New Mexico dispensaries guide home chefs and connoisseurs through the budding trend of edibles.
By Devon Jackson Photos by Gabriela Campos
Santa Fe New Mexican
The budding trend of cooking with cannabis Earlier this year, Verdes Cannabis, which has five dispensaries in New Mexico, including two in Santa Fe, began offering cooking with cannabis classes. Albuquerque chef Nestor Lopez, owner of the Salvadoran-style restaurant Gobble This, offered the first session. After that initial hit, Verdes intends to expand its class calendar with newly hired chef Jonathan Perno. Verdes — and other dispensaries across Northern New Mexico and beyond — are discovering there’s a big and fast-growing demand among consumers for anything that integrates cannabis with food. “People want to combine cannabis with all these other things now,” says David Downs, a senior editor with the cannabis education site Leafly and former cannabis editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. Leafly’s in-house post on how to make cannabutter, for instance, ranks as one of its highest-performing how-to articles. “There is an immense national interest in cannabis infusion [into food] as an alternative to combustion inhalation. I’d say one in four consumers only wants to eat it, not smoke it.” And consumers are craving more than magic brownies from back in the day. “We saw the demand starting in the hemp space back in 2019,” says Erica Armstrong, co-president of First Crop, a Colorado-headquartered outfit that grows industrial hemp, sells organic CBD in New Mexico and Colorado, and wholesales its products to dispensaries in both states. “Then, what the pandemic brought was not only this new wave of cannabis consumers but also those tried-and-true cannabis users who are now demanding even more from their brands. Edibles, ingestibles, topicals, drinks. It’s not about getting high. It is a wellness offering.” Still more of a surfable wave than a tsunami, the craze for cannabis foods means that cannabis-based restaurants loom on the horizon. And experts agree: one will open in New Mexico in a couple years, not five or 10. “When it gets to that type of a venue, like a cannabis restaurant,” muses Perno, who started at Verdes several months ago after serving as executive chef at Albuquerque’s Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm since 2009, “then I think a lot more people are going to come out of the woodwork for this.” Since marijuana became legal for recreational use in the state in 2022, the cannabis industry here has been keen to offer more — and as quickly as it legally can. For the moment, however, cannabis-hungry New Mexicans will have to content themselves with pop-up meals, cooking classes, and the few edibles available in dispensaries. Erik Briones, owner of Minerva Canna, which has seven dispensaries throughout the state (two in Santa Fe), is not far behind Verdes. He hopes to open a cooking with cannabis school as early as this fall and plans to run it out of Minerva’s Cerrillos dispensary. “We want to cater to tourists, and we plan to run it as a school,” explains Briones. “And we can offer full-on meals, from appetizers to entrées to desserts.” For now, Minerva Canna operates a kitchen out of Bernalillo. Chefs there specialize in specific cannabis goodies, including chocolates, gummies, hard candies, and (no pun intended) baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and seasonal pies. Minerva’s secret sauce, says Briones, is the “matrix” (the chemical composition) he came up with years ago. It ensures an even distribution of THC in every edible. Beyond appreciating the products’ psychoactive effects, health-conscious consumers are seeking out edibles and ways to prepare cannabis at home. According to Medical News Today, large review studies of the medical impacts of cannabis have recorded benefits in treating chronic pain, epilepsy, and mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some evidence suggests that it can alleviate chemotherapy side effects and slow the growth of some cancers. The scientific jury is still out about whether cannabis use can help people fight addiction — or if it drives substance dependence. First Crop appeals to wellness-seeking customers “wanting a deeper understanding about minor cannabinoids [chemical substances], who are wanting to look at terpene [aromatic compounds] profiles and how they interact with other herbs,” Armstrong says. The company also takes a chef-driven approach to flavor. For example, First Crop’s gummies come in varieties such as cardamom and sweet basil, flavorings that “enhance the herbs that are already in the medicinal herbs in the gummy.” Many customers see edibles as physically similar to vitamin pills and as “wellness that comes in a pill form.” Regardless of what people are eating, when consuming foods with cannabis in them, everyone adheres to the same (very New Mexican) maxim: go low and slow. Do not eat an entire chocolate bar or an entire gummy. Start low. Take a tiny nibble. Wait for an hour; see how you feel. If you’re still feeling no effect, try another nibble. Any cannabis food takes longer to take effect than an inhaled product — that’s the slow part. There’s no harm in being patient. When cooking cannabis at home, Armstrong advises being mindful of your dosing and making sure the THC is evenly distributed. First Crop’s cooking oil is conveniently pre-dosed, “so if you want 10 milligrams in your bowl of veggies, you throw one cube in there,” she says. Heat is also a factor in delivering the intended amount of THC. “The temperature is key on this medium,” says Perno. “You never want to exceed 300 degrees, because it starts to basically dissipate the properties of the cannabis.” For example, when sautéing vegetables, don’t put your cannabutter or canna cooking oil onto the pan first because the THC will burn off immediately. Instead, Perno recommends, use “a little bit of normal cooking oil to start the sauté. When everything’s almost sautéed, finish it with that canna coconut oil cube to give it a really nice mix.” “One thing that’s really interesting is that cannabis shares terpenes with other foods — myrcene in mangoes, betacaryophyllene in black pepper” says Celeste Melchor, marketing manager for Verdes Cannabis. “These are all essential oils that the cannabis plant has. So when you add it to dishes with those components, you can really enhance the flavor of the dish.” Unlike most edibles, these flavors are savory not sweet, and Verdes is investing heavily in cannabis crackers, cannabis croutons, and other foods mixing saltiness and cannabis. “If you’re making a mac and cheese, you can crumble these crackers on top. You can use it as croutons in a salad. You can put it in your soup.” What it really boils down to, says Melchor, is empowerment: Verdes wants to give consumers more choices and better information. “People are really starting to understand that cannabis offers so much more than just that euphoric experience,” Armstrong adds. “More and more, there’s not just a desire for cannabis foods but a deeper understanding that’s really science-based that is taking that stigma away from the cannabis user.”