BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Eats, Shoots and Leaves

A delicacy in many cuisines across the globe and a harbinger of spring, bamboo shoots certainly don’t get a fair shake in western kitchens. Commonly and erroneously considered woody, bland, or worse yet, bitter, these traits apply only to the canned variety, which is the only sort that most people have ever tasted in this part of the world. Available for only a short window as the earth thaws out from winter, fresh bamboo are nothing like the sad slivers found in your average Chinese takeout. Subtly nutty, tender yet toothsome, these pale young plant growths boast a unique nuanced flavor that gets lost in translation once any preservation methods enter the picture.

Now is the time to hunt through specialty produce stores and Asian markets, while bamboo shoots are still available in their natural form. Seek out smooth, unblemished specimen, and always check expiration dates. Even if they’re vital enough to be sold, older shoots should be avoided, as they become progressively harder and more fibrous with every passing day. Considering their scarcity and perishability, it’s not hard to understand why this seasonal treasure is so fleeting. Though I had no intention of buying any nor the vaguest idea of how to cook them, I couldn’t possibly just walk away when I discovered a few saran-wrapped shoots nestled in little Styrofoam boats at the grocery store.

For reasons unknown, it struck me that diced bamboo might make an unconventional yet tasty addition to the classic vegan staple: The humble but ever-popular bean burger. Mild white beans and Asian-inspired flavorings harmonize with the mild vegetable addition without overpowering the whole assembly. Veggie burgers for people who truly appreciate vegetables, these simple patties don’t pretend to be meat and aren’t afraid to show what they’re really made of.

No average white bread buns would do to contain such a special prize. Further accentuating the theme with edible bookends that have more in common with yaki onigiri than dinner rolls, ordinary rice is out of the question. Bamboo rice, infused with the very essence of green bamboo juice, is a perfectly matched pairing, adding another layer of the starring vegetable’s inherent flavor. Floral, reminiscent of jasmine tea with gently grassy, earthy undertones, it may just be my new favorite sort of rice, even without such a fanciful preparation.

Such a hearty yet gracefully composed stack of grains, vegetables, and beans celebrates fresh spring produce through a whole new lens. You don’t have to leave them inside when the weather turns warm, though; carefully packed, unassembled patties, buns, and condiments would make for ideal picnic fodder.

Bamboo Burgers:

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Cup Diced Fresh Bamboo Shoots
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Button Mushrooms
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups Cooked) White Beans, Drained
5 – 6 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
3/4 – 1 Cup All Purpose Flour

Rice Buns:

1 1/2 Cups Water
1 Cup Bamboo Rice
Pinch Salt
2 – 3 Tablespoons Sesame Oil

To Finish:

Sliced Tomatoes
Lettuce
Mustard and/or Vegan Mayonnaise
Fresh Parsley or Cilantro

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Heat the sesame oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. When shimmering, add in the garlic, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms, and saute until aromatic. This should take no more than 5 – 6 minutes; be careful not to overdo it and burn the garlic. Deglaze the pan with the soy sauce, turn off the heat, and let cool for at least 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 scallions and spices, mixing well to incorporate. Once cool enough to handle, introduce the sauteed vegetables and stir once more. Begin mixing in the first 3/4 cup of flour, making sure that there are no pockets of dry ingredients remaining before assessing the consistency. It should be soft but manageable; something you can fairly easily mold into patties that will hold their shape. Add up to 1/4 cup more flour if necessary.

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 30 – 35 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for 10 – 15 minutes before removing from the sheet.

Meanwhile, prepare the rice “buns.” (This can also be done well ahead of time, to streamline the serving process.) Bring the water up to a boil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat before adding in the rice and salt. Stir once, turn down the heat to low, and cover. Cook gently for 15 – 20 minutes, undisturbed, until the water has been fully absorbed. Turn off the heat and cool for at least 20 – 30 minutes, until you can comfortably handle it.

Transfer the rice to a non-stick baking dish and press it out into an even layer of about 1/4-inch in thickness. Use a lightly greased glass round cookie cutter to punch out circles to form the bun shape. Make sure that the rounds are large enough to contain your patties, without having a lot of overhang, either. Place the shaped rice buns on a sheet pan and move the whole thing into your freezer to chill rapidly. It’s easier to fry them when they’re very cold, or even partially frozen.

Heat a thin layer of sesame oil in a pan over medium-high heat and fry no more than 2 buns at a time. Cook each side until the exteriors are nicely crisped and amber brown. Transfer to a cooling rack and repeat with the remaining rice, adding more oil to the pan as needed to prevent the buns from sticking.

To assemble your bamboo burgers, spread a dollop of mustard or mayo on one rice bun. Top with sliced tomato, lettuce, a bamboo patty, and fresh herbs, as desired. The burgers are best enjoyed hot, but are still quite tasty cooled, packed in a lunchbox, and eaten at room temperature.

Makes 6 – 8 Burgers

Printable Recipe


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Pavlovian Conditioning

Fancy and flour-free, it’s unlikely that you’d find any dessert better suited for Passover than the classic pavlova. Crispy meringue cradles whipped cream and fresh fruits, creating a simultaneously light and rich sensation all in one bite. Based heavily on egg whites and dairy, this versatile treat is surprisingly easy to veganize while remaining every bit as luscious. Pictured above is a miniature interpretation, perfect for a single serving so that no one has to share.

It all starts with the Meringue Cookies on page 191 of Vegan Desserts, piped in small nest shapes with a large star tip. For a particularly spring-y rendition, the addition of lemon zest for flavor and a tiny pinch of turmeric for a sunny yellow hue does wonders to perk up the plain vanilla base. After baking for the time as written, just drop down the oven temperature to 250 and bake for an additional 15 – 20 minutes longer to yield perfectly crisp shells, through and through. Once cooled, simply fill the indentation of each little cookie with a dollop of whipped coconut cream and a handful of ripe berries to seal the deal.

The combination of crunchy lemon cookie, creamy whipped coconut, and juicy berries will undoubtedly have all your guests drooling.


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Matzo, Matzo Man

Sundown on Monday, April 14 marks the beginning of Passover, a week devoted to celebrating spring, remembering the past, and eating cardboard instead of delicious grains, whole or otherwise processed. Needless to say, it’s that last part that really gets to me, as matzo has never been my favorite food in the world. Perhaps they would come in handy as mulch or filler for the litter box, but unadorned sheets of the unleavened bread hold little if any culinary value in my eyes. Thankfully, immense improvements in flavor can be made with just a little bit of work, and I’ve had the opportunity to photograph and give Nava Atlas’s truly tasty suggestions a test drive well in advance of the holiday. Proving the power of a well-written recipe, there are now matzo-based dishes that I can claim to genuinely enjoy!

A show-stopper for any Passover meal, this Spinach, Leek, and Potato Matzo Gratin is an impressive but surprisingly simple dish to pull together. It sounds like a humble side dish but eats like a hearty lasagna, which makes it an incredibly versatile addition to any festive menu.

Matzo toffee is a classic treat that always shows up on our seder table, but for an even quicker fix, Nava’s Chocolate Matzo Brittle takes all the boiling sugar and candy making out of the equation. Straight-up chocolate-covered matzo with any sweet toppings your heart desires, it’s perfect for keeping cravings at bay. Sliced almonds with espresso salt are a top pick around here, but it’s hard to go wrong no matter what goodies you choose.

And let’s not forget the indispensable classic, the Jewish staple known around the world: Matzo Ball Soup. This recipe is the only vegan rendition I have yet to encounter that not only yields consistently cohesive, plump dumplings, but also tastes just as good as my memories suggest. It’s the kind of dish that could make me willingly break out the matzo any time of year, which should really say it all.


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When Life Gives You Long Peppers…

The inability to simply say “no” or even “maybe not this time” has gotten me into a number of tricky situations, typically ending with an overload of extra work to contend with. This past weekend, however, was the first time that those missing words ended with an overload of hot long peppers.

Valley VegFest was winding down, my pie demo completed and the exhibitor’s hall quickly emptying out, when I chanced by a farm stand display of fresh produce. Picking through the remnants, two shiny, green peppers and three slightly bruised finger bananas satisfied my hunger for new ingredients. Already a dozen steps away, the proprietor flagged me down, practically foisting the whole box of perhaps 2 pounds of fresh, spicy capsicum into my arms. Okay, I’ll admit- That’s a gross exaggeration, but when asked to take the rest, I instantly felt compelled to oblige. Why would I accept such a dubious “gift,” knowing full well that I barely have a taste for spicy food beyond the most tame scoville level? That’s one I can’t begin to explain or understand, but here I was, saddled with more peppers than one person could ever consume.

Half of the bounty went towards making green sriracha, still fermenting quietly on the counter. Meanwhile, I had grander plans for the other half.

Pepper jam instantly came to mind, but most recipes called for a paltry two or three jalapenos at most, floating in a sea of food coloring. Packing the firepower of a full pound of hot long peppers, this rendition doesn’t mess around. Tempered by a good dose of sugar, it manages to balance the burn with grace, all while combining the nuanced notes of lemongrass, garlic, and ginger. Thai green curry inspired the blend, which means that it works beautifully in the place of traditional green curry paste. Softly set, the jam could be further thickened with the addition of a second pouch of pectin, but the slightly runny consistency is dynamite for drizzling over crostini or fine vegan cheeses. For the more adventurous palate, a sweet and spicy peanut butter and curry jam sandwich might be just the thing to shake off the weekday malaise. Once you start thinking about all the new possibilities, an extra pound or two of hot peppers may not seem like enough.

Sweet Green Curry Jam

1 Pound Shallots
1 Pound Hot Long Green Peppers
1.5 Ounces (About 3 Inches) Peeled Fresh Ginger
4 Large Cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup Sliced Fresh Lemongrass
4 Kaffir Lime Leaves
1 Tablespoon Salt
3 Teaspoons Ground Coriander
1 1/2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Lime Juice
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
4 Cups Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Spirulina Powder (Optional, for Color)
1* (3-Ounce) Pouch Liquid Pectin (*2 Pouches for a firmer, more spreadable jam)

For proper canning instructions, see the recommendations made by this very helpful .PDF right here. Otherwise, proceed as written to make a quick jam which will need to be kept refrigerated and last for no more than a month or two.

Roughly chop the shallots and toss them into your food processor or blender. A high-speed blender would be best for achieving the smoothest consistency, but a coarser blend can be quite delicious, too. Stem the peppers, remove the seeds, and chop them into smaller pieces before adding them into the machine as well. Follow that with the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. Pulse the machine a number of times to break down the vegetables into a coarse paste. Pause to introduce the salt and dry spices along with the lemon and lime juice, and then thoroughly puree, until the mixture is as smooth as desired. If you’re using a smaller food processor, plan to process the mixture in two batches, blending everything together in a larger vessel at the end.

Have your jam jars out on the counter and ready to go. You’ll want enough containers to hold approximately 8 cups of jam total.

Begin heating the sesame oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it begins to shimmer, pour in the green curry puree, stirring constantly but gently. Add in the sugar and spirulina (if using), and allow the mixture to come to a full boil. All the while, be sure to continuously run your spatula along the sides and bottom of the pan to prevent anything from burning. When the curry has reached a rapid bubble, pour in the liquid pectin and continue to cook for a full 10 minutes. It should significantly thicken in this time.

Pour the hot, liquid jam into your prepared jars and quickly seal them or otherwise process for longer term storage. Let cool completely before refrigerating.

Makes 7 – 8 Cups

Printable Recipe


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Lox of Love

Old Man Winter sure doesn’t fight fair, unafraid to hit below the belt and then kick you when you’re down. Dirty tricks are just half of the relentless assault, adding in mind games that could soften anyone’s resolve to the consistency of over-boiled ramen noodles. Surely, one would think that by the last day of March, spring would have been able to fend off this attack, but the snow currently accumulating on top of the delicate, freshly sprouted crocuses would say otherwise. The month is going out like a lion, indeed.

Beaten and bruised, I officially accept defeat. Winter can continue its reign of terror as long as it doesn’t stop me from dreaming about spring. Let’s forget about the weather, planning instead for the garden parties and spring celebrations that are sure to come. Demanding lighter fare, fresher flavors, and easy offerings to share with any number of hungry guests, the classic brunch spread is where my thoughts wander first. Bagels, cream cheese, and lox are the anchor of this idyllic vision, a taste preference that could arguably have been genetically inherited from both of my Jewish parents. Despite the great advances in vegan food technology, fish have remained largely out of reach, residing only in fantasies… and sometimes a kelp-infused tofu patty that tastes of little more than soybeans and sadness.

Until now.

Sophie’s Kitchen, innovators of numerous frozen fishless delights, has the answer to every pescatarian’s dilemma. As soon as I caught wind of this unrivaled smoked salmon offering, I scoured the stores, only to turn up nothing for months on end. It still eludes me in the open marketplace, but I was lucky enough to score a few packages through my mother’s co-op. Despite being so pricy and difficult to find, the positives far outweigh the negatives, beginning with the high fiber content and soy-free ingredients.

What really matters though is the taste, and let me assure you that it doesn’t fall short. Incredibly, unbelievably, it could truly pass for fish, at least by my inexperienced palate. Woodsy, smoky overtones define these thin sheets, with subtle oceanic notes adding in a touch of realism. Lovely striations embellish the peachy rectangles, presenting beautifully to even the most discerning artistic eye. I’d like to believe that it could almost fool one into believing it came from a new breed of square fish. Satisfyingly rich, with a realistic oily sheen, this salmon substitute has the same bouncy, slippery texture as Sophie’s Kichen’s other konjac creations; not quite authentic, but more than passable, especially when eaten in other recipes or loaded onto a toasted bagel with the works.

Though I would have happily scarfed down my entire cache of smoky, savory slices in the aforementioned bagel assembly, such a rare treasure demanded further experimentation. Harkening back to the classic fish spreads of yore, a creamy base proves to be the perfect foil for these alternative smoky, salty strips as well. Load up a platter with chips and cut vegetables, and I promise that it will be the first thing to go, no matter how discerning the crowd. Beyond the party setting, it’s truly stellar in sandwiches, running circles around the tired old tuna salad.

On the other hand, this dip is a versatile ally, capable of dressing up with great aplomb should the situation demand. Pipe that salmon spread into neatly carved cucumber cups and top with vegan caviar, and no one will be able to contain their awe. Trust me: If you need a recipe to impress, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Fish-Free Smoked Salmon Dip

1 12-Ounce Package Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
3 Tablespoons Tahini
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1 4-Ounce Package Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Smoked Salmon
2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Dill
1 – 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Thoroughly drain the tofu before tossing it into your food processor along with the tahini, vinegar, oil, miso, and nutritional yeast. Puree until completely smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula to ensure to all the ingredients get incorporated. Make sure that there are no chunks of tofu hiding below the blade before proceeding.

Separate the smoked salmon slices and add them to the mixture, pulsing the machine to break the pieces down but not entirely blend them. You want to leave some texture here, keeping the pieces about the same size as grains of rice. Finally, introduce the fresh herbs, zest, and pepper, stirring them in by hand. The salmon slices are fairly salty as it is, so you shouldn’t need to add extra salt.

Transfer the spread to an air-tight container and chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Refrigerated, it should keep for up to a week.

Printable Recipe


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Dazed and Infused

After making a list and checking it thrice, there was nothing left to chance for my extended stay in Hawaii. Everything was accounted for, from sunscreen to snacks to strobe lights, with a dozen backup batteries in between. Even so, that sneaking suspicion that something had been forgotten stayed with me, like a single dark rain cloud in an otherwise pristine blue sky. Some people worry about leaving the lights on, neglecting to take out the trash, or forgetting to lock the doors, but me? It was only when I decided to extend my stay for a second month that I realized I forgot about something very precious in the fridge.

Climoncello. Yes, you read that right: Limoncello‘s clementine cousin, a byproduct of enthusiastic citrus consumption and an inability to throw any viable foodstuffs away. Tearing through my immense stash in record time left countless peels in my wake. Compost seemed like a cop-out for these highly aromatic remnants, especially when they still had so much flavor left to give.

All it took was a bottle of inexpensive vodka to set the creative wheels in motion. Elevating some undrinkable swill and making the most of my citrus windfall in one fell swoop, it was a perfectly elegant solution. Let the concoction steep for a few days, perhaps a week, and my work would be done.

But there it sat, in the darkened corner of the fridge, while I was living it up in a tropical paradise thousands of miles away. Only when one month became two did I realize my oversight, but little could be done at that point. At worst I would return to a rotting, revolting mess of liquid garbage, so I prepared myself for a potentially unpleasant cleanup effort.

Eternally forgetful but incredibly lucky, it turned out the the extra time didn’t hurt my orange-y brew one bit! Preserved by the alcohol and sugar, those scraps looked as good as new, entirely intact yet spent of their fragrant essential oils. Even if the Pacific Ocean wasn’t standing in between this project and me, I wouldn’t dream of letting it stew for a shorter time now.

Climoncello

14 – 15 Clementine Peels
3 1/2 Cups Water
2 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 (750-ml) Bottle Vodka*

*Don’t waste the good stuff on this, since you’ll be covering up any unsavory notes with your citrus infusion. Just stay away from firewater like Everclear, and you should be golden. I used Popov, for what it’s worth.

Place your peels, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and cook just until the sugar has fully dissolved. Turn off the heat, cover with a lid, and let cool to room temperature. Use a pestle (or any other blunt instrument, really) to mash the rinds around a bit, bruising them to release more of the essential oils. Pour in the vodka, give it a good stir and transfer the whole mixture, peels and all, into a large glass jar. Seal the lid tightly and stash it in a cold, dark place for about three months. Don’t rush it! If anything, you’re likely to get even greater flavors if you let it steep for an extra month or so.

When the climoncello is ready, the liquid should be a golden orange color and smell of sweet oranges. Strain out and discard the peels, and transfer the liqueur to an attractive glass bottle. Store in a cool, dark place for however long you can make it last. It should keep indefinitely, but you’ll no doubt want to enjoy it before too long.

Printable Recipe


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For the Love of Chocolate

There are few universal truths in life, which makes each one of them that much more significant: Spring will always follow winter, love cannot be faked, and everyone enjoys chocolate. If any of those statements can be proven otherwise, I don’t want to know about it, especially when it comes to the latter. Quite frankly, person who claims to dislike chocolate is simply lying, revealing questionable character on their part. Thus, with no shortage of fanfare, Fran Costigan unleashed Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts upon the world, an ode to this “food of the gods” that fully lives up to its title. Every bit deserving of the effusive praise that gushes forth from each breathless review, I can only add my own cheers to the chorus.

Giving credit that’s long overdue, the Aztec Truffles (page 53) were the shining stars in my holiday candy boxes way back in festive days of December. Pressed for time and exhausted of fresh ideas, that surprisingly simple recipe yielded stunning results, above and beyond my traditional approaches. The fiery combination of ancho chili powder and cinnamon gave those tiny chocolate bombs an invigorating kick that all the tired old classics seemed to lack. Though notably soft in consistency, storing the little morsels in the freezer solved all structural concerns while adding a delightfully cool contrast to the punch of bold, smoky spices which paired beautifully with the dark, bitter chocolate.

The standard chocolate recipe by which I judge the merit of any cookbook, bakery, or individual baker is the humble brownie. Let me cut straight to the chase and say that Fran’s Very Fudgy Chocolate Chip Brownies (page 128) passed the test with flying colors. Complete with the elusive crackled top and rich, chewy interior, these simple squares live up to expectations, to say the least. A touch greasy but not prohibitively so, it’s a small price to be paid for ideal brownie indulgence.

Covering a wide range of applications and pairings for chocolate, there are plenty of more delicate, nuanced treats included as well. Case in point: The Chocolate, Orange, and Almond Olive Oil Cake (page 72). Though the name is a mouthful, it’s worth every bite! Impossibly moist, even after days of sitting on the counter, it’s one of those rare cakes that seems to get even better with age… If you can leave it alone long enough for it to mature, that is. Bright citrus notes enliven the almond-infused crumb, and while that would really be enough to satisfy any sweet craving, a thick glaze of chocolate ganache truly puts it over the top.

Coming from the vegan dessert queen herself, I would expect no less than a masterpiece and with Vegan Chocolate, I was not disappointed.

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