BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Like it or not, modern Honolulu is a rapidly changing world city, adapting local traditions to incoming waves of global inspiration. Although most are quick to take issue with bigger construction projects that are literally transforming and modifying the landscape as we know it, it’s a more positive and exciting proposition from a culinary standpoint. Every return visit turns up fresh eateries, new businesses, and inspiring young entrepreneurs eager to strike out on their own in paradise. It was pure luck that I caught wind of Banán, a tiny operation serving simple, sweet treats out of a stationary food truck, having opened right smack in the middle of my Oahu itinerary.

Quite simply, Banán is bananas. 100% banana soft serve treats in a variety of flavors, to be precise, and plenty of toppings to complement your fruity treats. The only things added to this refreshing base are either additional fruits or herbs for taste; no sugar nor dairy need apply. On a hot January day, there’s no better reward after a brisk hike up Diamond Head, which makes their nearby location on Monsarrat Ave. and accommodating hours ideal.

Unfalteringly generous with samples, the patient and kind scooper on duty successfully convinced me to order a flavor different from my intended pick- A considerable feat indeed. Basil sounds like a dubious pairing with banana, which is why I initially wrote it off as a trendy gimmick while perusing the options in advance. In reality though, this bright green blend sparkles with fresh, herbaceous flavor not unlike mint, regarded as a more conventional dessert addition.

Toppings are 50 cents each or 3 for $1.00, so go for broke and pile them on. The puffed quinoa in particular is a must, introducing both a satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor to the mix. A study in contrasts, just a small sprinkle on top balances out any of the creamy concoctions with ease.

But perhaps I ordered too quickly. Hastily making my selection out of hunger and impatience, my companions quickly trumped my conventional order with custom requests. Combining two flavors in one bowl turned out to be no trouble at all, creating an even wider range of flavor sensations. Luckily, good friends that they are, everyone was more than happy to share the bounty. Ginger-Mint came in as a close second when I took stock of my favorites, but the berry notes of the Acai blend were quite appealing as well.

Upgrade your frozen confection further by trading in the classic cardboard waffle cone or cup for juicy, ripe papaya. Yes, another papaya boat worthy of your time, especially because these fruits are grown locally, and Banán takes the model of sustainability one step further by composting the discarded skins.

Banán sets itself apart from the pack by offering a genuinely healthy treat where few alternatives exist, but even more importantly, by fostering a sense of community by being so keenly aware of their impact. It’s the kind of small business we could truly use everywhere, but no matter how you slice it, this one is distinctly Hawaii grown, through and through.


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Smart Sweets

Though self-prescribed with good intentions, a striking majority of New Year’s resolutions are imagined in a world of extremes. Everything is painted in black and white; there is success and failure, productivity and laziness, good or bad foods. The temptation to simplify the complex “rules” of the road is great for those most desperate for change, especially when so much mainstream advice points in that very direction. What excitement is there in moderation? How could you sell anything based on common sense?

Quite frankly, I’m sick of this all-or-nothing approach. Resolutions themselves are not the problem, but the way society holds us to them. Friends, I’m not expert on the matter, but if you want my advice, I think we should make a bit more room in this renewed healthy eating regimen for chocolate.

As with all healthy eating choices, quality is absolutely essential for success, which is exactly what Vega has built their reputation on. Though best known for their powdered protein and meal-replacement shakes, I was naturally drawn more to their enticing array of snacking selections. Given the opportunity to investigate these unsung heroes further, I knew from the start that it would somehow end in a deceptively decadent dessert. Maca Chocolate Bars provided the real inspiration, with their gently earthy, mineral-y quality and slightly bitter edge calling out for a touch more sweetness to round out the deep cacao flavors. Lovers of deep, dark, serious chocolate would love them as is, but for someone coming off of a holiday sugar high, I must admit that my palate calls for something a bit less intense.

Incorporating the brilliantly “Karamelized” SaviSeed, roasted and sugar-coated Inca peanuts, for a satisfying crunch, Nava Atlas’ fool-proof recipe for unbaked brownies seemed custom made for just these ingredients. A few easy substitutions yielded the tastiest, yet healthiest, raw brownie that has ever passed my lips. As the original formula proves, however, no specialty ingredients need apply; switch up the fruits, nuts, and chocolate for equally delicious treats that will help keep your resolutions on track. I’ve successfully used raisins instead of prunes, almonds instead of cashews, and regular dark chocolate, in additional to Nava’s suggestions, all to the same enthusiastic reception. You have my sweet-toothed word that they don’t taste the least bit like “health food,” and you will never regret savoring that one extra square.

Mega Maca Brownies
Adapted from Nava Atlas’ Unbaked Fudgy Brownies from Plant Power

1 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Pitted Prunes
3 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
4 (1.4 Ounce) Maca Chocolate Bars, Finely Chopped, Divided
1/4 Cup Sacha Inchi, Roughly Chopped

Place the cashews in your food processor and pulse until ground to a fine powder. Add in the prunes, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt, and half of the chopped chocolate. Pulse once more to incorporate, processing until the mixture holds together when pressed. Be patient, as this may take a few minutes.

Add the remaining chocolate along with the sacha inchi and pulse just briefly to distribute the goodies throughout the mixture. These final additions should be roughly chopped but still easily visible. You don’t want to puree the whole thing, since it’s much more satisfying with a bit of texture left in it.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly greased 8 x 8-inch square pan. Use a wide spatula to press it evenly into the bottom before stashing it in the fridge. Chill for at least an hour before slicing and serving. Keep leftovers covered and stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week, or in the freezer for up to a month.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Tools of the Trade

From the whimsical to the downright frivolous, no matter how well-intentioned, holiday gifts all too often stray into the realm of triviality. Rounding out my unplanned posting week of festive shopping suggestions, I’d like to remedy that dilemma with a battery of truly useful toys, all crafted for the avid cook, baker, and gadget geek at heart. Thermoworks has long been serving professionals in the culinary industry with better methods of temperature measurement, and that very same attention to detail, quality, and durability has been applied to all of their consumer offerings. The beauty of their myriad thermometers is that they’re simply designed, and they simply work.

Whereas the handyman might have his arsenal of home improvement tools, I now have my very own formidable array of food improvement tools. A rainbow of color options draws these diverse offerings out of purely utilitarian territory, injecting a bit of personality into each one. From oven probes to pocket thermometers and everything in between, even I hadn’t realized how many different ways one could take a basic reading for heat. Best of all, each and every model is lighting-fast, delivering the numerical verdict within seconds; a true luxury compared to traditional mercury- or alcohol-filled thermometers that move at a snail’s pace.

If I had to pick just one stand-out kitchen wizard, I’d have to say that the ChefAlarm is my tried-and-true workhorse thermometer. It comes complete with a timer to indicate when your desired temperature is reached, and easily clips to the side of a pot for flawless candy making. Plus, it folds up into a neat little travel case complete with space for the included probe, making it ideal for travel. Perhaps it wouldn’t be at the top of the list for most people planning their vacations, but I already know what I’m packing away into my suitcase for upcoming adventures.

While the precision implied for a recipe requiring a thermometer scares away a good number of cooks, it really shouldn’t be any more cumbersome than breaking out a set of measuring cups and spoons. Thermoworks takes the hassle out of getting an accurate reading, at price points to fit every budget. Now there’s no more excuse for soft-set jellies or burnt hard candies!

These products were all furnished by Thermoworks over the course of a number of years, but all opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.


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Mastering the Art of Curry

Ever the skeptic, expectations remained firmly at ground-level right up until the sturdy packing tape was sliced open, revealing a true gem of a holiday gift, securely wrapped in that unassuming cardboard box. Sure, I knew more or less what I was getting when I agreed to investigate the lavish assortment of spices included in the Kitchen Master Curry Kit, but that’s all I had pictured: Loose, uninspiring ingredients, assembled for convenience. Never have I been more pleased to admit being wrong. Complete with a full compliment of pungent, piquant, and bold seasonings, the inclusion of a gleaming stainless steel masala dabba and curry cookbook transform the set into something special. Admiring those exotic flavorings tucked neatly inside their metal compartments, it’s impossible not to feel a growing hunger for some new kitchen experimentation.

Lifting the lid yields a fresh cascade of intoxicating spice aromas, shifting and mingling in different ways with every breath. Even without the colorfully illustrated cookbook, packed with more tempting suggestions than your average Indian takeout menu, any curious cook would be powerless to resist this savory siren song. Granted, the cookbook is not vegan nor does it make any allusions of being so, but it does include helpful notations for those conscious of gluten, plus an indication of spice levels to better suit individual preferences. What it succeeds in beautifully is simplifying essential Indian dishes that are all too often misinterpreted with generic “curry powder,” rather than the nuanced blend of spices that provide their true character.

For the first time ever, my biryani rice (otherwise referred to as “Spicy Rice“) actually tasted like something I might get from a restaurant. The secret ingredient seems to be whole fenugreek seed, an addition that had never before graced my spice pantry. For the true novice, online video tutorials are there to hold your hand, ensuring success for cooks of all skill levels.

Discovering the foundation of classical curry seasonings unlocks a whole world of flavor, no matter what sort of diet the guidebook is written for. Easily adapting the recipe for kefta kebabs (“ground beef or lamb kebabs“) to employ homemade seitan rather than meat, those bold spices shone as brightly as ever in my veganized rendition. Paired with a quick and easy tahini sauce, it could have rivaled any restaurant offerings, if I do say so myself. They may not be the most beautiful of kebabs, but they sure do make up for their lacking visual impressions with an abundance of fragrant, spicy flavors that positively dance on the tongue.

Since it’s the season of giving, consider the Kitchen Master Curry Kit a prime option for any food lover on your list. In case you need further convincing, the whole bundle is currently on sale in the official online store, and I have an additional discount to share with you, my spicy readers. Enter the code “Q5GBI6501A5B” for an extra $11.50 off; enough to easily justify a purchase for someone you love, and perhaps for yourself, too.


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Earthy Elegance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Food is the Best Remedy

I’ve made no secret of my distaste for “cleanses,” a concept that merely sounds like a thin guise for a more modern interpretation of the classic crash diet. The theory goes that this stringent regimen of fruit and vegetable juices will clean out the digestive system, remove unspecified toxins, and fill the participant with vital nutrients that are otherwise difficult to assimilate through whole foods. Though it may typically lead to weight loss in the short term, any victories over the scale are short lived, as it’s mostly water weight or the result of nothing more than a simple calorie deficit. These attractive quick fixes are impossible to sustain, and every pound is sure to come right back when the devoted juicer returns to their prior eating habits.

That all said, how on earth did I find myself joining forces with Urban Remedy, a company known to push that very dogma, with their rainbow-colored juices packed into attractive plastic bottles? Thankfully, Urban Remedy is a company that believes in choice, and understands that health is not a one size fits all deal, offering so much more than just liquid sustenance. Healthy prepared foods will always be attractive for those crazy days when just throwing together a salad sounds like a demanding task, and having their array of fresh, ready to eat options is an absolute luxury. I was lucky enough to be treated to a few samples of these clean eating options, in addition to their better known line of juices. Just because cleansing is not for me, I won’t begrudge anyone who truly finds it beneficial, but I’m quite happy to cherry-pick the very best drinks as supplements to my daily diet, treating them as snacks and treats along with my daily eats.

Tell me, does this look like a feast or what? Between the Shredded Kale Salad, Zen Salad, and Cauliflower Tabbouleh, I was positively spoiled for choice come lunchtime. That pesky midday meal can sometimes get neglected on my busiest photo shoot days, turning into a few harried bites here and there, so having some truly satisfying sustenance on hand was a greater treat that I can fully describe. As someone who always does all of the cooking, having anyone make a meal for me, no matter how simple, feels like pure extravagance. Best of all, this indulgence is one that comes with no guilt, only pleasure. What impressed me the most was how fresh everything tasted. I would have never thought that anything arriving in a shipping crate could hold a candle to something pulled straight from my fridge, but there was no sad, wilted lettuce or mushy vegetables here. The dressings are packed separately to keep everything crisp, adding a bright, tangy taste only when the time is right. I was especially impressed with the raw cauliflower tabbouleh, each bite leading with lemon flavor and accented with cumin. It’s the kind of side dish that I wouldn’t hesitate to serve to a crowd- If I could be convinced to share, that is.

Before you start thinking that this is still another austere menu of only greens and veggies, I would implore you to check out their ample selection of snacks and desserts. Of the treats that I was lucky enough to sample, the Crème Caramel stands out in my mind as a particularly decadent departure from your standard “healthy” dessert. Thick and silky smooth, the texture was absolutely luscious, bearing a deep, rich, earthy caramel flavor that was accentuated with a touch of salt. Crunchy caramelized almonds added textural interest that made this grand finale particularly irresistible. Those fudgy Almond Brownies are not to be overlooked though; super soft, immediately yielding to the most timid of nibbles, the rich cacao squares effortlessly melt in your mouth.

Without hesitation, I would recommend Urban Remedy to anyone who wants to kick-start a healthy eating program or squeeze in some real nourishment on a busy schedule. Such delicious convenience does come at a price though, which will unfortunately be the single factor preventing me from ordering regularly. Happily, for a limited time, you can snag a discount off your order by entering the code FallSpecial at checkout for 15% off $150, 20% off $225 or 25% off $300 or more. Whether you’re into the concept of cleanses or not, you’ll want to take advantage of this opportunity; this unrivaled marriage of flavor and nutrition is worth every cent.


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Muchas Gracias

Singling out one favorite meal from my summertime jaunt around the 7 x 7 mile peninsula known as San Francisco would be an impossible task. Small but densely populated with more restaurants per square mile than people, or so it often appeared, even the most voracious adventurer could eat out for every meal of the day, and still never come close to exhausting their options. Picking the few gems out from the large swath of mediocre, adequate, or downright disappointing establishments, however, is a far easier task. Gracias Madre ranks very high on my list of keepers, laying claim to one of the top 5 meals I’ve eaten all year, coast to coast.

As part of the Cafe Gratitude empire and having recently expanded to a Los Angeles outpost, it’s likely that even far-flung readers who never plan to visit California have still heard of this storied establishment. It had been on my radar for years, but it had always been buried too deep within the Mission district to warrant a trek, or too busy to afford the wait. At last, the cards we stacked in my favor: It was a perfect, blue-sky day in July, warm enough to suit up with only a light jacket, and the company was unbeatable. Plus, she came with a car.

Sitting in the enclosed porch, we enjoyed a gentle breeze as dappled sunlight filtered in across our table, and a procession of savory delights began to grace our presence. Coconut Ceviche had been at the top of my “must try” list, simply because I had never seen nor tasted such a thing before. Could this tropical fruit really approximate something more oceanic in nature? Long story short: No. However, the flavors rendered from this unlikely combination are from a world beyond that expected flavor palate, elevating the dish into something entirely new. Truth be told, my one criticism was that I wanted more coconut! Each bite was dominated by rich, luscious avocado flesh instead, but that’s hardly something to complain about. Paired with sturdy, freshly fried but utterly grease-free tortilla chips, I could have been perfectly happy to make a meal of this appetizer alone.

But one could hardly turn a blind eye to the rest of the alluring menu. We ordered lavishly, accumulating far more food than any two people should reasonably consider eating for lunch, and yet not a scrap remained at the end of the meal. The Pozole, brought to the table in a great plume of steam, was not something I would have requested unprompted, but it turned out to be a top pick that day. A medley of vegetables and tender hominy mingled in a soothing, tomato-based and slightly spicy broth, topped with a thorny crown of thin tortilla strips. The balance of ingredients was pure poetry, a soup far greater than the sum of its parts.

Our final requests for the day came out in a flurry of small plates. Elote, a classic, beautifully simple preparation of grilled corn and Mexican cheese, has always been out of reach due to the dairy component, so it was a true pleasure to finally sink my teeth into that cashew cheese-smeared cob. The smoky, toasted kernels were perfectly cooked, plump and lightly charred, but the real star was that cashew crema. Upon asking the chef what magic went into such an ethereal condiment, he graciously laid out the entire recipe for us. Ready with you paper and pencil? Here’s how it goes down: Soak a bunch of cashews over night. Drain them. Add a bit of ancho chili, salt and black pepper, and blend them with a splash of fresh water until silky smooth. And that’s all he wrote.

Simple Greens Con Chile y Ajo were easily a step above your average sauteed kale, sparkling with crisp pepitas and carefully applied touches of spice. Always well seasoned but never hot, per se, these small touches proved the true finesse of the kitchen. Escabeche, pickled vegetables, rounded out our midday feast with a pleasing salty side, but were largely an unnecessary accoutrement to this lavish spread.

While I’m not about to start picking favorites, I will say that Gracias Madre is easily near the top of my hit list. If you’re ever in town, consider if your duty as an eater of any dietary designation to try it out at least once.

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