Interview with Emily Fiffer & Heather Sperling of Botanica

United by their love of rich, flavorful and nourishing foods, Emily Fiffer & Heather Sperling both spent nearly a decade working in the online world. Heather grew up passionate about food and connecting to the world through food. As an adult, working in food media at Tasting Table meant she spent many of her days in restaurants consuming food that often wasn’t very healthy. She devoted her off days to creating healthful dishes as an antidote to all the heavily salted, fat laden meals that left her with stomach issues and high cholesterol. That journey to finding richly flavorful and dynamic healthful foods was one she connected quickly with Emily over.

Emily grew up in a very health conscious family and even with the influence of the “diet friendly” foods of the 80s saw the importance of vegetable focused meals. As an editor for Daily Candy, she had the opportunity to discover and report on many creators, makers and chefs but found herself realizing that she didn’t want to be writing about food as much as she wanted to be cooking it. After staging in a few famous kitchens, she became obsessed with creating sensual, hearty fruit, vegetable and grain based meals.

Connecting through their online work, Heather and Emily both saw how few restaurants focused on creating balanced, healthful meals that didn’t just taste good, but made you feel good, too. They knew they wanted to create a space that was not limited by any particular dogmatic diet approach, but put whole, fresh foods first. They decided to start not only a restaurant and marketplace, but to use their web know how to create an online publication that would act as a "digital manifestation" of everything that exists within their restaurant.

While the restaurant won't launch until the Spring of 2017, Botanica Magazine is already online and features over 50 recipes, a dozen technique features, travel stories, cookbook write ups and product features. Emily and Heather knew not everyone would have the opportunity to visit their restaurant and they saw the magazine as a resource that wasn’t bound by geography.

The pair found great relief, in the midst of the unfamiliar territory of starting a restaurant, in creating the website. While the behind the scenes web development wasn’t without its challenges, developing each recipe, testing and refining, styling and photographing the finished product were all skills that felt familiar and comforting. Emily and Heather plan to let the magazine evolve organically by posting the new recipes that will develop over time in the restaurant, as well as sharing more products and skills as they discover them.

As the restaurant construction nears completion, they see the space as one to focus on nourishing people and as importantly, as a place to create community and to be a stakeholder in their Los Angeles neighborhood. The menu will be plant forward, without eschewing meat or other animal proteins, and will feature local produce. In addition to being a spot for family and friends to commune, the pair see Botanica as a real hub for creatives. They plan to host guests from the local community to teach things like cooking and floral design. Heather and Emily want the space to feel dynamic and vibrant with a continual focus on food, art, learning and activism.

What is most impressive about the duo is their unique vision and mission for Botanica restaurant that extends beyond merely what food they will serve. The pair want their business model to be centered around doing good in their community and will partner will several mission-focused local organizations. One such organization provides formerly incarcerated or homeless people with culinary training and will be a source as they staff their restaurant. Emily and Heather see creating jobs that allow their employees to grow and feel nurtured as an important step in establishing a healthy, sustainable workplace. Unlike most within the restaurant industry, the pair are committed to paying living wages and providing important benefits like maternity leave.

Their commitment to social good extends, though, far beyond their restaurant walls. During the process of starting their restaurant, Heather and Emily learned firsthand about the challenges that face small business owners and how the system stacks the deck against the people who often have the most limited resources. The process represented a huge learning curve for both. They want to not only pass along what they’ve learned to help others, but also to get involved in changing the obstacles that are standing in the way of what they see as positive community development.

The pair is also generously sharing one of their most Hygge recipes they developed for a pop up hosted during a Chicago snow storm. As Heather describes, it features “cooked gigante beans with aromatics tucked into a really richly spiced tomato sauce paired with wilted hearty greens and topped with garlicky bread crumbs, smoked labna and cilantro oil.” Yes, please!


Gigante Beans & Greens With Spiced Tomato Sauce & Smoked Labne

INGREDIENTS:

Beans

  • 2 Cups Dried Gigante Beans (Or Jarred, Pre-cooked Gigante Beans)
  • 1 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Cumin
  • 1 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Coriander
  • ½ Teaspoon Salt 

Spiced Tomato Sauce

  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 1 Medium Spanish Onion, Chopped
  • 8 Medium-Large Garlic Cloves (Or 10 Small) Smashed (Hard!) and Peeled
  • 1-1½ Teaspoon Harissa (Depends on Spice and Strength)
  • 1 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Cumin
  • 1 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Coriander
  • 2 Heaping Tablespoons Tomato Paste
  • 1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
  • 1 26-Ounce Can of Whole or Crushed Tomatoes

Smoked Labne

  • 2 Cups Plain Labne (Simply Strained Yogurt; No Need to Mix in Any of the Additional Ingredients!)
  • ¼ Cup Loose Tea Leaves (Oolong Works Well Here)
  • Peel of 1 Whole Lemon and 1 Whole Orange
  • 1 Large Pot
  • 1 Strainer (We Use a Steamer Basket and It Works Great)
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Sea Salt
  • Olive Oil

To Serve

  • Cilantro, Leaves Picked and Stems Reserved
  • Cubes of Stale Bread 
  • Salt and Pepper 
  • Spiced Tomato Sauce
  • Gigante Beans
  • 1 Large Bunch of Hearty Winter Greens (Kale, Chard, Collards), Chopped in Large Pieces or Torn

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INSTRUCTIONS

If using dried beans: Soak the beans overnight. The next day, place in a large pot, cover with six inches of water, and add 1 teaspoon coarsely ground cumin, 1 teaspoon coarsely ground coriander and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until just tender, about 1½ – 2 hours, stirring regularly (and gently!) to aid in even cooking. Remove from the heat and let rest for another half-hour or so. Drain the beans and save the cooking liquid. Let the liquid rest for half an hour, or until the milky starch settles at the bottom, and then pour off and reserve the super flavorful liquid on top. That stuff is gold! Use it in place of or in addition to vegetable broth for a crazy savory flavor boost.

Make the tomato sauce: In a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until golden (at least 5 minutes, maybe more). Add the harissa, cumin and coriander, stir, and let sizzle another 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and salt, stir well, and cook for another minute or so. (Things should be smelling and looking rather delicious at this point.) Add the tomatoes (if using whole, crush well with your hands before adding), stir well and reduce heat a bit. Let it bubble away, stirring every so often, until all the excess liquid has evaporated from the sauce. Once this has happened, stir in a half-cup of water (or bean cooking liquid) and cook down again.

Make the labne: Add the tea leaves, lemon and orange peel to the pot and cover the mixture itself (not the top of the pot) with a foil tent. Heat the pot on medium-high until the tea mixture starts smoking, about 8 minutes (you’ll smell it before you see it). Remove the foil and add a few drops of water. Plop the labne into the strainer and spread it with a spatula, place the strainer over the smoking mixture, and cover the pot entirely with foil or a lid. Let it smoke on medium-high heat for about 7 minutes (it goes from not-smoky to smoky very quickly, so keep watch and taste often!). Remove the labne from the heat to let it cool and set, then sprinkle with salt and a stir through about a tablespoon of olive oil.

Chop the cilantro stems and puree with olive oil and a pinch of salt to make cilantro oil for garnishing. Pass through a fine-mesh strainer and reserve.

Toss the bread with a good glug of olive oil and a heavy sprinkling of salt and pepper, pop in the oven for a few minutes to toast, and then pulse in a food processor (or chop) into large, crunchy, coarse breadcrumbs.

Warm the spiced tomato sauce, thinning it out a bit with water or, even better, bean cooking liquid. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Stir in the cooked beans and greens and let the greens wilt. Serve in shallow bowls, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and cilantro leaves, drizzled with cilantro oil, and finished with a dollop of smoked labne and a final bit of sea salt.

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To find out more about Emily and Heather, their restaurant or to read their beautiful publication, head to BotanicaMag.Com


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Grace Ray is a former child forensic interview specialist, reformed home decor blogger, writer and editor (who has a difficult time being serious whenever there is a camera around). She is proud to be the co/founder of Do It Well, Co.