Like most budding cannabis cooks, the first edible Jessica Catalano ever made was a tray of borderline inedible pot brownies.

She was still a teenager living in Buffalo, New York, at the time, and used whatever she could get her hands on to create the confection.

“You really had to cough them down,” Catalano says, laughing, of the concoctions she created largely by “throwing ground cannabis” into the mixing bowl.

“As far as cannabis strains, it was hit or miss. It was whoever had whatever coming into that area of town, and sometimes it was a lot of diesels and other times it was a lot of skunk strains. But really, a lot of times you didn’t know what you had.”

These days, Catalano has the contents of her cannabis cuisine down to a precise science – a far cry from the disagreeable desserts of her past. Since publishing The Ganja Kitchen Revolution in late 2012 following the runaway success of her online blog of the same name, the Colorado-based chef has only expanded her strain-specific cooking expertise.

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Aspen Xgames Photo by Jane West

Through classes, high-profile events and contributions to a range of publications, Catalano continues to share her secrets for matching specific strains with foods that enhance their flavors and effects. The possibilities are endless, she proclaims, estimating that she’s experimented with “thousands” of different strains throughout her career.  

“I treat cannabis as an herb, and there are so many different strains out there right now with so many different terpene flavor profiles that it’s just so exciting as a chef,” she says.

Catalano has learned that there’s equal value in using a particular strain to enhance the natural flavour of a dish and making a specific strain the star of the show in another.

For example, while she may pair a cannabis strain like Strawberry Cough with a dessert like strawberry shortcake to amplify the taste of the berries – an endeavour that often results in people not even tasting the cannabis “because it’s so similar in its flavour profile to the ingredients in the dish" – she’ll also try pairing an earthier strain like Sour Diesel with a porterhouse steak “to showcase the strain and make it stand out.”

Catalano also stays cognizant of what kinds of strains cater best to different times of day or the individual needs of her consumers. A breakfast recipe may incorporate, for example, a more energizing or uplifting strain.

“I get excited because I’m just treating each strain as its own distinct herbal flavor profile and getting people excited about wanting to experiment with all different strains out there,” says Catalano, who was the first chef to – at least publicly – experiment with strain-specific cooking.

Similar to having “a fish guy” or “a meat guy”, Catalano has a range of 'cannabis guys' at dispensaries around her current roost of Silverthorne, Colorado, with whom she consults regularly. Her system is simple: after poking around and discovering the new strains on offer, Catalano samples them in pursuit of a light-bulb moment.

“Basically I’ll vape it or smoke it and get inspired by the strain’s effects and flavour profiles. I think, ‘what can I pair this with in the food world?’ That’s pretty much how I come up with my recipes.”

Catalano’s recipes, more than 75 of which can be found in her cookbook, range from amateur-level eats to increasingly complicated fare. One of her all-time favorites is her Super Lemon Haze Vietnamese Spring Rolls, particularly because “a lot of people don’t associate cannabis with spring rolls.”

The recipe incorporates four different strains: Super Lemon Haze, Super Silver Haze, Lemon Skunk and Lemon Kush. Another fan favorite is her Puff Pastry Tartlet with Granny Smith Apples and Salted Caramel Sauce, prepared with a Vanilla Kush.

Catalano working on new infused-coffees

Every day means a new experiment for Catalano, who has spent the last week trying out new recipes for cannabis-infused coffees and other drinks. She is also looking forward to the seasonal dishes that come with fall in Colorado. She has a special fondness for peach cobblers and pies infused with strains such as Tangerine Haze or Orange Crush.

“I’m probably cooking upwards of maybe five to 10 strains per week in experimenting with different things,” says Catalano, adding there is “literally cannabis everywhere in my house – even in the bathroom.”

“There are so many different strains out there right now, it’s phenomenal.”