LEICESTER – Lianne Whalen spread the avocado on the toasted olive bread. Then she layered on prosciutto; dressed fresh watercress, greens and pickled red onions with a freshly squeezed Meyer lemon, asiago cheese, and olive oil; and topped it all with crumbled hard-boiled egg.
“That’s our infused avocado toast,” said Ms. Whalen, executive chef at Cultivate marijuana dispensary in Leicester as she presented the dish.
And because the olive oil is normally infused with marijuana, that is cooking with cannabis in 2019, a far different experience than adding a bit of your stash to a batch of Betty Crocker brownie mix.
While infused avocado toast at cannabis cafes may be a ways off in Massachusetts, a bit of a culinary revolution is happening in kitchens across the commonwealth with the availability of legal marijuana and an embrace of what has been referred to as “canna-cuisine.”
And proponents said it’s not just about getting high.
“It’s everyone – from the 21-year-old patient who is brand new to the medical cannabis world to the 85-year-old patient,” said Kate Steinberg, manager of corporate social responsibility at Curaleaf medical marijuana dispensary in Oxford. At Curaleaf, a cookbook is prominently displayed in a waiting area just beyond the security check-in, and patients are free to tear out recipes for everything from salad dressings to hummus to cookies. The dispensary also offers edibles including gummies (fruit chews), chocolates, brownies and cookies, lozenges, and caramels.
“Not everyone wants to smoke or vaporize,” Ms. Steinberg continued. “With cooking, you give the power back to the people.”
Marijuana is also a “natural” cooking ingredient. Its aromatic oils, terpenes, give it flavoring such as citrus, berry, and more that can make it an effective pairing with foods.
The trend is part of a national movement.
This spring, the National Restaurant Association and the American Culinary Federation surveyed 650 professional chefs about the top culinary and restaurant concepts for 2019. Three in four chefs said cannabidiol (CBD)- and cannabis-infused food was a hot trend.
“People are more canna-curious at this point than ever before,” said Lauren Finesilver, executive chef and director of operations at Sweet Grass Kitchen, a wholesale cannabis bakery in Denver. The Johnson and Wales University graduate said that the cannabis food industry has grown “big time” since she entered in 2009.
“The social stigma has faded … it’s totally normalized in Colorado and in some other regions across the country,” Ms. Finesilver said. And she sees it continuing to grow. “Now with CBD in the Farm Bill, there’s more clout from that.”
Ms. Whalen also predicted that the trend would only increase. She said that edibles are often a first choice for people who are new to cannabis and for people who don’t want to smoke in public – you can be “discreet” with a chocolate bar or a few infused cookies, Ms. Whatley noted. And with Massachusetts’ ban on vaping, patients and recreational users are looking for another way to ingest.
“It’s just another alternative, Ms. Whalen said. “People are going to be losing their medicine (with the vaping ban), so why not incorporate our medicine into your food?”
And the Cultivate kitchen reflects this growing trend. Chef Lianne recalled starting with basically a table and a convection oven “making hundreds of thousands of gummies – by myself – hand scooping cookies,” when the dispensary first opened for recreational sales. She now has three, soon-to-be five, employees in a fully outfitted industrial kitchen that goes through about 500 pounds of Ecuadorian-sourced (and delicious) chocolate a week. In addition to infused gummies, milk and dark chocolate bars and olive oil currently available, more food products are in development.
“We all really believe in what we’re doing, and feel it’s important to provide our consumers with a product they can use for whatever they need – whether it’s recreational, medicinal, for sleep, anxiety – it covers so many different areas,” Ms. Whalen said. “We love to provide not only the product but the education and the option.”
So what is involved in cooking with marijuana? How do you go from flower to an infused brownie?
It can sound pretty technical, but it really involves a couple of steps.
The first step is a process called decarboxylation, where you use heat to convert the chemical THCA in the cannabis flower to the psychoactive THC. Basically, it’s the chemical reaction when you spark a joint, and is why you don’t eat raw flower to get high.
Decarboxylation can be done in the oven – Ms. Steinberg recommends putting ground-up cannabis in tin foil and baking it for about 45 minutes at 245 degrees to maintain the integrity of the herb.
Then you can use the decarboxylated cannabis to infuse ingredients like butter and oils – cannabinoids need a fat to bind to – after decarboxylation.
You can also buy infused products for cooking at a dispensary.
“I love cooking with cannabis, it’s one of my favorite things,” said Ms. Steinberg, who studied psychology and culinary arts in college. “Being able to utilize cannabis in the cooking process is very therapeutic.”
Canna-cuisine is also available to non-chefs out there.
Samantha Kanter is the owner of Dinner at Mary’s, a cannabis dinner series that is based in Boston. She does events and catering throughout the state including Central Mass., serving dishes such as cannabutter poached lobster tail, a summer vegetable lasagna with smoked mozzarella infused roasted red peppers, and a CBD peach cobbler with infused vanilla bean ice cream.
Ms. Kanter also holds parties with non-infused foods paired with different strains of marijuana for smoking, including a recent party at a venue in Cambridge.
“It was so delicious, and the fact they did it without a kitchen was impressive,” said Glori Chase, an attendee who – as owner of Glassy online head shop for women – also provided the pipes for the event. “My favorite was probably the lobster, it was phenomenal. And the dessert was out of this world. They had a peach cobbler – so good.”
Ms. Kanter started the company in January, combining her decade of experience in event planning with her embrace of cannabis.
“I found with cannabis legislation changing, and with my experience in events, it made sense to combine the two,” Ms. Kanter said. “I like the educational aspect of it – people really don’t know how to use (cannabis). I was helping friends understand how to use and understand cannabis, and then thought I’d bring it to a larger scale.”
Ms. Kanter can tailor the amount of THC in each dish to an individual’s desired intoxication level – meaning some people can get just a CBD experience and others can get the full-blown high.
“We want it to be a comfortable and educational experience,” Ms. Kanter said. “We want people who aren’t comfortable or knowledgeable about cannabis to come to our events and learn something and feel good and have a good time.”
“These are not drug parties,” Ms. Kanter said. “That’s not what this is about.”