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By the time my jerk pork filets get to the table, I'm feeling good and chatty from my first glass of rum, and I've got a bit of a head high from the soup. But whatever euphoria I'm experiencing is immediately extinguished by the sobering and searing face-melt of Durrah's jerk seasoning. I grew up in the Southwest, and despite the stomach issues that I medicate with pot, I can handle spice — but the Jamaican pepper's initial attack on my tongue is enough to make my already-red eyes water and my forehead bead up. Still, the pain comes with pleasure, because beneath the initial shock of burn, the smoked pork is very well spiced. The heat isn't so much a masking agent as a way to get you to pay attention to the darker pepper-and-smoke flavor in the meat.
I'm a pot critic, not a food critic; still, it's easy to tell when a chef's passion is coming through in the meals he puts on your table. (Jason Sheehan raved about 8 Rivers in his February 19, 2009 Second Helping.)
Loaded with an appetite for Durrah's cooking and a bowlful of Island Sweet Skunk, I float through the front doors of 8 Rivers the next morning, ready for class. The dining room has been set up with a large table loaded with veggies, pots and pans, knives and two healthy young pot plants. Roughly a dozen people who've each paid $20 mill around; although a medical marijuana license isn't required to sit in on the class, anyone who wants to sample the food has to have a card. I grab a seat at the front, near a retired couple. The man mentions how he's finally been able to sleep through the night because of medical pot; he figures this class will teach him ways to medicate besides smoking.
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While ganja food ranges from infused butter on toast to crème brûlée, the basic ingredients come from the same four places: oil, butter or cream, alcohol and gelatin. Because THC is a fat-soluble chemical, it bonds to the fat in those products and is extracted from the plant. Butter is commonly created by taking trim or chopped bud and combining it with simmering water and butter; as the pan cools, the butter rises to the top, where it can be scraped off and used for cooking. Oil extracts work similarly but are done over longer periods of time. Alcohol solutions create potent tinctures, and gelatin can be used to make candies and jellies. Each tablespoon of ganja butter used in a recipe is equal to roughly one dose per serving of finished product. For example, if a recipe for brownies calls for two tablespoons of butter to make twelve brownies, each brownie would be approximately two doses each.
Running a dispensary that also operates a 5,000-square-foot grow operation with more than sixty different strains creates more than the obvious benefit of always having plenty of fine herb to smoke. Not only is Durrah also able to control his crops from clone to bud, but he can grow specifically for cooking needs. "Culinary and growing pot are very similar," he says. "You can create flavors, you can create blends, and there's a consistency. This is just like being able to grow your own herbs in your garden."
For their first dish, Durrah and Gulick prepare guacamole using pot oil and chopped, fresh pot leaves from a vegetating plant, mostly for flavor. All memories of gritty brownies fade with the first taste. The ever-so-slight hint of ganja blends in with the avocado, then is eventually overpowered by the onions. Durrah jokes that this makes the dip a dangerous dish, and he warns students to experiment in order to find their own dosages.
Next up is a cannabis-olive oil dressing over fresh greens and indica. Durrah heats the oil slowly in a pan at a low temperature — essential if you're not going to cook off the THC —then adds honey and brown sugar. Since different diets might not allow honey, he says, this might be a place for people to try things like agave. He lets the mix cool before he adds apple cider vinegar to create a sweet and tangy salad dressing that can be stored for over a week.
The third course is the sativa onion soup, which Gulick devised to deal with her frequent migraine headaches. Gulick joined Durrah at 8 Rivers in May, and took to the idea of a ganja cooking class right away. "It's a whole new level of cooking with marijuana," she says. "Once we figured out how to make all of the butters and oils, it's been just a heyday."
Her specialty is desserts, and not the cliché brownie or cookie, either. She's experimenting now with infusing THC with sweetened condensed milk. "From there, it's a whole new level of desserts that I can do," she explains.
For the main course, Durrah prepares Jamaican curry chicken stir fry, using both ganja butter and oil. The dish is similar to one served at 8 Rivers, but with a green twist. He shows how to cook chicken slowly in ganja butter and oil in the wok in order to absorb spices and the ganja flavor and active ingredients. Because the initial blast of butter and oil lose potency as the THC burns off, he adds another dab of butter and a dash of oil before mixing the chicken with the onions, bell peppers and garlic that have been simmering in chicken stock. The final step is to add the coconut milk, which gives the curry sauce its distinct texture. I practically inhale my sample of chicken and veggies, which have a clear ganja flavor; the oil leaves a green streak on the plate. Like the curries that Durrah serves nightly at 8 Rivers, this dish has a depth that grows with each bite. So does its kick.