses as cancer. The supplies of vitamins and antioxidants is very important!

PFW: Having talked with several other smaller producers that we’re so fortunate to represent at Provenance, it so often sounds like they do what they do because, quite simply, they love it and couldn’t see themselves doing much else. Working in olive groves as a family, doing everything by hand on an artisanal scale, tending the soil yourselves, carefully selecting each olive on a branch…all sounds to me like a chosen labor of love. What inspires you and your family to work each and every day with such attention to detail and strong work ethic?

O-MED: For us O-Med is a philosophy! A project that we have created with our own hands and big efforts. We could not be more proud when we see one of our bottles on the shelves of stores like Provenance. For us it is very important to work where you have passion, and O-Med fulfills all of it!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chitra Agrawal, founder of Brooklyn Delhi

Chitra Agrawal is in quite the pickle with her NY-based business, Brooklyn Delhi, and she couldn't be happier about that. Having grown up surrounded by achaars, or 'Indian pickles', she wanted to share with friends, family, and students of her cooking classes the intense flavor of this condiment, which is a staple of Indian cooking. Since 2009 she's been slowing growing her business and is now expanding into markets beyond New York, including here at Provenance Food & Wine in Chicago. Our staff member Nathan was able to talk with her about updating a classic recipe, how 200 pounds of tomatoes can be intimidating to some, and why spice is always nice...

PFW: A few months ago when I came into work my boss had two sample jars on the desk and told me to give them a taste. The second thing that jumped out at me after the great design work on the label was the word ‘achaar’. Achaar had yet to make its way into my vocabulary (as well as my mouth) prior to this so needless to say I was blown away by the tomato and roasted garlic achaars we had been sent to try. For our readers at home who might not be familiar, can you describe to us what exactly achaar is?

BD: Thanks on the design! Ben my co-founder and husband does it all. Also, my father who speaks Hindi writes the Hindi translations that appear on all of our bottles. It’s funny that you were taken by the word achaar as we were grappling with whether to call it achaar or Indian pickle on the labels. In the end, I wanted to go with an Indian name and one that would not be confused with dill pickles as the product is so different from that category of condiments. Achaar in Hindi means pickled or preserved. It is an Indian condiment that is sometimes referred to as ‘pickle.’ And throughout India, depending on what region you are in, there are different names for achaar. For instance in my mother’s language of Kannada, they are called uppinakayi. Achaar has an intense flavor that is spicy, sour, savory and sweet all at once. It’s made from local fruits or vegetables, spices, chilies and oil. Although it is pickled in salt, oil and spices, it is used more like Sriracha or harissa on anything from lentils to sandwiches or as a base in soups. A little goes a long way!

PFW: With such a clever name as Brooklyn Delhi it immediately provides a sense of place for your products…Living and working in Brooklyn with your husband must provide you with great access to locally sourced produce like the fruits and vegetables that go into your achaars…When it’s possible and in season, why is buying produce from local farmers an important focus for business practices at Brooklyn Delhi?

BD: I have been specializing in developing, teaching and serving Indian recipes using local and seasonal ingredients available to me in Brooklyn, NY since 2009 at The ABCD’s of Cooking – I’m currently also writing a cookbook for Ten Speed Press (June, 2016) on that same topic focused on South Indian home cooking using local ingredients. It was a natural progression for me to offer achaars that supported local farmers and growers at Brooklyn Delhi.

PFW: We’re currently carrying the Tomato and Roasted Garlic Achaars from Brooklyn Delhi at Provenance and I recommend them to customers for their versatility and concentrated flavor. (I’m also a big fan of spicy food so the Tomato Achaar in particular is in my top ten list of favorite items at the store). Are both of these achaar flavors traditional to Indian cooking?

BD: Yes actually, tomato is an achaar made often in South India and garlic varieties are found throughout India. My recipes though vary from the traditional versions in that they are more mellow but still pack a flavorful punch! They may not be as intense as a traditional achaar, but I intended them to be more versatile so you can use more of it in a variety of ways. I’ve also played around with the textures so that they are more easily spread or mixed into dishes.

PFW: With all the traveling to India that you’ve done visiting family and friends, a source of inspiration for your line of achaars surely must have come (at least somewhat) from time spent there. Was making Indian-style pickles and preserved foods something you did a great deal of growing up that might have led to you founding Brooklyn Delhi?

BD: Growing up I ate A LOT of achaar. From a young age, I could be found sucking on a lemon from a bottle of homemade lemon achaar. I would always bring back copious amounts of achaars from my family in India. I realized though that you couldn’t find homemade tasting achaars in Indian stores near me, which led me to make my own. Achaar-making in India has always centered around using seasonal fruits or vegetables so taking a page from that tradition, my achaar recipes were inspired by the vegetables and fruits, like rhubarb, gooseberries, etc., I received in my weekly farm share. I started serving these achaars at my pop-up dinners and cooking classes and got such a good response that my husband (fiancé at the time) encouraged me to bottle them. He is a food packaging designer and offered to work with me on the branding. And that’s how Brooklyn Delhi was born!

PFW: Food and specific dishes can be like storytelling, having been passed down for generations at a time. With something as culturally specific as achaar is to you, does it represent tradition and knowledge passed down from your family?

BD: Most definitely. My recipes are based off what I’ve learned from my family’s recipes, but I have tweaked them to fit my own taste.

PFW: With as varied and diverse as cuisine on the subcontinent of India can be I would imagine it must be beneficial to your products to have such a broad spectrum of cooking styles and ingredients to choose from when thinking of what Brooklyn Delhi can provide customers. Do your achaars represent a specific style or region of Indian cuisine or are they more of an inspired mixture?

BD: My mother is from Bangalore in South India and my dad’s family is based in Delhi in North India. Some of my pickles are more South Indian or North Indian and sometimes I mix the two up.

PFW: It sounds like one of the deciding factors for you taking your achaars beyond just making them for family and friends, was that a lot of store-bought achaar available to US consumers is actually not that healthy. What was it about some of these other options that didn’t sit well with you, and how is Brooklyn Delhi doing things differently to make flavorful and healthier achaar?

BD: Many of the varieties of achaar sold in stores are extremely salty and high in sodium, use unhealthy oils and lack homemade flavor. The recipes I have developed highlight the freshness of the fruits and vegetables I’m using, while still maintaining traditional flavors of the spices and chilies.

PFW: Living in a city like New York that’s such an amazing intersection of varying cultures (and food), you must have such a wide variety of ingredients to choose from for your different achaar flavors. Is there a lot of experimenting or trial and error as far as deciding what will be the next addition to your product line or do you base Brooklyn Delhi off of more traditional standards?

BD: I pretty much base my recipes in traditional Indian ingredients and techniques but vary the fruits and vegetables I use from what is available locally.

PFW: Oftentimes through the Meet Your Maker interviews, we get to hear about some epic moments that vendors and producers have had over time (exploding pots of marshmallow, surprisingly delicious yet bizarre flavor combinations, that sort of thing). During all of your time experimenting in the test kitchen or elsewhere, did you ever have any achaars that just simply missed the mark entirely? Or any similar stand-out moments that you’re (hopefully) able to laugh about now?

BD: Oh wow, definitely making my recipe at the commercial kitchen for the first time was a trip. From processing at most 6 lbs of tomatoes for testing at home to going to 200 lbs was definitely a little scary at first. I remember looking down at my tomato achaar boiling in the industrial braising pan and thinking it looked like a vat of bubbling lava!

It took me quite some time to develop each of my recipes. I remember the first iteration of my garlic achaar. The original recipe had more of a raw garlic flavor that worked in the traditional usage of mixing it into rice and curry, but not much else. After months of testing and testing, I finally just decided to roast the garlic to mellow the flavor out a bit. I remember the look on Ben’s face when I had him try that version. We knew immediately that the recipe was ready for market.

PFW: And finally, with the constant change of seasonal produce at your disposal, are there any new and exciting achaars or additions to your product line that your customers can look forward too?

BD: I definitely want to experiment with some red or white currants and also with carrots!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Meet Your Makers: Kate Coffey of Chocolate Twist

Chocolate Twist is an empire, not a company…and that empire is ruled by her royal highness, Kate Coffey. She’s tenacious, tireless, and above all twisted. In addition to these totally admirable qualities she’s also extremely resilient, having taken a few of life’s bitter blows and turned them into something sweet for her, her children and her customers whom she lovingly refers to as TwistHeads…If you haven’t hailed the Queen of the Twist yet, now’s a good time to start because there’s something we can all learn from her…whether it’s finding something creative in the everyday mundane, empowering ourselves to forge ahead through difficult times, or how to clean marshmallow off a kitchen floor.

PFW: So Kate…can I call you Kate? Or do you prefer Queen of the Twist? It didn’t require too much digging to reach the conclusion that your business, Chocolate Twist, is all about enjoying the sweeter side things, not taking life (or candy) too seriously, and taking a fun approach towards your business. You mentioned that fans of your products receive the title of Twistheads (I for one have been a Twisthead for months and didn’t even realize I was given such a title!) Aside from raking in new Twistheads by way of your tasty confections, what do you hope to accomplish through Chocolate Twist?

CT: At the end of the day (usually a 12 hour day), after we've created tasty, approachable and fun candy; after we've modestly donated to our charities of choice; after we've patted ourselves on our backs for a job well done, I hope to be an example of perseverance, determination and bravery for young girls and women who may be going through a tough time. Shortly after I opened Chocolate Twist I found myself suddenly going through a divorce and living as a single mom with two pre-teen children. I knew I had a choice to lay down and let my challenging life overtake me or to get up, get moving and turn Chocolate Twist into something I was proud of. It was that or take a desk job and cooks don't usually do well at desk jobs. I had an endless stream of support from my family and friends but I was the only person who could make Chocolate Twist a success. I hope my story inspires other women to get up, get moving and do something of which they are fulfilled, challenged, excited and proud. We're all about Girl Power at Chocolate Twist. However, more important than anything I do at work all day, more important that all the talent, time and treasure I donate to my charities of choice, more important than being a role model for other young women, the most important thing that I can do with Chocolate Twist is provide for my own two children, teach them that life is not always easy but doesn't need to be impossible, that they can count on me but they should count on themselves first, and that when all is said and done, a well placed candy bar can do wonders.

PFW: Before founding Chocolate Twist back in 2009 you had received your Baking and Pastry Certificate right here in Chicago through Kendall College…was candy making and the meticulous art form of working with sugar and chocolate something you had a lot of prior experience with before Kendall?

CT: Before my time at Kendall College the only kind of candy experience I had was power eating it on Halloween and then stashing the remaining bits and pieces under my pillow. I have a mouth full of cavities to prove it. It was a Chocolate class at Kendall that inspired my love for creating confections. The chef instructor was so visibly moved by chocolate and the simple power that chocolate has that made me think twice about it's magic. However, it wasn't until I was working with the late, great Chef John Mega and Chef Bill Kim that I learned the art of making truffles and caramels. We all worked together at a caterer for about a year - in that time I probably made 10,000 chocolate truffles and 5000 caramels. At the end of my stint with that team of chefs I could make truffles and caramels with my eyes closed. The rest of the confections I create comes from trial and error. We make a lot of candy in the Twisted Kitchen - most of it is spot on - some of it is a huge fail. But each fail informs the next success.

PFW: Reading about how captivated you were at an early age from watching your grandmother’s cook reminded me a lot of my own experiences growing up with a family that absolutely loved to spend time in the kitchen. I think it’s those initial experiences that really ignite the flame in some people to make cooking a part of their almost-everyday routine. Were you very hands on in the kitchen growing up or did you grasp onto this tasty hobby later in life?

CT: I loved watching my grandmothers cook. That experience was so fun and comforting. It was community. I was as hands on as they'd let me be. I was often handed a piece of pasta dough or bread dough to make my own creation. I was always a petite girl so my eyes came right up to the stove top. I watched so many melrose peppers frying, pasta sauce bubbling, butter rendering, biscuits being cut. Great, now I've triggered some serious food cravings. I want my Nonni and Nana!

PFW: You know as well as anyone that a well-made candy, chocolate, or caramel can be transformative. Case in point: winning over new customers (Twistheads-in-training) with just one bite of your confections. Was there ever one or several “wow” moments (or caramels you crafted) that stood out prior to founding Chocolate Twist that made you think “Damn that tastes good. I definitely want to turn this into a business!”

CT: I have had a wicked sweet tooth since inception. Ask my mom, affectionately named The Queen Mum, what my dental bills were like - she can attest to my insatiable sweet tooth. I've always loved licorice. I could eat it daily and never tire of it. I love caramel. All caramel. Any caramel. Any time. Any day. So yeah, when I was taught how to make caramel and licorice I thought I had discovered the meaning of life. And, in many respects, I think I did. Make it yourself. Such a metaphor for life! I'm gonna get t-shirts made with that on it "Make it yourself."

PFW: All of us on staff at Provenance are always…always…thrilled when vendors leave samples. I’d like to assume they’re only for us to snack on (but in reality they’re mostly for the customers to enjoy but hey, we’ve gotta eat too right? Right.), but either way we love them. I was particularly fond of your Twisted Cabernet Caramel samples, infused with a red wine reduction…as a major fan of the vino, I found them to be simply inspired. Where or how do you come up with ideas for clever flavor mash-ups like that?

CT: You sure do know how to flatter me. Thank you! I'm often asked how we come up with flavor combinations or what inspires us to create weird or unusual flavor profiles. I always answer this way: every job, no matter what it is (accountant, delivery driver, surgeon, ballet dancer) has a creative aspect to it. Every job, whether traditionally right brained or left brained, requires creative, well thought out solutions. People say "Well I'm an accountant. There is no creativity in accounting." I beg to differ. I've seen some very creative accounting. I've seen some very creative lawyering (just ask my divorce attorney!). I've seen some very creative teaching and dancing and waitering and mail delivering. We all live creative lives. Creativity just manifests itself in myriad ways. Like anyone else who has a problem looking for a solution, I open my eyes to the world around me and get inspiration. For example, I was looking through a food magazine the other day and found a salad recipe. It called for roasted beets (my fav of all time), pistachios and orange slices. I thought those flavors would work in a caramel. So the next day I got to work roasting beets and chopping pistachios and oranges. And sure enough the beet, pistachio, orange caramels were damn fine. And, to be brutally honest, sometimes we stand in the Twisted Kitchens, look at the inventory of liquors, nuts, herbs, fruits and other accoutrements and say "What can we throw in that pot of bubbling caramel?" Boom - that's how Stephanie (my most excellent assistant) created the Peanut Butter and Toasted Coconut Caramel.

PFW: I’m happy to dwell on specifics of your caramels and chocolates…mostly b/c I’m really hungry right now. Another one in particular (aside from the Twisted Cabernet Caramel) that comes to mind is your Beer & Pretzel Caramel. I’m a huge fan of this one because it’s a collaboration candy between you and two other local businesses we love supporting here at Provenance…Gnarly Knots Pretzel Company from Winfield, IL and Chicago’s own Begyle Brewing over in Ravenswood. Toasty pretzel pieces blended into Flannel Pajama Stout beer-caramel…need I say more? This caramel is an easy sell to our customers because we tell them they’re supporting several local businesses in the process which is a big advantage to carrying your products. What advantages do you feel Chocolate Twist offers its customers by being a small-batch, local producer?

CT:I love the new push to "meet the maker." Provenance does a great job of introducing customers to the actual humans who make the products they love. So often we forget that there are human hands behind everything we use, eat, touch every day. While we don't always have the opportunity to meet the people who made the refrigerator in our kitchen we do have the opportunity to meet the farmer who grew the veggies that are stored in the fridge. Or the wine maker who fermented the grapes. Or The Queen who coated the candy bars in chocolate. To put a face to a product, a story to the candy, a human behind the product gives that product a new meaning. To know the maker of your favorite product is akin to having a personal relationship with that product. Sounds so BS'y but it's true. I can eat Gnarly Knot Pretzels and know that Funi and Matt are creating a meaningful life for themselves through those pretzels. I'm helping support these two people by enjoying their product. Meet the farmer and see his or her sun burned face and know that they are toiling away to make their lives better and in turn, our lives better. Meet The Queen and know that I've made your candy for you and in doing so made the lives of my children and employees a little more comfortable.

PFW: As is the case with so many other food vendors we love carrying at Provenance, I imagine a highlight to running such a business is the taste-testing you do when you’re experimenting with flavor profiles and new recipes…do you have a favorite aspect to running Chocolate Twist that may or may not involve eating your product? Did I mention I was hungry?

CT: First of all, I think I'm going to deliver a sandwich to you. You're hungry! There are so many aspects of this business that I love but I think my most favorite part is meeting and collaborating with other small batch producers. Chicago is rife with some serious food talent. To collaborate with like minded and inspired food artists is quite rewarding. When we collaborate we acknowledge each other's talent, wallow in each other's talent and inspire one another to go bigger or go home. My proudest moment of collaboration thus far has to be the caramel sauce that I've created with Chef Bill Kim (Urban Belly, Belly Shack, BellyQ). Bill is a friend and my most influential mentor. One day, after trying my caramels he said to me "Can you make us a caramel sauce?" I jumped at the chance and took a bottle of his Seoul Sauce (a soy balsamic sauce he bottles himself) back to the Twisted Kitchen. We created an Asian Caramel Sauce with our two sauces. Bill loved it so much he serves it at BellyQ and told me "bottle this stuff." I am pleased to say that our line of three different flavors of caramel sauce will be hitting the shelves this year. Asian Caramel Sauce (a collaboration with Bill Kim), Epic Sea Salt Caramel Sauce and Cinnamon Cayenne Caramel Sauce - watch for it!

PFW: With items at our shop like the Root Beer Caramels, Beer & Pretzel Caramels, Go Fudge Yourself Bars, and the ‘always quick to fly out the door’ Saigon Cinnamon Peanut Butter Cups, clearly you’re a wonderfully twisted and creative person to come up with such tasty candies as these…Are there any other twisted treats coming up on the horizon we can look forward to in the coming months?

CT: Oh yes, darling. We have a chip line of candy bars coming soon. Like this week soon. Three new candy bars all with a different chip inside. And two of the three bars are collaborations with other small batch food vendors. Stay tuned. I'll be delivering samples to help satiate that hunger of yours.

PFW: And finally, are there any moments you can recall since you started Chocolate Twist five years ago that stood out as particularly twisted either in a good or not-so-good way, such as a flavored caramel or marshmallow gone awry?

CT: The Twisted Kitchen is in the basement of a church in Riverside. One night, during the Christmas rush, I was working late making mountains of 'mallows. The youth group was in the hall next door. They were having their annual Christmas dance. I had already worked a 16 hour day and was looking at two hours of clean up ahead of me. I was exhausted but determined to finish the night strong. As I was walking a particularly full pan of still hot marshmallows over to the cooler, the youth group turned on their music. There was such a huge blast of Justin Bieber that I was startled and dropped the whole pan of still hot 'mallows all over the floor, fridge, shelves, grates. Of course it instantly set up once it touched the cold inside of the fridge and so there I sat, on the floor of the kitchen, my heart beating to the sounds of Mr. Bieber scraping cinnamon 'mallow off the fridge shelves. I wanted to cry but that would have taken too much time. I still had dishes to do.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Meet Your Makers: Bob Capshew of Capshew Cellars

We’re very fortunate here at Provenance Food & Wine to be able to engage with vintners and brewers…but what about vinegar makers? Bob Capshew of Capshew Cellars is actually all three of these things and he’s applying years of experience with fermentation into a thriving business based out of Lanesville, Indiana. Over the last several years he’s made it his mission to preserve America’s historical institution of making small-batch vinegars by using methods that celebrate tradition and embrace the Slow Food movement. Provenance staffer Nathan was able to talk with Mr. Capshew about shrubs, the Colonial Era, and why we should all be putting a splash of vinegar (and history) in our cocktails!

PFW: For starters Bob, thank you so very much for introducing us here at Provenance to your Capshew Cellars small-batch vinegar shrubs…we’re huge cocktail aficionados and they’re the perfect addition to not only our shelves at the shop, but our own bar carts at home. For our readers who may not have heard about these elixirs, can you give us an explanation of what exactly shrubs are?

CC: Shrubs date to the American colonial period when fruits were macerated in apple cider vinegar. After the fruit was removed, cane sugar was added to form a syrup with a stable shelf life. To make a drink, you only need a shot (1 ounce) to release the intense fruitiness of the syrup. Shrubs were also popular in temperance times when no alcohol was added.

PFW: I might imagine that for some, artisanal-grade vinegars and shrubs may be an overlooked or rarely considered category in the ‘world of fermentation’, with such focus of attention being given more towards wine and beer making as an example. For you, why is small-batch vinegar production just as important a trade as wine-making? Does the process of creating vinegars and shrubs have a history as lengthy as other forms of fermentation throughout history?

CC: Vinegar making is a lost art compared to wine making. Although information about vinegar making is now much more limited than wine making, both processes were commonly practiced in American households as recently as the 19th century.

PFW: Prior to founding Capshew Cellars back in 2010 had you always been making vinegars and shrubs at home or were you involved in other fermentables such as wine and beer?

CC: I started making beer in 1982 then expanded into fermenting wines, ciders and meads. My vinegar making started about 5 years ago after researching pre-Prohibition cider companies and realizing the importance of vinegar in these businesses.

PFW: As opposed to the commercially mass-produced vinegars made in factories, you and your team at Capshew Cellars pride yourselves on making small-batch vinegars “the old fashioned way” using a component known as Mother of Vinegar…who or what is this Mother and why is she so important to your methods?

CC: “Mother of vinegar” is a naturally occurring bacteria (acetobacter) that converts alcohol into vinegar. The development of vinegar flavors takes time which is not possible from most commercial producers when vinegar can be made in one day.

PFW: If big-box commercial producers are all about delivering very one-dimensional, pasteurized vinegars to the masses about as quickly as they can make them, what about Capshew Cellars products makes them deserving of their “slow-food movement” title? How long start-to-finish would you say it takes to create some of your vinegars and shrubs?

CC: Under ideal circumstances it takes approximately one week to convert one percent of alcohol in the vinegar base into vinegar. Many of the Capshew Cellars vinegars are then aged or blended before selling which adds even more time to the process.

PFW: While those of us on staff at Provenance are well-versed in savoring vinegar-based cocktails and beverages, sometimes we’ll get the quizzical expression on customer’s faces when we suggest shrubs over other cocktail additives. Are vinegar-based drinks (both alcoholic and non-) a relatively new concept in the beverage sector or is there more of a history there?

CC: Vinegar-based cocktails and beverages were not only popular in American colonial and temperance times but may have historical roots back to the Middle East or Asia.

PFW: A lot of our other vendors (especially those in the Midwest) gladly rely on local producers as a source of ingredients for many of their products. Does Capshew Cellars do the same?

CC: We are lucky to have several small breweries, wineries, maple syrup producers and farmers to source materials for vinegars and shrubs. I also own a commercial cider press for processing apples and pears in season.

PFW: What sort of brainstorming or experimenting do you do to settle on such awesome flavor profiles for your shrubs such as the Strawberry/Rhubarb, Pineapple, Blueberry, or Peach-Ginger that we love to carry here at Provenance?

CC: We have a wide circle of friends and food people that provide honest feedback on different concoctions.

PFW: With such versatility that comes along with shrubs, we’re always on the hunt for new ways to use them in cocktails…especially now that summer is in full swing and there’s something so refreshing about introducing sweet-tart acidic flavors. What are some favorite drinks or cocktail recipes you love to create using your shrubs that our customers and readers would enjoy hearing about?

CC: My favorite is adding shrubs to gin and tonics. It really a matter personal preference and keeping an open mind – try tequila and strawberry shrub for example.

PFW: And finally, are there any new and interesting shrubs or vinegars you’re experimenting around with that we might be able to look forward to seeing in the coming months?

CC: I’m always interested in making new vinegars and sometimes get unusual fruits or ingredients to use. Recent vinegars include a maple vinegar made from syrup produced by the Amish in Southern Indiana. I also have a very aromatic vinegar (Maggie’s Blend) made from a local food author’s recipe (Herbal Vinegars by Maggie Oster).
In the shrub category I’ve got a Medlar shrub which tastes like pear custard and is made from locally grown fruit. I also collected some elderflower blooms and plan to make a shrub with them.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Meet Your Makers: Mark Overbay of Big Spoon Roasters

Mark Overbay and his team at Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, NC are nuts about a lot of things…nuts being one of them. Big Spoon has established itself nationally as being one of the few small-batch artisanal producers of roaster nut butters here in the US and the inspiration for his products comes from many different life-experiences including time spent in Zimbabwe with the Peace Corps. He’s also nuts about a truly fantastic philosophy: that food should be delicious, nutritious, and just all-around good for everyone involved from start to finish. Provenance Food & Wine staffer Nathan was able to get the inside scoop from Mark on why Big Spoon has a big heart…

1. PFW For starters Mark, thanks so much for introducing me (and our customers at Provenance) to your line of Big Spoon Roasters nut butters…for being such a relatively simplistic recipe (nuts, coconut oil, wildflower honey and sea salt), it really packs a ton flavor into the jar. For our readers at home who may not already know, the cornerstone philosophy of your business seems to be all about freshness, flavor, and sustainability…all three constantly working in unison together to create a really fantastic final product. What would you say Big Spoon hopes to accomplish with this mentality?

BSR In many ways, we, as a society, have made our food too complicated. Many “food companies” are primarily marketing organizations that focus far more resources on building brand awareness and targeting key demographics than work to increase actual food quality and integrity. At Big Spoon Roasters, we believe that food matters, and that our food choices directly reflect our aspirations for not only our personal health and happiness, but for the well being of our planet and for the generations that follow. Cooking and sharing food with others is a great joy, and we believe that food should be delicious, nutritious, and good for all those involved in producing and eating it. Driven by such values, we source ingredients from only trusted, transparent farms and producers that share this philosophy, and we treat every ingredient with care and reverence.
What do we want to accomplish with this approach? Put simply, we want to make people happy through food, and we’d love to encourage people to apply a healthy degree of intention toward their food choices in the process.

2. PFW You spent a good deal of time working in rural Zimbabwe as a Peace Corp Volunteer, working to, among other things, help families in those areas roast peanuts over open pits creating nut butters using little else besides sea salt and honey. This experience seemed to be the impetus that inspired you to return to the States and work to recreate those flavors and textures with North Carolina-grown nuts and other locally sourced products. Before learning the process first-hand in Africa, was nut butter something you had attempted to make?

BSR While living on Bainbridge Island, WA, during the year before my Peace Corps service, I had two jobs – one in the editorial department of Yes! Magazine and the other as a bartender at the amazing Harbour Public House – both of which, in different ways, introduced me to the islands amazing, eclectic community of cooks, gardeners, and sustainability gurus. A friend at the magazine who taught me a lot about cooking bought almonds by the10-lb bag and one day gave me half of them because she was going out of town for a while. Thinking of ways to use them, I decided to roast a few pounds of them grind them up in my food processor. That, technically, was the first batch of nut butter I every made. I remember it being quite good, but the almonds were Nonpareils and not nearly as rich and flavorful as the Mission-variety almonds we use at Big Spoon Roasters for our almonds butters and blends.

3. PFW When I sat down and started to gather some information about your business and how it started, I really loved reading about your direct involvement with families in Zimbabwe that would all work together to create their roasted peanut butter from scratch. The whole start-to-finish process that brought the community together really helps to reiterate how food can unite people even through something as simple as cooking. As a child was this something you saw in your own household that helped inspire your passion to connect people through food?

BSR My mom is from a Mississippi family who has grown and hunted their own food for generations, and my dad’s East Tennessee family did the same, although due to the often harsh winters of the Appalachian mountains, there is a greater emphasis on canning and food preservation on my dad’s side of the family. Some of my fondest childhood memories are related to food: stirring a cauldron of simmering apple butter over an open fire, helping my dad light hardwood charcoal, hunting with my grandfather, and learning to clean fish with my great-grandfather. In short, I come from a family that comes together around food and its rituals, and I think I’ve always approached food and the community it creates with a certain reverence that I owe to my family on both sides.

4. PFW I always like asking our vendors about the "wow factor", or the spark that got the creative gears turning in your mind which eventually led to you creating Big Spoon Roasters. With your company taking off the way it has been, and you being now fully immersed in the world of small-batch nut butters, was there a specific moment that comes to mind that made you think, "Ok, I can definitely do this for a living and make something beneficial out of it for myself and others"?

BSR There was a moment when I knew I had a good idea for business: when I realized that no one else in the country was making handmade, fresh-roasted, small-batch nut butters. There was a moment when I knew that I had something that would make at least nut butter lovers happy: when I tasted my first batch of Peanut Pecan Butter made with fresh-roasted peanuts, fresh-roasted pecans, raw wildflower honey, and sea salt. There was also a moment when I knew that my passion project could actually generate income: when we were accepted into the very competitive Carrboro Farmers’ Market. However, I’m still trying to figure out if I can do this for a living! We have grown steadily in the 3.5 years since we started, but due to our very manual process and ingredient integrity, our ingredient and labor costs are quite high, and since we deal primarily with nuts, those ingredient costs can be quite volatile. I’m confident, though, that as we continue to find more great, like-minded retail partners like Provenance Food & Wine, that we will continue to grow and create not only a great place to work but also an increasingly positive force in sustainable agriculture and food production, making many people who love nut butter happy along the way.

5. PFW We’re really fortunate to have customers that are as interested and concerned about where our products are coming from as you seem to be in regards to where you source your ingredients. We let those consumers know that Big Spoon Roasters is a local operation in Durham, North Carolina and that you’re all about keeping things healthy and sustainable for everyone involved. This approach seems to be why you’ve been buying your nuts, honeys, spices, etc. from farms not far from home base. Is buying directly from local farmers a source of inspiration for getting into the kitchen and roasting batch after batch of peanuts for your nut butters? Why is supporting local NC farms so important to you and your team?

BSR Big Spoon’s philosophy about food is based on the belief that food matters. It matters to our health, our happiness, and the well being of our planet. We believe that food should be delicious, nutritious, and good for all those involved in producing it. For us, cooking and sharing food with others is a great joy. We source ingredients from only trusted, transparent farms and producers that share this philosophy. Peanuts are a tremendous agricultural resource for the American Southeast, and of our 50 states, North Carolina is ranked sixth in terms of peanut production. We are thrilled to be able to work with local and regional peanut farmers and to be a positive market force for sustainable peanut agriculture.
It’s no accident that Big Spoon Roasters was born (and remains) in Durham, NC, which is in the heart of one of the most dynamic, diverse, and progressive local agriculture communities in the country. We are literally surrounded by hundreds of family-owned farms that grow everything under the sun. When I had the initial vision for Big Spoon, it involved making one nut butter – Peanut Pecan Butter made with local pecans, local peanuts, local honey, and sea salt – that captured our local community in a jar.

6. PFW Before your nut butters had hit the shelves here at Provenance I was able to snag a sample jar to take home and try out in the kitchen…and by that I mean I handed the jar to my roommate and said, “Make something amazing with this. Please and thanks.” I’d say about 45 minutes later we were fighting over who got to eat the last Peanut Almond Butter Flourless Cookie (A mouthful to say, I know…but also crazy delicious!) Basically…being able to experiment with your product at home became the easiest way to recommend your nut butters to our customers. In what ways do you at Big Spoon Roasters strive to expand your products to new customers that haven’t had the pleasure yet?

BSR We love to cook! Nut butters are incredibly versatile, and we encourage lots of experimentation with all of our varieties. The most popular way to enjoy our nut butters is probably my favorite, as well: scooped and spread on fresh fruit like apples, bananas, and pears. I also make a mean Thai-inspired satay sauce with our Peanut Cashew Butter and a great sauce for rice noodles with our Almond Ginger Butter. Beyond that, it’s hard to beat the classic fresh-roasted nut butter spread (generously) on warm toast with bits of fresh fruit, jam, and/or yogurt. We know a lot of great bakers, including my wife Megan, who make all sorts of delectable cookies, brownies, and truffles and other sweet treats with our nut butters. We also make our own fresh, handmade energy bars that we sell at local farmers’ markets, and we have lots of friends who make variations of them with our nut butters at home.

7. PFW Knowing the provenance of our products and being able to point out on a map of exactly where they come from is something we see as a huge benefit to our customers…especially the ones who like to geek out about a products origin as much as we do. Being able to inform them of exactly which region you source ingredients and where they’re being roasted and milled is a major benefit to carrying locally-made products that apply care and attention to detail. What benefits do you feel Big Spoon Roasters is able to offer retailers and consumers alike?

BSR We believe that transparency and integrity are incredibly important in every aspect of food production, and we celebrate our incredible partners in producing our nut butters. Our peanuts are Runner and Spanish variety, grown in Eastern NC near Edenton. Our organic pecans are from a small farm outside of Raleigh and one in Southern TX. Our Mission-variety almonds are grown near Turlock, CA, and are transitional to organic. Our organic cashews are grown in a cooperative of farms in Cuddalore, Brazil. Our raw wildflower honey is from HIllsborough, NC. Our sea salt is from the warm coasts of Sicily, although we are currently experimenting with two domestic salts. More on that soon! Our stone-ground organic chocolate is from Taza in MA and Escazu in NC. Our ginger is grown by small-scale farmers in Fiji. Most ginger that we see in the U.S. comes from huge plantations in China, and we are proud to have found a more sustainable (and delicious) source.

8. PFW I feel like a major highlight to working at Big Spoon Roasters would be the time spent in the ‘lab’ experimenting with different nut butter recipes and flavor pairings. Would you say you have a favorite aspect to running your own business?

BSR I just love working with food – from farm to spoon – and it brings me great joy to take raw ingredients and turn them into something delicious that I can share with others who appreciate our work. It’s incredibly fulfilling. I do love experimenting in the kitchen, but I also love the feeling of working with the same recipe over and over again and learning how ingredients can change over time based on seasonality, storage conditions etc. We have to be consistent in terms of quality, and we take a lot of pride in our consistency of production, batch after batch. In terms of challenges, I love the inherent unpredictability and problem solving that we have to overcome on a daily basis. It keeps me on my toes!

9. PFW I’m sure deciding on the next addition to your product line can be enough to drive you (wait for it…) nuts. But are you guys able to share with us any new developments on the horizon for Big Spoon Roasters that we can tell our customers to keep their eyes peeled for?

BSR We actually just released two wonderful new almond-based nut butters: Almond Ginger Butter and Almond Brazil Butter! Beyond that look for something with Walnuts and something spice by early fall. Thanks again for your support!

Monday, June 9, 2014

June Staff Selection: 10% off Big Spoon Roasters

This month's Staff Selection is Big Spoon Roasters, as chosen by staff cheese monger Nicole Benjamin!

Mark Overbay's first taste of minutes-old nut butter was in the Zimbabwe farming village where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s. Peanuts were roasted just after harvest over an open fire, and hand ground between stones as coarse salt was added to taste. He found the flavor to be a revelation. Upon returning home to Durham, NC, he started roasting fresh nuts, then grinding them between custom-made plates in order to mimic the texture of the African nut butters.
I've had my share of assorted nut butters over the years, and I must say the texture & taste of Big Spoon Roasters nut butters are phenomenal. Every single batch is roasted to order, which ensures freshness & that discernible flavor. I wholeheartedly admit that my favorite way to enjoy these is with a spoon. Or, for a decadent snack...spread Cocoa Nib butter on a Salted Caramel Pretzel Graham, and top with a few slices of banana.
Here a few more recipes to try:

Peanut Butter Cranberry Go-Bars
*use Peanut Sorghum, or Mission Almond (swapping in roasted almonds for the peanuts)

Almond Butter-Quinoa Blondies

Braised Peanut Curry Chicken with Thai Gremolata

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

May Staff Selection: 10% off Gnarly Knots!

This month's Staff Selection is from Richard Sparks. Read more on why he loves these crunchy snacks!

Zuni McLoughlin and Matt Finn's wonderfully fresh, soft and buttery Gnarly Knots sandwich pretzels have been transformed into crunchy and hearty, lightly-salted chips, ready for your next noshing party!

These little slabs of pretzel-y yumminess are great to throw down with a beer watching the game, or better yet, top them with a bit of your favorite cheese. Imagine that mouth-filling crunch with a generous hunk of creamy and buttery Delice de Bourgogne or goat Brie. Got your hummus and baba ghanoush? Gnarly Knots make the perfect scoopers for those.

For other delicious scoop-ables, try out the rich and silky dip recipes below. Grab a zesty bottle of rose and get your nosh on...

Fromage Fort

White Bean Dip

Veg Goat Cheese Dip