BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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A Working Holiday

It’s been quite a few years now since my last Thanksgiving on the line, but I can still feel it in my bones; a physical memory that persists like a scar, emblazoned deep within. The crushing heat of the oven, pumping out roasted vegetables and tofu steaks; the furiously boiling pots of thickening roux, destined to become bases for a dozen different gratins; the reverberations of the knife on the cutting board, mowing down everything from beets to scallions seemingly of its own free will. These sensations return in flashbulb moments, random and unexpected glimpses into the past. Every Thanksgiving wasn’t just Doomsday, but Doomsweek. Manageable lists of orders quickly swelled into a wild mass of demands, nimble hands always turned out in short supply, and yet the shoebox kitchen still couldn’t accommodate the number of bodies toiling away, jockeying for a place at the tiny four-top burner. It was a violent dance, or perhaps a dark comedy, but it was certainly a show for all to see. The utilitarian rubber mats became our stage- No, red carpet- As we all starred in our insular performance. Though anyone outside of the industry could only consider this affair a pre-show for the great event, this was our time to shine.

Time continues to put more distance between this memory and the present, as the cafe has been closed and darkened since the ravages of Hurricane Sandy took their toll. For as long, painful, and exhausting as those long days leading up to Thanksgiving were, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being anywhere else. Fierce loyalty to the business and the team behind it drove me forward; that sense of comradery kept us afloat. No matter how much I dreaded those days, I secretly adored them and looked forward to them just as much, if not more. While it’s a luxury to finally enjoy Thanksgiving like most other people do- with their families, partaking in the festive meal, and cooking only enough for a dozen rather than half the town- I miss the maddening Thanksgiving catering rush dearly. Nothing made me more grateful than completing a successful day-long shift, bidding farewell to my cooking compatriots with hugs and long goodbyes, and quietly departing into the dark, cold autumn night once more.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate, whether you’re working, cooking, or just lucky enough to be amongst family and friends.


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Earthy Elegance

As an avid baker and dessert-lover, it may come as a surprise that the greatest indulgence I can think of is eating something sweet that I didn’t make myself. While I enjoy the process and crave the creative control that starting from scratch always brings, a truly decadent experience is one that doesn’t require any work. Although I always get exactly what I want when I make my own birthday cake, I must admit that there are times when I wish I could just sit back and relax, leaving the heavy whisking to someone else. That’s precisely where Earth Cafe comes in, online purveyors of fully prepared, ready-to-eat, raw, vegan cheesecakes. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, especially for a vegan eater who grew up in the days of cardboard bran muffins being peddled as “dessert,” for lack of better options. Balancing out wholesome ingredients with decadent flavors, the result promises to impress all palates. There truly is a taste for everyone, and I was lucky enough to snag a bite of four popular flavors.

Impeccable, perfectly applied ultramarine stripes adorn the top of the Find Your Thrill on Blueberry Hill Cheesecake. Whole berries rest near the bottom, adding a punch of fresh, full-bodied berry flavor while the cheesecake base remains fairly plain. Lacking in typical cheesecake tang, I might describe it more as a somewhat firmer cream pie instead. It may be the most visually striking of the bunch, but I felt it left the most to be desired in tasting.

Pale, dusty pink and redolent of vanilla and berries, Strawberry Fields Forever Cheesecake bears a strikingly bright, fresh flavor, just as promised. More of a custard consistency than traditional cheesecake, the soft bite was perfectly silky-smooth and creamy. Incredibly rich, even I could only manage half a slice at most before reaching my limit, and I don’t mess around when it comes to the last course of a meal. Most regrettably though, it was stunningly, almost stupefyingly sweet. It comes as an initial shock to the system, tasting almost like a wedge of berry frosting at first taste, especially after a savory supper. For those who would rather a candy than a cake, this might just deliver exactly that sensation.

Things got much better from here on out. Adorned with graceful decorative swirls, Rockin’ Raspberry Cheesecake definitely had a rhythm and jive all its own. Super sweet raspberry flavor infused this slice, much like homemade jam. The intact raspberry seeds are actually a nice touch here, adding some textural interest and reinforcing the fresh, raw concept, all while managing to make themselves sparse enough to resist sticking in your teeth.

For me, the sleeper hit of the batch was the unassuming Who’s Your Daddy? Carob Mousse Pie. Slightly firmer in texture than the other slices, it isn’t some sad attempt at replacing chocolate, but a whole new world of flavor, complex and delicious in its own right. Tasting primarily of dates and caramel, with warm, woodsy notes reminiscent of chicory to round the whole slice out, it could convert a carob-hater with ease. All it needs is a light sprinkle of flaky sea salt to really take this treat over the top.

Since I do work with dessert so often and have developed some strong opinions on the matter, I would definitely suggest that these assessments be taken with a pinch of salt (perhaps literally, too.) Your mileage may vary, especially when it comes to your level of preferred sweetness. The only way to find out for sure is to give Earth Cafe a taste for yourself! Enter the coupon code “SAVE15” at checkout to snag- You guessed it- a 15% discount off your order.

From one baker to many others, there is no shame in indulging in a prepared dessert, especially when it’s as good as any one of these luxurious slices.

These product were provided by the manufacturer free of charge for the sake of this review, but I was not paid for my time or opinions.


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Prepare for the Worst, Expect the Best

As the holidays grow closer by the minute, everyday meals can sometimes take a backseat to party planning. Thankfully, Nava Atlas is here to save the day, or at least the dinner, with a guest post sharing some handy tips on meal planning. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth and depth of the kitchen wisdom packed into Plant Power. For more advice, and of course, more delicious recipes than a hungry eater could imagine, you simply must check out the book for yourself.

As an early holiday gift, Nava and her publishers have kindly offered a copy to give away to one lucky reader. To log your bid, all you need to do is read through these prime tips below and add your own meal planning pointers, or perhaps your favorite meal to prep in advance, in the comment section. As per usual, make sure you leave your name and email in the appropriate boxes. This giveaway is only open to those with US addresses. You have until Friday, November 28th at midnight EST to enter.

And now, without further ado, take it away, Nava!

7 Simple Meal-Planning Strategies for the Plant-Based Kitchen

Here are some of my tried-and-true meal-planning tips for making cooked-from-scratch meals a daily reality, even after the most exhausting days. You’ll find much more detail on how to accomplish all of these strategies, plus lots more of these kinds of tips in Plant Power: Transform Your Kitchen, Plate, and Life with More Than 150 Fresh and Flavorful Vegan Recipes by Nava Atlas, from which this was adapted (©2014, published by HarperOne, reprinted by permission). Photos by Hannah Kaminsky. Back when my kids were growing up and I still was in the midst of the classic juggling act, I was a lot more disciplined about meal planning. I found that it really did buy me time and sanity. For our family of four, I planned three meals per week. If I made ample quantities, I could count on leftovers for three more dinners. And leftovers can always be tweaked so that they’re slightly different the next day. For example, today’s salad can be tomorrow’s wrap; tonight’s soup-and-wrap dinner can become tomorrow’s soup-and-vegan-quesadilla dinner. What do you see as your ideal meal-making style? Decide whether you want to make different meals every night or most nights and rotate them through the season or whether you want to try the three-meals-with-leftovers strategy. If you want to be a seat-of-the-pants cook, more power to you. For that kind of spontaneity, you’ve got to have an especially well-stocked pantry and fridge as well as the imagination to look at a bunch of ingredients and envision what they can become.

  1. Plan three full meals for each week. From those meals, you can plan two nights of leftovers, which makes life easier—though this is challenging if you have hungry teens or athletes at home. Don’t think of leftovers as boring. They can be repurposed in ways that might not make it into the culinary hall of fame, but with a few tweaks they can be as tasty as the original preparation. For instance, leftover chili can become Cincinnati chili mac.
  1. Plan meals before going shopping. Planning your meals before you go food shopping will ensure that you don’t waste time, money, and energy running back and forth to the store all week. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of meal planning per week will simplify your life immeasurably, especially if you have a tight schedule, young children, or both.
  1. Plan meals after going shopping. What? Didn’t I just say to plan meals before going shopping? Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box. When farm market or CSA season is in full swing—or during the summer and fall harvest season in general—and you’re getting basket loads of fresh produce, it may be wiser to retrofit your meal plans to your fresh food finds.
  1. Prepare a few basics for the week ahead. On whatever day or evening is the most home- centered, prepare a few basics for the days ahead. Sunday afternoons and evenings are ideal as you’re looking to the coming week, but do whatever is good for your schedule. Even the simplest things can ease weeknight meal preparation immeasurably.
  1. At least once a week, prepare a big one-pot or one-pan meal. This kind of meal can stretch to cover at least two nights. Such meals include hearty soups and stews, bean dishes, abundant pastas, and casseroles. You’ll find many such recipes later on in this book. Double the quantities if you need to, especially if you have a large family. Then you need little more than salad and fresh whole-grain bread to accompany the meal.
  1. Develop a weekly repertoire. Make slight variations on your standard recipes each week so that meals don’t get boring. For example, Friday dinner has long been a pizza and salad meal, but within this basic framework, there are endless variations!
  1. Create a seasonal repertoire. An alternative to a weekly repertoire is a seasonal repertoire, consisting of ten or fifteen basic meals that you like best. These ten tasty meals— one for each weeknight for two weeks—are repeated as needed throughout the season. Weekends can bring a heavenly leftovers buffet. That doesn’t sound too daunting, right?


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Delicata Delicacy

Have you ever seen a better vegetable for stuffing than the humble delicata squash? Each perfect yellow and green-striped edible tube becomes an ideal vessel for every sort of filling imaginable, no matter how you cut or cook it. I’m no stranger to the concept, but all sorts of inspiration has steered my seasonings in an entirely different direction since those first filled squash emerged from the oven.

Allow me to introduce to you a prime candidate for your new Thanksgiving main dish, replete with a very posh-sounding beluga lentil filling. Sparkling like legume caviar within their roasted golden delicata containers, these particular lentils eschew the typical autumnal spices found on every festive table in favor of more worldly flavors. Infused with an aromatic blend of cumin, mustard seeds, and jalapeno, this entry is guaranteed to spice up the traditional feast. Spiced rather than spicy, it’s designed to suit a wide range of palates, subtle enough not to offend those who appreciate less heat but want abundant umami to savor on their plates.

Complimenting that distinctive piquancy is a creamy cashew-based raita, replete with cooling mint leaves and crisp diced cucumber. Don’t even dream of skipping it; that rich final flourish ties together the meal, elevating the dish into something truly memorable. It’s the kind of surprisingly easy dinner that eaters will rave about for years to come, but by all means, don’t just save it for an annual event. Stuffed delicata are delightful all autumn and winter, if not beyond those seasonal boundaries, too.

Like all the best Thanksgiving dishes, stuffed delicata are rock stars for prepping in advance and waiting patiently until their solo arrives. Bake and stuff them as written, cover the casserole dish with foil, and simply reheat in a 350 degree oven for 10 – 20 minutes when the party begins.

Beluga Lentil-Stuffed Delicata Squash

2 Medium Delicata Squashes (About 1 Pound Each)

Lentil Stuffing:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Shallots, Finely Diced
1 Jalapeno, Seeded and Finely Diced
1 1/2 Teaspoons Whole Cumin Seeds
1 1/2 Teaspoons Whole Mustard Seeds
1 Cup Dry Beluga Lentils
2 Cups Vegetable Broth
2/3 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
3/4 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Cashew Raita:

1 Cup Raw Cashews Pieces, Soaked for About 4 Hours
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint Leaves, Roughly Chopped
3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers, Finely Diced

Although it’s the last addition to your stuffed squashes, it would be wise to prepare the cashew raita first so that it’s ready to go when you are. Thoroughly drain your soaked cashews and toss them in your blender along with the chopped mint, lemon juice, water, and salt. Puree, pausing to scrape down the sides of the canister with a spatula as needed, until completely silky-smooth. This process may take longer if you use a lower-powered model, but stick with it; that creamy texture is important for successful raita. Once perfectly velvety, stir in the cucumber pieces by hand. Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated prior to serving.

For the filling, heat the olive oil in a medium pot over moderate heat before tossing in the diced shallots and jalapeno. Saute until translucent before introducing the cumin and mustard seeds next. Cook until the vegetables are lightly caramelized and the entire mixture is highly aromatic. Add the lentils and broth, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes when the lentils become tender. Add the coconut milk, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Keep the pot partially covered and simmer for an additional 5 – 10 minutes, until the final liquid addition has been absorbed. Cover and keep warm.

Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Cut both squash in half lengthwise and scoop out (but reserve) seeds. Place each half with the cut sides down on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes before handling.

Reduce the heat to 250, toss the reserved seeds with just a splash of oil and a pinch of salt, and roast for just 10 – 20 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent them from burning. Once golden and crisp, let them cool completely.

To complete the dish, flip the roasted delicata squashes up to turn them into edible boats and spoon the warm lentils inside. Serve the cashew raita alongside for guests to top their squashes as desired, and finish with a sprinkle of roasted seeds.

Makes 4 Main Dish Servings; Cut the Halves in Half for 8 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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Citrus Twist

Click the photo above to view full size. If it brings a smile to your face and you’d like to enjoy it as your desktop wallpaper, right click the large version, select “Set as Desktop Background,” and choose the “Stretch” option to fit to your screen.

Stay warm, my friends, and have a bright, tangy, and sweet weekend!


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Red, White, and Sweet All Over

As I’ve found to be true for other bloggers, a quiet front on the wide open internet usually means frenetic activity behind the scenes. Although poor little BitterSweet may not be the beneficiary of all the daily food prep and photography, the oven hasn’t even had a chance to cool down for a moment in the past week.

Considering the skyrocketing popularity of red velvet cake, I was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to re-examine this classic confection and infuse it with a fresh palate of new flavors. That occasion lined up perfectly with the changing seasons, dropping the inspiration to add cranberries right into my lap.

The recipe for this alluring Cranberry Red Velvet Cake can be found on Go Dairy Free. In case you were looking for a prime Thanksgiving dessert that wasn’t the same old standard pumpkin pie, consider your search complete. A seasonal treat with its own bold style, it would be simple enough to convert the cake into a more everyday affair by turning it into cupcakes, too.

Elsewhere, my nearly ancient Pumpkin Bread Pudding recipe got a little facelift over on VegKitchen. First born from the oven about seven years ago, it was due for a small revamp in the writing department, and a big overhaul in the photography department. While the formula was solid before, it’s a knock-out, no-fail winner now, with some much more attractive visuals to boot.

The days may be growing darker and colder, but I’m just getting warmed up. There are a whole lot more sweet (and savory) treats to come soon!


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Smutty Spores

Halloween is upon us once again, bringing with it an endless buffet of “creepy” eats and other grotesque delights. Spaghetti worms and grape eyeballs are perhaps some of the most infamous edible gags, but more modern cooks have become increasingly creative with their monstrous recipes. Bloody fingers are a personal favorite, closely followed by the ever-tempting molded gelatinous brains. It’s easy to whip up a fairly horrific dinner party with a few crafty tricks, but I’m here today to tell you that these examples are all child’s play. If you want to really horrify, disgust, and alarm your Halloween party guests, you need to pull out the big guns and employ one ingredient that looks truly evil. Crack the tin can open to unleash the aroma of mild sewage, revealing the black, inky slug within. If it were smooth and consistent, that would be one thing, but oh no- We’re talking about a chunky, irregular texture like something already partially digested, gently fermenting in its own juices.

What on earth am I talking about, you ask? None other than huitlacoche. Evil only in appearance and not in content, it’s actually a fungus that grows on corn, which explains where it gets the alternative nickname of “corn smut.” Aficionados compare the flavor to that of black truffles, going to all ends of the earth to source these strange spores. It’s almost impossible to find them fresh unless you live very close to Mexico or California, but every now and then, one stray can will pop up on local grocery store shelves, and curiosity finally got the best of me during this particular witching hour.

I tried in vain to photograph the contents of that fateful can, but for the sake of retaining any decent readership, it would be irresponsible to post such a vile image on a food blog. If you can’t take my word for it, then I implore you to take the fate of your stomach in your own hands and click through here. I’ll spare you the goriest details, but it honestly does look like rotting entrails mashed into sludgy excrement.

Mmm, aren’t you getting hungry for this recipe coming up?! Wait, before you run away, I promise it gets much more appetizing from here on in!

Using fresh corn as the base and inspiration for the the dish, huitlacoche plays a starring role without imparting its truly evil ways. Swirled mischievously atop this golden bowl of creamy soup, the color contrast is striking, perfect for a bit of elegant Halloween fun. Transformed by simply tossing the whole fungus mixture into the blender, it becomes much more palatable once its textural shortcomings are literally smoothed out. Although I would hardly say it reaches the pantheon of flavor that true truffles can claim, it does lend a pleasantly earthy, perhaps even slightly smoky flavor to this sweet corn velouté. An effortlessly arresting first course for any meal, the mystery of that jet-black garnish adds to the allure almost as much as the taste itself.

For the less adventurous, you have my permission to omit the evil fungus spores and enjoy a simple, comforting bowl of plain corn soup instead. It won’t be half as much fun to serve, but it will be just as delicious.

Evil Corn Soup (AKA, Corn Smut Soup)

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Roma Tomato, Diced
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
12 Ounces (About 2 1/2 – 2 2/3 Cups) Fresh or Frozen Corn Kernels
1/3 Cup Hulled Hemp Seeds
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Huitlacoche Swirl:

1/4 Cup Soup [Above]
1 7-Ounce Can Huitlacoche

To Finish:

1/2 Cup Fresh Snipped Chives

In a large stock pot set over medium heat, sauté the onion and tomato in olive oil for 10 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Add salt, broth, tomatoes, and agave. Reserve 1/2 cup of the corn kernels, and add the rest into the pot as well, allowing the whole mixture to simmer for 15 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to your blender, along with the hemp seeds, lime juice, and spices. Blend on high until thoroughly pureed and perfectly silky-smooth. Pass the soup through a sieve if you’re particularly stringent about the consistency, or if your blender isn’t quite as powerful as one might prefer. Return the soup to the pot, leaving 1/4 cup of it in the blender to make the huitlacoche swirl, and allow it to come back to the bring of boiling. Toss in the remaining whole corn kernels and once it’s nice and hot, it will be ready to serve.

To complete these delightfully evil bowls, dump the entire contents of the canned huitlacoche into your blender where the reserved soup should still be waiting. Blend until completely pureed, pausing to scrape down the sides of the blender if needed to incorporate everything.

Divide the soup between four bowls, and drizzle in a spiral of the huitlacoche puree. Swirl a toothpick through the mixture to further enhance the evil effect. Top with freshly snipped chives and enjoy while piping hot.

Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

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