BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Thai It, You’ll Like It

Despite growing up so close to the hustle and bustle of New York City, I spent the majority of my formative years in the safety of small towns. These modest, insular neighborhoods are the perfect place to foster a care-free childhood, complete with tight-knit communities, safe neighborhoods, and sleepy streets that go quiet at 9 PM, even on a Saturday. Many cherished memories were made around the babbling brook a short walk from my home, collecting the Queen Anne’s lace that grew in abundance on either side of the stream. Although I’d consider myself more of a city slicker these days, I wouldn’t change those early years for the world. There’s no better place to develop a sense of identity, since there are fewer distractions or outside forces telling you what to be. What small towns are not so great for is cultivating a finely tuned palate. For the first dozen years of my life, I can easily count the number of world cuisines that had passed my lips on just one hand. Oh, but wait, do hot dogs count as a particular national specialty of any sort? Shamefully, my final count could end up being far less.

Thai food was entirely foreign to me, in every sense, pretty much right up until the prior year. It’s not the most rare or exotic culinary find, as globalism has brought so many worldly edibles closer to home than ever, but solid examples of these flavors had eluded me in sleepy coastal Connecticut. Only when I went to Hawaii did I find the immersive experience that I was craving. The landscape is ripe with stellar, dare I say, authentic offerings from just about every part of the world, with particularly strong offerings from Asian countries. It was there that I found Opal Thai, and my hunger for the cuisine has never been greater.

Nothing that I could fabricate at home would reach anywhere near those gustatory heights, but hunger drives one to gamble a bit in the kitchen. Som Tum, otherwise known as green papaya salad, is easily my favorite way to begin a meal. Served chilled, the tender yet crisp strands of unripe papaya are cooling, yet still popping with bursts of heat from abundant flecks of chili peppers. Brightly acidic, tangy, and slightly salty, with just a touch of sweetness to take the edge off, every component must be in perfect balance to achieve a successful, harmonious dish. The most challenging part of the composition is preparing vegan fish sauce, but once you make up a single batch of the funky stuff, it will last in your fridge for ages, facilitating almost instant salad satisfaction.

Of course, the key ingredient, green papaya, eluded me in my limited hometown grocery stores, which is why I took a page from the ever-popular zucchini noodles that proliferate as summer brings an abundance of the green squashes. They don’t stay crisp as long as papaya, so just make sure you leave them undressed until the minute you’re ready to serve. It may not be the genuine article, but it transports me to a delicious new world of flavor with every single bite.

Thai-Style Zucchini Ribbon Salad (Based on Som Tum)

1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar, or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
3 – 4 Ounces (A Big Handful) Skinny Green Beans, Lightly Blanched
2 Medium Zucchini, Spiralized or Julienned
1/2 Cup Halved Grape or Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 – 1 Red Thai Chile, Thinly Sliced
Handful Skinny Chives or Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Tablespoons Roasted and Salted Peanuts, Coarsely Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly, so prep all of your vegetables first and you’ll zip right through the rest of the preparation. For the dressing, whisk together the lime juice, coconut sugar, vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It will seem like a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, that’s exactly what you want! This isn’t like a traditional salad dressing; it should soak into the noodles a bit, and you will have a bit of a pool at the bottom when it’s in proper proportion.

In a medium bowl, place the green beans, zucchini ribbons, and tomatoes. Pour the dressing on top and toss to coat. Add in the chili, just a little bit at a time, until it’s spicy enough for your personal tastes. Give it one more good toss to mix everything around and evenly distribute the ingredients before transferring everything to a serving dish. Top with a generous handful of sliced chives and chopped peanuts.

Don’t waste time chit-chatting; Eat immediately!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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From A to Vegan, and Beyond

The clock hasn’t yet struck noon and already the restaurant is bustling. A line has begun to stretch around the corner and out the door while waiters carefully navigate the tiny space with their apparently bottomless, steaming carafes of darkly roasted coffee. Sunday, the last precious day of the weekend, used to be a time to sleep in and take it easy, but now it’s become the end-all, be-all day for brunch. Taking in the scene from a sunny corner, I can’t help but marvel at how quickly my generation has embraced this development, right alongside another, deeper reaching culinary trend: Veganism. As if to underscore this point, vegan options are woven in right alongside the other new American fare, highlighted by bold “V’s” as if to underscore my train of thought. 10 years ago, would the word “vegan” have resonated so thoroughly with so many people? Joined by my friend and dining partner in crime, Elizabeth Castoria, I can think of no person better to contemplate this rise in veganism with.

Author of the newly released How to Be Vegan, Elizabeth has experienced the shift in perception first hand, having embarked on her own cruelty-free path at the tender age of 17. Though this shifted her interested in predictable ways in regards to animal rights and food, nothing could alter her passion for writing. After achieving her masters in fiction at New School University, she quickly shot up through the editorial ranks. Modestly waving her numerous accomplishments off like a whiff of something unpleasant, it seems that her success still hasn’t fully sunk in. “To be honest, I picked a major in college because it seemed like an easy thing to do, but then it somehow worked out.”

It could have only worked out based on the strength of her work. After spending many years as the editor of VegNews magazine, bringing the vegan community together to become connected in ways it could have never been before, Elizabeth has always spoken from the heart. Inspiration comes naturally when the subject matter is so compelling, and as a prolific reader, there’s no shortage of engaging pieces out there to drink in. Working endlessly to refine and hone her craft has yielded the impressive results we all found on the new stands and still refer back to today, giving Elizabeth an irresistible resume when publishers came calling.

Offered the opportunity to create a lifestyle guide for new, curious, or confused vegans, Elizabeth saw that it was a growing niche to be sure, but one that hadn’t yet been fully satisfied. Though her entry isn’t meant to be the last book on the subject with encyclopedic entries, she offers something that far too many similar authors work to curtail: Her unique voice. Conversational but authoritative, with a good dose of her trademark humor added to the mix, it’s not a dry or boring read to slog through. It’s a book you’ll actually want to pick up, work through from cover to cover, and return to time and again later on down the road.

Reckless creativity is the standard approach to all of her endeavors, including her adventures in the kitchen. Less keen on following a specific formula than simply combining what’s in season with what’s currently in the pantry, she’s quick to credit Robin Robertson with her assistance in developing the recipe section in How to Be Vegan. One particular dish that Elizabeth picked out as a favorite is the Soyrizo Pasta, a super-simple, comforting combination of any pasta shape that might be handy, tomatoes, a generous handful of garlic and spices, and lightly sauteed soy-based chorizo. Also included are food staples that even the most novice of cooks can master, producing dishes that will still impress and satisfy. The question of “what’s for dinner” will inevitably enter the conversation where veganism is concerned, so this fool-proof arsenal will have even the pickiest palates covered.

As if on cue, as our thoughts shift to treats and good eats, our food arrives. I waste no time tearing into my tofu scramble while Elizabeth more delicately works on her Burmese tea leaf salad and samusa soup. Between the two of us, it’s a brunch fit for vegan kings; a signifier of the radical shift in the perception of veganism in general over the past few years. While the uninformed may regrettably still be stuck on the classic protein question, the lifestyle is more widely accepted, understood, and accessible than ever. Elizabeth’s book is just one more piece to the puzzle that makes transitioning away from the standard American diet a piece of dairy- and egg-free cake. She delves deep into the heart of the matter, explaining the cruelty of circuses and factory farms in non-confrontational language that doesn’t preach or accuse. “My goal for How to Be Vegan was never to convert anyone, but to provide realistic, everyday information to help readers form their own conclusions about common issues, and advice to stop the cycle of cruelty whenever possible.”

Indeed, far from merely covering the food as most popular media is drawn to do, Elizabeth doles out wisdom on vegan clothing, makeup, travel tips, eating out, relationships, and even how to deal with close-minded naysayers without losing your cool. Considering the depth and breadth of information packed into this slim paperback, it’s surprising to hear that it came into being just about a year after the ink had dried on the final contract. “Nothing motivates like a deadline,” Elizabeth admits. There’s no magic to the writing process nor a time when the words flow most easily; it comes down to creating a firm schedule and clear goals to strive for. Although inevitable, the curse of writer’s block hasn’t been able to slow down the stream of sage advice. A long run through San Francisco’s lush green spaces always does the trick, clearing out the mind and making space for a fresh start. Clearly, what ever she’s doing to harness her full creative capacity, it’s working. How to Be Vegan has remained in the high ranks of Amazon.com’s vegan book section ever since its initial release, and has been well-received by the blogosphere at large. The real impact, however, is one that’s a bit more difficult to quantify. With this stellar literary entry, one can only imagine the countless lives, both human and animal, Elizabeth has already touched.


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Not-So-Southern Biscuits

Biscuits remain something of an edible enigma to me, defying definition; as elusive as the fleeting aroma released from the oven as they spring forth, from raw dough to fluffy golden cakes. Growing up far from the southern border, I can’t claim any “authenticity” in my own attempts at biscuit fabrication, but there’s no way I’d let a lack of experience stop me from treading forth into such savory waters. I may not know exactly when to serve them, what to top them with, or how to pair them with your average meal, but if I have to build my entire menu around this simple side dish, so be it. Through trial and a whole lot of error, I’ve found my perfectly nontraditional biscuit formula that’s worth all the fuss.

Crisp, with a crackling amber-brown crust on the outside, but tender and soft on the inside, these coarse little breads bear far more flavor than your average wheat flour rolls. A harmonious marriage of cornbread and scone, these particular quick breads burst with the summery essence of corn, all bundled into a tidy handheld package. Enriched with the exotic taste of coconut milk, there’s a certain depth and buttery flavor to the crumb that no stick of congealed dairy products could ever hope to impart. They may have been inspired by the typical cream biscuit construction, hailing from the northernmost reaches of the country in Maine, but the end results transcend all boundaries. Something about the bright corn flavor makes me think of summer and backyard cookouts, although they would make just as fetching accompaniments to a cozy winter stew.

There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy these unconventional biscuits- The only key is that you enjoy them as soon as you can. Hot out of the oven, still steaming when you split them in half, and with a modest pat of buttery spread melting into every nook and cranny, the experience is of pure, freshly baked bliss.

Cornbread Coconut Biscuits

1 1/3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2/3 Cup Medium-Grind Yellow Cornmeal
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Black Pepper
6 Tablespoons Vegan Margarine, Chilled
1 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk, Plus More to Finish

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with either a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt, and pepper until thoroughly blended. Cut the cold margarine into 1/2-inch pieces before tossing them in as well, mixing to coat with the dry goods. Use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut the margarine in, stirring and mashing so that you achieve a coarse, crumbly consistency. You don’t want the margarine to become completely incorporated, but there should be no pieces remaining that are any larger than petite peas.

Shake the coconut milk well before opening to ensure that it’s properly mixed. Pour it into the bowl and stir with a wide spatula, just until the mixture comes together. Never mind an errant lump or two; they’ll bake out just fine!

Once you have a slightly shaggy, sticky dough, transfer it to a well-floured surface and pat it into a rough rectangle about 1-inch thick. Take a very sharp knife and cut it in half lengthwise, and then into either thirds or fourths crosswise, depending on how large you want your biscuits. This will result in 6 or 8 neat little squares. Gently transfer the cut biscuits to your prepared sheet pan, reshaping slightly if necessary, and brush the tops lightly with additional coconut milk to promote browning.

Bake for 18 – 22 minutes until golden brown all over. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before digging in. To save the biscuits for later, let cool completely and store in an air-tight container at room temperature. The finished biscuits will keep for up to 4 days.

Makes 6 – 8 Biscuits

Printable Recipe


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The Cold Shoulder

July? Already? Each new month always seem to sneak up out of no where, unannounced and premature, startling me out of my never-ending daydream and back into the present moment. Somehow, the arrival of July doesn’t feel quite so jarring this time around, and yet there’s considerable dissonance between the calendar date and the weather at hand. Oh, it’s been gloriously sunny, aside from the average fog-smothered mornings, but never has a mid-summer month run in with such a cool breeze on its tail. San Francisco summers are unlike any other; I came prepared with plenty of layers, but I still doubted that I would need my autumnal leatherette jacket this late into the year. Thank goodness I suspended that disbelief at least long enough to pack it, since it’s become a constant companion on my brisk campus-bound commutes.

While the rest of the country prepares to celebrate our independence with the standard round of backyard barbeques, pool parties, and fireworks, I’m still struggling to get into a properly jubilant mood. How could anyone think of stripping down to a bathing suit when the thermometer barely registers in the low 60’s on some days? Where do city folk all hide their grills, and how do they not set off the fire alarms every single time a tofu pup hits the searing metal grates? Furthermore, how do I make it back home from the fireworks when the Muni is guaranteed to become missing in action, just in my moment of greatest need? While my plans remain up in the air, it’s clear to see that they’ll end up falling on the more nontraditional side of the tracks.

One thing that can never be altered about any proper 4th of July party, even for a party of one, is the ice cream. I don’t care if I found myself in a freak snow storm come early July- There would still be ice cream on my menu. Trouble is, what with all the festivities and rampant jubilation, it can be tough to find yourself anchored by an unwieldy cupful of frozen confection. This is a job that calls for bite-sized, chocolate-covered, flavor-filled ice cream truffles.

Inspired by a generous gift of shelled pistachios straight from the nutty experts at Diamond of California, these glorious green gems couldn’t be simpler to prepare, and are the prefect offering for a party of any size. Best of all, they can be made well in advance, so all you have to do on the day of celebration is bust them out and look like a total ice cream-churning pro. The creamy emerald interiors are sophisticated enough to suit the most discerning palates, while the shatteringly crisp chocolate coating adds sweetness and whimsy that is sure to appeal to a younger generation of food critics in training.

Pistachio Ice Cream Truffles

Pistachio Ice Cream:

2 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Cup Shelled, Toasted Pistachios
1/3 Cup Fresh Baby Spinach, Packed (Optional, for Color)
1/3 Cup Light Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Arrowroot
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla
1/8 Teaspoon Fiori Di Sicilla, or a Tiny Pinch of Orange Zest

Chocolate Coating:

6 Ounces (1 Cup) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil

To prepare the ice cream base, simply drop all of the ingredients, except for the two extracts, into your blender or food processor. A high-speed blender is your best bet for the smoothest texture, but with enough patience and a bit of straining, any model can make do. Blend on high for 5 – 6 minutes, pausing to scrape down the sides of the canister if necessary, until the mixture is thoroughly pureed, without a single fragment of pistachio to be found.

Pour the smooth mixture into a medium saucepan and set on the stove over moderate heat. Whisking frequently, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan to prevent anything from sticking and scorching, bring the liquid up to a gentle boil. Once bubbles begin to burst on the surface with increasing regularity, turn off the heat. Stir in the vanilla and Fiori di Sicilia last. Let the base cool to room temperature before moving it into the fridge to chill thoroughly; about 3 hours.

Churn the cooled base in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the soft ice cream into an air-tight container, and let it “cure” in the freezer for at least 3 more hours before scooping out your truffles.

Use small ice cream scoop to make neat little rounds of ice cream, placing them on a silpat- or parchment paper-lined baking sheet that can fit easily into the freezer. Scoop all of your truffle balls and quickly move the whole baking sheet back into the freezer. You want the interiors to be solidly frozen before attempting to dip them, lest they melt once they hit the hot chocolate coating. Allow at least 3 more hours (yes, again!) or let them chill overnight before proceeding.

Finally, to finish the truffles, heat the chocolate and coconut oil in a microwave-safe container for about 60 seconds. Stir thoroughly until all the chips have completely melted. Use a fork to quickly submerge the frozen ice cream balls into the liquid chocolate and pull them out again, working as fast as you can. Place them back on their silpats and immediately return the baking sheet to the freezer upon finishing. They can be eaten immediately, or stored in an air-tight container for up to 2 months.

Makes a Scant Quart of Ice Cream; 2 – 3 Dozen Truffles

Printable Recipe


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The New Sea Food

Take the salmon out of lomi salmon and what do you have? No, this isn’t a riddle, but a valid culinary question. Such a simple dish, hardly one that even requires a recipe, is tough to mess around with too much without accidentally chopping out its soul. Many an intrepid explorer, set on a mission of kitchen conquest, has pushed a simple, fool-proof concept far beyond its reasonable constraints- Myself included. How do you change something so radically and still be able to connect it back to the original dish? Sure, it will be tasty and satisfying, but you can hardly call a sandwich without peanut butter or jelly a PB & J, can you?

No matter how solidly set in stone some recipes may seem, there is always room for fresh interpretation. While wintering in Hawaii, there were plenty of opportunities to experiment with local ingredients and draw inspiration from the native cuisine. Lomi lomi salmon is about as classic Hawaiian as it gets, a staple found at any Luau worth its coconuts. Little more than salted salmon massaged with chopped tomatoes and onions, it compliments the starchier sides with its bright, salty flavors. Though it would seem impossible to veganize at first blush, the islands provide a natural alternative to any fishy components: Sea Asparagus.

Also known as samphire or glasswort, this sea vegetable is a tender green stalk very similar in appearance to tiny land-grown asparagus- Thus the obvious name. Absorbing the sea salt like a sponge, they can be quite salty if not thoroughly rinsed, and should never be salted no matter what you add to them. Slightly crunchy when raw or par-cooked, they’re an exotic delight to someone accustomed to flat, gelatinous, or stringy sea vegetables like myself. They grow all over the world and can usually be found in gourmet markets, but naturally, they’re cultivated right in the heart of Hawaii, making them more accessible to the city dwellers of Honolulu than most.

This recipe isn’t my entirely own creation, but inspired by the serving suggestion printed on the very label for Olakai sea asparagus. The only farm on Oahu growing these spindly green stalks, they know better than anyone else on the island how to best honor this unique ingredient. I’ve only put a few small twists on their basic formula, making use of more local produce such as the adorable tiny currant tomatoes from Ho Farms and sweet Maui onions. The precise combination is one that I may not be able to repeat for quite some time, but as long as I can find sea asparagus, you can be sure that this salad will find its way to my table.

Lomi Sea Asparagus

4 Ounces Fresh Sea Asparagus
1 Ounce Sweet Onion, Diced
1 Tablespoon Avocado or Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
4 Ounces Currant Tomatoes (or Halved Cherry Tomatoes)

Snip off any brown ends on the sea asparagus before rinsing them thoroughly under hot water. Toss them in a bowl along with the diced onion, oil, and lemon juice. Massage the vegetables with your fingers for a minute or two, just to tenderize the stalks slightly. Add in the tomatoes, mix to distribute throughout the salad, and either chill for up to two days, or serve right away. Don’t be tempted to add any salt, since the sea asparagus are already packed full of sodium.

Makes 2 – 3 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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A Quiet Comfort

The overstuffed bus limps along, laboring through rush hour congestion, pausing to catch its breath at almost every street corner. It groans and wheezes as passengers filter out, the crowds gradually thinning as the street numbers increase, moving farther away from the bustle of downtown. Finally, finally, after an hour of holding my breath to squeeze in between the seasoned commuters, I finally stumble down the short staircase and roll out down the steep hill ahead. Darkness hasn’t yet settled in, but it looms ever closer, tugging insistently at the edges of overcast sky. Despite the howling wind, the pair of keys rattling in loose grasp is the only sound I can hear, so focused on getting in the door, getting back “home,” and just being able to unwind.

These are only my first days of school, on campus again for the first time in over five years, and they’ve already taken a lot of out me. In such moments of utter exhaustion, creative cooking is the last thing on my mind, but a girl’s still gotta eat. Working to extract the maximum amount of flavor out of a minimum of ingredients and time, a new sort of “comfort food” emerges, and this seemingly bare carrot soup is one shining example. If you have carrots, you can have soup. Thanks to my friends over at So Delicious, I had the opportunity to try out their new aseptic Culinary Coconut Milk, which is every bit as handy and shelf-stable as the canned variety, but a more environmentally friendly package.

The results are nothing mind-blowing or particularly innovative, but a quiet sort of comfort food that just seems to fit the occasion. Sometimes that’s all we need, right?

Spicy Carrot Soup
Adapted from Bon Apetit

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Pound Carrots, Peeled and Chopped
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cups Water
11-Ounce Aseptic Carton or 14-Ounce Can Full Fat Coconut Milk
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, To Taste
1 – 2 Tablespoons Sriracha
Fresh Parsley, for Garnish (Optional)

Heat the oil in a medium pot over moderate heat. Add carrots and onion and saute until the onions are lightly browned and aromatic. Pour in the water and coconut milk, bringing the mixture to a boil before reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are fork-tender; about 25 – 30 minutes.

Use an immersion blender or traditional standing blender to thoroughly puree the soup until entirely smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and sriracha to taste, thinning with additional water if necessary.

To serve, top bowlfuls with a final drizzle of sriracha for an extra kick of spice, plus fresh parsley leaves if desired.

The soup can be made up to a week in advance when stored in an airtight container.

Makes About 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

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