You may have heard: We’ve got more than 1,000 indie foods and drinks crafted by small-batch makers across America. Yes, a ton of great stuff has been curated by the Mouth team over the years, and it’s been fun tasting my way through. While I wouldn’t use the word best, I do have favorites. And my friends keep asking me for advice. So here’s my official, Arthur-approved list. Whether you’re a nosher or a full-on fresser, if you love food you have to try these.
Whole Grain Mustard by Tin Mustard in Brooklyn – Our gateway product. It’s one of those things veteran Mouths tell noobs about during orientation (they call it “vegan caviar”). Love mustard. Didn’t believe it. They were patient. Now, I keep a jar on my fridge door and eat it by the spoonful. You’re going to think “Tin mustard,” picture that yellow Colman’s tin and move on. Don’t. “Tin” refers to founder Tin Dizdarevic, who invented it when he was a chef Tom Colicchio’s Manhattan restaurant CraftBar. It really is that good. I think it’s the pop of the seeds.
Cheesy Puffs made by Fuller Foods in Portland, Oregon – Everyone has a snack Kryptonite. Call me Cartman. I’ve lived for orange fingers. Years ago, I pitched a story about making cheesy poofs at home and was told, “You can’t, you need an extruder.” Thankfully, Fuller’s founder Jack Kuo didn’t listen to such naysayers. Jack was inspired to make his own cheese puffs at the end of an unsatisfying day interviewing for jobs after following a girlfriend to Portland. He got the extruder. Bob's Red Mill non-GMO corn grits get baked into puffy curls, tossed in safflower oil and coated with antibiotic-free cheese. Dude. Portland is magic. You’ve got to try the Blue Cheese Jalapeño: A little funk from the blue, some Cheddar cheesiness and then the slow burn of jalapeño… these won’t have you running for water but there’s cumulative heat for sure. There’s also a deeply satisfying umami saltiness and overall mouth satisfaction. Probably my favorite snack food right now. The Sriracha Cheddar is a close second. The Cheddar is more pronounced and the heat is sharper. Dude.
Inner Beauty Hot Sauce by Todd's Salsa in Bangor, Maine – You know that thing you ate five years ago and still think about but can never find again? For some it’s Ebinger’s Brooklyn Blackout Cake, for others, it’s hot sauce. This hot sauce is a 25-year obsession for Mouth founder Craig Kanarick. You can read about Craig’s pursuit (serious detective work), but the CliffsNotes version is that a chef (Chris Schlesinger) made it at his now-closed Cambridge restaurant and after decades of hounding from folks like Craig, he gave the recipe to Todd’s Salsa. It’s a mix of mustard, vinegar, Scotch bonnets and tropical fruit. Tasting it makes me want to say “Bomb-diggity,” the name of a hot sauce I tasted in the Bahamas years ago.
Mushroom Blue Cheese Jerky by Uncle Andy's Jerky in Fort Collins, Colorado – Part of taking recommendations is a little context. Two blue cheese products on this list should tell you something. I don’t fully understand how this works (mushrooms + blue cheese + jerky = huh?) but it’s awesome. It was invented by a guy who didn’t even like jerky but had hardware store credit, bought a meat slicer and had to figure out something to do with it. Life! It’s chewy with a slight funk and a vague but pleasantly itchy buzz that’s left in your mouth afterward. A bag is always in my desk drawer.
Pickled Cherry Tomatoes by Doux South in Decatur, Georgia – I’m a dirty gin martini guy (vodka martinis are not martinis, and by all means, blue cheese up that olive, thanks!). These make a tremendous martini garnish. They’re big enough that if you use vintage coupes you’ll only need one, but that last sip when the tomato bursts into the gin – tang! sweetness! salt! – what a reward. Doux South founder Nick Melvin (an Atlanta chef known for farm-to-table fare) suggests using his “drunken tomatoes” (they’re wine-soaked) as garnish for a Bloody Mary, in paella, with bolognese and blended into a ketchup. I’ve found that they’re good chopped up on hot dogs (think relish), tossed into a salad with crumbled feta, or eaten from the jar. I finished one last week, in fact, in under 10 minutes.
Coupole by Vermont Creamery in Websterville, Vermont – “Coupole on the tasting table!” are dangerous words at Mouth. Work stops. Chairs push back. I read “coupole” and think “couple,” which helps me remember the maker story behind this one – a couple of cheesemakers, Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, who started the biz with a $4,000 loan from a Vermont church. He had a degree in Agriculture. She'd learned cheese-making during a college summer on a small farm in Brittany, France. Actually, “coupole” is French for “cupola,” a small dome. This wrinkly rind dome enrobes two distinct textures: a runny, gooey creamline below the buttery exterior, and a dense, sweet milk center. It’s a goat’s milk version of cream cheese on steroids. Brought some home one night and told my wife who said she wasn’t hungry. When she looked for it an hour later, it was gone. I had to bring another one home that was off-limits.
Mouth-Made High Five Chocolate Bar – We generally leave making things to makers, but in instances when we’re aching to sooth a flavor itch we just can’t scratch with what’s out there, we’re compelled to step in. That was the case this year with the High Five, a riff on Hershey’s Take5. For the uninitiated, “5” refers to its precisely layered milk chocolate, peanuts, caramel, peanut butter and pretzels. We loved the flavor profile. The ingredients used to make the mass-produced version not so much. Craig turned to Tumbador, a Brooklyn chocolate company directed by former Daniel Boulud alum Jean-Francois Bonnet to nail the precise ratios. The result is a fusion of smooth peanut butter with bits of pretzel and peanut for the base, with a thin layer of gooey caramel on top of that, and a quick dunk in silky milk chocolate.
Peanut Butter – Real talk: Every few years, I go through peanut butter addiction. Eat it constantly, then not at all. Usually lasts a month. Being surrounded by all these new indie nut butters set me in the eye of a peanut butter perfect storm. This round is particularly galling because when I first saw the oil separated from the peanut butter I was rolling my eyes about having to recombine them. For months, I’ve been eating my words along with the two jars I clean out every week.
Peanut Cocoa Butter by Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina – It may sound like this is going to be sweet, but it’s more of a strong hint of cocoa. The sea salt is the key to balance. You have Mark Overbay’s 90s Peace Corps tour in a rural farming community in Zimbabwe to thank for this brilliant PB. Once he returned, nothing lived up to the version he’d eaten there (freshly harvested nuts roasted over an open flame, hand-ground then salted). Even though I like it because it’s not too sweet, this one is my dessert peanut butter – a spoonful, or three after dinner.
Organic Creamunchy Peanut Butter by CB's Nuts in Kingston, Washington – This one started as a mistake. Clark Bowen was roasting in-shell peanuts for Whole Foods when a supplier mis-shipped him shelled peanuts. He kept them, bought a small grinder, and started grinding peanut butter himself to see if people would buy an upscale, small-batch product. I can tell you why they do: Pure peanut butter flavor. No added oils, no added sugars, no emulsifiers, no salt, just fresh roasted peanuts. This one’s a morning workhorse and goes right in my smoothie.
Bourbon Pecan Peanut Butter by Reginald's Homemade in Rockville, Virginia – Just checked. I’ve bought 13 jars of this peanut butter so far this year (and 2016 isn’t over). I didn’t eat 13 jars of peanut butter in the past 13 years before this year. Don't expect to be knocked over by the bourbon. (Who tries to get drunk eating peanut butter anyway?) The bourbon is more of a hint. An essence. A splash. There's the underlying peanut butter creaminess, flecks of pecan, a boozy vanilla-ness on the nose and a flavor I can never quite put my finger on... a quasi-cocoa-ness. Let me just take another bite to figure it out. Anddd… that's how the jars empty. This one’s nuanced enough that it deserves to be eaten by itself or with something that serves it as a vehicle.
There you have it. My top 10 obsessions for this year. Try ‘em. Or find your own.