BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Muchas Gracias

Singling out one favorite meal from my summertime jaunt around the 7 x 7 mile peninsula known as San Francisco would be an impossible task. Small but densely populated with more restaurants per square mile than people, or so it often appeared, even the most voracious adventurer could eat out for every meal of the day, and still never come close to exhausting their options. Picking the few gems out from the large swath of mediocre, adequate, or downright disappointing establishments, however, is a far easier task. Gracias Madre ranks very high on my list of keepers, laying claim to one of the top 5 meals I’ve eaten all year, coast to coast.

As part of the Cafe Gratitude empire and having recently expanded to a Los Angeles outpost, it’s likely that even far-flung readers who never plan to visit California have still heard of this storied establishment. It had been on my radar for years, but it had always been buried too deep within the Mission district to warrant a trek, or too busy to afford the wait. At last, the cards we stacked in my favor: It was a perfect, blue-sky day in July, warm enough to suit up with only a light jacket, and the company was unbeatable. Plus, she came with a car.

Sitting in the enclosed porch, we enjoyed a gentle breeze as dappled sunlight filtered in across our table, and a procession of savory delights began to grace our presence. Coconut Ceviche had been at the top of my “must try” list, simply because I had never seen nor tasted such a thing before. Could this tropical fruit really approximate something more oceanic in nature? Long story short: No. However, the flavors rendered from this unlikely combination are from a world beyond that expected flavor palate, elevating the dish into something entirely new. Truth be told, my one criticism was that I wanted more coconut! Each bite was dominated by rich, luscious avocado flesh instead, but that’s hardly something to complain about. Paired with sturdy, freshly fried but utterly grease-free tortilla chips, I could have been perfectly happy to make a meal of this appetizer alone.

But one could hardly turn a blind eye to the rest of the alluring menu. We ordered lavishly, accumulating far more food than any two people should reasonably consider eating for lunch, and yet not a scrap remained at the end of the meal. The Pozole, brought to the table in a great plume of steam, was not something I would have requested unprompted, but it turned out to be a top pick that day. A medley of vegetables and tender hominy mingled in a soothing, tomato-based and slightly spicy broth, topped with a thorny crown of thin tortilla strips. The balance of ingredients was pure poetry, a soup far greater than the sum of its parts.

Our final requests for the day came out in a flurry of small plates. Elote, a classic, beautifully simple preparation of grilled corn and Mexican cheese, has always been out of reach due to the dairy component, so it was a true pleasure to finally sink my teeth into that cashew cheese-smeared cob. The smoky, toasted kernels were perfectly cooked, plump and lightly charred, but the real star was that cashew crema. Upon asking the chef what magic went into such an ethereal condiment, he graciously laid out the entire recipe for us. Ready with you paper and pencil? Here’s how it goes down: Soak a bunch of cashews over night. Drain them. Add a bit of ancho chili, salt and black pepper, and blend them with a splash of fresh water until silky smooth. And that’s all he wrote.

Simple Greens Con Chile y Ajo were easily a step above your average sauteed kale, sparkling with crisp pepitas and carefully applied touches of spice. Always well seasoned but never hot, per se, these small touches proved the true finesse of the kitchen. Escabeche, pickled vegetables, rounded out our midday feast with a pleasing salty side, but were largely an unnecessary accoutrement to this lavish spread.

While I’m not about to start picking favorites, I will say that Gracias Madre is easily near the top of my hit list. If you’re ever in town, consider if your duty as an eater of any dietary designation to try it out at least once.


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An Unexpected Interloper

It’s been a banner year for our postage stamp-sized garden out back, finally turning out greater yields than the miniscule seeds that went into the ground in the first place. Predictably, with greater growing success comes the need for greater vigilance, as plump tomatoes gleam brighter and redder by the day, proving irresistible to both human and animal passersby. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to let the immature fruits ripen on the vine, as deeper shades of blush tempt a premature harvest, keeping other creatures from that same impulse has become something of a full-time occupation. Flimsy netting can only go so far, especially with the creatures smart enough to burrow beneath that loosely applied barrier.

Such was the case when one particularly ambitious (or perhaps, merely hungry) rabbit made it past the fence unhindered. Seemingly stunned to have stumbled upon this treasure trove of produce, he couldn’t quite get his bearings, unsure if it was all real or just a beautiful dream. Standing slack-jawed on a big green hill to get a better view of this bounty, it never even occurred to him that it was in fact a baby watermelon right beneath his feet. Beggars can’t be choosers, but when faced with a near limitless selection of edibles, this particular herbivore singled out the one thing he wanted most, neglecting all the easier prey: Carrots.

Upon spotting the green, frilly tops shooting up from the tender earth, there were no suitable alternatives as far as the rabbit was concern. Leaping off the neglected melon that might as well have been made of stone, he made a beeline for his beloved, fervently scooping away the dirt and yanking those promising sprouts with all his might. Possessing impressive might despite his size, he made quick work of the task and soon took one rapturous bite full of…

Parsley root? Indignant, he spat out the mouthful of beige tuber, still in disbelief at what he was tasting. Seriously, who plants parsley root instead of carrots? To call this a disappointment wouldn’t even scratch the surface at what this industrious rabbit was feeling, especially after all of the obstacles he had to overcome, all for that subtly celery-like taste. It wasn’t sweet at all! Who on earth would eat, let alone plant such a bizarre, unlovable vegetable?

Suddenly realizing that the garden mistress must be a raving lunatic, he was gripped with fear, sensing the gravity of his hunger-crazed and thoughtless actions. He fled the scene without a second to lose, abandoning his unwanted plunder right where it lay.

Rabbit amigurumi pattern from ABC Crochet by Mitsuki Hoshi. And yes, I do happen to love parsley root; deal with it, you silly rabbits.


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Whipped Into Shape

So Delicious is on a tear lately, introducing greater innovations faster than grocery stores can stock them all. In the midst of this dairy-free influx, the much-loved seasonal beverages have returned once more, but that’s not all. My tall, frosty glasses of Pumpkin Spice Beverage will all be sporting stately white coiffures this year…

CocoWhip, the very first commercial analog to Cool Whip, beats the fluffy white pants off the competition in every way imaginable. Taste is pretty much a given at this point; based on prior So Delicious creations, I would expect nothing less than each bite to live up to its namesake. Subtle hints of coconut remind the lucky eater that they’re eating an actual food item, rather than some chemical concoction of unknown origin. Bearing a distinct cooling sensation on the tongue, it does, in fact, stay true to the Cool Whip theme, clearly distinguishing it from homemade coconut whipped cream. A lighter, airier but not insubstantial texture defines this brave new entry into the world of dairy-free delights.

Offered in both an Original and Light rendition, I found the original to be the perfect ready-to-use dessert topping of my dreams. Maintaining perky peaks on top of every dollop, it stood the test of time, refusing to melt under pressure. The light version was a bit less robust, approximating softly whipped cream or perhaps clotted cream more closely. Though initially disappointing, I realized quickly that this looser CocoWhip was a prime ingredient, waiting to be turning into something much greater than it could become as merely a dessert topper.

A beauty to behold and a treat to partake in, the real secret to this fluffy frozen pie is how laughably easy it is to whip up. If you’ve ever stood in a kitchen, even once in your life, I think you could manage this recipe with aplomb. Plus, since it’s based on yogurt and jam with no additional sweeteners to speak of, I would feel entirely justified slicing off a generous wedge for breakfast, lunch, or dessert alike.

As the seasons change, this same formula can be adapted to any flavor variations your cravings demand. For example, opt for plain vanilla yogurt in the base while swirling in pumpkin or apple butter to effortlessly compliment any Thanksgiving or Christmas table. That’s only scratching the surface of what’s possible with this versatile, innovative ingredient.

Berry Froyo Chiffon Pie

Graham Cracker Crust:

1 1/2 Cup Graham Cracker Crumbs (About 12 Full Rectangle Sheets)
6 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine, Melted

Berry Froyo Filling:

1 9-Ounce Container Light CocoWhip, Thawed
1 6-Ounce Container Almond, Coconut or Soy Strawberry Yogurt
1 6-Ounce Container Almond, Coconut or Soy Blueberry Yogurt
1/2 Cup Raspberry Jam or Preserves

To Garnish (Optional):

Original CocoWhip, Thawed
Fresh Berries

To make the crust, break up the graham crackers into smaller pieces before pulsing in a food processor until very finely ground. The resulting crumbs should be about the consistency of coarse almond meal. Pick out any larger pieces and re-process as needed.

Drizzle the melted margarine into the crumbs, and stir thoroughly to moisten the ground cookies. The mixture should be capable of sticking together when pressed.

Transfer the mix to a 9-inch round pie pan, and use lightly moistened fingers to firmly press it down on the bottom and along the sides. Use the bottom of a flat measuring cup or drinking glass for smoother edges.

In medium bowl, combine the CocoWhip and both yogurts, folding gently with a large spatula until well-blended. Be careful to stir gently so as not to knock all of the bubbles out of the airy, whipped mixture. stir with whisk until blended. Spoon into crust. Add in the jam or preserves last, mixing just enough to incorporate but leaving it slightly marbled throughout the filling. Transfer to your prepared crust, smooth over the top, and move the whole pie into a flat surface in your freezer. Let rest until solidified; at least 4 – 6 hours.

To serve, simply slice the pie into wedges and top with additional dollops of CocoWhip and fresh berries, if desired.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Silent Saturday: A Blossoming Brunch

Caesar Salad (romaine hearts, rosemary croutons, sesame parmesan)

Sautéed Brussels Sprouts (garlic and shallots)

Barbeque Tempeh (horseradish crème fraiche, roasted russet potatoes,
summer corn/pico salad, sliced avocados)

French Toast (vanilla cream, maple syrup, seasonal berries)

Peach and Strawberry Crumble (vanilla ice cream)

Blossom on Carmine
West Village
41 Carmine Street
New York, NY 10014


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A Novel Approach

If there’s anything better than ice cream, it could only be ice cream on a stick or in a sandwich. Classic novelties have taken advantage of this fool-proof path to frozen dessert perfection, but few truly make the most of the unique, single serving presentation. Finally daring to innovate beyond two chocolate wafers filled with vanilla ice cream, some very exciting developments are turning the marketplace into a very sweet scene, indeed.

So Delicious has certainly been busy in recent days, and my backlog of photos provides ample evidence. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their latest innovations I have on deck for review! Truth be told, the above coconut-based Mini Organic Bars were first devoured back in January, while I enjoyed my time in Hawaii, and the hottest winter I’ve ever experienced. The perfect foil to a sweltering afternoon in the sun, it was hard to pick a favorite between the Just Java, Simply Strawberry, and Fudge Bars, but I quickly found that I really am a coffee-lover through and through. It won’t pummel you with high-octane espresso flavor, but a creamy, sweet, and smooth cappuccino flavor that’s perfectly suited for a light midday snack. For you coconut-haters out there, never fear: I couldn’t detect even a hint of coconut flavor in these babies, unlike the other two options.

Tofutti has been in the dairy-free dessert game for decades now, the veteran in the rapidly shifting field of prepared vegan food stuffs. The masterminds behind these particular treats definitely know what they’re doing, using the same formula that’s survived countless food trends and collective dietary changes. Although best known for their pints, Tofutti Cuties in all their myriad flavors will always hold a special place in my heart. Way back when BitterSweet was but a wee speck on the interweb, those sweet ice cream sandwiches were some of the very first products I ever reviewed. If you unwittingly clicked to read that flashback, I must apologize: Your eyes are likely burning by now from those gruesome photos.

Back to the matter at hand, the varieties have come and gone over the years, and remaining flavors can prove rather elusive. Although I can find their take on the golden standard anywhere I shop, more fanciful concoctions are harder to come by. Case in point, I could only get my hands on the Key Lime and Wild Berry Tofutti Cuties when the kind PR people offered to ship them directly. Granted, this was [shamefully, regrettably] over a year ago, so I’m not even sure if they still exist in the wild. For my own sake, I sure hope they do, because both were unforgettable treats with no equals in mainstream markets. Particularly drawn the to key lime, zesty citrus ice cream provides a bright, tangy contrast to the buttery vanilla cookies. Bearing a satisfying soft bite that is easy to sink your teeth into, the refreshing combination is far more complex than your average child-focused novelty. A new personal favorite from this steady, old school brand.

In case you thought that ice cream was just a summertime treat, then I’d like to introduce you to the most creative, daring frozen desserts to be found in the freezer cases this year: Halloween themed, coconut-based Pumpkin Spice and Candy Corn novelties, made by none other than So Delicious. These are brilliant for their adorable shapes alone, but needless to say it’s the taste is what puts them over the top. The adorable pale orange pumpkins are unsurprisingly flavored exactly like their Pumpkin Spice Beverage, only frozen, of course. Rich and decadent, they definitely feel like a seasonal indulgence, despite the low caloric price tag.

Candy corn was the real wild card here: Would it truly taste like candy corn? The chocolate crown suggested otherwise, but I held out hope for something more reminiscent of Indian corn instead of the classic. (Those were always better, anyway.) For better or for worse, depending on your stance toward the much reviled or beloved confections, these frozen novelties do not taste like actual candy corn. The white stripe is a simple, straightforward vanilla ice cream, but things get considerably more interesting towards the orange base. Immediately familiar yet indescribable, I couldn’t quite pin down what I was tasting… And then it hit me. Orange creamsicle! This was the creamy orange ice cream, long since discontinued, that I devoured without restraint during my early college days. Stuffing myself with both the scoops and pops, having that cool, sweet treat to look forward to after classes was the highlight of my day. Oh, the joy of being reunited, if only for a few fleeting stripes!

It’s never been easier to stay cool, even without scooping a single spoonful. Considering the rapidly expanding field of delicious options to choose from, there’s easily something for everyone to enjoy, no dairy need apply.


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Pump[kin] It Up!

Burgers are one of the most reliable staples to be found in any cook’s arsenal. Infinitely adjustable, easily prepared, and universally enjoyed, many satisfying meals both past and present can be attributed to the humble patty.

Watching Labor Day pass right before my eyes, I groaned as I looked back through my archives and spotted this bun-clad beauty just waiting in the wings. A perfect recipe for the backyard barbeques and grilling extravaganzas synonymous with the date, familiar pangs of guilt gripped me as it seemed like a prime opportunity wasted. Created, photographed, and completely devoured in late June, why oh why hadn’t it made it into the spotlight yet? Before the shame could fully settle, I realized that something as versatile as a properly constructed veggie burger was truly timeless, and better yet, the ingredients might even be better suited for autumnal eating.

Pumpkin is the secret ingredient here, like just about every other crazy new edible on the market these days, but before you reach pumpkin overload, consider adding this particular incarnation of everyone’s favorite orange gourd into your diet. Bearing far more than just flavoring or pie spices, these burgers have some real heft thanks to the addition of pumpkin seed protein powder. No additives, fillers, or sweeteners set this particular smoothie staple made by Sprout Living apart from the crowd, making it an ideal ingredient for both sweet and savory recipes. My standard bean burger formula is no slouch when it comes to nutrition, but the pumpkin puree and protein powder ensure instant hunger satisfaction, without sacrificing flavor one bit.

Whether you’re determined to keep the spirit of summer alive or looking to transition into more autumnal foods, this is the recipe for you. Best of all, the finished patties freeze beautifully for even colder days down the road.

[Photo note: I found these awesome "accidentally vegan" store brand pretzel buns at Fresh & Easy, but you can also buy them online from Pretzilla, if you were so inclined.]

Pumpkin Protein Burgers

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Cup Diced Onion
1 Teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
1/2 Cup Pumpkin Puree
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/2 Cup Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder
Salt and Pepper

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. When shimmering, add in the garlic and onions, sauteing until aromatic and lightly golden brown. This should take no more than 6 – 8 minutes; be careful not to overdo it and burn the garlic. Deglaze the pan with the balsamic vinegar, turn off the heat, and let cool for about 10 minutes minutes.

In a separate bowl, roughly mash the beans with a fork or potato masher. You want to keep the texture fairly coarse so that the burger maintains a satisfying bite. Add in the pumpkin puree, mustard, spices, and herbs, mixing well to incorporate. Once cool enough to handle, introduce the sauteed vegetables and stir once more, introducing the pumpkin seed protein powder as well. Mix thoroughly, making sure that there are no pockets of dry ingredients remaining. It should be soft but manageable; something you can fairly easily mold into patties that will hold their shape. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Measure out between 1/3 – 1/2 cup of the burger mixture for each patty, and form them into round, flat pucks with slightly moistened hands. Space them out evenly on the sheet at least 1 inch apart. Bake for 15 minutes, flip, 10 more minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for 10 – 15 minutes before removing from the sheet.

Serve immediately while still hot, or cool completely before freezing and storing for up to 6 months.

Makes 6 – 8 Pumpkin Burger Patties

Printable Recipe


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A Top Picnic Pick

“Summer is over, summer is over!” the masses cry, pointing to the calendar as the days advance past Labor Day, deeper into the heart of September. Sure, school is back in session and thoughts do naturally turn to the future, preparing for the changing of the seasons sure to come, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a done deal already. I don’t know about you, but for us east coasters back here in New England, the weather has turned more hot and humid than ever, finally feeling like the summer we’ve been anticipating for months. The thick, moist air, dense enough to swim through on particularly sultry afternoons, isn’t exactly my idea of perfect weather, but pouring rain will inevitably break through the clouds, washing away that oppressively muggy atmosphere for at least a few enjoyable hours. Seize those fleeting opportunities and make the most of the lingering sunshine- Now is the time to go for a picnic if there ever was one.

The most impressive picnic spread I’ve ever had the fortune to enjoy was lovingly composed by Cobi, the mastermind behind Veggietorials. Just about anything would have tasted divine while sitting on one of Oahu’s few white sand beaches, enjoying the perfect 80-degree afternoon in the middle of January, but her lavish spread far surpassed all prior picnic experiences. The highlight amongst her numerous fresh fruit and veggie options were the inari sushi, stuffed with tender sushi rice and richly umami braised shiitake mushrooms. Based on her classic recipe that originally called for quinoa, it set the standard for a whole new world of picnic fare in my mind, and got me thinking about additional alternative fillings. If the grain could be swapped out so seamlessly, why not shake up the flavors too? Nostalgic for Hawaii, there couldn’t be a more fitting filling than Mahalo Macadamia Quinoa Pilaf, guaranteed to inject a bit of sunshine into even dreadfully overcast days. Always well-received on the Passover table and beyond, Pistachio-Quinoa Pilaf cleans up quite nicely in these tiny tofu pouches, converting effortlessly into a grab-and-go lunch that’s more memorable than the norm. Summer Corn Salad shines with prime summer produce, foregoing the grains in favor of juicy, tender-crisp kernels of sweet corn. My so-called “Halloween Rice” could be a delightful way to transition into more autumnal flavors though, if you’re still convinced that fall is already upon us.

The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination. Proper inari care and management is the key to success here. Although they’re designed to be edible straight from the can or plastic packaging, your dishes will fare much better with a tiny bit of additional prep work. Take the tofu pouches and simmer them gently in water for just 5 – 10 minutes, removing the tinned taste that canned food can sometimes acquire and draining off the excess oils absorbed by those porous soy sponges. For an extra savory punch, you can use vegetable broth instead, or add a touch of tamari to the cooking water.

It’s never too late for a good picnic, especially when you bring some irresistible edibles to share. No matter where or when you decide to partake, make sure you don’t miss your opportunity for at least one leisurely, luscious picnic lunch this year.

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