BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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An Easy Choice

Catching sight of the plain, perfectly ordinary manila envelope that arrived in the mail, I immediately grabbed the parcel out from under the stack of letters and magazines, and headed straight downtown. This one would take a big matcha latte and plenty of uninterrupted alone time to properly digest.

That’s because it’s nearly impossible to believe that I truly had a hand in creating this beautiful new cookbook, Choosing Raw by Gena Hamshaw. Of course I remember playing in the kitchen, creating these bright and cheerful compositions, and enjoying every single dish on deck, but it’s hard to connect that job with the brilliant end results. If my name hadn’t been printed right on the cover, bold and unmistakable, I would wonder if all those photo assignments had possibly been an incredible dream.

I’m not a raw foodist by any stretch of the imagination, but the beauty of Choosing Raw is that you don’t need to be. Gena makes these low- to no-cooking techniques accessible to eaters of all sorts, adding in cooked variations, demonstrating how truly flexible her fool-proof formulas are, time and again. Perhaps I’m biased, but all I can say is that my palate doesn’t lie, and I enjoyed every single thing pictured in this creative ode to healthy vegan eats. Flip through the glossy pages briefly and you’ll see that that’s quite a large, diverse cross section of the book.

I can’t even begin to describe how inspiring, mouth-watering, and well-written this cookbook is, and quite frankly, I don’t want you to just take my word for it either. I want you to taste it for your self! That’s why I’m thrilled to share a copy of Choosing Raw with one lucky reader. Hop on over to the Rafflecopter entry form to enter!

In case you’re still not convinced, Gena has a ton of recipes to sample on her blog. I do especially recommend the walnut and lentil tacos, which are especially well suited to these sultry last days of summer, but you can’t go wrong with any of Gena’s creations. From soup to nuts, quite literally, Choosing Raw offers healthy vegan cuisine made for mass appeal.


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The Sun Also Rises

To anyone who still maintains that vegans are missing out on the greatest pleasure in life, commonly referred to as cheese, I challenge you to open you eyes- and mouth- to the latest wave of dairy-free innovations. Just take a gander at the luxurious spread above, and try telling me about the lack of options with a straight face. We’ve got the mainstream, meltable cheeses covered and now gourmet, artisan options seem to be the final frontier. Consider that great unknown territory officially conquered, claimed in the name of SunRAWise. An upstart based in Florida, these cashew-based cheeses don’t play it safe, boasting bold flavorings and the authentic funky, fermented flavor that only hand-crafted, aged cheeses can categorically boast. Crumbly but moist texture, each compact round can be sliced or finely grated, to be served as a main attraction to pair with wine or compliment almost any dish.

I thought that the Spiru-lean was a dead ringer for blue cheese, but was surprised to see that SunRAWise also offers a wholly separate Vegan Blue Vein option, supposedly lighter in spirulina content, perhaps for those more sensitively to the very subtly grassy flavor of the blue-green algae. If given the choice, opt for the full-flavored deal. Make no mistake, I am not a fan of spirulina, and I absolutely loved each beautifully marbled wedge. Bearing a unique twang and gentle acidity while still maintaining an agreeably mild, umami flavor, it truly bears an uncanny resemblance to the genuine article. This is what has been missing on the marketplace for far too long, and if only the company could expand and increase distribution, it would surely take off like wild fire.

Brightly colored with turmeric, the sunny yellow Rosemary cheese bears equally luminous flavors to match its striking appearance. Although I’m a bit puzzled why this particular round would be tinted to quite such a florescent hue, looks aren’t everything; the real beauty is in its earthy, pine-tinged bite. Easy to enjoy but most difficult of the three to pair, rosemary is such a distinct flavor that it needs to remain the center of attention. Many common accompaniments proved discordant when invited to the party, so I ended up munching on this one mostly out of hand, in thick, savory slices. Oh, such a terrible sacrifice that was [not]!

Brazenly named Smoke and Spicy, this red-flecked, peppered cheese sounded like the perfect accent to brighten up some simple eggless mini quiches. Warm but balanced spice defines this variety, introducing surprising pops of heat when you least expect it, thanks to the abundant crushed red pepper flakes found throughout the round. The promise of smoke goes unfulfilled, too mild to be heard above the loud spicy baritone. That said, I still wouldn’t dream of suggesting a formula change, since those smoky notes undoubtedly contribute to the overall complexity that make this such an addictive option.

A cheese flavored with Italian Herbs is simply begging to be paired with a classic pasta dish, and so I obliged, with a simple serving of spaghetti and meatless meatballs to catch a shower of finely grated cashew cheese. That simple addition took this omnipresent entree to the next culinary level, leading with herbaceous notes of oregano. Beyond that first bite, the typically aggressive and potentially clashing herbs are so harmoniously blended, it’s difficult to pick out any individual players. That may not sound like a compliment, but considering how difficult it can be to get such strong tastes to play nicely, it shows true finesse in fabrication. That sort of complimentary flavor profile is one that can only be achieved with patience, as the aging process allows disparate notes to slowly meld and mellow together. This cheese gives me hope that many things really do get better with age!

These are not your garden-variety cashew cheeses, far more mature, complex, and consciously crafted than any other option I’ve enjoyed thus far. As a healthy sort of decadence, they’re the perfect treat to save for a special occasion. Invite a few savory wedges from SunRAWise to your next big celebration, and they’ll likely become the guests of honor.


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All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes

When it comes to the divide between sweet and savory, the line that separates the two is becoming thinner and more difficult to distinguish with every passing year. Palates are opening up, eaters from all walks of life are growing more adventurous, and chefs are gleefully pursuing their wildest culinary dreams. Such reckless innovation inevitably comes at a price, paid in disappointing or sometimes downright repulsive new tastes (I’m looking at you, cappuccino potato chips) but it’s a gamble well worth taking. In a world with such a vast array of flavors, there must still be countless winning combinations merely waiting to be discovered.

In my eyes, this one wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination. Tomato soup cakes have been around since the turn of the century as a thrifty way of making something sweet in the times of rationing. Originally dubbed “mystery cake” as a way of concealing the secret ingredient, perhaps acknowledging that unwitting diners might be scared off by the novel concept, the processed tomato product was merely an extender, filling in the bulk of the cake without using eggs, only to be covered up in heavy gingerbread-like spices. You’d never know there was ever a tomato present in the tender crumb, which is both the beauty and tragedy of this classic recipe.

Taking inspiration from these humble origins but with the desire to celebrate the bold, beautiful tomatoes now in season rather than bury them in an avalanche of sugar, it seemed high time to revisit the idea of a tomato cake. Now with 100% more tomato flavor! I can just picture the vintage advertisements and their hyperactive proclamations now.

Indeed, you can truly taste the tomato in these fiery red cupcakes. Not only that, but the unassuming beige frosting holds yet another surprise taste sensation: A tangy punch of balsamic vinegar, tempered by the sweetness of the rich and fluffy matrix that contains it. Trust me, it’s one of those crazy things that you’ve just got to taste to believe. Although it may sound like an edible acid burn, that small splash is just enough to brighten up the whole dessert.

While tomatoes are still at their peak, sweet as ever and available in abundance, now is the time to experiment and try something new. Don’t call it a secret ingredient this time around and finally let them shine when the dessert course rolls around.

Tomato Cakes with Balsamic Frosting

Tomato Cupcakes:

2 Cups Diced Fresh Tomatoes, Roughly Blended, or 1 14-Ounce Can Crushed Tomatoes
1/3 Cup Olive Oil
1/3 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed

1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Balsamic Frosting:

1/2 Cup Vegan Margarine
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Reduction
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
Up to 1 Tablespoon Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line 15 – 16 cupcake tins with papers.

Combine the blended (but not completely pureed) tomatoes, olive oil, and brown sugar in a medium bowl. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and set aside.

In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices. Make sure that all the dry goods are thoroughly distributed before adding in the wet ingredients. Mix everything together with a wide spatula, stirring just enough to bring the batter together and beat out any pockets of unincorporated dry ingredients. A few remaining lumps are just fine.

Distribute the batter between your prepared cupcake pans, filling them about 3/4 of the way to the top. Bake for 17 – 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centers pulls out cleanly, with perhaps just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Do not wait for the tops to brown, because the centers will be thoroughly overcooked by then. Let cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, place the margarine in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat briefly to soften before adding in the confectioner’s sugar, balsamic glaze, and vanilla. Begin mixing on low speed until the sugar is mostly incorporated, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Turn the mixer up to high and slowly drizzle in non-dairy milk as needed to bring the whole mixture together. Continue whipping for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Apply to cupcakes as desired.

Makes 15 – 16 Cupcakes

Printable Recipe


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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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