BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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.


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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…


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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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Build a Better Bread

Passover week, of all times, is probably not the best time to share a few thoughts about bread, and yet I can’t stop my mind from drifting back to a few noteworthy loaves. Amid a sea of matzo, it makes perfect sense to find myself craving that yeast-risen crumb with a vengeance. Should anyone else find themselves struggling with similarly tempting thoughts, forgive me, for I am about to make that urge much harder to resist.

One Degree Organics talks a big game about sustainability, transparency, and of course, producing real food with real benefits. Unlike so many other companies where the words amount to merely talk, these principles are clearly visible in every step of the process. Their commitment to making a positive impact is admirable, but the most important contribution they make is one of good taste.

Offering a total of four varieties of bread, they each have incredible character completely unique to the unconventional grains and legumes employed. Legumes? Why yes, the Lentil Grain loaf is a prime example of just that, seamlessly blending red lentils into the soft yet sturdy slices. The resulting nutritional boost makes it incredibly satisfying, keeping me full much longer than the average bread. Better yet, the flavor is deep, complex, evocative of toasted wheat even when eaten cold. Delicious in its own right, it would be an easy way to slip lentils into the diet of a fussy eater; I would have never known if not for the label.

Utterly delicious!, the very first of my tasting notes so helpfully reads. Needless to say, the Sesame Sunflower bread made a positive impression immediately upon the initial bite. Toothsome, sprinkled with impeccably fresh sunflower seeds, nutty sesame flavor sings harmony all throughout the even crumb. A stronger yeast flavor compliments the more assertive additions. Every bite is just a little bit different, adding excitement to what might be otherwise unremarkable meals.

For those craving a more traditional wheat profile, the Ancient Whole Wheat loaf is the way to go. Bearing a subtle sweetness thanks to the invisible addition of raisins, it’s a remarkably well-balanced bread, wholesome and hearty but still soft, undeniably easy to eat. An excellent all-purpose loaf, it seems to play nicely with just about everything. The mellow wheat flavor pairs beautifully with all manner of sandwich fillings or toppings both sweet and savory.

As if it could really get any better, I saved my favorite for last. By my estimation, the Flax & Spelt would be the lovechild of hearty whole wheat and and wild seeded loaves, sharing only the best characteristics of each. A close cousin to the wheat we know today, spelt bears the same familiar flavor, but this particular yeasted permutation is dotted liberally with an abundance of flax seeds. Small but mighty, these square slices are denser than the rest, yielding a sturdy chew and springy texture all at once.

No matter which slice from One Degree Organics you choose, the only way you could go wrong is to serve it up during Passover. I know I’m counting the days, if not the hours, until the toaster can roar back to life…


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Day of Celebration

Nothing motivates quite like a hard deadline, and this one certainly lit a fire underneath me. Kajitsu, temple of shojin cuisine in NYC, had been on my radar for years, but always seemed just outside of reach, despite its easy accessibility. Offering a set menu that changes each month, your only choices are between four courses or eight, with prices that match the painstakingly crafted edibles on offer. There just never seemed a proper occasion or reason to visit, never enough justification to drop that kind of cash on the experience of a single meal. As it turns out, the reason is presented right in the name: Kajitsu, translated as “fine day,” or “day of celebration,” says it all. In other words, treat y’o self, because today is just as worthy of celebration as any other.

When it came to light that the restaurant was closing up shop and moving to a new location, that was the catalyst for finally dropping by. Sure, it was due to reopen only a few weeks later in the heart of Manhattan, but I wanted the full, original experience. Moreover, I wanted an excuse, and this was as good as any.

Seated at the chef’s counter, we were privy to some of the fine details to go into composing these plates, but without seeing any of the real hustle and bustle in the kitchen. To call the atmosphere “meditative” is an understatement; there is no music, no loud chatter. Overhead lights focus directly on the food, which is the only place your attention is desired to fall. Distractions are at a minimum, right down to the tableware. Everything has a place and a purpose, including the attentive waitstaff, never missing a beat.

After the shorter kaze menu was chosen and our fate effectively sealed, the performance began.

Real, sharp, pungent wasabi grated mere seconds before hitting the plate took me by surprise. It was nothing like the colored horseradish found in most other eateries, but that was only an accent flavor to the Sashimi Style King Oyster Mushroom. Served chilled, the slippery slices of mushroom were paired with a savory sauce, a perfect compliment to the natural umami found within. Another delicious surprise came by way of the pickled celery, delightfully tender and yet crunchy all at once. That’s the sort of condiment I would buy by the jarful if only they would package it.

Daikon Soup may not sound like much on paper, but the surprisingly thick broth, enriched with a light asparagus puree, perfectly hit the spot. Concealed by a thin sheet of simmered daikon, a single piece of wheat gluten shaped like an ume blossom stood out in brilliant pink, a playful addition that lightened the serious mood. It would be a stretch to describe a bowl of soup “fun,” but that little touch brought a smile to my face.

The main course ,which was named the Plum Tree Plate, was a collage of complimentary components, displayed together on one plate. Standouts include the lily bulb puree, which is something never before seen in my world, and tasted for all the world like classic, comforting mashed potatoes. Fava beans and string beans came coated in a crispy, completely grease-free shell of tempura, adding just the right degree of indulgence into the meal.

Finally, ending on a soothing note, Baby Mountain Yam Soupy Rice gave diners an opportunity to play with their food just a little bit. Soup came in a separate pitcher, to be poured over a perfectly molded square of yam-filled sushi rice. Sheets of nori practically melted upon contacting the hot broth, seamlessly adding just a hint of oceanic salinity into the mix. Though my sweet tooth still yearned for a sphere of mochi or a small matcha cookie, I found myself perfectly full and content after that last spoonful of soup.

It was a meal worth the wait, although I certainly won’t let so much time pass before my next visit. Happily, they’re due to reopen in Murray Hill by mid-March, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate the day, for any reason at all.


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Hanging with My Peeps

Come March 1st, grocery store shelves are already fully stocked with enough Easter paraphernalia to power non-stop spring fetes lasting a full month, regardless of when Easter Sunday is actually observed. For all the pastel glitter and sugar on offer, they still lack what is arguably the single most important element to a proper holiday celebration: Vegan marshmallow peeps. Peeps may have gotten a life outside of the spring season, but they will forever be inextricably linked with Easter in my mind, and vice versa. Since there was little understanding of what Easter really was in my formative years, all that in my eyes were those colorful, sugar-encrusted chicks and bunnies, staring out of their cardboard sleeves with emotionless dots for eyes.

Sweet & Sara has taken up the task of providing this essential Easter staple, easily surpassing that original standard. This isn’t the first time I’ve shared about these seasonal treats, but I’m happy to say that they’ve only improved over time. Now they too come dusted in a light coat of colored sugar, matching my fond childhood memories, but with real dark chocolate adorning each adorable shape. You won’t find them in stores any time soon, but they’re worth seeking out during this limited window of availability. Spring just wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without them.


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Slow and Steady Wins the Meal

When Beverly Lynn Bennett let it slip well over a year ago that she had a slow cooker cookbook in the works, it may or may not have had a strong influence on my biggest birthday request. Timing also played a significant role in the decision, as I scrambled to find something, anything, to populate my sparse wishlist, but it was also too enticing a concept to resist. A gadget that independently bubbled away on the counter and produced hot, comforting dishes without any further human intervention? Moreover, a kitchen gadget that I didn’t yet have? Preposterous. With a bit of help from generous parents, that gift pushed me firmly into the world of slow cooking at last.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Slow Cooking may not look like much on the shelf, but it contains a wealth of knowledge that only an expert could bring to the home kitchen. A decorated chef and author, Beverly has been in the game for decades, boasting one of the earliest vegan recipe websites to my knowledge, providing a sturdy crutch to countless new, practiced, and simply curious cruelty-free cooks. Having had the pleasure of sampling many of her creations through past photography assignments, I had a feeling that her take on the mysterious slow cooker would be worth waiting for, and I was not wrong.

Cautiously dipping my toes in the water first, I went with one of the most common uses for the contraption first: Stew. What could be better than just tossing a whole mess of ingredients into the spacious pot, setting a timer, and going about your day? Anything that does more work for me is welcome in my kitchen, so I eagerly piled in the vegetables and proteins for the Basque Potato Soup (page 88). When dinner time rolled around a few hours later, the rich, tomato-scented air was driving me mad with hunger. Packed with hearty chunks of potato and seitan chorizo, the intense flavor flew in the face of its humble, oil-free beginnings. An underlying smoky, roasted, and gently piquant flavor lurked throughout, giving the whole stew incredible depth. Though the heat grows with each successive bite, it never reaches nuclear levels, staying quite manageable no matter your spice tolerance. For such a basic soup, this one really hits all the high notes.

With one staple passing the slow cooker test with flying colors, it was time to move on into more adventurous fare. Beverly fills the pages of her book with plenty of tried-and-true preparations, ranging from chili to hot fudge sauce, but where this book really shines is in the more inventive uses for the contraption in question. Take, for example, quiche. Yes, a whole quiche cooked right in the slow cooker! Crustless Vegetable-Tofu Quiche (page 44) had my name written all over it: Mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, and of course tofu, all wrapped up in a savory brunch-worthy package. After painstakingly waiting for the quiche to cool before slicing, the texture was positively luxurious. Like a silky custard throughout, it was as creamy as a cohesive tofu dish can be. Unfortunately, the taste didn’t quite measure up to that strong start. Best described by my mom as a “mild vegetal flavor,” it was unfortunately rather bland, with a faint salty bitterness at the back of the palate. Bumping up the seasonings or swapping them out for a new set entirely would easily elevate this dish into a clear winner.

Finally, I went for a real grand finale, and pulled out one dish that had everyone exclaiming, “You made that in a slow cooker?!” Yes indeed, that Sweet Potato Streusel Coffeecake (page 250) pictured above never saw the heat of an oven, spending a solid three hours getting acquainted with my slow cooker instead. At first, it seemed like an inevitable failure. Though the recipe fails to say when the margarine should be added, I slipped it in while mashing the potatoes, still warm and readily drinking in the added fat. It was only after “baking” that I became concerned though, testing for doneness at least a dozen times over. Still, the center toed the line between a super-moist sad streak and dough wad of moist raw flour. Luckily, after serving it to a crowd, the overwhelming consensus was that rather than being a disappointment, this was in fact an asset. Perfect for anyone who loves cookie dough or slightly under-baked banana bread, it was simply a cake with a dense crumb, no disclaimers needed. A hearty wheat flavor gives this treat a more wholesome impression, but make no mistake, it’s still plenty sweet enough to pass for dessert. This is one idea that clearly needs further exploration, because guests couldn’t stop raving about that crazy concept.

Whether you’ve never touched a slow cooker before or are a seasoned pro, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Slow Cooking is sure to give you something new, and definitely delicious, to stew over.

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