BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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A Call for Comfort

If there’s anything good to be said in favor of the colder, wintery climate slowly but surely settling in across the northern hemisphere, it would undoubtedly be about baking. No longer does the kitchen itself become a sweltering sauna upon preheating the oven, and whipped meringue stays fluffy and pert, regardless of the duration. Holiday cookie plates aren’t the only reason why bakers return to their sugary arsenal around this time of year; the seasonal shift triggers an instinctive need for warmth and comfort, both of which can be found in ample supply within a fresh batch of flaky apple danishes, still steamy within, or gooey chocolate chip cookies, soft as non-dairy butter.

The soothing capacity of homemade baked foods isn’t limited to any single genre, and exactly what sweet treat one pulls out of that radiating electric range is a highly personal choice. For me, tender, sticky gingerbread would be on the menu every day if I was living solo. Since variety is the spice of life, or so I’m led to believe, perhaps it’s a good thing that my family members all have their own words of wisdom once the oven roars back to life after its summer hibernation.

Hands down, scones will always rank near the top of the list for my mom, whether they’re served with extra icing for dessert or a smear of jam for breakfast. My tried-and-true formula, that fool-proof ratio of flour, liquid, and fat effortlessly yielding golden brown and delicious biscuits, rarely varies. The mix-ins are what keeps each subsequent batch exciting, preventing palate fatigue before the frozen earth outsides begins to thaw.

Looking to shake up the standard pastry routine, I was in luck when Meduri Fruit offered to send me a sample of their wares. Calling these morsels “boutique-quality dried fruit” sounds like a dubious compliment at first blush, but these specimens were truly outstanding. Whereas bulk bin picks are certainly more economical, they often dry out to a consistency better suited to beefless jerky, deterring more frequent purchases. None of that can be found here. Each variety is clearly dehydrated with care, maintaining an incredibly soft, chewy texture in each sweet piece.

Using such intensely flavorful dried fruits allows the kitchen-sink approach to work so brilliantly in these unassuming scones. Their inner beauty is revealed with each bite, the essence of a different fruit coming forward in alternating nibbles and crumbs. The specifics aren’t terribly important when selecting your own dried fruits; quality counts above all else.

Fruit Basket Scones

1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Almond Meal
2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1/2 – 2/3 Cup Mixed Dried or Candied Fruits, Chopped into Raisin-Sized Pieces if Necessary
3 – 5 Tablespoons Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Almond Extract
1/4 Cup Sliced Almonds

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

Mix the flour, almond meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl until thoroughly blended. Cut the margarine into tablespoon-sized pieces before dropping them into the dry goods. Using a pastry cutter or two forks, cut in the margarine until you have coarse crumbs with chunks of margarine no larger than the size of a lentil. Add in the dried or candied fruits of your choice, tossing to coat with flour before drizzling in 3 tablespoons of non-dairy milk along with the lemon juice and almond extract. Mix thoroughly, using your hands to bring the dough together if necessary, and slowly incorporate additional non-dairy milk if the mixture is still to dry to form a cohesive ball.

Gather up the dough into a big round and place it on your prepared baking sheet. Pat it out into an even round about 1/2-inch in thickness. Use a very sharp knife to slice it into four equal wedges, and then sprinkle them with slice almonds. Press down gently to make sure the nuts adhere to the tops of the scones.

Bake for 18 – 20 minutes, until golden brown all over. Serve warm or cool on a wire rack for later. Place in an air-tight container or wrap tightly in plastic and store in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Makes 4 Scones

Printable Recipe


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Fresh From the Freezer

Little additions add up to big flavors in any successful dish, as it’s the subtle nuances that set apart a great meal from an adequate one. Sometimes that can mean just a few extra minutes at the stove, toasting garlic to the perfect shade of golden brown, or simply adding in an extra dose of ginger, heightening those bright, spicy notes right at the end of each bite. The same principle is true for simply getting food on the table in the first place; every helping hand counts, and reliable schemes for easing that process are not to be overlooked. I’ll swallow my pride and admit that sometimes, utterly drained from a day in the office, weariness penetrating straight through to my bones, I’ll reach for the old bottle of dusty, dried out garlic powder as my one and only seasoning, omitting dozens of ingredients out of sheer laziness- Not to mention a poorly stocked fridge, nary a fresh leaf of greenery to be found. Needless to say, these are not exactly meals to be proud of, let alone serve to anyone else with any taste buds.

Dorot has been my savior lately, providing the perfect culinary shortcut that doesn’t cut corners on quality. Offering myriad raw ingredients minced, frozen, and formatted into neat little cubes, it’s effortless to cook full-flavored delights, even when there’s no time to shop for fresh herbs or spices. Beyond the convenience factor, which does admittedly weigh heavily in mind as I snatch up a stockpile of crushed garlic and ginger, it’s especially handy for these cold winter months when nary a sprig of basil can be found. I relish eating seasonal, embracing the new flavors as they ripen and develop each month, but I still crave the herbaceous bite of pesto all year long. The frozen basil cubes have been the antidote to my autumnal gloom, adding the distinctive aroma of a summer’s garden to previously drab, dull meals. Even before the company offered me samples for a more in-depth review, I was already filling my freezer with these edible green gems in preparation for colder (and busier) days.

So with all of this aromatic ammo, locked and loaded in the chill chest, what does one do to bring out their full potential? Make a highly flavorful yet delicate curry, bursting with bold notes of that luscious basil of course, but assembled with finesse so that you taste far more than just heat. Easily falling on the mild side of the spectrum, my Green Garden Curry is all about soothing, warming, and invigorating tastes, and not so much the sheer spice level itself. The beauty of using Dorot’s ingenious frozen herbs and spices is that they turn this recipe into a truly season-less dish, equally delicious and accessible 365 days of the year. Though I had spring on my mind while composing the original, feel free to swap out vegetables to suit your own seasonal cravings. Green beans would be an excellent replacement for snow peas, and shelled edamame or lima beans could be gracefully slipped into the spot previously occupied by fava beans. As long as you have frozen herbs in your arsenal, there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying an equally savory, satisfying meal in no time at all.

Green Garden Curry

1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil
3 Medium Shallots, Diced
4 Cubes Frozen Minced Garlic*
3 Cubes Frozen Minced Ginger**
1 Medium-Sized Fresh Jalapeno, Finely Minced
1 1/2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
3 2-Inch Long Stalks Dried Lemongrass or 1 Stalk Fresh, Bashed and Bruised
1 1/2 Teaspoons Cumin Seeds
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Fenugreek
1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Cup Snow Peas
1/2 Cup Frozen Green Peas
1 Cup Shelled and Peeled Fava Beans, Fresh or Frozen
4 Cubes Frozen Chopped Basil**
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to taste

Brown Basmati Rice, to Serve

*1 cube is equal to 1 whole clove.
**1 cube is equal to 1 teaspoon.

Set a large saucepan over moderate heat and add the coconut oil in first, allowing it to fully melt. Once liquified, introduce the shallots, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno. Saute for 6 – 8 minutes, until the cubes have broken down and the entire mixture is highly aromatic, as the shallots begin to take on a golden-brown hue. Deglaze with the lime juice, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure that nothing sticks and all of the brown bits are incorporated. Next, introduce your whole but bruised lemongrass along with the remaining spices. Stir periodically, cooking for 5 – 6 minutes until it smells irresistible.

Pour in the coconut milk, turn down the heat to medium-low, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the snow peas, green peas, and fava beans next, stirring to combine, and let stew gently for 10 – 15 minutes, until the snow peas are bright green and the fava beans are tender. Pop in the basil cubes last, cooking just until they’ve completely dissolved and melded seamlessly into the curry before removing the pot from the heat.

Season with salt and pepper according to taste, and serve immediately over brown rice.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Cash[ew] is King

Well, it’s about time! Considering the proliferation of non-dairy milks, populating grocery stores near and far in unprecedented numbers, it seems unthinkable that cashews have been entirely missing in action… Until now. Who better than to unleash the world’s first commercial cashew milk than So Delicious, having proven their mastery of both frozen and refrigerated dairy-free delights? Before I even realized my own unfulfilled nut milk desires, this turned out to be the creamy drink I had been waiting for all along.

Almond milk is my typical go-to milk alternative, a prime candidate for drinking, baking, cooking, and yes, ice cream-ing. From here on in, consider that prime spot in my fridge under serious reconsideration, because So Delicious’ cashew milk performs all of those tasks with equal grace, and of course, great taste. Currently offered in only two flavors, Unsweetened Vanilla and Unsweetened, my only hope would be that the line takes off and expands to include a chocolate option, for those nostalgic chocolate milk cravings.

Both have an excellent viscosity, a moderate thickness without any cloying sensation. Though considerably less rich than homemade cashew milk, for a mere fraction of the calories (35 per cup) it tastes surprisingly creamy and even slightly decadent. A very subtle nutty flavor defines their background flavor, distinctly cashew in essence, and easily minimized when mixed into other recipes. Bearing a clean flavor with no sugar to speak of, they can seamlessly work in any application, a testament to their versatility.

In short, if you don’t give these cashew milks a try, you’re seriously missing out! They may very well replace my almond standby, at least once they gain wider distribution in more mainstream grocery stores.

Don’t just take my word for it, go try them out yourself! I happen to have two freebie coupons in my possession, and I’d much rather they be in your hands, ASAP. If you’d like to win one, leave me a comment by August 30th at midnight EST telling me about non-dairy milk. Write about anything at all, whether it’s a recipe for your favorite variety, a funny story that involves the dairy-free drink, or even a love sonnet if you feel so inspired. Just make sure you fill out your name and a valid email address in the appropriate boxes so I know who to contact. Two winners will be drawn and contacted shortly after the entry period closes. Good luck!

And the winners, as chosen by the wisdom of the random number generator are…

Commenters #14 and #37, otherwise known as Mrs Zuvers and workingonworkingmom. Congrats you two! Expect to hear from me shortly with details on how to collect your prizes.


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A Meditative Meal

Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.

Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glance, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.

Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restraint. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.

Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.

Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.

Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth, the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.

Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of bean sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handiwork on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.

The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.

Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.


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Yay or Nay?

Freed of a decade-long mayonnaise aversion, the unctuous white condiment may not be the first thing on my grocery list, but certainly has earned its keep as a refrigerator staple, thanks to its irreplaceable contribution to my very favorite chocolate cake recipe. Thus, I’m probably not the ideal judge of a new take on the classic spread, but the offer to taste Nasoya‘s latest contribution to the category was irresistible. Curiosity fueled my investigation, since the original Nayonaise and I have a considerable history. It was the first time I ever tasted vegan mayonnaise, which sadly but quite frankly reinforced my original bias against it. Somehow a bottle of the stuff found its way into my fridge, likely after a photo shoot had wrapped and left the extra behind, and I couldn’t seem to get rid of it for the life of me. Eventually I became desperate, attempting to pawn it off on any friends who visited. It was convenient that each and every one “forgot” the glass jar when it came time to depart…

Revitalized and reformulated, my hopes were high for a surprise comeback. In addition to the previous offerings of their Original Sandwich Spread and Light (which I didn’t get to sample), there is now the option of Whipped, which is said to approximate the taste of Miracle Whip more closely. Let’s not beat around the bush here: I do not like Nayo Whipped, Sam I am. It strikes me as being too sweet, pulling my taste buds in the opposite direction of what they would desire in a savory dish, all with a beany undercurrent that muddies up the flavor. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I feared when I signed on for a sample. The jar of Whipped may be around for quite some time, wedged into the farthest reaches of the fridge, unless anyone would care to drop and take it off my hands.

The outlook isn’t as bleak for the Original, however. Despite an inauspicious appearance of a broken, greasy emulsion, the mixture does genuinely feel smooth and creamy on the tongue. The leading and finishing note is one of mustard, with a gentle touch of vinegar and salt chiming in. Appropriately rich and just slightly sweet, I do believe it’s an improvement over the first version that turned me off so many years ago. Is it my favorite mayonnaise option? No. But is it a perfectly serviceable alternative? You bet! The odds of success only improve once it’s mixed into a recipe with more complimentary flavors to enhance that baseline taste.

For my first trick, I thought I would turn the classic BLT sandwich into a fun summer hor d’oeuvre, taking out the bread and stuffing the contents into hollowed out tomato shells. BLT bites, so simple that a formal recipe would be overkill, are nothing more than seeded roma tomatoes filled with shredded romaine lettuce and chopped chives, tossed with Original Nayonaise, and finally topped with coconut bacon. Serve thoroughly chilled for the best eating experience, especially on a hot day.

Where Nayonaise really shines, however, is in baking, just as I had predicted due to the success of my experimental chocolate cake so long ago. Churning out a batch of chocolate chip cookies in record time and only seven ingredients all told, this recipe is reason enough for me to always keep a jar on hand. Amazingly, the mustard flavor mellowed significantly in baking, becoming nearly undetectable when paired with the right ratio of sugar and chocolate. The combination shouldn’t work, couldn’t possibly be delicious, but somehow, it really is. The best part is the texture- You would be hard-pressed to find a chewier, gooier, or more lusciously toothsome treat for so little effort. For that incredible contribution alone, Original Nayonaise gets the official thumbs-up from me.

Miraculous Mayonnaise Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 Cup Vegan Mayonnaise
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1 1/2 Cups Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheet with parchment paper or silpats.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the mayonnaise, vanilla, and both sugar. Stir until smooth and homogeneous before adding in the flour, baking soda, and chocolate chip. Begin the mixer on low speed to prevent any of the dry goods from flying out, and allow the machine to gently combine all the ingredients. Be careful not to over-mix to prevent the cookies from becoming too tough. Stir just until the dough comes together and there are no remaining pockets of unincorporated flour.

Use a medium cookie scoop or large spoon to portion out about 3 – 4 tablespoons of dough per cookie. Place them about 1 1/2-inches apart on your prepared baking sheets, and use lightly moistened hands to flatten them out slightly if domed.

Bake one sheet at a time for 11 – 13 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Immediately pull the silpat or parchment paper off of the hot baking sheet to allow the cookies to cool completely.

Makes 20 – 24 Cookies

Printable Recipe


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Spice Up Your Life

Black pepper, an ingredient whose ubiquity is matched only by something so elemental as salt itself, is so much more than the one-note spice that it’s frequently written off as. Few cooks play up the unique flavor profile of pepper as a feature in and of itself, as it deserves to be celebrated, and I’d venture to guess that even fewer realize the fine nuances between peppercorn varieties. Pepper is not just pepper, and especially not if it’s Kampot pepper.

Found in colors of the peppercorn spectrum, Cambodian-grown Kampot pepper has different distinctions depending on how it’s harvested and cured, but the overall flavor profiles are similar. I only had the opportunity to sample the black pepper, but found it a fascinating departure from the standard spicy but flavorless seasoning. More floral, gentle, and subtle than the miscellaneous black powder kept in kitchens the world over, this is one unique variety worth seeking out. Immediately detecting a vague natural sweetness, it seemed perfect for brighten up desserts. Black pepper has always struck me as an ideal match for fresh fruit, so why couldn’t the same pairing work as successfully for other sweet treats?

One can never go wrong with soft, chewy sugar cookies, especially when there’s icing involved, but these are not your average childhood snack. Enlivened with Kampot pepper’s warm bite, the contrast between sweet and spicy makes it impossible to stop at just one cookie.

Of course, the savory applications are near endless, considering how easily pepper can slip into every dish of any cuisine. Seeking to really highlight this unique ingredient, starting with a straight-forward formula seemed like the best approach. Made with only five ingredients and a minimal amount of labor, it’s hard to imagine that such an addictive appetizer could really be simple. Cheese straws are an easy sell at any party, and these in particular will fly off the plate. Bold, zesty, buttery, and crisp, lemon-pepper cheese straws made with Kampot pepper are crowd-pleasing snacks that will make it difficult to save room for dinner.

Lemon-Pepper Cheese Straws

1 Sheet Frozen Puff Pastry, Thawed According to Manufacturer’s Instructions
1/2 Cup Pepper Jack-Style Vegan Cheese Shreds
Zest of 1 Lemon
1 Teaspoon Kampot Peppercorns, Coarsely Ground
1/2 Teaspoon Kosher or Coarse Sea Salt

Lightly flour a clean, flat surface and roll the sheet of puff pastry to an 1/8th of an inch in thickness. Try to keep it approximately the shape of a rectangle for smoother edges.

Sprinkle the vegan cheese, lemon zest, ground pepper, and salt evenly over the long top half. Fold the ungarnished bottom half over, gently pressing the two sides together to seal. Use a very sharp knife to cut 1/2 – 3/4 inch wide strips.

Handling one strip at a time, take one end in each hand and carefully twist them in opposite directions to form a tight spiral. Place them on a parchment paper- or silpat-lined baking sheet, pressing the ends down firmly to discourage them from uncurling. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing the twists about 1 inch apart. Move the entire batch into the freezer and let rest for 30 minutes before baking.

Once the straws are nearly done chilling, begin preheating your oven to 425 degrees.

Move the frozen baking sheet immediately into the oven and bake for 13 – 16 minutes, until the straws are golden brown all over. Transfer to wire racks and let cool completely before eating.

Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Dozen Cheese Straws

Printable Recipe


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Kajitsu, Reborn and Revisited

There’s something different about Kajitsu, and it’s not just the seasonal menu, refreshed every month to highlight fresh produce at its peak. The entire restaurant itself has picked up and moved to a new space in Midtown, large enough to accommodate two separate dining rooms containing two very different food philosophies. The original vegan concept of Kajitsu resides upstairs, now open for lunch and literally showing off the food in an entirely new light- Large picture windows improve the ambiance immeasurably from the previous location. Downstairs, open only for lunch, a second concept called “Kokage” offers eggs and various seafood in traditional kaiseki style. Happily, there’s more than enough to delight the senses with their shojin cuisine that one would never feel the need to venture back down to the lower dining room.

Previously a dinner-only spot, the addition of lunch service has opened up not only more cost-conscious prices, but a wider range of choices. In addition to the typical prix fixe filled with authentic (and perhaps challenging) delicacies, diners can pick from more familiar dishes such as rice and noodle bowls.

Tanuki Udon, a regional specialty of Kyoto, is presented with finesse that elevates the humble soup far beyond its deceptively simple roots. Vibrant green and still crisp scallions swim amongst the chewy wheat strands, enveloped in the hot and ginger-spiked broth. Generous squares of fried tofu add richness, all while soaking up that aromatic liquid like the tender edible sponges they are. Yomogi-fu, a new ingredient to me, is made of mugwort; I’d compare it to a savory cross between tofu and mochi. Posessing a unique chew that seems to bounce between the teeth, the surprising texture is a welcome interjection in the otherwise low-key, soothing stew. The oversized bowl seems bottomless, but should your spoon finally clink against the polished ceramic, it’s a sad moment indeed.

Not to worry though, because there’s more! Inari Sushi is included alongside, putting all previous experiences I had with the stuff to shame. Nothing more than fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared sushi rice, the quality of ingredients and care of preparation are key to creating anything beyond subsistence rations. Soft yuba yielding easily to the lightest pressure, each grain of rice was perfectly cooked. Coated with the lightest hint of sweetness, it is an excellent study in contrasts, balancing out the gentle acidic bite within.

For those craving a bit of tempura, the Kakiage Donburi is sure to satisfy. Thin ribbons of various roots and gourds, with the incongruous handful of corn kernels mixed in, are expertly fried to a crisp consistency. The whole wispy jumble is perched upon sticky rice, and sides of miso soup and pickles round out the meal. Not a lick of grease is to be found here; you’d hardly know it was even deep-fried if not for the batter.

What makes Kajitsu a truly memorable experience, however, is still their carefully curated set menu. On this occasion, spring was in full force and the offerings gracefully reflected that transitory period from start to finish. “Ichi Ju San Sai” means “one soup and three dishes,” a format that ensures both balance and variety in a given meal. The rice is masterfully cooked, of course, but rather unexciting in comparison to the other culinary delights. Miso Soup always hits the spot, no matter how hot or cold the day is outside, and this particular interpretation held delicate strands of fresh yuba, reminiscent of an umami egg drop soup. After warming up on the savory, salty miso, the very next side brings some relief; chilled, refreshing, and wonderfully slippery…

Yes, the Spring Jelly would be best described as slippery, or perhaps gelatinous if one were feeling less charitable. It’s a texture that I happen to adore, but it may be more challenging for unfamiliar eaters. I hastily deconstructed the artful dish, plucking the finely shaved radish off the top and fishing out the jelly-like tokoroten noodles. Somewhat like a vegan aspic, the spring jelly itself was a melange of star-shaped crunchy vegetables, suspended in a dome of clear agar. The only thing I could positively identify in the mix was okra, since the other vegetables provided more crunch than flavor. Regardless of how strange that might all sound, may the record show that I adored this dish. No where outside of Japan would you ever find such a thing, and even then, I wouldn’t trust it to be without some fishy addition. This is what my memories of Japan taste like, and I only wish it was available a la carte so I could reminisce all year round.

The main event, Tofu with Ginger Sauce, arrived at the table in a heavy but shallow stoneware vessel, bubbling madly. Like a box full of edible treasures, the surprises never ceased with each successive bite. Sure there was tofu, both fresh and fried, plus a big dollop of freshly grated ginger just as promised, but it was otherwise nothing like what I had imagined. A starch-thickened sauce coated everything, infusing ginger into all the components. More of that chewy yomogi-fu made an unexpected cameo, and the addition of avocado was particularly inspired. Hot avocado rarely appeals, although something about how soft and tender it became, practically melting into the sauce itself, was utterly delectable. Though not a meal for the texturally challenged, I would it again any day, or every day if given the chance.

So how does the new Kajitsu compare to the old? It’s hard to make any definitive judgement so early on, although all signs point to greater success on the horizon. The very same spirit propels the establishment forward, while fresh inspiration pushes cooks and diners alike down a new path. I can’t wait to see where this new departure will lead.

Many thanks to Liz of Kosher Like Me for treating me to this unforgettable culinary adventure!


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Peerless Portland

Two years seems like nothing on paper, in the bigger scheme of things, but can make all the difference in the world when applied to real life. So much had transpired since the inaugural Vida Vegan, changes that affected both the event and myself for the better. One could never have accused this mass vegan convergence of delivering anything less than the most anticipated long weekend of the year, and this latest chapter to the story proved only greater than the last. Despite all the fun, friends, and food, I found myself horribly preoccupied for that first round, stressed to the max by my speaking engagements and upcoming book release. Coming home with only a single photo of a dewy spiderweb on my memory card to show for it all, it wasn’t exactly a travel log to share about. The general situation may have been the same, frantically writing magazine articles on the plane, receiving a second pass of the edited manuscript in transit, and fretting to no end about my workshop, but somehow, those burdens didn’t weigh me down. Making a concerted effort to breathe occasionally and actually get a taste of Portland, the overall experience was so much more enjoyable than the first.

The one restaurant on my list that was an absolute “must visit” was Portobello Trattoria, which we hit first thing before the convention even began. Clearly overeager, we actually showed up about an hour early for our reservation, trudging through the rain a bit faster than anticipated. No matter, once the doors were open we were seated immediately and lavished with unforgettable eats in no time. Asparagus Fries failed to excite my interest on the menu, so it’s a good thing that my mom ventured to order the tempura-battered green stalks. They were hands-down the hit of the evening, ringing with umami flavor that seemed disproportionate to the tiny, slender spears. Served with a creamy cashew-based dip, the condiment truly gilded the lily; it was delicious, of course, but completely unnecessary. If I could go back and eat any one thing in Portland, it would be this simple appetizer.

On the other end of the asparagus spectrum, I glommed onto the listing of Asparagus Vichyssoise like there was no tomorrow, immediately attracted to the promise of a cool, refreshing starter. Topped with sauteed mushrooms, asparagus ribbons, and edible yellow flowers, it was every bit as lovely as it was tasty. Though the dominant flavor was potato rather than asparagus, it was still a wonderful appetizer, light enough to whet the appetite without being too filling.

As soon as the entrees were presented at the table with a modest flourish, I started snapping pictures of my mom’s dinner first, working quickly so that she could begin eating. Of course, it was only after she broke the delicate pasta shells in half with a swift slash of the fork that the English Pea Ravioli with Morels revealed their true beauty. Vivid green pea filling, accented with a light touch of mint, provided both visual and flavorful contrast to the creamy, umami-rich sauce. I almost regretted not ordering a plate for myself, at least until I had a bite of my own main course…

Portobello Roast is a tried-and-true classic vegan dish, but they’ve really done it justice at its namesake restaurant. Fanned out artfully atop a round of sun-dried tomato polenta and cashew-creamed greens, the mushroom itself was perfectly tender, retaining a satisfying bite and bold savory flavor. Unchallenging, uncomplicated, it was probably the safest bet on the menu, but even such a modest gamble payed off. After a long day of turbulent travel, it suited my uneasy stomach just right.

Another day, another dining destination. Portland is full to bursting with gourmet vegan picks, so how is one to choose the best meals within the span of just a few days? Well, a generous dinner invitation certainly helps. Accompanied by some high-powered vegan luminaries and bloggers, our group made quick work of just about the entire menu at Blossoming Lotus. Dining with friends means sampling more dishes, so we definitely covered a lot of ground, but on the downside, I don’t remember what everything was. The above drink was not mine, has been removed from the online menu, and I have no idea what it was. Darn. Nice eye candy though, right?

One of my favorite dishes arrived early on in the meal: The Artichoke Fritters, deceptively simple little snacks, were perfectly crisp and crunchy on the outside, with just the right amount of salt. Paired with a creamy lemon-caper dressing, even the leftover crumbs of coating were inhaled after a quick dip.

Despite the riot of dishes that arrived all at once, I was immediately drawn to the Chickpea Curry*. Though a bit hot and heavy for a late spring day, the cold weather made it an instant hit, soothing bites of sweet potato mingling with the beans in a lightly coconut-spiked stew. Gloriously green kale on top lightened it significantly, while the perfectly caramelized cauliflower balanced at the top of the heap effortlessly stole the show. If we hadn’t been sharing plates, I would have licked this one clean.

*Not it’s real name, since I once again neglected to take notes at the time and can’t find it on the menu now. This might just put me in the running for worst food blogger of the year.

My last hurrah, the final meal in Portland, was a decision made at the last minute, largely due to proximity and a rapidly rising hunger level. Located just a few steps away from our hotel, Veggie Grill turned out to be the sleeper hit of the trip. In fact, my mom was so taken with the concept that she began plotting out the best space for the next outpost to open up back at home. Her pick was the Crispy Chickn’ Plate, a comforting platter heaped high with steamed kale, mashed potatoes with gravy, and the aforementioned breaded cutlet. This is the kind of food that anyone can enjoy, hearty yet healthy at the same time.

My meal of Papa’s Portabello (Kale Style) with Side Salad was decidedly less photogenic, but exactly what what my cravings demanded. Piled so high with caramelized onions and pesto that the mushroom itself was obscured from view, the combination was entirely addictive. Though I took so long chatting with friends that helpful servers tried to clear away my dish twice, I guarded it jealously until every last bite was gone. The single clove of roasted garlic crowning the stack was a surprise treat- Paired with the naturally sweet caramelized onion, the combination was out of this world.

Although that barely scratches the surface of all the vegan delights that Portland has to offer, or that I was able to taste in such a short amount of time, it’s just a sampling of a few truly memorable meals. Besides, even this brief glance over the dining options must beat a single photo of a spiderweb, right? For more mouth-watering photos, check out my Portland, Oregon 2013 set on Flickr, with more pictures to be added as I find time to sift through them.


52 Comments

A Whole Latte Love

It was a risky move, alright. Introducing a new vegan creamer on top of your existing vegan creamer doesn’t strike me as the most sound business plan, but So Delicious boldly dropped their new “Barista-Style” coffee whitener a few months ago, undeterred. Reportedly better for steaming and frothing to create more authentic lattes, I had to admit, I was curious. Given the opportunity to check them out for myself, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Now, I’m no barista. I bought myself a charming refurbished espresso machine about 10 years ago with ambitions of learning its steamy ways. Shamefully, it hasn’t seen the light of day since. This job calls for professional purveyors of caffeine. Marching down to Port Coffeehouse with creamer in hand, this would be the ultimate test. Clearly, they must get their fair share of crazy customers, because Jerry kindly tolerated my crazy request, even allowing multiple lattes to get that perfect picture:

It was a thing of beauty, topped with a classic fern design etched into the thick crema. One sip and I was hooked- An avowed black coffee drinker all my life, I finally understood the hype behind the latte. Far from being just a fluffy dessert-like drink, this cuppa was rich, comforting, and strangely satisfying. The Original Barista-Style Creamer is completely unsweetened, which suited my tastes perfectly. Not a hint of coconut flavor made it into the mug, so there was nothing to distract from the deep, roasted flavor of the beans. For those with a sugar craving, the Vanilla Barista-Style Creamer does bear a balanced hint of sweetness, along with a subtle vanilla essence. An excellent addition to specialty coffee drinks, or just the morning cup of Joe, I can understand why So Delicious took the unconventional route of adding a second dairy-free creamer to their lineup.

Lucky for you, I happen to have two freebie coupons for any So Delicious product, and I would love to spread the coconut love around. If you’re interested in trying their new creamers, tell me about what kind of drink (or anything else, if you’re feeling creative) you would make with it, and if you’re planning on snapping up something else (Ice cream? Yogurt?) tell me about it! Be sure to leave a comment with you name and a valid email address in the appropriate boxes before May 20th at midnight EST. I’ll update this post and email the winners shortly thereafter.

UPDATE: That’s all folks! The entry period is over and the random number generator has spoken.

Our winner today is commenter number 50: Amy Tong! Congratulations Amy, you’ll be hearing from me shortly. To everyone else, keep your eyes peeled for more opportunities to snag a freebie or two, since there are more giveaways to come…


18 Comments

Puff Piece

When Earth Balance, a company once known only for producing vegan buttery spreads, announced that it was expanding its product line into the unlikely realm of snack food, it was impossible not to be curious. How would expertise in spreadable condiments (and now non-dairy milks) translate to munchable morsels? Hunting down these new offerings has been hit and miss, so I’m thankful that company representatives kindly stepped in and sent me a complete collection.

What really caught my attention and appetite were the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Puffs. Above all else, this sounded like (and later proved to be) a snack worth seeking out. To my knowledge the only other vegan puffs on the market are Tings, which don’t compare to this new cheesy doodle. While Tings taste like nutritional yeast, the Earth Balance Puffs, taste like… Wait for it… Cheese! Yes indeed, subtle nutty, tangy, savory, and funky notes combine to create something startlingly delicious, and undeniably cheesy. Though they may look like large, furry cashews, their flavor is enough to prompt proclamations of “I can’t believe it’s vegan!” from eaters young and old. Bearing a much denser, more substantial crunch than the classic doodle, they’re more filling than the averaged puffed junk food, but it’s still dangerously effortless to plow through an entire bag in one sitting. Just the right amount of salt keeps you reaching for one more, and as a bonus, there will be no tell-tale dayglow orange “cheez” fingers afterward.

After such a positive initial experience, I was clamoring to tear into the next bag in the set: Vegan Buttery Flavor Popcorn. First impressions were not as positive, as opening the bag released a plume of artificial “butter” scent. Off-putting and chemical in nature, it could be compared generously to Molly McButter. Mercifully, that aroma doesn’t carry through to the flavor. The crisp, fresh kernels are in stark contrast to traditional movie theater popcorn, typically a greasy lard bucket with a bit of popcorn on the side. No slick fingers here, but a distinctly buttery flavor can be found throughout. Applied with finesse, it doesn’t beat you over the head with “BUTTER!”, and bears the perfect hit of salt on each tender kernel. I should never have doubted that Earth Balance, forefathers of all things buttery and vegan, would nail this flavor with ease.

As for the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Popcorn, just imagine that same crisp, corny base coated in the previously described cheesy powder. The harmonious blend produces my favorite snack of them all, which I would consider the ultimate movie munch. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t enjoy this, and if it were possible, I wouldn’t want to meet them.

Finally, taking a sharp departure from the previous light and fluffy nibbles, P.B. Popps stands out from the crowd in both flavor and appearance. Described as “popcorn cuddled in peanut butter and a bustle of oats,” I’m not sure my own tasting notes can really compare to that statement. Employing round mushroom kernels as opposed to the butterfly popcorn kernels in the previous savory offerings, each dense sphere is a veritable peanut butter bomb. The somewhat soft, creamy exterior gives way to a solid crunch, with whole roasted peanuts and oats intermingling throughout. Reminiscent of decadent granola clusters, the popcorn loses its characteristic corny flavor underneath the heavy coating, acting more as a vehicle for the sweet and salty nut butter. Peanut butter lovers will surely adore the stuff, but I’m not quite sure it has a place in my own snack food lineup.

While the buttery and peanut-y popcorn offerings are perfectly worthy of a midday snack attack, it’s the cheese flavors that mark a big leap forward for vegankind. It’s a brave new world out there, and the food is only getting better (and cheesier.)

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