The magazine recognized Big Spoon for its Hot Peanut flavor, which adds a blend of ancho, habanero and guajillo chilies to North Carolina-grown peanuts.
“Smear with strawberry jam on crusty bread for a grown-up PB&J, or warm it up and drizzle over a noodle bowl,” Southern Living recommends.
“We’ve been the only nut butter honored, which has been great,” says Big Spoon founder Mark Overbay in a call from his production facility. Last year, Big Spoon impressed judges with its then-new Vanilla Peanut Sorghum flavor. In 2015, when the awards program debuted, it won with Mission Almond.
Roots Hummus of Asheville, praised for its lima bean and roasted garlic flavors, also made the list.
The list, titled “Southern-Made Necessities,” appears in the June issue.
Overbay had the idea for the Hot Peanut butter years before he launched the company in 2011. After serving in Zimbabwe as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1999 – and discovering how each village made its own distinctly flavored, hand-ground nut butters – Overbay lived for several years in Washington, D.C. A Haitian friend introduced him to a spicy peanut butter called mamba.
“I loved it and tried to re-create it by stirring all kinds of chilies into peanut butter,” Overbay recalls. “I’ve kept it in mind as a flavor we’d want to try at Big Spoon.”
Flash forward to 2016, when Big Spoon produced several chili-infused nut butters. One was a collaboration with Maple Spring Gardens in Cedar Grove, which provided a mix of aji dulce, Tobago and Thai chilies, for the annual Farm to Fork Picnic. Big Spoon later teamed with McKinley & Clark Farms of Apex to make a version for the annual PepperFest in Pittsboro. That batch used jalapeño, garden salsa, red chili and habanero.
Overbay continued to experiment with other chilies, eventually settling on the award-winning combination in Hot Peanut, which was added to the lineup in September.
“The ancho has smoky hot sweetness, the habanero has a stinging heat, and the guajillo has a tropical sweetness,” he said. “Also, for the first time, we incorporated an organic raw cane sugar. When you bite into the nut butter, you get the heat but also the crunchy sugar, which tames it.”
While tasty on a spoon, Overbay says Hot Peanut also is a versatile cooking ingredient. He suggests mixing some with a splash of full fat coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and cilantro for a Thai-style dipping sauce.
Last week, Overbay produced and bottled the first batch of Big Spoon’s newest product, Almond Coconut nut butter. While not yet available in Triangle stores, it can be ordered online along with other Big Spoon products.
Almond Coconut was inspired by marathon runner Mike Wardian of Virginia, who is a vegan. Big Spoon is a sponsor of the athlete, who suggested that an almond-coconut combination would be a winner.
Since coconut cannot be sourced locally, Overbay sampled options from several countries, finally choosing one from the Philippines that delivered an appealing depth of flavor when toasted. His next challenge was finding the right sweetener; ones used in moderation in other Big Spoon nut butters didn’t work as hoped here.
Overbay’s search led him to coconut crystals, a product derived from dehydrated coconut nectar. The crystals have a low glycemic index, which helps diabetics and others manage blood sugar levels, and adds a welcome crackle.
“Between it and the toasted coconut chips,” Overbay says, “one of our employees says it sounds like Rice Krispies popping when we mixed it.”
Don’t be surprised if Overbay enters Almond Coconut in next year’s Southern Living Food Awards contest.
“They seem to like unique flavors as much as we do,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything else in the market that incorporates fresh toasted coconut chips and the coconut crystals. We know it’s delicious and believe it will find a ready audience.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.