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A dish of granola with dehydrated yogurt “leather” at Longman and Eagle in Chicago.

NATHAN WEBER New York Times ,

Aimee Olexy combines bourbon vanilla ice cream with her dark-chocolate granola.

Felicia Perretti • New York Times ,

Humble granola has become a high-end growth industry

  • Article by: JEFF GORDINIER
  • New York Times
  • March 1, 2013 - 1:50 PM

For many years, granola was the lumpy woolen sweater of the food world.

You dipped your spoon into that hearty bowl of oats, nuts and dried fruit in the same way you might slip on a third layer of clothing on a cold morning. Granola has always signified back-to-the-earthiness, the whole-grains ethos that sprouted out of American counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s — so much so that its very name became a synonym for hippie living.

Granola could be many things, from a dorm-room staple to a parfait topping, but it was decidedly not chic.

If you’re still talking about it that way, take a closer look at the cereal aisle, or the menu at that gastropub around the corner. Granola has traded in the bulky sweater for a little black dress. All over the country, small-batch entrepreneurs see granola as a booming growth sector, while chefs view it as an elegant and wide-open canvas for culinary experimentation.

Born in the better-eating movement of the late 19th century and revived a half-century ago as an earnest health food, granola is suddenly sowing its wild oats, in variations that are lavish and sometimes unapologetically fattening.

Any tour of this new world should start by kicking off one’s sandals at Sunny Spot, a Caribbean-island-spirited restaurant in Southern California hatched in 2011. For one thing, it’s not sepia-toned. It’s green and orange and yellow and blue. When owner Roy Choi first went to his Sunny Spot team and suggested a fresh take on granola, he told them he wanted to see color.

“It’s always just so brown,” he said. “Why can’t we make it really, really festive?”

Choi wanted the customer to taste something new in “every bite.”

That might as well be the mantra for the American granola renaissance, especially in restaurants. There are plenty of new morning variations, like the one at Longman & Eagle, in Chicago, where chef Jared Wentworth has applied his modernist technique to a question that he, too, put to his team: “What would make a cool granola and yogurt dish?”

The answer involves chewy “leather” made of dehydrated yogurt; house-made Corn Pops soaked in milk and turned into a sweet purée; the snap of cranberries and walnuts that have been reduced to a nub of tartness; and a smear of dulce-de-leche-style caramel.

If there’s a subtle hint of hippie consciousness in these dishes, all the better. That’s just fine with chef Aimee Olexy, especially “if you associate ‘hippie’ with real, down-to-earth stuff,” she said. Olexy runs a restaurant in Philadelphia, Talula’s Garden, where you’ll find granola made with coarse black pepper or chunks of bittersweet chocolate; she might marry it with goat cheese or a torchon of foie gras.

Supermarket sweep

It’s a vehicle for everything, which is why a stroll through the granola section at a market like Whole Foods can feel like a marathon trip to the Museum of Modern Oats.

“There’s a ton of innovation in granola,” said Errol Schweizer, a Whole Foods executive who keeps a close watch on trends.

Depending on where you shop, you might spy artisanal granola; gluten-free granola; chocolate granola that flirts with being a crumbled-up candy bar; “raw” granola laced and studded with “superfoods” like maca root, spirulina, mesquite pods, amaranth sprouts and camu camu fruit; and even kosher-for-Passover Matzolah, which contains fragments of Streit’s matzo. “That’s the beauty of diversity,” Schweizer said. “It’s a polyculture.”

The country’s appetite for a diverse array of products also means that cooks whose granola might otherwise have remained legendary only at church socials and family gatherings are becoming players on the national food scene.

Nekisia Davis cooked a batch of granola on a lark one day in New York. She later sold some at the Brooklyn Flea; word-of-mouth spread. Now she oversees an expanding brand called Early Bird, whose basic granola is “essentially the recipe that came out of my oven the very first time I made granola at home,” she said.

Davis added: “We make about 100,000 pounds a year. I mean, that’s insane.”

At Baked, a bake shop in New York City, “we were making our granola daily for all of our walk-in customers,” said Matt Lewis, a founder. “One day somebody from Whole Foods walked in and said, ‘We’d like to put this in our stores.’ ”

The future of granola

Earlier this year at the annual Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, granola proved itself a nationwide obsession, with offerings from Napa Valley to North Carolina.

“There’s a healthy glow around granola,” said Louise Kramer, communications director for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. “People don’t seem to be counting calories as much as they used to. They’re looking for a nutritious punch.”

Credit the growing hunger for all things local and handmade. Credit the ever-churning American obsession with health. Credit childhood, too. Granola, like macaroni and cheese, is something that a lot of us grew up eating, which makes it a tempting target for chefs who want to elevate and expand the essence of what a common food can be. In fact, mixing oats and honey once played a key role in helping Olexy, the Pennsylvania restaurateur, reach a childhood milestone.

“That was what we did to get our little Girl Scout badge,” she recalled. “Here I’m 40, now, and I’m doing the same thing.”

© 2014 Star Tribune