BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Broke Da Mout

Hawaiians simply have a way with words. Direct but gentle, and often spoken with a good dose of humor, every statement seems to come with a built-in smile at the end. Said in Pidgin with island inflection, “broke da mout” (“break the mouth”) is in fact a compliment to the chef. Not nearly as painful as it may let on, the phrase suggests that you’ve eaten something so unfathomably delicious, or eaten such vast quantities of it, that you simply couldn’t stand to take another bite. Ergo, your palate has been thoroughly spoiled, in the most satisfying way. I can report without hesitation that I thoroughly broke my own mouth to the fullest extent of the definition while in Honolulu.

Lured out by the familiar urge to discover new ono grindz (good eats), every step of my two mile walk to reach Greens & Vines was worth the effort. Born of the 100% raw vegan catering company Licious Dishes, this dine-in outpost is only a few months old, still glistening with that new restaurant shine. Glowing like a beacon on a dark night, the neon sign out front is quite arresting, especially for the unprepared. Already on my hit list, it was a sight I was unprepared for as I gazed blankly out the bus window.

“Oh, that’s the restaurant right there!” I exclaimed in spite of myself, to no one in particular. It would clearly require a more thorough exploration at a later time, especially without those lovely people sharing public transit who were now convinced of my mental instability.

After miscalculating the distance from my hotel rather drastically, it ended up being a later meal than anticipated, but gave me plenty of time to work up an appetite. Good thing too, since just one plateful of Kaffir Miso Pad Thai, composed of kelp noodles and topped off with a generous handful of crunchy cashews, left me feeling quite stuffed. Taking my time to luxuriate in every slippery strand, the effusively friendly staff made me feel more than welcome to linger, as opposed to so many other establishments that saw the single vegan diner as a burden. One gets a real sense of community here, proof positive that veganism is alive and thriving in all pockets of the world.

Although I already broke da mout on my main dish, the temptation of the dessert menu was too much to bear. Wrapping up a petite wedge of Tangerine Cheesecake to go, it became a most decadent midnight snack just a few hours later. Flawlessly smooth, creamy, and sparkling with citrus zest, its small size belied immense flavor. More than enough to satisfy even my voracious sweet tooth, what initially seemed like a scant portion turned out to be just right.

The raw movement may still be in its infancy in Honolulu, but endless other clean, green options can be readily found hidden in amongst the puka dog and saimin stands. Peace Cafe serves up well-balanced meals with a macrobiotic sort of slant, featuring otherwise obscure flavors like matcha and kinako to create vegan treats found no where else.

Speaking of which, the Iced Matcha Latte is an absolute must for any hot day, which is pretty much every day on the island. Lightly sweetened just to cut the bitter edge of the powdered green tea, soy milk lends body to the beverage, making it both refreshing and wholly satisfying. If only I had ventured out to this part of town sooner, I’m certain I would have found many excuses to return for a second and third refill.

Mochi brownies displayed alluringly on the counter did look like an awfully attractive lunch option, but the savory dishes are worth holding out for. Before ever setting foot in the shop, I already knew that I wanted the Heart and Seoul entree: Inspired by Korean bibimbap, a power plate of greens, both raw and cooked, beansprouts, shredded carrots, and either fresh tofu or TVP over a bed of brown rice. Ever indecisive, I stood there hemming and hawing at the counter, until the cashier helpfully broke my strained silence. “I could get you a little bit of both, too- How about that?” she asked sweetly. Yes, please; I felt like I really could have it all in that moment. Both were utterly delightful, but being the tofu-lover that I am, I would spring for a full portion of only that silky-soft bean curd next time. Topped off with a healthy dollop of very mild gochujang to mix and mash at will, the diner has the freedom to mix in as much of that salty paste as their heart desires. Naturally, I devoured every last smudge.

What’s most telling about how vegan-friendly a city is, however, is not the number of specialty shops or isolated outposts. Rather, it’s what one can scavenge in the everyday eateries, even the mundane or most unpromising locations. While the Ala Moana Mall is no average shopping center, boasting hundreds of stores spread out for what seems like miles, the above platter is still an incredible testament to how open and accessible Honolulu is to the compassionate visitor or resident. Grylt Ala Moana, located in the Makai Food Court, is one of three locations within Honolulu. In true cafeteria style, you’re encouraged to build your own plate, picking between proteins, sides, and sauces. Grilled Tofu is the way to go to avoid animal protein, and incredibly, you can actually choose Olive Oil Mashed Cauliflower over plain white rice, if desired. For just 50 cents more, it’s more than worth the upgrade. Grilled Veggies are already so expertly seasoned with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, it seems a shame to cover them with any additional sauce, despite how bright and vivacious the Citrus Herb Oil was. Request it on the side to dip the tofu in, and you’ll have the perfect complement to all components.

Next, we’re jetting off to another island… The Big Island, in fact, for a stop in Hilo. Still more photos are being uploaded everyday, so please keep checking in to see all of my adventures!


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Biting into the Big Pineapple

Though its nickname evokes images of a more tropical rendition of New York City, Honolulu is truly beyond compare. A big city with the heartbeat of a small town, everyone seems to know each other, or at least treat strangers like family if they don’t. Shy and introverted by nature, it took a huge step outside of myself to embark on my first solo trip, and I can say with conviction that there was no better destination than this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Reaching out into the void, I was shocked by the genuine kindness that was placed in my outstretched palms. Hearing horror stories about Hawaii’s rocky past, including some lingering (and often justified) resentment against haoles, it seemed a sure thing that my sheet-white face was just asking for trouble. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.

Simple interactions, no matter how shallow, just felt warmer, friendlier than anything I had previously encountered. Smiles came easily, instantly, to every gentle face, and accidental eye contact no longer felt like a potential threat. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the mundane act of waiting for the bus in China Town. Midday sun blazing away, cooling trade winds no where to be found, it was a warmth that was impossible to comprehend for a January afternoon. Wholly unprepared for the heat, I rolled up my sleeves and sweated it out, checking and double-checking the schedule to make sure I had picked the right bus line. Out of the blue, a petite woman sitting on the bench struck up a conversation, noticing my discomfort.

“Yeah, I sure wish I had an umbrella like you,” I mentioned dreamily, nodding to her black-paneled parasol. “I’ve only thought of them for rainy days, but that’s such a good idea!”

Without missing a beat, she immediately offered to share her shade. “Come sit by me then! There’s plenty of room,” she indicated her vast abundance of space, patting the empty seat. And so there I sat, nearly 5,000 miles from home, cheek-to-cheek with a complete stranger, having rarely felt safer in the comfort of my own house.

It’s such a simple gesture, such a forgettable instance, but I’m still bowled over by that effortless generosity. It’s just not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

The people are what truly makes Hawaii so special, but the food naturally ranks second on my list of reasons to visit. Shockingly, vegan options abound in Honolulu, with hardly a menu lacking one ready-to-eat option. Tofu reigns supreme here, thanks to the influence of many Asian cultures, thus making it the norm rather than the “alternative.” Not every morsel was the height of fine cuisine, but I had a handful of memorable meals that would be worth returning to the island for.

An unassuming little hole in the wall, Ruffage Natural Foods is located just a few short blocks away from Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. After a long day of sun and surf, the short menu of simple, wholesome entrees draws both travelers and locals alike. The Tofu Avocado Spring Salad was exactly what I craved, fulfilling my desperate need for fresh greens and a punch of protein. Despite the heat, I still couldn’t resist pairing that with a soul-satisfying cup of miso soup, filled with seaweed and tofu as well. For a no-frills healthy meal, I can’t think of a better place to drop by.

Out in China Town, at the very bus stop where my most cherished conversation took place, the Downbeat Diner is also serving up some awesome meatless eats. Boasting a menu of comfort foods and classic diner favorites, they readily accept the challenge of veganizing each and every option should it not be naturally free of animal ingredients already. Since I came in a little bit early for lunch, the brunch options were most appealing, and they pulled out a solid Tofu Scramble indeed.

Squeezing in those greens again, this platter typically comes with potatoes, but can be swapped for a salad upon request. Mushrooms and onions added a savory complexity to the yellow-hued, seasoned bean curds, I cleaned my plate in mere minutes and would have licked it if not in public.

You won’t want to bypass the drink menu while you’re at it. My admittedly unusual request for a virgin Bloody Mary was met without any snark, and hit the spot perfectly. Lightly spicy, nice and salty, and packed with tomato flavor, I wish I could have ordered about a gallon of the stuff to take with me.

By complete accident or a crazy stroke of luck, however you’d like to consider it, I ended up staying at the very hotel where my top restaurant destination was situated. I had to compare the addresses at least five times before I believed it, but indeed, they were the same. Yuzu, crafting exquisite Japanese food in the ground floor of the Ala Moana Hotel, is not a vegan restaurant. Amazingly, they produce some of the most realistic-looking vegetable nigiri I have ever come across, and many other vegetable options are equally delightful.

You owe it to yourself to try the Vegetable Nigiri Sampler at least once in your life time. The height of edible art, though it may be a dead-ringer for fish at first glance, there’s not a scrap of animal protein to be found on this plate. The “tuna” slices are in fact peeled tomatoes, gently poached in vinegar to impart a uniquely bright, uncharacteristically oceanic flavor. Yuba fills one gunkan while a rich carrot mousse is piped into another. Lotus root is fried and covered with eel sauce, so cleverly hidden within its crispy shell that I would have never been able to identify it unaided. Mushrooms top of the remained of the pieces for incredible umami bites. Eggplant is typically included into the melange as well, but the chef so graciously provided a second tomato piece for me instead, accommodating for my sad eggplant intolerance.

Don’t leave the table without trying their hand-cut Veggie Medley Udon Noodles while you’re at it. Sliced fresh to order and lavished with all variety of garnishes on the side, they’re almost as much fun to eat as they are delicious. Slippery, chewy strands of wheat that twist effortlessly around the chopsticks, the noodles are a world apart from anything dried or store-bought. Each bite is a little bit different too, depending on how you load them up with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger, mushrooms, or crunchy tenkasu. A final splash into the soy-based dipping sauce, and the whole assembly goes down easily. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to return and try another dish or eight at Yuzu.

There’s still much more food to come, but in the meantime, keep checking my Flickr set for more photos!


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Aloha from Hawaii

Eyelids weighted down by a marathon 29-hour day in transit, it hardly seemed worth fighting their slow descent. Nodding off for 15-minute stretches at a time while waiting, waiting, waiting endlessly to stop hurtling through the clouds, I eventually succumbed to exhaustion. Next time I came to, I was in paradise.

I don’t care if it’s horribly cliched- It’s completely true. Honolulu, Hawaii is like no other place I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t have dreamed up a place more perfect if I truly had died and gone to heaven. Stepping off the gangway into the cozy embrace of 80-degree air, the afternoon sun sparkling overhead, I wasn’t quite sure I had actually woken up yet.

Though my hotel room wasn’t ocean-front or even ocean-facing, the view was still unparalleled in its grandeur. Each sunrise and sunset was a sight to behold. On my last morning in the city, I rose while the sky was still dark, dragging a chair in front of the window for a front seat to the show. In those wee AM hours, nursing a large cup of hot Kona coffee, I watched as the streets slowly began to glow and come alive and the sky danced with a changeable rainbow of colors.

Readjusting to 12-degree days and 5:00pm nightfall has been challenging, to say the least, so I’m not yet fully back up to speed. Consider these landscapes just a small taste of what’s to come, and keep checking my Flickr set for additional photos and descriptions, some of which won’t be featured on the blog. Though all my photos are full of treasured memories, too beautiful to keep to myself, I don’t want to bog down anyone’s loading time further. Consider it a somewhat hidden bonus for the truly curious. Next up, a handful of island food finds simply too incredible to limit to mere images. Stay tuned!


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Coming Soon to a Mailbox or Newsstand Near You…

Typically, sharing about the latest and greatest issue of VegNews is a big waiting game. Rarely does my own copy arrive before I spill the beans, but I can usually resist the urge to post about it at least until the designated month on the cover. Needless to say, that’s not the case for the incoming November/December issue. As soon as I learned that at least one copy was out in the wild, that signaled that it was fair game. This collection of articles and recipes is so enticing, so irresistible, that hopefully my impatience is pardonable this time around.

Returning with another column of My Sweet Vegan, I’m thrilled to share what may very well become the holiday dessert that everyone talks about for years to come: Black Forest Parfaits. The classic Christmas cake has been broken down into its essential components to be reassembled in delicate layers of chocolate cake, vanilla creme, and a lightly boozy drunken Morello cherry sauce. Not only does this presentation allow each element to shine, visible through clear glass walls, but it means individual servings can be prepared in advance and served without any messy slicing or scooping. Easier on the cook and tastier on the palate; can you say, “win-win”?

After coming down from my cake-induced sugar high, I was thrilled to photograph a deeply satisfying, warming soup as well. Effortless to whip up, the depth of flavor that Jesse Miner managed to create in his Smoky Tomato and Kale Soup is astonishing. Spiked with chili and rounded out by hearty potatoes and quinoa, this is not your average pallid tomato water. More like a stew than a modest soup, it could easily pass as a main course, rather than merely a humble side.

Let’s not forget, this is also the issue where the annual Veggie Award winners are revealed, among many other exciting features. Who’s won favorite cookbook or blog author this year? Now, I wouldn’t spoil that surprise even if I knew!


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Mad Props

Prop shopping can often be the most fun, or the most frustrating, part of food styling. Endless accessories to match any style are out there, waiting to be discovered; the thrill of the hunt can turn any outing into an impromptu prop acquisition mission. Though the food will always be the star of the show, it still needs strong supporting actors to complete the production, so it pays to have a sharp eye for design and for deals. Expenses are what prevent these searches from being carefree, as any blogger knows well. While those hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind serving pieces are obvious budget busters, it’s surprising to see how badly plain linens can eat through any allotted funds. Yes, I’m talking about fabric napkins, props that rarely get the attention they deserve. Adding pops of color while softening the scene, giving it motion with an effortless drape or order with a tight fold, napkins often pull the whole image together. Problem is, most napkins come in sets, because what normal person wants just one or two of a hundred little scraps of fabric? Rarely will more than two even fit on my set, not to mention the inflated price tag that comes with those matching bundles.

Thank goodness for online shopping. Current blog sponsor Dot and Army provides the perfect solution, packaging fun, whimsical fabric napkins in every color and design you can dream up, instantly giving you dozens of different ways to dress up your food photography. Don’t see a ready-made set that strikes your fancy? Custom packages are also possible. It’s like having your very own personal prop shopper who has impeccable taste!

Just imagine this image without either napkin in place. While they may be overlooked as a stylistic element by the average viewer, they add tons of color to this otherwise plain white background, while reinforcing the concept of a dainty tea party. All I had to do was explain my needs, and these two examples were part of the bundle I got from Jennifer, the talent behind this treasure trove.

This one is even less prominent, but take a gander at the vintage checkerboard napkin way in back. When I asked Jennifer to simply surprise me, this was one of the patterns she picked out, and it has already become an important part of numerous photos. Even if they aren’t the main focus of a shot, or even in focus, it’s those subtle touches that turn a fine photo into a memorable one.

Now, do I have a treat in store for all you budding and established food stylists… Jennifer has very generously offered to give away some of her fabric finds to one lucky reader! The winner can pick any 2 sets of 12 napkins, or choose a customized set to match their kitchen. Enter by commenting about your current favorite prop shop, be it local or online. For two extra entries, like Dot and Army’s facebook page and/or pin your favorite item from the shop on a Pinterest board. Be sure to come back and leave separate comments for each action you take if you want to make them count! You have until Wednesday, October 10th at midnight EST to get your entries in, so make haste and start commenting!

If you simply can’t wait to dive into all the goodies on display (and I sure don’t blame you) go ahead and add those treasures to your cart. When you checkout, enter the code “bittersweet” for a 20% discount on any orders (excluding custom orders.)

UPDATE: The random number generator has spoken, and the winner is…

Lucky commenter #52, Amy! Check your email for info about collecting your winnings, Amy, and enjoy your stylish new fabric napkins!


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Veggin’ Out with VegNews

Months race by with a quickening pace, exaggerated by summer’s dwindling warmth and a sun that goes to bed just a little bit earlier each day. 2012 slips through my fingers just a little bit more each day, as fluid and irrepressible as water trickling out of a leaky faucet. Since this is more than a mere plumbing issue with an easy fix, it’s at least decent consolation that the runaway months frequently bring with them a new issue of VegNews to pour over and forget all about the usual over-scheduling woes. The September/October issue may be dominated by compelling recipes for all things cheesy and unbelievably dairy-free, but there’s so much more nestled into those crisp, glossy pages, too.

There’s always a need for something sweet to balance out all of those salty snacks, and Beverly Lynn Bennett‘s Chocolate Pumpkin Bread Pudding fills in that requirement with ease. Lightly spiked with bourbon and redolent of warm, comforting spices, merely popping this dish in the oven does wonders to soften the blow of a fading summer season. Simple enough for the most novice baker to excel, it’s a recipe to hang on to for the coming holiday season. Plus, when served with the suggested sticky, gooey, Salted Caramel Sauce, it’s truly a dessert to remember.

Bringing in a healthy yet hearty option, Gena Hamshaw proves that raw food needn’t be contained to only the warmest of months in order to satisfy. Savory “Meatballs” made of mushrooms, sunflower seeds, and red beets top a generous mound of zucchini noodles, all smothered in a rich sun-dried tomato Marinara Sauce. A delicious departure from the standard fatty, heavy rendition of the concept, these uncooked balls pack incredible amounts umami into tiny little flavor bombs.

For an issue like this, the best part of the job is definitely “cleaning up” when each photo shoot is all wrapped up. Keep an eye out for your copy if you’re subscriber, or venture out to the local bookstore if you’re not, because this is one you’ll want to hang on to!


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Summer Rain

Heat and humidity build over the course of a standard summer day, until it feels as though you’re being smothered with a damp towel every time you set foot outside. Relief comes only when the sky finally breaks open and beats the flames back with a soothing spray of warm raindrops. Thunder rumbles with the gentle vibrations of someone talking in low tones, easily lulling the listener to sleep at night. When morning comes, a few remaining water droplets remain, clinging dearly to leaves and grass. The air is the fresh and new again, until that familiar heaviness grows once more.

Click to view full size. If you’d like to save it as your new wallpaper, simply right click, select “Set as Desktop Background,” and choose the “Stretch” option to properly fill any computer screen.


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Inedible



Tough as Nails

More than Elbow Grease

Roast Ducks

Fillet of Sole / Toe-fu
(All the credit for those titles goes to the subject herself!)

Cooking the Books

…And so ends another semester. Does it surprise anyone that my final project, even in a portrait photography class, ends up being about food? All of my lovely lovely models here deserve serious props- Thanks for being such good sports about cheerfully ruining your pans, books, and foot wear!


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Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!

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