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The first time I cooked pot food was my freshman year in high school. Two friends and I pooled our money, bought a quarter bag of Texas dirt weed and some instant brownie mix, and headed to an adult-free house with an open kitchen. After putting aside enough pot for a joint to smoke while the brownies baked, we dumped the rest of the hand-ground shwag (along with a few stems and seeds, I'm sure) into the batter and threw it in the oven. The result — in addition to stinking up my friend's parents' house with a chocolate-skunky aroma for the next day or so — was the most gritty, nasty brownie I had ever seen.

I still ate it, though. And despite having to pick plant matter from my teeth, I enjoyed every bit of its lingering effects.

Scott Durrah knows that my experience isn't uncommon, and so he's prepared to show — one class at a time — that cooking with ganja can be both medicating and delicious.

8 Rivers executive chef Scott Durrah knows how to handle his pot and pans.
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8 Rivers executive chef Scott Durrah knows how to handle his pot and pans.

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8 Rivers Cafe

1550 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: Downtown Denver

1550 Blake St.
303-623-3422
4:30-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 4:30-11 p.m. Friday; 3-11 p.m. Saturday; 3-9 p.m. Sunday.

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Durrah and his wife, Wanda James, are co-owners of 8 Rivers, a casual, modern Caribbean eatery in LoDo — the couple's fourth restaurant and the third location for 8 Rivers, which in October celebrated its first anniversary at 1550 Blake Street. The restaurant not only serves up island fare, but also serves as a base for Durrah and James's political activities; they've hosted fundraisers there for Barack Obama, Bill Ritter, John Hickenlooper, Nancy Pelosi and Jared Polis, whose 2008 campaign for Congress was run by James. And in December, in a move that surprised some of their political friends but made sense to anyone who knew their passion for pot, they opened the Apothecary of Colorado, a dispensary at 1730 Blake that provides farm-grown herb to hundreds of patients.

This past weekend, they combined all their interests into the first Creative Cooking With Cannabis class, which is designed to show patients how they can medicate with food that's far more creative than cookies and Rice Krispies treats.

"First of all, not everyone is a gourmet chef," Durrah says. "People coming in here aren't learning how to cook, but they want to learn how to take what they know with cooking and medicate. So we thought, 'Let's look in the refrigerators of your average person and see how many things we can help them replace with butters, preservatives, sweeteners and ways to introduce the THC.' But for those who want to have a little more fun, I'll be like Emeril and kick it up a notch."

The cooking classes are a natural extension of the dispensary's mission, James notes. Because many patients are older and don't always want to smoke pot, they take advantage of edibles for their ailments. "To be able to infuse something as pure as the marijuana plant into the things we are eating and have it taste good is a process of being able to heal your body, spirit, mind and soul at a holistic level," she says. "But you can only have so many brownies each week."

And, Durrah adds, because people can't always afford pre-made edibles or may have special dietary needs, the class is a way for them to learn the basics of ganja cooking for themselves. Apothecary of Colorado plans to continue offering the classes monthly at 8 Rivers, eventually moving into more detailed menus, as well as teaching sessions on how to prepare oils and butter at home.

In advance of Saturday's class, my girlfriend and I head to 8 Rivers to fully experience another Durrah passion: jerk chicken and pork. The restaurant has a hip, mellow mood, with an earthy paint scheme, low lighting, a portrait of Bob Marley in the entry, a fireplace to the side and two guitars propped against the wall. A good Friday-night crowd has gathered, chilling to the Rasta-infused vibe.

Durrah and James were up most of the night, unable to sleep after Denver police raided their massive grow warehouse that supplies Apothecary of Colorado. But while most people in their situation would still be shaking, James and Durrah are all smiles. Once the paperwork was sorted out — with their attorney present, of course — the cops commended them on the professionalism of their operation, James says. "We were laughing about it by this morning, but it was a pretty crazy night," she tells us as she seats us.

Right now, though, the focus is not on pot, but rum. The bar at 8 Rivers has the city's largest selection, James says.

I'm a whiskey man, and have always associated the sugary buzz of rum with fruity boat drinks. I probably would have continued thinking this, too, without James's run-down of the rum roster that guides us to a Cuban sipping rum, Vizcaya VXOP. Because it's aged in bourbon casks, the rum has the distinct "sweater on the inside" feeling and the initial taste of whiskey, but it calms quickly to a sweet but tobaccoish flavor while still packing a strong punch.

As we sip from our snifters, Durrah brings out a sample of the sativa onion soup he'll be making for class the next day. A concoction created by his sous chef, Jamie Gulick, the soup is a very light blend of ginger, lemon, garlic and onions in a vegetable and chicken broth, but because of the added ganja butter and ganja olive oil, it has a rich and earthy-sweet herb taste.

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.

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.

After the class, some people head to the dispensary to pick up supplies, while others stick around to discuss what they've learned. Rocky, a pot patient and self-described amateur chef in his twenties, took the class because he's a huge fan of 8 Rivers. "I'm not great, but you learn," says the budding chef. "It's great to get a few tips from a chef and see how they do it, and it's awesome to see how you can make entrees and meals with ganja."

As he cleans up the kitchen, Durrah calls the class a complete success. People seemed to grasp the love you can put into your own medication, he explains. "Pot has been a part of my life, and I'm not scared to say it," he says. "And that is important, because it is a passion. Flat out: I love pot. I love it as much as I love my jerk chicken."

And that's good news for all the gritty-brownie-making pot lovers in town.

Find all of the Creative Cooking With Cannabis recipes, as well as photos of the class, on the Cafe Society blog; for a review of Apothecary of Colorado, watch the Latest Word at www.westword.com. Contact the author at editorial@westword.com.

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