BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Home Grown Tomatoes


“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
Lewis Grizzard

“A cooked tomato is like a cooked oyster: ruined.”
Andre Simon, The Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy

“Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What would life be like without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
John Denver, Home Grown Tomatoes

(Photos taken at the first annual tomato tasting at Ambler Farm.)


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Summer’s Sweet Bounty

Much has been said of California cuisine, and as it remains a nebulous and often contentious concept at best, I won’t even begin to add my two cents to that short-changed conversation. Rather, I can’t help but marvel at the availability and variety of raw ingredients that make it all happen. It’s easy to see how a chef could be inspired to try anything once, maybe twice, when the basic components are all so accessible, to say nothing of their inherent flavor or beauty. Each trip to one of the many farmers markets is guaranteed to yield a cornucopia of edible inspiration. Where else can you find locally grown pistachios, two or three dozen distinctive varieties of peaches, and rainier cherries for an unbelievable price of $2 per pound, all in one place? San Francisco has developed a reputation as being a farm-to-table foodie’s paradise, and it sure is working hard to keep that title.

Of course, I took this opportunity to positively gorge myself on ripe seasonal fruits. The siren song of those soft, explosively juicy nectarines was impossible to resist, no matter how messy they were to eat. Apricots came home with me in aromatic, golden heaps, piled so high on the kitchen counter that it seemed impossible to eat them without aid. Somehow, I always managed.

That’s to say nothing of the berries. Despite missing out on the prime berry bounty, it was still a real treat to enjoy locally grown options, and at such bargain basement prices. As a little ode to my Californian summer, it was only fitting to gather up a small sampling of what I had on hand, along with the famed sourdough that beckons irresistibly in every reputable bakery’s store front. Fresh mint plucked straight from the tiny windowsill garden completed this little love note to my temporary, adoptive home state.

Light, fresh, fast, it’s the kind of recipe that depends entirely on the quality of your ingredients. Consider it as a serving suggestion; more of an idea than a specific schematic, to be tailored to whatever fruits are fresh and in season in your neck of the woods.

California Dreamin’ Panzanella

5 Cups Cubed Sourdough Bread
2 Cups Pitted and Halved Cherries
2 Cups Seedless Grapes
1 Cup Blackberries
1/4 Cup Zulka Sugar or Light Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Walnuts
Fresh Mint Leaves, Thinly Sliced

To Serve:

Coconut Whipped Cream (Optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread your cubes of sourdough bread out on a baking sheet in one even layer and bake them for about 15 minutes, until golden and lightly toasted all over. Let cool completely before proceeding.

In a large bowl, toss together all of the fruits and remaining ingredients. Toss in the toasted bread, right before serving, last to ensure that it stays crisp. Mix thoroughly so that everything is well distributed and entirely coated with the sugar mixture. Enjoy immediately with a dollop of whipped coconut cream, if desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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City of Sandwiches

World-renowned for its legendary sourdough, San Francisco is indisputably a city built upon bread. Even in times of carb ambivalence and widespread gluten awareness, it’s reassuring to see that this yeasted tradition is still alive and well, thriving in the hands of myriad skilled, dedicated bakers found across the bay area. With so many loaves both big and small being born every day in those perpetually burning ovens, it should come as no surprise that sandwiches get receive considerable attention here, no matter the cuisine nor restaurant ranking. Far be it from the only choice, sourdough is hardly the end-all, be-all bun that serves as the foundation for those hundreds, if not thousands, of creatively stuffed handheld meals. One could easily eat only sandwiches and still never exhaust all of the options, from buns to condiments, as diverse an distinctive as the sandwich artisans themselves.

There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to finding authentic banh mi, stuffed with everything from from tofu to TVP if you know where to look. Little more than a hole in the wall with space for a miniature kitchen, Fresh Brew Coffee nonetheless manages to craft a mean stack of tangy pickles, hot peppers, cilantro, avocado, and veggie patties inside a crusty French roll. It’s not the most revolutionary rendition, but location counts for a whole lot. Since it was within stumbling distance of my classes and offered free wifi, it was an easy, tasty stop for lunch. For convenience, speed, and cost, the combination simply can’t be beat.

A bit far-flung for most visitors but perfectly situated near my home base, Lou’s Cafe and Sandwiches has a fiercely loyal following. While most people come for the meats and cheeses and the printed menu doesn’t appear even remotely vegan-friendly at first blush, you can snag yourself a mighty fine meal if you know what to ask for. The Veggielicious is vegetarian by default, and easily veganized once stripped of its cheese, with jalapeno spread swapped in for the mayonnaise-based “special sauce.” Opt for the Dutch crunch bread, rather than the soft white fluff that comes standard, and you’ll have a hand-held roasted vegetable feast, complete with crisp lettuce and a full meadow’s-worth of sprouts.

Here’s one out of left field for you: Cinderella Bakery and Cafe, a traditional Russian establishment, hidden within the Inner Richmond, serving up solid eats without any pretension- Or niceties, depending on the counter person. Don’t let the surly service deter you though, because your patience will reap some incredible, edible delights.  Their so-called Vegan Sandwich takes the guess work out of what to order, arriving fully loaded with roasted red peppers, tomato, sorrel, avocado, sprouts, and romesco sauce on satisfyingly crunchy focaccia bread, toasted to a fetching shade of golden brown. Set apart from the pack by the rich, savory romesco sauce, it’s a sandwich that deserves far more fanfare than it seems to get, appearing only on the online menu and not in store. Press forward and ask for it anyway; the unsmiling staff will grudgingly oblige. However, if you only have room for one dish, make it the accidentally vegan borscht (sans sour cream.) Even on a steamy summer afternoon, the tomato-based broth, layered with a complex yet harmonious symphony of umami flavors, truly hits the spot. Since it comes with a basket of complimentary rye bread, it really is a full meal all by itself.

Something of a cult-hit, Hella Vegan Eats slings different sandwiches every day their truck is on the road, and on this particular sunny afternoon, I had the opportunity to taste their Southern Fried Thai “Chicken” Sandwich, replete with green curry cabbage, curried aioli, and a slab of faux-chicken about the size of a full dinner plate. Extending far beyond the confines of the soft yet hearty bun, there’s a whole lot of “meat” packed into this baby, and I’m happy to report that every last inch of it is fried to a perfectly crispy, grease-less consistency, remaining moist and tender inside. It’s the kind of sandwich that would appeal to even the most close-minded carnivore, deserving of all the effusive praise regularly bestowed upon the modest food truck. Plus, you’ve gotta love the whimsical umbrella garnish.

Only upon sinking my teeth into the monstrous grinder overflowing with paper-thin shaved seitan and mushrooms at Jay’s Cheesesteak did I realize my ordering folly. Made vegan by omitting the mayonnaise and yes, the cheese, I’m not sure exactly what you would call this creation. Regardless, this hot pile of chewy gluten is pure comfort food, lightened with fresh lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a subtle smear of mustard as accompaniments. If only Jay would consider adding a vegan cheese sauce to the menu, the experience would truly be complete, but it’s already pretty darned delicious as is.

Don’t forget about all of the sweet sandwiches that San Francisco has to offer, too! Curbside Creamery is not exclusively vegan, but offers a rotating variety of dairy-free ice creams. Based in Oakland with regular appearances at various east bay farmers markets, their cashew-based scoops are as creative as they are craveable. From Thai iced tea to earl grey, you can’t go wrong with a simple scoop or two, but their fully loaded ice cream sandwiches are truly something else. Go big or go home with the thickly layered Peanut Butter and Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich and you won’t regret the caloric splurge.

They may not have a storefront bakery, but it’s still pretty darned special to chance upon Feel Good Desserts‘ vegan macarons in the refrigerated cases at Republic of V. The moisture of the fridge no doubt compromised their delicate structure a bit, creating a texture that was more soft than crisp, but the overall eating experience was pure bliss. Knowing how much hard work goes into crafting these tiny sandwich cookies first hand, it was a real treat to have someone else do the heavy lifting for me.

San Franciscan vegans are positively spoiled for delicious dining options, so the real question here is: Which ‘wich would you eat first?


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Plant-Based and Powerfully Written

After so much time has passed, it’s hard to know where to begin. In truth, it was just over a year ago that I began collaborating with Nava Atlas, but somehow it feels like a thousand years have elapsed since then. Although it was far from the first cookbook I had the opportunity to color with my photos, the notable balance between creative freedom and direction that Nava fostered created wildly successful results. I can take little credit for the resulting beauty of Plant Power; Nava was the mastermind that brought these recipes into being and made my work a breeze. All I had to do was paint by numbers and try to color within the lines.

Even so, it’s unreal to see the finished pages in all of their neatly arranged and carefully indexed glory. Still impatiently waiting for the early September release, I have yet to hold a printed copy of the book in my hands and hungrily flip through its crisp, clean pages, but a sneak peak at the digital version instantly brings back a flood of happy, delicious memories. A stunning collaboration put to pictures and words, it was an absolute dream job. A big part of that gratifying experience was ending up with so much delicious food at the end of each shoot; one of my favorite perks of a hard day’s work. I can say from experience that every last recipe packed into this carefully crafted text is worth making, not a single bit of fluff or page-filler to be found. One that stands out prominently in my memory is the deceptively simple Quick Quinoa Paella, an excellent example of Nava’s skill for presenting a sound foundation that can be adapted, reinterpreted, and recreated a hundred different ways with equal success.

Incredibly satisfying, easy enough for the most novice of cooks to complete with ease, and perfect for featuring any of the ripe summer produce now bursting forth from the markets, let this preparation form a helpful guideline, but not a boundary, as to the possibilities contained within a few simple vegetables.

Quick Quinoa Paella

Paella is a Spanish pilaf traditionally made with white rice and seafood. We’ll do away with the seafood here, of course, and since we’re dispensing with tradition, let’s do away with white rice as well. Using nutritious and quick-cooking quinoa instead, you can have a colorful meal in about thirty minutes. This goes well with Spinach, Orange, and Red Cabbage Salad. Recipe from Plant Power: Transform Your Kitchen, Plate, and Life with More Than 150 Fresh and Flavorful Vegan Recipes by Nava Atlas. ©2014, published by HarperOne, reprinted by permission. Photos by Hannah Kaminsky. 

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or 3 tablespoons vegetable broth or water
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, cut into 2-inch strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch strips
1 cup sliced baby bella (cremini) mushrooms (optional)
2 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric (see Note)
1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed in a fine sieve
2 teaspoons fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
One 14- to 15-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
2 cups frozen green peas, thawed
2 cups diced ripe tomatoes
2 to 3 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the oil, broth, or water in a large, deep skillet or stir-fry pan. Add the garlic, bell peppers, and mushrooms, if desired, and sauté over medium-low heat until softened, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the broth, turmeric, and quinoa. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes.

Stir in the thyme, artichoke hearts, peas, tomatoes, scallions, and half the parsley.

Check if the quinoa is completely done; if not, add 1/2 cup water. Cook, stirring frequently, just until everything is well heated through, about 5 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper, then transfer the mixture to a large shallow serving container, or serve straight from the pan. Sprinkle the remaining parsley over the top and serve at once.

Note: As another departure from tradition, I’ve suggested turmeric rather than the customary saffron. Saffron is harder to obtain and very expensive, but you’re welcome to try it if you have access to it. Use 1 to 11/2 teaspoons saffron threads dissolved in a small amount of hot water.

Makes 6 Servings

Nutrition information:
Calories: 222 with oil, 202 without oil; Total fat: 4g with oil, 2g without oil; Protein: 10g; Carbohydrates: 40g; Fiber: 9g; Sodium: 240mg

Printable Recipe


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Winning Friends with Salad

Salad? Who gets genuinely excited about a salad?

Fear not, my friends, for this is no sad iceberg affair I’m here to talk about today. Much more like a savory trail mix with lettuce than a typical leafy green side dish, Burmese tea leaf salad is truly in a class of its own. As with any good mixed vegetable composition, the mix-ins and goodies are the keys to success, and this particular mixture packs a whole world of flavors and textures into every last bite. Toppings can vary wildly by region and availability, but a few favorite common inclusions are crunchy dried lentils or split peas, fried garlic chips, salted peanuts, sunflower seeds, and/or toasted sesame seeds, which is to say nothing of the more vegetative base of cabbage, tomatoes, and thinly sliced jalapenos. Traditional offerings include dried shrimps or shrimp paste, but any restaurant worth patronizing will graciously omit the sea critters for a fully vegan experience. Arranged in pristine piles and garnished just so, each salad looks almost too pretty to eat. Wise servers must realize this, as their next move will be to deftly swipe the lemon wedges from the perimeter of the plate, squeeze them mercilessly until not an ounce of juice remains, and speedily mix and mash everything together until it’s one ugly, sloppy, and highly delicious mess.

That would be all well and good by itself, but let’s back up for a minute here because I’m purposely overlooking one critical ingredient. Fermented or pickled tea leaves are of course the star of the show. Treasured in Burma and as rare as unicorns anywhere else in the world, they give this salad its characteristic tangy, funky, an indescribably savory taste. Unfortunately, this essential component is a beast to find here in the US. Moreover, dozens of commercial brands have been banned for sale, as there’s the danger of picking up package that includes a chemical dye linked with liver and kidney damage. Although it’s a pretty amazing salad, I wouldn’t hazard the risk of a hospital stay for a few decadent bites!

Craving this incomparable salad outside of a restaurant setting, I must admit that I took a few liberties and considerable shortcuts, but my riff on the classic has a harmony all its own.

Inspired by the tea itself, I was lucky enough to have a particularly flavorful pomegranate green tea at my disposal thanks to a thoughtful sampler package from The Tea Company. Painting with my own unique palate of flavors from that unconventional foundation, it only made sense to include the crunchy, tart arils themselves as one of many flavorful mix-ins. One sample pack wasn’t quite enough to bulk up my leafy base, so a light, refreshing mint green tea joined that blend as well. I only marinated them lightly, rather than fermented them properly for the mandated 6 months (!) required for traditional lahpet. Call it a quick and dirty fix, but the results don’t lie. A quicker, easier, and fresher take on this rarefied delicacy is perhaps just what the doctor ordered. Now I have no fear of accidental food poisoning, nor do I need to suffer the lack of Burmese eateries in my hometown.

Pomegranate Tea Leaf Salad

Tea Leaves:

1/4 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons White Vinegar
1 Packet (1/4 Cup) Moroccan Mint Gunpowder Green Tea
1 Packet (1/4 Cup) Pomegranate Green Tea
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil

Salad:

2 Cups Shredded Cabbage and/or Romaine Lettuce
1/2 Cup Cherry or Grape Tomatoes, Halved
1/3 Cup Roasted, Unsalted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Roughly Chopped Fried Garlic
1/3 Cup Dried Green Peas or Moong Dal
1/3 Cup Pomegranate Arils
1/4 Cup Toasted Black Sesame Seeds
1 Small Jalapeno, Halved, Seeded, and Thinly Sliced
1/2 Lemon, Sliced into Wedges

The tea leaves can be prepared well in advance, so it’s best to tackle that component first and have it ready to go when you are. Simply combine the water, vinegar, both teas, and soy sauce in a microwave-safe dish, and heat for about a minute. Let the tea stand, loosely covered, for 15 – 20 minutes, until the leaves have more or less absorbed all of the liquid. Mix in the sesame oil and let stand at room temperature for an additional 5 – 10 minutes to soak in. You can use the tea right away or chill it in the fridge, sealed in an air-tight container, for up to a week. I find that it tends to taste better once the flavors have had time to meld for at least a day or two.

To compose the rest of the salad, get out a large platter and put your artist’s hat on. Spread the cabbage and/or lettuce out in an even layer on the bottom, and begin heaping neat piles of all the goodies around in a circle. Mound the prepared tea leaves in the very center, and place the lemon wedges around the sides at regular intervals. Deliver the plate to the table like this with great fanfare- Presentation is a big part of this dish! To serve, squeeze the lemon wedges all over the salad and use a large serving spoon and fork to thoroughly mix the whole thing together. Divide the beautiful mess amongst your guests and eat immediately.

Makes 3 – 4 Side Servings

Printable Recipe

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