I held the door open for the woman behind me, and she recoiled. I wasn’t offended, though; this warming tray on the buffet line very well might have been the lady’s first encounter with jackfruit. The tropical ingredient, whose tender, yellow flesh resembles a cross between canned albacore tuna and pulled pork (chunky and swirling in spots, flaky or shredded in others) has become a popular meat substitute in U.S. cities in recent years. Fiber-rich and packed with vitamins and minerals, slightly sweet jackfruit has the texture of artichoke hearts and wears other flavors well, much like tofu.
While jackfruit smothered in barbecue sauce for DIY lettuce wraps seemed a fitting vegan lunch option at the Lead With Love wellness retreat held at the Aspen Meadows recently, it served as a reminder that national food trends are often slow to trickle into our isolated mountain town.
“We’ve been discussing making jackfruit tacos at Spring, however, it has been hard to source from our suppliers,” says Spring Café owner Sabrina Rudin, when I ask if it’s ever on the menu at her all-vegetarian, vegan-friendly restaurant. “I think that’s why you don’t see it much in town. Organic jackfruit is especially hard to find.”
JÜS Aspen co-owner Landon Goldstone echoes this sentiment. “In Colorado, especially in Aspen, it’s much harder to get some of these exotic fruits—jackfruit, soursop, dragonfruit…breadfruit…papaya, mango. When we do get pomegranates, they are often way overripe or underripe.”
Yet as consumers discover and embrace the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer animal proteins, certain plant-based foods may become more readily available to supply demand, Rudin says.
“There is a push to find more meat ‘alternatives,'” she explains. “We know that soy proteins and isolated soy proteins really don’t benefit the body. People are turning to jackfruit, which mimics pulled and jerk meats, and veggies like shiitake mushrooms—great for ‘bacon’—or eggplant to make ‘ragu.'”
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Jackfruit in particular was forecasted as a “superfood of the year” in 2017, according to Pinterest, Parade, and even PETA. When Whole Foods Markets named “tacos” as a top food trend for 2018 in its annual report last fall, it mentioned meatless options such as “jackfruit al pastor,” available in more than 175 locations. The Basalt store prepares it on occasion. When I call to inquire, I’m told that jackfruit is included on the recipe rotation every couple of months, next on the schedule after the new year.
At Spring Café, tacos and scrambles seasoned with other meat-like veggie fillings are perennially popular, Rudin says. This summer customers went crazy for a new veggie “chorizo,” made in-house from sunflower-, pumpkin- and flaxseeds, quinoa, spices and sun-dried tomatoes. Ditto for heart of palm “ceviche.” Currently the Spring Café kitchen team is creating new vegetable-based, soy-free winter dishes, “for all our vegetarian diners but also for our meat-eaters who want the texture and strong flavor of their favorite taco or burger but want to experiment with a plant-based lifestyle,” Rudin says.
(To be clear: Spring Café does serve organic, non-GMO tofu and tempeh, but not highly processed soy protein or isolated soy protein.)
As expected, price is a major factor in sourcing. Goldstone receives 100 cases of organic strawberries and bananas every Monday at JÜS. “Strawberries go from $20 a case in the summer to about $40 a case—double in price—in winter,” he says. “Strawberry season is short. We try to get local strawberries (to freeze onsite)…you don’t want to freeze them (too far in advance), though. They’ll get freezer burn.”
Winter poses an additional challenge: “Sometimes when it snows the trucks don’t come,” he says. “We scramble to get organic produce from Clark’s and City Market but half the time the organic produce is the first thing that sells out in stores.”
Still, Goldstone admits that sourcing organic ingredients today is easier than it was when he opened JÜS with co-owners Mark d’Emden and Tamara Petit in February 2015. “Big vendors—US Food, Sysco, Shamrock—three years ago didn’t have a large organic section,” he notes. “Now they are huge into the organic market. They have seen the light.”
While that’s good news concerning the Aspen availability of organic foods, which research shows are more healthful than conventional counterparts containing pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the shift has an ironic consequence: It negatively impacts smaller producers.
“A lot of the local farmers in the past three years have closed down,” Goldstone shares. “They can’t keep up with the pricing of the bigger vendors. We try to use local because smaller farmers do grow a better product—Two Roots Farm, Harper Kaufman grows some of the best kale I’ve ever seen. But the bigger companies make it so we can have 300 juices a day (at JÜS), versus when we started and we’d sell out within five hours of being open. We are all organic; we could only get a certain amount of stock.”
Likewise, Spring Café is a 100 percent organic operation. And Rudin is optimistic that more of the lesser-known, exotic ingredients will become available as diners demand such options. Similarly, the global organic food and beverages market is projected to rise at a stable rate of nearly 14 percent until 2021, according to research firm TechNavio.
“I think people in Aspen want to feel nourished and healthy,” Rudin concludes. “There’s a high demand for plant-based food but also need food that fuels and energizes. We try to honor that balance with generous portions, nutrient-dense ingredients and hearty dishes.”
Soon Spring Café will unveil a variety of coconut milk-based stews, soups like hearty black bean and curried squash, and possibly hearty plant-based entrees such as eggplant, mushroom and lentil Bolognese and mushroom skewers with Thai peanut satay sauce. JÜS is launching its winter menu (turmeric-infused nut milk, hot drinks, soups, hearty sandwiches and salads) any day now, too.
Just don’t expect to find jackfruit at either spot…yet.