Quick bites: Frozen inspiration
One thing I love about the Outer Banks are all of the hidden gems among the clutter of national and regional chains and franchise operations.
On the down side, the fact that those gems are hidden makes it hard for them to rise above the din and capture the attention of local and the all-important visitor population.
Zen Pops is one such establishment. Hidden among the signature red awnings of Seagate North Shopping Center lies a delight of frozen treats.
By rights, Zen Pops should be packed to the gills with customers seeking a healthy, gourmet alternative to the sugar-water Popsicles and preservative-laden ice creams we normally consume.
Crystal Swain, owner of Zen Pops, lists her functional title as “Flavor Diva” on her business card. If there is a standard for truth-in-advertising, then Swain has far exceeded it.
People come here, in part to experience our local lifestyle. And far and away, that lifestyle epitomizes healthy living. Locals are avid joggers, surfers, kayakers, hikers, kite boarders and bicyclists.
By definition, our food should reflect our healthy culture.
Crystal Swain believes that to be true also, and her Zen Pops and ice cream reflect a return to healthy foods that can be fun and tasty.
What is a Zen Pop?
Swain explains the treat was common in Mexico and Latin America, where they are called “paletas,” an ice pop made from frozen fruit rather than flavored sugar water.
Swain began her venture making the pops at home and selling them off-site in places such as the farmers markets in Hatteras and Manteo. This year, I spied her booth at Dare Day in Manteo and was immediately hooked.
I ordered the Key Lime Pie ice pop. The mouthfeel, texture and taste were virtually identical to the famous dessert, right down to the light dusting of graham cracker on the exterior.
Unlike the generic ice pop, where the “juice” can literally be sucked out of the ice, this pop was a delight that maintained its flavorings in each and every bite.
Another difference between paletas and popsicles are the ingredients. Not only is real fruit part of the bargain, the type of fruits one might find in Mexico include unusual choices such as mango, watermelon and even cucumber.
Likewise, Swain has adopted that tradition in her offerings. You won’t find “grape,” “cherry” or “orange” Zen Pops. Think Coconut/Berry, Strawberry/Banana or Blackberry/Orange.
When Swain decided to open her own storefront, the operation moved out of her kitchen and into the commercial kitchen of a local restaurant.
There she creates these awesome treats. Right now she has developed over 50 recipes for her pops and a dozen ice creams.
Her theme is simple: natural fruit, organic and local whenever possible. No added sugar. On average, a Zen Pop contains between 3 and 5 grams of sugar.
By contrast, my favorite store-bought “fruit bar” from Harris Teeter is loaded with 19 grams of sugar.
Swain explained the composition of her strawberry-banana ice pop. Six quarts of strawberry puree (today’s batch was Currituck strawberries), four cups of water and frozen organic bananas in the center.
If you don’t think an organic banana tastes differently from the grocery store version, think again. I had forgotten what a banana is supposed to taste like.
There’s more to Swain than just using fresh fruit in her pops. She is a master blender and listening to her describe her recipes reminds one of both a modern day vintner blending grape varietals and a haute cuisine chef experimenting with herbs and other ingredients.
As Swain describes it, her typical flavor profile includes at least two or three elements — some totally unexpected in an ice pop. One might find cilantro, basil, mint and even rosemary added to the mix.
The traditional paleta includes many of the same ingredients, including peppers. These herbs and spices can stimulate the body’s natural cooling systems — making a Zen Pop far more than a mere cool refreshment on a hot summer day.
Zen Pops’ approach to ice cream is no different. It starts with the base, which Swain says even “homemade” shops buy commercially. Swain’s ice creams are created totally from scratch — including the base.
Organic cane syrup provides the sweetener, as opposed to fructose, which lowers the sugar content in the ice cream as well. The dairy ingredients are hormone-free.And once again, expect the unexpected. The peach ginger ice cream doesn’t use just peach. Instead it’s pan-roasted peach with basil added. And yes, it tastes unlike any peach ice cream that will ever slide across your palate.
And don’t even get me started on the “Deep Chocolate.”
For vegans, there are always choices in both the ice cream and ice pops. On the day I visited there was one vegan ice cream and two vegan choices among the ice pops.
At the end of the day, all Swain desires is to “create a demand for an all-natural, locally made product.” She also says she get’s a lot of reward from little kids eating “my stuff” . . . stuff that is healthy and natural.
What could be more appropriate than a healthy, cold, locally made gourmet snack to top off a hot day at the beach?
Better yet, 2 percent of the company’s profits are donated to local charities and you can vote with your ice pop stick how the money should be divided.
Now, go enlighten your palate!
Also available at: Tommy’s Market-Duck; Coastal Provisions-Southern Shores; The Brewing Station, Kill Devil Hills, and The Manteo Farmer’s Market.
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