Soom: a better tahini

To make the best tahini, start with the best seeds.

When we think of single-origin ingredients, things like wine, coffee and chocolate come to mind.  But we may not think of tahini.  Even if we consider the brand, or reflexively reach for a container we recognize, we may not wonder where the seeds grew, how it was made, or how fresh it is.

At Soom, it all starts with the seed: the white Humera sesame seed.

Humera is a town in Northwestern Ethiopia, and the hot and dry growing conditions there are ideal for growing a particular variety of white sesame seed that’s considered one of the best in the world.  These are selected and purchased at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange:
after being inspected for quality:
Omri inspection
For us, it’s pretty interesting to work with a company that approaches their product (tahini) the same way we approach ours–by talking to the farmers and brokers who work directly with the product about growing conditions, prices, and harvest methods–things that all make a big difference in the end product.  Until we tasted Soom, we didn’t know that there were such vast differences in the quality of tahini.  But here is what we now know:
  1. Seeds matter: some seeds varieties are fatter, oilier, less bitter, and different growing conditions favor the seed being plump and full of oil.  The dry growing conditions and seed varietal of the Humera white sesame stand out on those fronts.
  2. The choices the producer makes matter: most commercial tahini is made from a mixture of seeds from all over the world, whereas Soom sticks to a single, particular variety that they’ve found to be the best.
  3. Smaller batches matter: smaller batches mean fresher tahini.  Look at the consistency of your tahini.  The extreme separation that occurs in most commercial tahini doesn’t happen until it’s been sitting around for about a year.  The fresher it is, and the better the seed, the more emulsified it is.  That means a tahini that both tastes much brighter as well as being much easier to use.
Soom tahini was introduced to us by Ana Sortun, and this small company is run by three sisters.  To hear them describe their company in their own words:
“We fell in love with tahini as Jackie was falling in love with Omri.  Omri is an international sesame/ tahini export, who, at the time, was distributing tahini from Israeli manufacturers to restaurants.  The quality of the tahini he was distributing was unlike anything we had ever tasted.  Nutty, thick and flavorful, we were eating it by the spoonful.  All we had known of tahini was that it was an ingredient in hummus and/or an ambiguous white sauce drizzled on falafel sandwiches.  What was this delicious condiment that was used on everything in Israel like ketchup?
The real kicker was when Omri’s mom baked a carrot cake using the tahini instead of butter.  We were in shock how versatile tahini could be!  And then when she informed us of the health benefits, we had to learn more.
We discovered a lot about tahini, and were so inspired that we took a bold leap of faith (and a well thought-out business plan…) to offer this magical ingredient to the US Market.  We never previously discussed going into business together, but being from a family of entrepreneurs and realizing we had complementary strengths, we couldn’t pass up on this once of a lifetime opportunity.
What makes Soom tahini so unique is that it is made with Ethiopian White Humera Sesame seeds.  Like grapes to wine, or beans to coffee, the varietal and the terroir combines for very different types of sesame seeds.  The white Humera sesame seeds grown in ethiopia has a wonderful balance of “meat” to “Oil” which makes it perfect for milling into tahini.
We work with one of the best manufacturers in Israel to mill these seeds into tahini. Their cleaning, hulling, and roasting process is top-notch and brings out the best flavor of the sesame, enabling it to be used in both savory and sweet recipes.
It has been extremely exciting, rewarding and humbling to “meet” the diversity of customers that applaud Soom tahini.  From top professional chefs to novice bakers, Soom tahini is enjoyed by so many different people, and in so many creative ways!  Marinades, Gelato, Cakes, Sauces, Smoothies, Granola bars!  The possibilities are endless.  Tahini is high in calcium, nut-free, creamy, and plain-old delicious. Soom is passionate about getting tahini into the hands of as many people as possible who can benefit from its taste, versatility and healthiness.”
By Diego Maldonado

Ted Dobson of Equinox Farms: Growing for Flavor

We’ve been buying mesclun greens from Ted Dobson since 1995.

Ted’s approach to farming all starts with soil.  In the same way that a stock becomes the foundation upon which the rest of a sauce is built, Ted knows that without good soil, there’s no way you can grow great-tasting greens.  The way commercial farms tend to treat soil is akin to asking the human body to subsist only on vitamins: sure, it’s formulated to have the nutrients we need.  But is there any way it can thrive?  Check out Ted and Specialty Food Boston’s Jim Wilker in this video, where the two old hands talk about what it takes to grow and deliver a great product, vs what we get with commercial products.  This would be a great little video to show your front of house staff if you find yourself trying to explain why you go to the extra trouble to source great stuff–and why they should care.

We had a more in-depth, off-camera interview with Ted about farming.  Check out the rest of our conversation below.

SFB:  Ted, how did you come to grow mesclun mix?

Ted:  In the late 80’s, the term “mesclun” was not widely known, there were no “mesclun mixes” in the supermarket, and it was associated with high prices. It was more of a rarified product, the idea of which was brought over from Provence. I introduced chefs in New York to my mesclun mix back in the late 80’s.  I was selling 1# bags of true mesclun mix for like $24/#.  It had over 20 different varieties of greens, flowers, whatever–I was putting in things like rouge d’hiver, lola rossa, perilla, plus leaves from some of my asian greens like tatsoi and mizuna.  In order to create the living edible mulch that these plants would grow in, I would plant things like clover, burnett and dandelion–much of which ended up in the mesclun mix.

My other business was baby head lettuces, which required sowing and transplanting.  I had a year where I fell behind and missed the sowing cycle.  I knew if we dug up the heads we had growing in the ground, I’d have nothing to replace them, because I had fallen behind–so I instructed my crew to just cut the leaves, and cut them small–so that we could preserve the head and they’d grow back.  We took this mix of leaves, washed and dried it, and called our regular baby head lettuce customers to give them a heads up that they’d be getting a different product.

They loved it–went crazy for it–here was an already washed salad mix, made of beautiful, small baby leaves, with a whole mix of flavors and textures–a more affordable, straightforward version of mesclun, if you will–and that changed the course of things forever.  The demand grew, but we didn’t see commercial “spring mix” really until ‘93 or ‘94.  Then you start to see it go downhill–farmers figuring out how to do massive amounts, cheaply, containing far fewer varieties, sacrificing balance of flavors, packing it tighter, shipping it farther–to say nothing of how commercial farming approaches soil, the living medium in which these things grow.

It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, it’s that we’ve forgotten.

SFB: What’s the significance of soil in the farming that you do?

Ted:  To say soil is the most important ingredient in growing vegetables would not be an overstatement.  Any farmer considers the nutrient content of the soil, that’s a basic given in order to grow food.  But what commercial farming often doesn’t look at are the trillions of other microorganisms that are in healthy soil.  It’s like the difference between eating food and being hooked up to an IV.  And we wonder why we’re sick in this country.

SFB:  What changes do you hope to see for the future?

Ted: What blows my mind is that until the 1860’s, New England was 100% self-sufficient when it came to farming.   Then, when we started feeding cities, we started to see a shift towards single-crop farming.  It used to be that every farm farmed multiple things.  Now our food system, it’s been ripped apart.  Now we grow maybe 5% of what we use here in New England.  It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, it’s that we’ve forgotten.

My hope for the future is that we move away from petrochemically-based farming practices and big-tool agriculture, which violently chops up huge amounts of soil, releasing enormous carbon reserves from the soil.  We want to keep those carbon reserves in the soil, which is why I believe in low-till farming.  You just turn the soil gently, as much as is needed, and always make sure that something is growing in it that’s replenishing the soil.  Consider this–on my twelve acres, a quarter of an acre at a time, over a ton of greens a week.  This end up being, over the course of six months, roughly half a million salads.  From a twelve-acre farm!  New England could be self-sufficient, grow healthy and nutritious food, have cause to revive agriculture education in schools, creating jobs locally, and grow enough food to feed everyone.

SFB:  What do you think of the farm-to-table movement?

Ted:  Honestly, I’d like to think I had something to do with coining that term.  No, really–back then, you didn’t want to say “organic.”  Organic isn’t what it is now–back then, people heard the term “organic” and automatically thought of a limp, dirty carrot, trucked in from Vermont a week ago, languishing on a shelf in a dusty co-op that cost twice as much as a “regular” carrot.  The term was associated with Primitivism in people’s minds.  For that reasons (and this was long before there was a legal definition of “organic”), I never choose to use those words to describe my product.  I described it as “farm fresh” and told people that it was going right from my farm to your table.  I’d like to think I helped coin that term!


Tripped Out Celery: Meet Cardoons

I distinctly remember the day I was first introduced to the cardoon.  I was the Sous Chef at Clio and Ken Oringer came off the elevator from the prep kitchen and dropped a bunch of this wacky, pale green, tripped out, vegetable resembling odd celery on my cutting board.  He told me it would be on the tasting menu that night with bone marrow and black truffles and he needed them for service.  What was I supposed to do with this thing?  My hands tasted terrible after I held the stalks, (awfully bitter and unappetizing), it had no obvious aroma and tasted horrible raw.  They proved to be a pain to deal with and I was already in the weeds!

Fast forward a couple of decades.  They are still a pain in the ass to turn into anything edible.  They require meticulous removal of long fibers and a thin white membrane that, if skipped, makes them harder to eat and digest.  They discolor incredibly quickly if not exposed to acidulated water and they require a long cook time that require time, patience and finesse we as chefs often leave at home.

They discolor incredibly quickly if not exposed to acidulated water and they require a long cook time that require time, patience and finesse we as chefs often leave at home.

But here’s the thing… I LOVE THEM. They are awesome. I have them on my menu constantly and I always look forward to teaching my crew how to work with them. There are few vegetables between Christmas and April that are fresh, delectable and unique.  We chefs crave options that are not just roots and tubers, often forsaking all our morals and ethics just to buy something green, eschewing all our politicking of things local and seasonal.

Well, cardoons might not be local, but they are surely seasonal and in the cold weather months I’ll take that. The Knoll Farm cardoons come from a terrific farm in California that Specialty brings in twice a week.  Once you get your favorite technique down (we generally resort to barigoule flavors) you have a terrifically versatile base product that tastes like a more mineral, slightly bitter artichoke. Used glacée as a vegetable, or perhaps a traditional gratin with bone marrow reminiscent of Lyons, or a purée served with roast lamb our guests love them.  We also use the remaining cooking broth is soups and part of vegetarian dishes so we have little waste which helps with the labor.

Photo by Kardy via Flickr.
Since opening his first restaurant, Craigie Street Bistrot, in 2002, Chef Tony Maws has risen to international acclaim for his innovative and creative work in the kitchen, earning recognition as one of the country’s best chefs, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast 2011; “Boston’s Best Chef” 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2003 by Boston magazine; and Food & Wine magazine’s 2005 “Best New Chefs.” Today he operates two of greater Boston’s culinary gems: Craigie on Main in Cambridge and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Somerville.