Think back to the last time you had a cannabis-infused edible. Perhaps a from-the-box pot brownie made by your college roommate? Or maybe a pack of THC-laced gummy worms from the local dispensary? While decades of canna-chefs have experimented with the substance, marijuana’s pungent flavor and difficulties managing dosing have plagued the realm of gourmet ganja. But as the modern cannabis industry develops around a sophisticated consumer in search of elegant edibles, more and more classically trained chefs are exploring the possibilities of a truly green kitchen.
One chef making these moves is looking to recast cannabis’ possibilities on the plate beyond you’re average infusion: In Los Angeles, Chef Holden Jagger seeks to merge fine-dining and marijuana to create cuisine that embraces the flavor of marijuana—rather than hiding it—using terpenes, the organic compounds that affect the smell and taste of different strains of marijuana. Terpenes are also naturally present in other resin-producing plants—ranging from lemons and limes to lilacs and pine trees—so Jagger pairs the flavor of the cannabis with the flavors in the rest of the dish, just like he would with any ingredient that ends up on the plate.
“My main purpose is to focus on the flavors of the marijuana over the effect of the cannabis,” Jagger explains as he sears scallops over the stove, creating the perfect crust to hold up the marijuana-infused beurre blanc that he will pour over the dish. “It’s about finding balance and matching the terpenes to the ingredients in the dish you’re cooking.” We had met to taste through a four-course menu typically found in some of the upscale well-known restaurants that Jagger has worked at, like Tom Colicchio’s Craft and Curtis Stone’s Maude in Los Angeles or Town Hall in San Francisco. But there’s something different here: Every single dish included some cannabis component, whether it was infused, pickled or—most fascinatingly—salted and sugared.
Caramelized and Perfectly Pickled: The First Course
An unassuming but delicious-looking cheese plate is placed before me. I recognize Cyprus Grove’s Humboldt Fog, a blue goat cheese well-known in its home state of California. Less recognizable are the accoutrements, which Jagger proceeds to expand upon, motioning to each ingredient on the plate like a server at a fine-dining establishment.
“First there’s an onion jam, created by caramelizing onions and a sativa-dominant strain called Blue Dream together. The sweetness of the terpenes in the Blue Dream play off the sweetness of the sugar released by caramelizing the onions. Next we have a mostarda made with seasonal stone fruit and whole grain mustard, infused with Sour Diesel. Lastly, there’s a selection of pickled vegetables. Along with carrots and onions, I’ve taken the male plant pollen of a Spanish indica and pickled them all together.”
While the marijuana used in the pickling won’t have any effect, since it’s the trichones on the bud of a marijuana plant that usually hold about 25-30% of the THC, that’s beside the point: “I use cannabis like a regular herb,” Jagger explains. “It’s an ingredient, and like with any typical herb you want it to enhance a dish, not overpower it.” And he’s correct. Each aspect of the dish except for the cheese contains an element of marijuana, but it is never the dominating flavor; instead, offering a subtle hint in the layers of different flavors and textures.
Dried and Slightly Sugared: The Second Course
Burkons next plates a salad of dehydrated cannabis leaves, with chia, hemp, sesame and poppy seed-encrusted avocado and nori with a sesame miso dressing. The leaves, drizzled with sesame and olive oil and sprinkled with togarashi, a Japanese spice mixture, taste like crispy kale chips, an excellent contrast to the creaminess of the avocado and dressing. The Super Critical strain used has clean-tasting terpenes, well-suited to a refreshing salad. While the leaves—similar to the pickled plant—have little to no THC, there is also a THC sugar added to the dressing.
Jagger explains that the process by which he extracts and makes infused sugars and salts is, indeed, a chemical process. “The marijuana is infused in a high-proof alcohol like Everclear, which acts as a solvent and helps bind the THC to the salt,” Burkons details. “I then add salt or sugar to the liquid and put it in the oven on a low temperature, which forces the THC to bind to the salt or sugar molecules.”
Richly Infused: The Third Course
The main course brings on those beautiful scallops, served with a side of roasted root vegetables and asparagus and paired with a creamy, unoaked Chardonnay. The lemon beurre blanc is one of the best I’ve ever tasted: The rich, silky sauce is infused with a strain called Tangie, which is bursting with limonene terpenes, found in many strains of cannabis as well as citrus. “I prefer using fresh marijuana plants over dried, although it can be much more difficult to work with,” confesses Jagger. “The fresh plant brings an acid and herbaceousness to sauces like the beurre blanc. With all the attention paid to the slow food movement right now in the culinary world, it’s ridiculous not to acknowledge the amount of cannabis that is grown in California, and how that can bring some of the best flavor profiles to cooking.”
Sweetly Macerated: The Fourth Course
Dessert is simple, something often welcomed after a decadent multi-course meal: Shortcakes served with macerated strawberries and perfect quenelles of whipped cream. The sativa-blend strain used in this dish, infused in the strawberry liquid mixed with the berries, is fittingly called Strawberry Cough for its berry flavor and fresh strawberry aroma. “It’s like pairing a glass of fine wine,” Jagger tells me as I linger over the perfect sweet ending to the meal. “Like a sommelier, you take into the account the taste preference of the person you’re feeding, their likes, dislikes. And like grapes, you have to pick the plants when they’re just right; timing is everything. You isolate each terpene to make natural flavor, and it becomes an experience for the olfactory senses.”
Jagger will often “pair” strains of marijuana that can be smoked along with each course, in order to elevate the flavors of the food, similar to drinking wines with aromas and tastes matching the food that help open up your palate to those particular flavors. He’s quick to mention that, of course, overconsumption is still something to watch out for, so he recommends this pairing method only with dishes that are low –THC.
But experimentation is the name of the game when it comes to cooking with cannabis, and Jagger believes we’re just scratching the surface on the infused fine dining trend. He grins innocently: “With a joint here and a sprinkle of THC salt there, you can guide the dinner in different directions to satisfy everyone’s palate and mood.”