BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


15 Comments

Well-Traveled Treats

Time was not on my side. Mere days before departing for my two month stint in Hawaii, a generous package from Dear Coco landed on my doorstep, over a half dozen glossy chocolate bars embellished with huge chunks of amber brown toffee. These were no ordinary candies, boasting flavors as wild as curry and wasabi, each one inspired by various cuisines across the globe. Despite my voracious sweet tooth, I couldn’t have possibly eaten them all before jetting off, but there was no way I could leave them behind. Somehow it seemed fitting that such a worldly collection of chocolates should accompany me on this exciting adventure. After ejecting shoes and shampoo from my overstuffed suitcase (you know, the less important things) I miraculously made enough space to squeeze in the whole range of treats. Sure, I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt for a full day or two, but any cosmetic sacrifice was worth it.

Boasting eight unique varieties, there truly is something to suit all tastes in this powerful lineup. A brief overview of the creative flavor options wouldn’t truly do these innovative chocolate creations justice. Sharing a peek at my tasting notes is the only way to properly explain these treats, since complete sentences seem to fail me when faced with such intense chocolate treasures.

Sidama (coffee toffee with Buunni Ethiopian coffee beans and sea salt):

  • Whole coffee beans! Not fooling around here
  • Aroma of freshly brewed coffee erupts from the package as soon as the seal is broken
  • A must for mocha-lovers
  • Dark, smoky chocolate is a match made in heaven with those warm, roasted coffee notes
  • Sweet, crunchy toffee makes the perfect counter point
  • Caramel incorporates a symphony of burnt sugar flavor to round the whole bar out
  • Utterly addictive, not to mention highly caffeinated
  • I feared that the whole beans would be off-putting, but they meld beautifully- Not at all gritty like ground beans can become

Savanah (pie spiced toffee with roasted pecans and sea salt):

  • The toffee is absolutely divine! I would gladly eat that alone, and by the handful
  • Delicately balanced yet warmly spiced, the salt is really bumps the flavor up to a whole new level
  • Toffee really is the star here, with pecans lending their nutty essence and crisp bite
  • The chocolate, while snappy, rich, and deep, is really the backup singer to this melody, emerging with a smooth baritone once the high notes have melted away

Barcelona (roasted almond toffee and sea salt):

  • The most tame, traditional of all offerings
  • Not really sure what makes it so distinctly “Barcelona”
  • Solid rendition of the classic chocolate/toffee combination
  • Toffee really holds its own against the dark chocolate, both share about equal time in the spotlight
  • Nicely snappy, crisp and crunchy throughout
  • Liberal use of salt makes flavors pop
  • Something that everyone would enjoy, very agreeable; no doubt a crowd pleaser

Shanghai (chinese five spice toffee with roasted white sesame seeds and sea salt):

  • Especially thick, crunchy slabs of toffee chunks
  • Lovely licorice-driven spice; gentle yet persistent
  • Sesame seeds really do get lost in the mix
  • Seeds look nice and are conceptually sound, but don’t contribute discernible flavor or texture
  • Very good, just not exceptional like the others

Oaxaca (Mexican cinnamon and smoky hot pepper toffee with roasted pepitas and sea salt):

  • Toffee has taken on a distinctly red hue from the pepper
  • Gentle warmth from the cinnamon lures you in, but the fiery aftertaste of cayenne bites back with a vengeance
  • Definitely has a kick, but isn’t overly aggressive
  • Spice adds flavor without so much heat that it would make me hesitate to break off a second (or third, or fourth) piece
  • May take you by surprise, but there are no alarm bells going off here
  • Pepitas are overshadowed by the bold toffee
  • One for you thrill-seekers and hot sauce-lovers out there

Madras (sweet curry toffee with roasted sunflower seeds and sea salt):

  • Golden-yellow colored toffee chunks
  • Notes of coriander and cumin come through most clearly, but are soft and subdued
  • Not the least bit hot; Spice adds a certain je ne sais quoi, an undefinable complexity
  • Doesn’t ring quite true as the madras curry powder I know and love, but it’s certainly a tasty riff on the flavor.
  • Love the addition of sunflower seeds. An unexpected addition that really pulls the bar together with a nutty, toasted undercurrent

Istanbul (cinnamon toffee with rosewater, roasted walnuts and sea salt):

  • Sings with sweet cinnamon!
  • Brighter pops of clove follow, adding excitement and energy to each bite.
  • Rosewater is an intriguing addition, but is sadly smothered by the stronger spices
  • Occasionally, if you’re really looking for it, you might get the faintest hint of something floral… But that might also be imagined
  • If rosewater hadn’t been listed on the label, I would have never guessed

Tokyo (ginger toffee with crispy rice and sea salt):

  • Definite zing to the toffee
  • Bright, almost floral/citrus-y ginger
  • Very vibrant and fresh
  • Deep dark chocolate balances out the high notes
  • Rice crisps lighten the toffee just a touch, but are barely noticeable
  • All you taste is ginger and crunch, but there could be far worse things of course
  • A fairly straight-forward combination that’s still a nice change of pace
  • Any easy leap for anyone looking for something slightly different

No matter your location or destination, any one of these stellar confections can instantly transport you to a whole new world of flavor. There isn’t a single dud in the whole bunch, but don’t just take my word for it. There’s good reason why all eight are available as a neatly bundled gift pack!


29 Comments

Lox of Love

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

Fish-Free Smoked Salmon Dip

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

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

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

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

Printable Recipe


17 Comments

Have Protein, Will Travel

In a food paradise as diverse and accessible as Honolulu, it seems like a crime to even consider packing the standard “emergency” food that covers the standard range of granola bars and protein shakes. Vegan options exist almost anywhere you go, even where you’d least expect it. That’s why I was surprised by just how handy my little packets of Amazing Meal, made by powdered greens-pusher Amazing Grass, proved to be in no time at all.

Compared to my non-existent activity level at home, walking miles across town every day felt like training for the Olympics. Even with my voracious appetite for eating out, trying new restaurants, and cooking as much exotic produce I could get my hands on, I still found my energy levels dipping severely come midday. Rather than relying the standard quick fix from a cup of coffee, the Cafe Mocha superfood blend was genuinely revitalizing, and without any jitters of course. The vaguely greenish hue is the only hint of the goodness packed within each glass. Trust me, I won’t willingly drink any swampy protein powders that can only be described as tasting healthy at best, and it was no struggle to drain my cup. Head and shoulders above most dried greens blends even when mixed with only cold water, the light cocoa flavor gives way to a hint of coffee, very gently sweetened to round out the flavors. No, it’s not something you would mistake for a decadent milkshake, but it’s far tastier than most healthy powdered drinks on the market. For a quick energy infusion on the go, I’m very grateful to have these slim packets in my bag, just in case.


8 Comments

Soda Satisfaction

There’s a silent soda war going on behind those shiny metallic cans, and it’s not just between the titans of industry, Pepsi and Coke. No, this battle is at the root of every fizzy solution, bubbling up to the surface every time the classic question of sweetness is posed. Should “diet” sodas merely strive to maintain the status quo, sticking with the traditional formulation of artificial sweeteners that may or may not be even worse than sugar or even high-fructose corn syrup, or could there be something better still out there? Zevia is one company bold enough face that controversial query head-on, producing zero-calorie carbonated beverages in a rainbow of natural colors that eschew the classic chemical cocktail that most brews rely on.

It was love at first sip so many years ago, and you’ll rarely find my pantry stocked with fewer than three different varieties at a time. Now, when I heard that they were switching up the foundation, adding an innovative new sweetener into the mix, I was alarmed. Would my beloved Zevia still taste as good, or would this story turn into a modern retelling of New Coke?

Offering the same lineup of flavors I’ve come to know and love, now monk fruit extract, the newest all-natural non-caloric sweetener, has been invited to the party. Stevia and erythritol round out the sugarless foundation, a trio that Zevia as dubbed “SweetSmart.” Strongly resistant to change in general and repelled by the concept at first, it seemed like crazy talk to merely suggest tampering with the formula. Why fix what isn’t broken? Zevia has been the only soda in my fridge for a number of years now, so surely any variation in that familiar flavor could only weaken the brand.

Dispelling that notion with just one big, fizzy slurp, I couldn’t be happier that my assumptions were proven wrong. Sure, family and friends had sometimes remarked that the bubbly elixir was too sharp and not nearly sweet enough for their palates, but these were comments brushed off as unfair comparisons. No, a so-called “diet” soda wouldn’t have the same addictive sugary rush as a corn syrup-sweetened can of conventional soda, although now I see the validity in that point. The new and improved Zevia sodas are distinctly smoother, less harsh and acidic, while placing a greater emphasis on the underlying flavors. That allows the beverages to impart a sweeter taste without actually veering off into liquid candy territory.

Just as good as before, and yet somehow better than ever? Now that’s a sweet change that I can fully embrace!


42 Comments

Creature Comforts

Undefinable yet immediately recognizable, there’s no sense in wasting many words attempting to define it; it’s a sentiment communicated through taste instead of language. Comfort food is a concept that transcends all cultural and temporal boundaries, no matter what final form it may take. Seasonings change and dishes vary, but the ability to instantly transport an eater to a happier place, at least for the duration of a meal, that remains the same, from the first bite to the last crumb. That’s why it’s never a bad time to delve into Allison Rivers Samson‘s lovingly crafted ebook, Comfortably Yum. A short but sweet compilation of her ten most soul-soothing recipes, Allison manages to cover a wealth of common cravings without wasting a single digital page.

Incredibly, for a category traditionally laden with fats, sugars, and often processed foods, Comfortably Yum avoids those dietary pitfalls by making every recipe gluten-free or adaptable, and only employing the use of coconut sugar as a sweetener.

Call me biased, but I already knew I was in for a treat with this ebook, since I had previously made and photographed Allison’s fresh take on Caesar Salad for VegNews Magazine two years ago. Yes, salad can be comfort food too, and it’s a refreshing to find someone else who agrees! This rendition on the classic leafy blend comes the closest to my childhood memories, skipping all the fussy fare and focusing in on crisp, garlicky croutons and a creamy dressing, boasting a gently oceanic flavor thanks to the addition of briny capers and nori. Who needs anchovy paste when you have such excellent plant-based alternatives?

Vegan Egg Salad is a classic recipe that every cruelty-free cook should have in their arsenal, and this tofu-based interpretation makes a strong case for taking that spot of honor. Naturally, preparation couldn’t be simpler; an effortless dump-and-stir affair brings together a rich blend of vegan mayonnaise, kala namak, and basic seasonings to coat crumbled bean curd and crunchy cubes of celery. The powerfully eggy flavor borne of that combination is unreal, rivaling the aroma of freshly cracked hard boiled eggs. Served on crackers or between bread, I daresay that only the most astute omnivores would even detect a difference.

Finally, for dessert, I couldn’t resist the siren song of the Chocolate Salted-Caramel Pudding Parfaits. Regrettably, perhaps out of impatience or a lack of finesse, mine refused to form the neat, even layers as photographed in the ebook, but none of that mattered when it came time to dig in. Swirls of coconut sugar custard interlaced with cocoa pudding, creating a flavor sensation sure to delight anyone with a sweet tooth. For anyone who fears traditional caramel-making, take heart: The coconut sugar does all the work for you here, bearing a naturally toasted flavor similar to that of burnt white sugar.

Whether you’re staring down a string of snowy days in the forecast or simply want a taste of comfort any day of the week, Comfortably Yum has got your cravings covered. In this winter of particular extremes, Allison has very generously offered to spread the warm, cozy feelings and wants to share a free copy of her ebook with one lucky winner! To enter, leave a comment on this post and tell me about which recipe you’d most like to recreate first. (You can see the full listing if you scroll down here.) Speak up before February 2nd, midnight EST, and I’ll chose a lucky recipient shortly thereafter.

UPDATE: Always ready and willing to help, the random number generator has spoken, and has proclaimed that the winner should be…

The owner of comment #25: greatveganexpectations!

There’s a golden lining to this contest, even if it wasn’t your lucky day. Allison was so delighted by the positive response that she has very kindly extended a $5-off promotion for anyone who purchases her ebook! Don’t wait too long to secure your copy, because this is a limited-time offer. Enter the code “HBCY24″ from now until February 10th to make the most of this delicious opportunity.


10 Comments

The Pouch Principle

No matter what the actual dish in question is, prepared, shelf-stable meals are often labeled  across the board as unhealthy, or even worse, unpalatable. To cast such a wide net across this vast category of edibles only does a disservice to the eater, putting scores of undiscovered flavors firmly out of reach. Sure, fresh is indisputably best whenever possible, but between busy schedules, budgetary constraints, and unreliable kitchens, this alternative becomes a prime option. Especially for the traveler with little more than a microwave at best, such handy shortcut meals are an absolute godsend.

One company producing pouches of higher quality than most is Tasty Bite, a staple in the vegan and vegetarian marketplace for almost a decade. Offering East Asian delights across countless country borders, it’s an easy introduction to the unique palate of spices that perfumes these unique cuisines, without needing to hunt down a restaurant willing to go without their ghee. Although there’s typically a package or two stashed away in my pantry in case of emergencies, I had no idea that Tasty Bite made more than just entrees until they landed on my doorstep. Now delving into the world of sides, there are scores of flavorful starchy options to pair with your punjab, if you so wish.

One of my favorites has always been the Channa Masala, a mildly spiced chickpea stew found on any Indian menu that’s worth reading through. This particular rendition bears incredibly tender, creamy chickpeas in a lightly tangy tomato sauce. More flavorful than hot, the pepper is played down while the sweeter, warmer spices perfume the dish. Whole spices lend occasional pops of flavor; toasted cumin or coriander seeds add concentrated bursts of flavor into different bites, keeping the eating experience exciting.

Plated on a bed of Thai Lime Rice, I was taken aback by just how delicious those unassuming grains were. A focal point in its own right, the rice leads with a strong punch of lemongrass, enhanced by the richness of coconut milk. Granted, the texture fell a bit more on the side of mushy than I would prefer, but for a dish that’s merely nuked for a minute and ready to go, you can’t beat that complex flavor.

Punjab Eggplant, another common stable of Indian cooking, tortures me to no end. Though I long to dig in with abandon, eggplant does still make my throat burn, so I passed the torch over to my mom for this taste test. She noted that the spice level was high enough to make her nose run, although there was still a notable sweetness about the sauce. The greatest failing here was the largely homogenous, pulpy texture, perhaps something that could be remedied with a pairing of crunchy crackers or flatbread instead of rice.

Of course, I just had to go the more traditional route and add Ginger Lentil Rice into the mix. Though this rice has the same soft qualities as before, the lentils poses a pleasantly surprising firm bite. Dyed a brilliant yellow thanks to the turmeric-imbued curry powder, aromatic ginger essence does take the lead, just as promised. Much more interesting than your average “bean and rice” side dish, I would venture to say that it could even be considered a full meal in itself, thanks to the effortless combination of nutritious proteins and starches.

Previous unbeknownst to me, Tasty Bite has also begun serving up Asian noodles in their iconic pouches. Sampling the Kung Pao Asian Noodles with high hopes, I’m sad to report that the noodles themselves proved predictably overcooked, well past the stage of aldente. Painted in a tangy, punchy sauce, toothsome peanuts and water chestnuts do introduce a bit more character to the combination, if not quite the structure I so craved. Balancing sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, it’s nothing too complicated or challenging; easy comfort food for the harried eater. However, I can’t say I would readily venture into the realm of noodle pouches again in the near future. There’s still a way for the technology to go to prevent the texture downfalls inherent in the pasta.

Sharing a world of flavors that will satisfy hunger pangs in a minute flat, it doesn’t get any easier than a quick meal whipped up courtesy of Tasty Bite. Just fire up the microwave and dig in.


90 Comments

Nog-Off: Speed Round Rematch!

Two years after the first fight for vegan nog supremacy went down, the landscape of dairy-free, egg-free holiday beverages has finally shifted once more. The first change is not a happy one; it seems that the Earth Balance Soy Nog has thrown in the towel, bowing out of the game altogether. This would have left a gaping hole in the lineup, but the good news is that a spry newcomer has stepped up to the plate in its wake. Going by the name of “Holiday Nog” by Califia Farms, this rookie is a definite underdog, having appeared on the scene with little fanfare and almost no web presence. It doesn’t help matters that these shapely 48-ounce bottles are Whole Foods Market exclusives, severely limiting their availability across the country.

What the Holiday Nog lacks in distribution, it makes up for in innovation. The first almond-based nog on the market, it fills a niche previously untouched, meaning that those first punches land with great impact on the largely soy-based competitors. Touting itself as a lighter choice, it goes beyond the standard comparison to traditional eggnog, and goes straight for the kill, hitting where it hurts and boasting lower sugar content than any of the other commercial options out there. True to the claims, this milky elixir pours freely, approximately the same viscosity of standard almond milk. Fine for a solo sip, but that kind of thickness really can’t support an added splash of holiday “spirit”.

Without any detectable almond flavor, it was a brash, borderline harsh and definitely manufactured nutmeg note that dominated, storming in a bit too hard and heavy to really enjoy. The rookie must have tired itself out in that first barrage, because the sweetness struck me as rather lacking, too. Some will definitely appreciate this aspect, owing to a light hand on the organic cane sugar, but quite frankly, I wanted a treat that could stand up to the promise of eggnog, and this just wasn’t doing it. Sorry, sports fans, but this kid is down for the count, leaving So Delicious as the reining champ.

For you folks keeping score at home, that brings the final ranking, from most highly to least recommended, to…

1. Coconut Nog by So Delicious

2. Silk Nog by Silk

3. Holiday Nog by Califia Farms

4. Rice Nog by Rice Dream

Don’t let me tell you what to fill your mug with, though. Host you own nog-off at home and taste the options for yourself! I’m giving away a $25 gift certificate for Whole Foods Market, furnished by the natural grocery giant itself, so that you can pick up a full complement of eggless nogs, or whatever else might bring you a bit of edible holiday cheer. All you need to do is be a resident of the US, and leave me a comment about your favorite commercial nog, homemade recipes, or what you like to make with your excess nog once the holidays are over. Make sure your name and email are both entered into the appropriate boxes so I know who to contact! The entry period will be open until Friday the 13th at Midnight EST, so start talking!

UPDATE: After consulting with my very favorite random number generator, together we determined that the winner of the gift card would be…

The owner of comment #40, otherwise known as sara!

If that wasn’t the result you were hoping for, don’t despair. You can still snap up a coupon good for 50 cents of off Califia Holiday Nog should you want to give it a try yourself. Stay tuned for more giveaways to come, too!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,937 other followers