BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Beyond Meat; Beyond Expectations

Decades of stigma and misunderstanding are finally giving way to a more tolerant, open-minded approach to the murky waters of “fake meat.” Even NPR has taken note that more omnivores are willingly eschewing meat in favor of vegan alternatives these days. Though I’d like to believe that this shift can be attributed to a better understanding of factory farms and generally being able to access greater compassion to our feathered, furry, and scaled friends, I know that it all boils down to one thing at the end of the day: Taste. Innovations in the field have brought forth tastier creations than ever before, and suddenly, meat alternatives have become a painless way to eat healthier, without sacrificing flavor. Whatever the reason, convincing those outside of the vegan and vegetarian community to eat more cruelty-free foods can only be a good thing for everyone involved. Since my own approach to cooking puts flavor first, I’ve benefited greatly from the latest and greatest plant-based proteins, too.

A real game-changer in the industry is Beyond Meat, a company that’s made headlines numerous times for winning over Bittman, garnering support from Twitter’s Biz Stone, and unnerving longtime vegetarians for their similarity to actual poultry products. Serving up only chicken-style alternatives, this stuff is the real deal, at least as far as “fake” meat goes.

Right from my first encounter, it was abundantly clear that Beyond Meat was in a category all its own, creating an entirely different protein experience than one would find in traditional meatless mains, such as tofu, tempeh, or seitan. For one, it smells crazily, disturbingly, genuinely like cooked chicken. Even though I haven’t eaten meat in years now, I’m still exposed to those preparing and consuming it, and that previously inimitable scent really threw me through a loop. Firm but easily yielding to the tooth, the texture is where it really shines. Far from the rubbery, chewy, or latex-y consistency of previous faux meat options, the strips shred in a very authentic way, mimicking the grain of cooked chicken. Though this may put off staunch vegans who don’t miss the experience of eating meat one bit, it’s a big selling point for everyone else.

Lightly Seasoned is like a blank canvas; borderline bland, like plain roasted or broiled chicken breast. Ideal for soaking up any sauce or marinade, there are no competing or off flavors that would giveaway the soy base. Lean, non-fatty (“skinless”), the pieces are reminiscent of a light, white meat sort of taste. This was perfect for fulfilling my longtime craving for a bowlful of soothing chicken soup with rice. Tenderizing in the hot broth and soaking in the deeply savory bouillon, it was so unbelievably meaty, I wouldn’t have trusted its vegan label if I hadn’t prepared it myself.

Grilled is very similar to the prior option, now sporting attractive black grill marks that only a practiced hand would be able to achieve at home. Subtly smoky, woodsy, and bearing a charred essence on a lightly peppered backdrop, the hassle of pulling out your own grill is taken out of the picture. Sturdy enough to stay firmly in place on skewers, I was delighted to turn my seared strips into yakitori, a savory delight that hasn’t passed my lips in nearly a decade now. Too simple to consider as a true recipe, all you need is a batch of sauce to dip the “chicken” into, which goes something like this:

1/4 Cup Mirin
1/4 Cup Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Grated Fresh Ginger
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot

Vigorously whisk all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, breaking up any clumps of starch should they form. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes up to a full boil. Remove from the heat and enjoy immediately.

Finally, Southwestern spices up Beyond Meat’s offerings with a chipotle and lime-spiked base. Defined by a gentle but discernible kick, the subtle burn grows with each successive bite. By the end of the meal, you may very well find your lips tingling, and not in an unpleasant way. Unfortunately, this heat doesn’t add much in the way of nuanced flavor, and overpowers the inherently chicken-like flavor that one might be craving from such a product. Though perfectly tasty, it strikes me as a waste to cover up the masterfully crafted taste of this unique protein base. I probably wouldn’t buy it again, simply because a sough a purer “chicken” experience, but it was undeniably delicious in a layered chicken taco salad. Composed of pico de gallo, shredded romaine, sliced olives, tortilla strips, and of course, Southwestern chicken-free strips chopped into cubes all packed into glass jars, this meal became an ideal impromptu picnic.

A radical departure from the crunchy-granola “hippy” foods of only a decade or two ago, Beyond Meat is making meatless living more possible for those who may not have even considered the option before. Anyone even moderately curious about trying another protein alternative would be doing themselves a disservice not to check these chicken-less strips out- I have yet to hear any negative feedback, from professional food reviewers and my own omnivorous dinner mates alike.


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Stuffed; Never Stuffy

A good recipe is never fully finished, even if it’s tested, printed, and published. Rather than static pieces of history, indelible for generations to come, the most trustworthy formulas still evolve as they change hands. An overabundance of new recipes and effortless access to them through the internet has sadly degraded their value, but each recipe should be considered a living thing, needing care and attention, not to mention an occasional grooming.

One mere flicker of an idea is all it takes to start the wheels rolling, and in my case where the process often stalls. Idea overflow is a common, but happy problem to deal with, so flavor combinations or concepts are initially filed away into little text documents, sprinkled across two hard drives. If they survive long enough to be found again, and still resonate, only then do they have a fighting chance of being born. Thus, cleaning up the bulging recipe depository on a slow day, I came across the seeds for a promising recipe that just barely escaped oblivion. Tucked away in the dark for half a decade, it seemed that they might never be planted.

Quinoa
Peppers
Red Color
Spicy!

= Quinoa Diablo

A cryptic reminder that only I would understand, the tiny spark that could start a bonfire, this one wasn’t about to get away again.

Fleshing out the concept with black beans, roasted red peppers, and red beets for that vibrant hue, it began to grow, turning into the smoky, spicy, and brilliantly ruby red side dish I knew it could be. Though it can easily steal the spotlight on any dinner plate as is, the idea just didn’t seem complete yet. It still had more evolving to do.

When large, brawny beefsteak tomatoes went on sale the next day, I knew I had my answer. This quinoa pilaf was meant to be stuffing all along! After excavating the cores, those cooked pearly grains slipped right in; a perfect fit. Tucked in by a light, cobwebby blanket of shredded “mozzarella,” a kiss of heat from the oven finally brought everything together.

Tomatoes splitting down the seams but still holding strong, they were tender enough to cut with a fork. Quality, burstingly ripe tomatoes are what make all the difference here.

Though my itch to “finish” the recipe is satisfied at long last, I know that it’s no where near done yet… I can only wonder, what spin will the next hungry cook put on it?

Quinoa Diablo Stuffed Tomatoes

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/8 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Light Agave Nectar

2 Cups Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Cup Dry Quinoa
1 Medium Red Beet, Peeled and Diced
1/3 Cup Sundried Tomatoes, Julienned
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Chili Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
1 15-Ounce Can Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained
2 Medium Roasted Red Peppers (1 12-Ounce Jar,) Diced
Handful Fresh Basil, Chiffonaded

To Assemble (Optional):

4 – 6 Large Beefsteak Tomatoes
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Shredded Vegan Cheese

First, caramelize onions by heating up the oil in a medium saucepan along with the chopped onion. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with agave. Keep the heat on medium-low, and stir periodically, until the onions become golden brown and aromatic. Be patient; this could take as long as 30 – 40 minutes, but adds the rich, flavorful backbone to the whole dish.

Meanwhile, heat the stock or water in a separate medium or large saucepan over medium heat. When boiling, add in the quinoa, red beet, dried tomatoes, vinegar, and spices. Turn down the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the beans and roasted peppers. When the onions are properly caramelized, mix them into the quinoa as well. Sprinkle with basil and add more salt to taste, if necessary. You could stop here and serve immediately while still hot, or…

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Use a sharp paring knife to remove the core from each tomato, and then dig out the watery seeds and guts with a grapefruit spoon. Turn the hollowed-out tomatoes upside down over a wire rack while you work on the rest, allowing any remaining liquid to drain out.

Place the empty tomatoes on your prepared baking sheet, evenly spaced, and fill them to the top with the quinoa mixture. Pack it in lightly so that it there are no voids inside and all of the tomatoes bake evenly. Sprinkle your vegan cheese of choice over the tops, and bake for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are fork-tender, the skins are splitting, and the cheese has melted.

Top with additional fresh basil and enjoy!

Serves 4 – 6 as main; 8 – 12 as side

Printable Recipe


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Beyond Tricks and Treats

Come November 1st, a nationwide tummy ache is pretty much the norm, stomachs still riotous with the undue stress of containing more Halloween candy than is advisable to eat in even two or three sittings. Something about the festivities just gets under the skin, the holiday itself being a grand excuse to go crazy and overdo the sugar. Common sense be damned, it’s the same pattern every year, from young to young at heart feeling the aftereffects of this particularly sweet evening. Awareness of such consequences still does little to dissuade me from indulging perhaps more than is advisable, but it does make me keenly aware of everything else fueling me that day. Without a solid foundation of whole grains and protein beforehand, the inevitable sugar crash would be a very ugly scene indeed.

That doesn’t mean those healthier options must be austere and dull, though! Black and orange to match the “traditional” colors of Halloween, this dish is a touch spicy too, enhanced with a slightly devilish addition of paprika and red pepper flakes. Toothsome wild rice makes it a stellar sort of pilaf, but it can also be an easy, no-muss main dish as well, thanks to the protein-packed black beans.

Even if you do plan on loading up on the sweet stuff, as I do, start the day out right with something a bit healthier first. There’s no need for the candy hangover the following morning!

Halloween Rice

2 Cups Uncooked Wild Rice

3 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1 Small Yellow Onion, Chopped
3 Large Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Black Mustard Seeds
1/2 – 1 Small Chili Pepper, Finely Minced, or 1/4 – 3/4 Teaspoon Dried Red Pepper Flakes
1/2 Teaspoon Hot Paprika
4 Ounces (About 4 Large) Cremini or Button Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Mirin
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 1/2 Pounds Peeled and Diced Sweet Potatoes (About 3 Cups)
1 14-Ounce Can (1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained
1/2 Teaspoon Salt, or to Taste

The most time-consuming part of this recipe is simply cooking the rice, so it’s best to get that out of the way early. Heat about 2 quarts of water in a medium-sized stock pot, and bring to a boil. Add the wild rice, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer at a brisk bubble for 45 – 60 minutes, until the grains are beginning to split and are tender enough to eat. Now, just like pasta, drain out the excess water, and set side the cooked rice. The rice can be made a day or two in advance, as long as it’s stored in an air-tight container in the fridge.

In the same stock pot (or one larger) melt the coconut oil and coat the bottom of the pot with it before tossing in the chopped onion. Saute over medium heat until softened and translucent; about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until everything is starting to take on an amber hue around the edges. Stir in the mustard seeds, pepper or pepper flakes, paprika, and chopped mushrooms, stirring frequently and cooking for an additional 3 – 5 minutes, until the mushroom has reduced in size and the spices are aromatic.

To prevent burning, quickly add in the stock, mirin, and vinegar, stir well, and follow with the chunks of sweet potato. The liquid won’t completely cover everything, so don’t panic. Turn down the heat to a steady simmer, cover loosely with the lid, and keep stirring the mixture every few minutes, until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender. This could take anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes, so be patient. The excess liquid should be mostly if not completely evaporated by now.

Mix in the cooked wild rice, cook over low heat for a few minutes to re-warm, and season with salt to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 8 – 12 as a Side; 4 – 6 as a Main

Printable Recipe

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