Welcome to The Weed Eater, a new column exploring the intersection of cannabis and cuisine from former <i>High Times</i> editor, David Bienenstock. To celebrate the culinary side of 4/20 weekend, David headed to Denver to indulge in a fancy weed dinner.
Welcome to The Weed Eater, a new column exploring the intersection of cannabis and cuisine from former High Times editor, Dave Bienenstock.
"It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization." — Carl Sagan
Brace yourself, because together we're about to embark on a cannabis-fueled culinary journey in search of a lovely little oasis of sensual pleasure known as the haute box. Like adventurers following the spice roads of old, we'll traverse an ancient, storied, and sometimes perilous route rife with exotic ingredients, bold flavors, and colorful characters—quite naturally stopping to sample the goods all along the way—wherever high-end cuisine intersects with getting high.
Because The Weed Eater wants you to smell, see, hear, touch, and taste it all: Cooking stoned, eating stoned, gardening/fishing/foraging stoned, hosting a pot-infused dinner party of the highest order stoned, and inventing and refining recipes while blazed. Even doing the dishes can be enhanced by this most useful botanical—but that's at the end of the meal, and we must start at the beginning.
It was a time before the sowing of seeds and animal husbandry, back when our ancestors still hunted and gathered their meals, enjoying a nomad's freedom, while dedicating just a few hours each day to acquiring food. Unfortunately, no cookbooks or restaurant menus have survived from that era, so we can only speculate about the technical sophistication of their prehistoric preparations, but we do know that in exchange for a rather minimal investment of daily labor, they enjoyed a steady diet of fresh, seasonal, organic whole foods—all sourced locally, fully free-range, and 100 percent GMO-free.
So why give all that up for the scarred hands and aching back of a farmer?
Even doing the dishes can be enhanced by this most useful botanical—but that's at the end of the meal, and we must start at the beginning.
If you believe noted marijuana enthusiast Carl Sagan, Mary Jane inspired earth's first potheads to trade the freedom of hunting and foraging for the drudgery of cultivation—more than 10,000 years ago. It was a staggering development in human history that led not only to agriculture and agronomy, but to pretty much our entire way of life on the planet. For better and for worse. And yes, it is rather wryly ironic to consider that the very civilization cannabis thus enabled would one day turn around and target the herb for eradication.
Fortunately, we're approaching the end of society's collective case of reefer madness at a rapid pace. In fact, as a longtime marijuana journalist, The Weed Eater must admit to feeling downright dizzy these last few months, whilst reporting on everything from opening day for legal pot sales in Colorado to the federal government's new plan to supply cannabis extracts to epileptic kids. So while no doubt there's still a long way to go in ending the ridiculous war on weed, it's also high time for some celebrating.
And since this April 20th will be the first iteration of the irie holiday known as 4/20 since Colorado's recreational marijuana stores opened for business, The Weed Eater has naturally made a pot pilgrimage to Denver to celebrate herbal liberty, check out the best edibles entered into this year's Cannabis Cup, and sample the Mile High City's tastiest dishes in a properly elevated state.
For starters, chef Tom Coohill kindly extended an invitation to visit his eponymous French restaurant, promising a special tasting menu of complex flavor combinations specially designed to appeal to those under the influence of Denver's most celebrated produce. This search for esoteric pleasure makes perfect sense, given that he and The Weed Eater first bonded via email over a shared affection for pairing Rush's multi-layered prog-rock with some expertly-grown ganja.
A James Beard Foundation "great regional chef," Coohill has worked in many kitchens since training at the three-star Michelin L'Oustau de Baumaniere in France—including a few of his own.
According to the chef, "A lot of the chefs, cooks, and apprentices I've worked with have smoked marijuana. It's a high-pressure job and pot helps them relax after hours," He explained. "The only problem, for me, would be if they bring it into work and it negatively affects their job performance. But I have to say, while I've had people come in drunk and had to let them go, I've never had someone come in stoned and had that same experience. So the adverse effects of being drunk must be worse. Because I'm sure there have been cooks and waiters who've come in a little stoned; I just didn't notice."
How about the customers? I asked.
"People obviously must visit the restaurant high all the time, but if they're experienced pot smokers, you'd never know."
And so, The Weed Eater arrived at Coohill's one toke under the line—but just barely—having quite recently legally inhaled a lovely gram of store-bought Sour Diesel along with dining companions Mason Tvert (who co-directed the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado), Samantha Walsh (a prominent local pot activist with deep roots in the hemp movement), and Mrs.Weed Eater (a.k.a. Elise McDonough, author of The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook).
A highly distinguished tasting panel, indeed, with no herbal lightweights among the bunch, and yet despite the celebratory nature of the evening, a kind of stoned uncertainty overcame our party as we approached Coohill's prominent chef's counter—a long, elegant table at the very entrance of the restaurant, with all the chairs on one side to afford each guest a clear view of the kitchen.
Chef Coohill quickly appeared, however, and put us at ease by first breaking the ice with a few Rush stories, then moving on to describing his approach to cooking for a stoned palate.
"I think the sensory enhancement effects of marijuana go way beyond those of alcohol," he began. "Wine can taste amazing, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily enhancing your appreciation of the rest of the meal. So for this menu, I wanted to serve complex flavors and pairings that are much more easy to identify and understand when you're high. The same way you can sometimes better appreciate a complex piece of music while in a heightened state of awareness."
The chef's wine and weed comparison struck our group as particularly apt, given that the entire legalization campaign in Colorado was based on the theme that "marijuana is safer than alcohol," and therefore should be treated the same in the eyes of the law. A messaging strategy mostly focused on public safety and taking money out of the black market, so perhaps not surprisingly, Mason Tvert and his campaign team never got around to touting how much better getting baked makes food taste.
"Adults use marijuana for many of the same reasons they use alcohol," Mason did note, long after both the meal and our green aperitif had run their course. "Some enjoy wine or pre-dinner cocktails, whereas others prefer to limit their caloric intake to the cuisine. Both can potentially enhance a meal, but the fact that marijuana doesn't produce hangovers gives it a big edge."
Made in the style of Leone, France, chef Coohill's blue crab cake arrived without breading, mayonnaise, or anything else that might turn to mush in a slightly dry mouth, or unduly overload highly sensitive, freshly stoned taste buds. Instead, paired with the delicate, steadily effervescent champagne, this opening dish offered meaty chunks of perfectly cooked crab, buttressed by layers of flavor and texture that awakened The Weed Eater's palate delightfully without coming on too strong.
All topped in a very light sauce made with champagne, white fish bones, tarragon, a white mirepoix, and fennel—plus Dijon mustard and chive to give it bite.
Trace the history of the original "back to the land movement," the one that sprouted our current renaissance of local, organic, seasonal eating, and you'll find that most of those first-generation hippie homesteaders grew at least a few cannabis plants to go with their veggies—for personal use and perhaps to help make ends meet. Whether for dealing or healing, those illicit ganja grows provided clear benefits to those trying to live naturally off the earth's bounty, and so ever since, the history of sustainable food and homegrown herb have been irrevocably intertwined.
Happily, this symbiotic relationship was strongly reflected in chef Coohill's seasonal take on spring in Colorado, a mix of asparagus and mushrooms (mitaki and oyster) served with tomatillo purée, small dollops of fresh, local, artisanal goat cheese from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, and a special "chili powder" made via the wonders of molecular gastronomy. Paired with an earthy French sauvignon blanc, the dish explored inviting depths of umami with the cool appeal of a smoky cave.
"It all flows together like a vocal harmony," Mrs. Weed Eater declared, keeping with the food as music metaphor. "And that last note of chili just gets you primed for the next number."
"All of these different components—when you taste them together—will detonate a flavor bomb," Chef Coohill promised as a preface to one of his signature dishes. "The previous courses have been a little subtle, but this one is going to be like a really mind-blowing guitar riff."
Moments later, our Cape Cod scallops arrived, well seared with a fresh, slightly sweet flavor, and a cloud-like mouth feel. As instructed, we each assembled the perfect bite by balancing some of the scallop, grapefruit, cucumber, prosciutto, and watercress on our forks, before dragging all of these elements purposefully through the strawberry. While Sour Diesel still worked its magic on our neurons, playing with our food actually came natural. For the second bite, I added a small dollop of the puree of black garlic, which offered a strong reverberation back to the previous dish's persistent umami flavors.
After an intermission of house-made sorbet, we moved into the "greatest hits" portion of our culinary concerto with local Colorado lamb sirloin, sous-vide at 63 degrees Celsius for an hour, then seared off to keep it incredibly moist and tender, before plating alongside house-made lamb sausage, artichoke, and a puree of fennel. All topped with a white wine, thyme, garlic lamb that—in the immortal words of Jeffrey Lebowski—"really tied the room together."
Chef Coohill reveres Colorado lamb because it's "not gamy, and very mild, with beautiful fat content and texture." He finds it especially delicious when paired with a particular cabernet sauvignon from California's North Coast that he enjoys so thoroughly, he actually made a chandelier out of the stems and roots of one of the vineyard's retired grape plants.
In fact, the very wine we imbibed as we admired the chandelier contained "an infinitesimal amount of juice from the grapes of that plant.
What better way to end our flavor explorations than with a classic dessert blending chocolate and hazelnut? How about if it comes with a saucy backstory, told to us tableside by the chef himself, in his own words:
"Marjolaine is a very famous dessert created by Fernand Point, the most famous chef in the world until he died in 1955. A gigantic man, who weighed about 380 pounds, he's still considered the godfather of modern French cooking.
Chef Point named this particular dessert, which took years to perfect, after his favorite mistress. And while you may find Marjolaine on the menu at other restaurants, it's almost always not the original recipe, because you must have worked for somebody who's worked directly for Fernand Point in order to have it.
At Mobile Le Francais in Chicago, I worked under a chef who actually did a 17-year apprenticeship with Fernand Point, so I have the real recipe, which doesn't even appear in Fernand Point's book."
Comprised of layers of chocolate and whipped cream, roasted hazelnuts, and whipped cream, and praline and whipped cream—buffered from each other by a bisque of egg whites and roasted hazelnut—the dessert satisfied deep cravings for sweetness without relying on a sugar rush. Instead, an almost savory sensual depth pervaded the Marjolaine, which one can only assume was true of the preparation's namesake as well.
When the last morsel was devoured, we paused at the table a moment, preparing ourselves mentally and spiritually to climb out of the lovely haute box chef Coohill had so kindly provided, and re-enter the wider world. On the way out, Samantha casually asked our endearingly unflappable head waiter if he's noticed an uptick of "visibly recreated" customers coming in to the restaurant since the pot stores opened in Colorado. And with a knowing smile that immediately set off The Weed Eater's jaydar, he did indeed confirm that this is most certainly the case.
"I've never had a problem serving any of our stoned customers," he quickly added, "and I think they do probably experience their meals in an enhanced way. I would certainly enjoying eating food like this, like that."
Spoon in next month for The Weed Eater's further adventures, plus a cannabis-infused ice-cream recipe that will leave your friends speechless (perhaps literally, though that will eventually wear off.) In the meantime, send all potential scoops to: @pot_handbook on Twitter.