BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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.


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Anything but Leftover

With about half the heaping mound still staring back at me, my enthusiasm began to flag. Fragrant, glistening vaguely in the afternoon light, it was some of the most genuinely meaty dumpling filling I had ever prepared, and yet I couldn’t muster the patience to keep stuffing it into those tiny little wrappers. The final total of “40 – 50″ is admittedly a wild estimate, a complete stab in the dark if we’re being honest, because I never made it to either of those numbers. An extra set of hands would do wonders on a recipe like this; simple but time consuming, demanding few skills but undivided attention. Giving up on the project never crossed my mind, but it became abundantly clear that there would be leftover filling.

This is not what I’d call leftovers, bearing the negative connotations of unwanted extras. Before neatly packing everything away for a later date, the next recipe was already jumping about through my synapses, the full procedure and list of ingredients unraveling itself in my brain. Perhaps we can call this concept an alternative preparation, since it’s worth making the original filling to enjoy, with or without any dumplings in mind.

Mapo tofu won’t win any beauty contests, but someone who turns down this dish based on looks is making a terrible mistake. Packing in umami flavor with ease, the soft cubes of tofu bear a spicy bite, swimming in a meaty stew of chili-spiked seitan. Naturally, my approach is far from authentic, spanning a number of Asian cultures just through the ingredients. Malaysian sambal oelek brings the heat while a spoonful of Chinese fermented black beans add their characteristic salty and savory twang. You could jump borders again and opt for a Japanese soy sauce, if you were after a genuine cultural melting pot… But it would taste just as delicious no matter what. Mapo tofu is the kind of dish that a cook would really have to try to mess up. Go ahead, experiment with sriracha instead of the sambal, dark miso paste instead of black beans; after it all simmers together and melds as one, it’s all good.

Mapo Tofu

1 1/2 Cups Seitan Dumpling Filling

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Skinny Scallions, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal, Divided
1 – 3 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
1/2 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth or Water
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
3 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Paste
2 – 3 Tablespoons Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Brown Rice Syrup or Light Brown Sugar
1 Pound Soft (But not Silken) Tofu, Drained

Prepare the ground seitan according to the dumpling recipe and set aside.

Heat the sesame oil in a medium stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the garlic and ginger once the oil is shimmering and quickly saute, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Add the prepared seitan mixture into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, whisk together the black pepper, two of the sliced scallions, the first tablespoon of sambal oelek, broth, and cornstarch. Beat out any lumps of starch so that the liquid is perfectly smooth before using it to deglaze the hot pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure nothing sticks or burns, and turn down the heat to medium-low.

Stir in the black bean past, first two tablespoons of soy sauce, and brown rice syrup. Let it cook and mingle for a minute or two before giving it a taste; add more sambal or soy sauce as desired, but as you adjust seasonings, don’t even think of reaching for the salt shaker. These are all very salty ingredients, and you’ll end up with something inedible if you don’t manage the sodium level very carefully.

Once you’re pleased with the flavors developing, cut your tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and gently lower them into the stew. Soft tofu is rather fragile, so don’t go haphazardly stirring the whole mixture and smashing them to bits. Rather, use your spatula to fold everything together.

Continue to cook until the liquid has thickened and reaches a rapid bubble. Let cool for a few minutes before topping with the remaining sliced scallions, and serve with white rice (or any other cooked grain) if desired.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Can’t Stand the Heat

Making the transition back to a summer climate, that elusive warm state that up until recently seemed to exist only in exotic locales, many miles away, has been a bit more jarring than initially anticipated. Yes, of course, I realized that it would someday register above 70 degrees outside, and yes, New England is notorious for its oppressive humidity, but somehow that all slipped my mind as I daydreamed of summer just a month or two ago. Happily glossing over those unpleasant aspects, I somehow envisioned a June and July as the two most perfect months of the year; free of bugs, hot but crisp and dry, and with gentle showers in the evenings to cool things down each night. We’re still just on the cusp of Summer, but already reality has smacked me in the face and set me straight. That ideal summer just doesn’t exist, my dear.

And just as suddenly, the kitchen is no longer the 24/7 hangout, the thought of lighting up every burner and cranking the oven as high as it will go growing less appealing by the day.  Anything that can be made in quantity, stuffed into the fridge for later, and eaten cold with no fuss has become my favorite thing on the menu.  This means lots of cold salads, primarily, but rarely the leafy, insubstantial sort one might initially envision.  I’m talking nutrient-dense, hearty chilled melanges of anything from grains, beans, nuts, tubers, pasta- Anything in the house is fair game when I’m putting together one of these powerhouse one-bowl meals.

Having pledged my allegiance to no one cuisine in particular, what often results is an odd fusion of ingredients and flavors, as this particular riot of colors and textures in a bowl may indicate. Borrowing both an Asian and Mediterranean sensibility, cooked pearl couscous and fresh veggies meet edamame, all married together beneath of light blanket of miso dressing. Refreshing and light but still filling and full of flavor, it’s the kind of salad that’s just as happy being thrown on a plate for a rushed weekday lunch, taking in the glorious AC, as it is being bundled up with care for a picnic on the beach. No matter what Summer throws at you, you’ve got to be prepared!

Mediter-Asian Couscous Salad

Sweet Miso Dressing:

1 Cup Plain, Unsweetened Soy Yogurt
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1/3 Cup White Miso Paste
3 Tablespoons Honey-Flavored Agave, or Amber Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Mirin
1 Tablespoon Tamari or Soy Sauce

Mediter-Asian Salad:

1/2 Pound (1 1/4 Cups) Israeli (Pearl) Couscous*
1 Cup Kalamata Olives, Pitted and Sliced
1 1/2 Cups Diced English Cucumber
1 Small Tomato, Diced
1/2 Cup Chopped Roasted Red Pepper
1/4 Cup Finely Diced Red Onion
1 Cup Shelled Edamame (Thawed if Frozen)
1/3 – 1/2 Cup Thinly Sliced Scallions
10 – 12 Fresh Mint Leaves, Chiffonade
1/4 Cup Toasted Pine Nuts

*For this particular rendition pictured above, I used the Harvest Grains Blend from Trader Joe’s, which simply adds some orzo pasta, quinoa, small beans and such into the mix. Pearl couscous is simply more accessible, in case you don’t have a local Trader Joe’s to raid.

First things first, whisk together all of the ingredients for the dressing in a medium-sized bowl, and set aside for the time being.

Moving on to the bulk of the salad, cook you Israeli couscous or couscous blend according to the package, drain (or if it’s meant to absorb all of the liquid while cooking, simply transfer it to a strainer) and rinse under cold water until cool to the touch. This will both help to stop the cooking and get it down to a workable temperature. Move the cooked couscous into a large bowl, and add in all of the cut veggies, edamame, and herbs. Toss lightly to evenly distribute all of the ingredients. Start by mixing in about 1/2 cup of your prepared miso dressing, mix to incorporate and coat all of the goods, and stir in an additional splash or two until it’s dressed to your liking.

If you want to make this salad in advance, mix in only the initial 1/2 cup of dressing for now, and incorporate the final addition right before serving. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the top to finish.

Store in a large, air-tight container for 3 – 4 days. Separately, the dressing will keep for 7 – 10 days.

Serves 6 – 8

Printable Recipe

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