Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just like the nuts your mama used to make, or maybe not

Posted By on 07.12.12 at 02:57 PM

Maybe my favorite nut discovery of the year
I tend to aimlessly mill around a farmers' market, sometimes interested in buying produce and various breads but not always committed to it—this is one major advantage to having a market like the Logan Square Farmers Market parked two blocks from your apartment. Mostly I like soaking up the communal vibe, gawking at the too-well-bred dogs, and huffing the cloud of spices that hangs in the air. It would be like my own personal Sunday morning Zen routine if I was at all a Buddhist or ever able to meditate without being worried I was doing it wrong.

I also tend to get pretty hyped on new, bizarre offerings at the market. Staples like Co-op Hot Sauce and Crumb, with its great boules, will always be there—as well they should—but the newcomer booths each year, mostly run by the low-profile indie entrepreneur, always attract my attention the first few weeks of the market. On the opening Sunday, I strolled by one unassuming booth that had a row of exotic nut samples (exotic nut samples!) with flavors like Provencale garlic almonds, garam masala walnuts, gingersnap almonds, and coconut curry cashews. Predictably, I tried them all.

The Mama's Nuts line launched this past September—hence its first year at the Logan Square Farmers Market—but the idea for a specialty, small-batch nut venture had been stewing in the head of Adrienne Lo for a few years. She first made peanut brittle around the holidays, using a 40-year-old recipe handed down from her mother, and was later inspired by the grandmother of her partner, Abraham Conlon, and her recipe for meringue-coated pecans.

"I was really just making the peanut brittle to give to friends and family," Lo explains. "I knew that I eventually wanted to make it into more than an underground thing, but at that time I was just making it for the hell of it. But then Abraham was like, 'We always wanted to start a company called My Mother's Nuts and sell my grandmother's pecans.'"

And so Adrienne and Abraham, who have operated the underground dining club X-marx for the past four and a half years, sought to get the recipes more exposure while dabbling in other flavor profiles. Both rogue chefs are versed in global flavors and have studied cooking in the Szechuan province of China and traveled to Hong Kong and Macao, where the pair chipped off a good bit of inspiration. They're currently in the process of moving aboveground with a very legit restaurant that's set for a fall opening in Logan Square at the corner of Sacramento and Diversey. Named Flour and Bones, the communal 30-seat space will focus heavily on Asian comfort food and also feature a small retail space next door that will hawk the nuts.

"At X-marx, we cooked anything and everything—all kinds of cuisine," Lo tells me. "We've always cooked a lot of Asian food and going to China was an amazing experience. We had been cooking a lot of Chinese, a lot of Portuguese and Macanese, or at least what we thought was Macanese. We want to keep doing that but in our own kind of style. It's about the preservation of that wonderful cuisine. That's kind of the idea behind Mama's Nuts too."

And Lo and Conlon are all for experimenting with flavors. Sure, they base the theme of Mama's Nuts on protecting old recipes and carrying on with tradition, but they also like to play around with a palette of around-the-world profiles, like French, Indian, and Thai—which you can taste in the coconut curry cashew, my favorite of the bunch, featuring a sharp hint of Kaffir lime. With preparing for the restaurant's opening and extending the reach of Mama's Nuts—bags of which can currently be found at Green Grocer, Southport Grocery, and Urban Orchard, among a few other retailers—Lo and Conlon haven't been too bored as of late. But that hasn't stopped Lo from continuing to handle the whole nut operation.

"I make all the nuts myself, all small batches," she explains. "I make no more than two pounds at a time. One of the core values of Mama's Nuts is that everything is handmade in small batches. Like grandma used to make, and like mom used to make."

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