Kola Nut Powder From Jon Feshan

This smoky spice rub packs a punch

Jon Feshan had never heard of kola nuts when he accepted the executive chef position at New York's Kola House. Expected to use the namesake powder and excited by the challenge, he soon became a devotee.

Native to tropical Africa, rich in caffeine and often chewed to aid digestion, kola nut powder is almost flavorless when dry but becomes extremely bitter when steeped in water. Sweetened, it imparts the same burnt round notes redolent of American colas.

As an overall rule, Feshan applies kola nut powder where he would use coffee grounds, adding it to marinades and dry rubs for a hint of bitter cocoa, or reducing it to enrich a low-acid, tomato-free barbecue sauce.

Fittingly, kola nut powder is the star of Feshan's Kola House Spice Rub (see the recipe), a mix of Mexican chiles, cumin, smoked paprika, fennel and cayenne, balanced by a touch of sugar. The spicy, sweet and smoky flavors have dark and slightly bitter undertones, making them perfect for a wide range of hefty winter dishes.

Here are a few of his favorite ways to get a kola nut fix, all winter long.

① Stacked Mayo

As a rich dressing for chicken or turkey salads, or as a thick sandwich spread, add one tablespoon of spice blend per cup of mayonnaise. For even more smoke and spice, add a tablespoon of chopped canned chipotles. Add whichever fresh herbs you have on hand—cilantro, basil, chives and tarragon work particularly well—for fresh green notes to balance out the sweetness and heat. Let the mayo steep for 30 minutes or so, and you've got a dynamic sandwich topper packed with flavor.

(We gander it would work really well as a dipping sauce for fried snacks, too!)

② Hefty Winter Salad

Use the same base spice blend-to-mayonnaise ratio listed above as a base for a bitter-greens salad dressing. Thin the mayo with a neutral oil like sunflower or canola, and then add chopped herbs and salt to taste. Toss over a blend of bitter and sweet greens like frisée and radicchio. Top with chopped bacon, poached eggs and croutons. "This makes a great quick brunch item when it's cold out," Feshan promises.

③ Whole-Roasted Cauliflower

"By itself, cauliflower has no flavor," Feshan explains. "But it can take a lot of heat, and it has a texture like steak." Take a whole head of cauliflower (and be sure to remove the leaves, since they burn fast), rub with a little olive oil, and then season generously with the kola spice rub. Wrap with cabbage leaves—this keeps the cauliflower moist while it roasts—and roast for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove the cabbage leaves, turn up the heat slightly and roast until you get the color you desire. The cauliflower absorbs all of the spice in its nooks and crannies, caramelizing a touch with the heat and char.

④ Dry Rub

The unadorned blend also makes an excellent dry rub. Feshan suggests applying it to meat, fish or poultry a few hours before roasting or grilling to add spicy, smoky and bitter flavors. Try it on a whole chicken or turkey, or a mess of dark meat parts. 

For fish that's hearty but not too oily, like bass or branzino, rub the flesh side with the spice blend, and then grill or roast skin-side down. Or remove the skin altogether, lightly rub on both sides and roast in the oven.

⑤ Wet Rub – Two Ways

For a simple wet rub, thin the dried blend with a small amount of neutral oil like canola or sunflower; you just want to add enough oil to bind the spices. For an oil-free rub, change up your spice-making process a touch: Pour one and a half cups of boiling water over two cups of dried chiles until soft. Remove the chiles, reserving the soaking liquid. Blend the chiles with the rest of the spices to make your Kola House Spice Blend. Then, to continue with your wet rub, thin with the reserved chile water.

"The wet rub works particularly well with pork shoulder," Feshan says. Marinade it overnight, put it on a rack in an oven set to 275 to 300 degrees, and roast it low and slow for "a beautiful piece of pork." The wet rub is also a natural with turkey, chicken, Cornish game hen and beef dishes.