BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Matzo, Matzo Man

Sundown on Monday, April 14 marks the beginning of Passover, a week devoted to celebrating spring, remembering the past, and eating cardboard instead of delicious grains, whole or otherwise processed. Needless to say, it’s that last part that really gets to me, as matzo has never been my favorite food in the world. Perhaps they would come in handy as mulch or filler for the litter box, but unadorned sheets of the unleavened bread hold little if any culinary value in my eyes. Thankfully, immense improvements in flavor can be made with just a little bit of work, and I’ve had the opportunity to photograph and give Nava Atlas’s truly tasty suggestions a test drive well in advance of the holiday. Proving the power of a well-written recipe, there are now matzo-based dishes that I can claim to genuinely enjoy!

A show-stopper for any Passover meal, this Spinach, Leek, and Potato Matzo Gratin is an impressive but surprisingly simple dish to pull together. It sounds like a humble side dish but eats like a hearty lasagna, which makes it an incredibly versatile addition to any festive menu.

Matzo toffee is a classic treat that always shows up on our seder table, but for an even quicker fix, Nava’s Chocolate Matzo Brittle takes all the boiling sugar and candy making out of the equation. Straight-up chocolate-covered matzo with any sweet toppings your heart desires, it’s perfect for keeping cravings at bay. Sliced almonds with espresso salt are a top pick around here, but it’s hard to go wrong no matter what goodies you choose.

And let’s not forget the indispensable classic, the Jewish staple known around the world: Matzo Ball Soup. This recipe is the only vegan rendition I have yet to encounter that not only yields consistently cohesive, plump dumplings, but also tastes just as good as my memories suggest. It’s the kind of dish that could make me willingly break out the matzo any time of year, which should really say it all.


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Wild About Greens

Mothers who once championed the old dictum of “eat your veggies” now have a new refrain to the familiar song: “Eat your greens.” Having risen from the periphery of American grocery stores, once literally lining the deli cases as nothing more than colorful, long-lasting garnishes, kale has paved the way right back into the kitchen for all manner of leafy edibles. Finally, after decades of neglect, those oft-forgotten flowerless bouquets are finally welcome house guests, and there’s more than just romaine and spinach going into summer salad bowls. Still, the trend is only in its infancy, and after so many voluminous raw hodgepodges of discordant ingredients, what can really be done with these overgrown lawn clippings? And moreover, how can we prevent them from tasting as such?

Riding the crest of this wave is Nava Atlas, who brings us Wild About Greens exactly in our hour of need. Introducing a whole palate of varied greens to even the most inexperienced of cooks with a gentle, warm, and inviting tone, Nava will take your hand and guide you from the grocery store to the dinner table, and all spaces in between. Doling out equal parts reassurance and enlightening information, this book is definitely geared towards the greenest of beginners, but provides inspiring flavors to get anyone out of a produce rut. Such a depth and breath of different edible plants are covered, there’s likely to be something new for anyone to try. You may claim to be a kale expert, but how often do you cook with beet greens? What about watercress? Have you ever tried mizuna in your green smoothie?

In a comfortingly familiar cloak of tomatoes and herbs, the Italian Vegetable Ragout with Chard (page 126) would make an excellent introduction for those less enthusiastic about incorporating more greenery into their diets. Adding in the optional chickpeas turns this hearty side into a perfectly satisfying one-pot meal. Enlivened with a pinch of red pepper, the interplay between tomatoes that are both roasted and sweetly sundried is so flawlessly balanced, it’s hard to believe the whole dish came together in mere minutes.

Curry, another common, endlessly accommodating staple in my diet, gets new life with the simple addition of pungent mustard greens and tender spinach. Coconut Cauliflower Curry with Mustard Greens and Spinach (page 186) blends mild spices and coconut milk to create a rich, golden elixir of a stew. Safely falling into a child-friendly heat level, it’s an excellent meal to make for a family, and ramp up the hotter spices on individual servings, to taste. Mustard greens are a newer ingredient to me, and while I would rather eat grass clippings than a couple of its raw leaves, this creamy yet still light sauce can excuse a whole host of flavor flaws- Proof positive that it only takes the right cooking method to make even the most maligned greens easy to swallow.

The salad section is of course abundant with suggestions, and now that the heat of summer has come to stay for the season, those are very enticing pages to explore. Breaking out of my own personal food taboos, I fearlessly took Nava’s lead and combined fruits with savory vegetables (gasp!) and ate watercress raw for the first time, emboldened by the Sumptuous Spring Greens Salad (page 156). It seems silly to rave about a salad, but this one deserves all the praise. Much more thoughtful than just odds and ends tossed together, the combination of sweet yet tart green apples softens the bitter bite of radicchio and peppery flair from the radishes. Creamy avocado brings texture contrast to the party, a welcome reprieve from the crisp and crunch all around. It’s a kick-starter that makes one wonder, “why didn’t I try this before?” Simple even for a side, yes, but every bit as noteworthy as an elaborate main.

Thrilled to have any excuse to pull out my oft forgotten juicer, the section on beverages provides the confidence I frequently lack when it comes to combining greens with sweeter fruits. The Spinach and Lettuce Refresher (page 206) is, as promised, very refreshing indeed! An excellent beginner’s green juice, it’s mild, not at all bitter, and lightly sweet thanks to the addition of apples; no need to add the optional agave at all. Slightly tangy thanks to lemon juice, this beverage may just become the new lemonade around here.

The beauty of the recipes showcased in Wild About Greens is that they’re built to take on whatever you throw at them. Want to swap collards for kale? Go for it! Nava provides plenty of substitution advice, but the versatility of each preparation goes beyond that. It would take a concerted effort to ruin any of these recipes; go ahead and change the veggies, add beans, take away herbs, do your worst! Wild About Greens succeeds in removing the fear of failure from cooking with new ingredients, and can plant the seed for entirely new recipe ideas. It truly has never been easier to eat green.

It would be a downright shame not to spread these delicious ideas further afield, so I’m thrilled that the publisher has so kindly offered to share an additional copy for one lucky reader to win! If you’re looking to get more greens into your diet, tell me about your current favorite leafy ingredient, and how you like to prepare it. Links and recipes are encouraged but not necessary! The basic requirements, as per usual, are names and valid email addresses in the appropriate boxes. Please, only one comment per person, and be sure to speak up before Midnight EST on June 27th. I’ll contact the winner shortly thereafter, so keep an eye to your inbox.

UPDATE: The winner, chosen by the fair and just random number generator is…

The lucky commenter behind entry #7, 3littlebrds! Get ready to load up on the leafy greens, because you’re gonna want to put them to use right away!


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Vegan Holiday Kitchen

Cooking for a crowd can be daunting even for the seasoned pro, especially when there are specific holiday traditions to uphold. Bound by expectations of great feasts, in addition to the dietary restrictions of every last guest, how is one supposed to plan a festive vegan meal when times of celebration come about? Before demurring and declaring it a potluck affair, do yourself a favor and pick up Nava Atlas‘ new cookbook, Vegan Holiday Kitchen. Encompassing occasions from numerous religions and all throughout the year, it’s sure to guide you out of many sticky situations in any season. Trouble coming up with a hearty main dish for unenthusiastic omnivores, who still think that vegans subsist on lawn clippings and twigs? Or maybe you’re already preaching to the choir, but have trouble with menu planning? Whatever the case, Nava’s got you covered. Attractively photographed by the talented Susan Voisin, the pages sparkle with delicious inspiration and appetite-awakening ideas.

Gravitating first towards the more wintry fare, I can see how the Hearty Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie (page 98) could become the talk of a Christmas party. A mercifully healthy respite from the heavy, rich foods synonymous with the season, the incredibly savory flavor carries this dish far. Opting to make individual servings since I wasn’t actually hosting a great number of guests, and wanting to easily freeze and defrost portions at will, the conversion was painless. Lots of mashed potatoes were leftover after topping my personal pies, although I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. Next time around, I might skip the breadcrumbs at the bottom which didn’t really add much to the dish. (Edit: Nava has explained to me that the breadcrumbs are meant to make slicing and serving a whole shepherd’s pie neater and easier, which is actually pretty clever. So, definitely keep them for a complete, family-style dish, but feel free to omit them for single servings like I made.) Otherwise, it was all you could ask for from a main dish meant to impress- Highly satisfying, well-balanced with both protein and greens, and deeply flavored with umami mushrooms, soy sauce, and aromatic herbs.

Seeking a more complete sample of the recipes on offer, and wanting a simple side to whip together without much fuss, the Pasta and Red Quinoa Salad (page 236) caught my eye early on. Red quinoa eluded me at the grocery store, but the regular old white variety was a fine stand-in. Bright, fresh flavors highlighted by the creamy yet tangy dressing make this disarmingly easy salad irresistible. A delightful combination of textures, between the tender quinoa, al dente pasta (I went with adorable mini bow ties), and crisp veggies, it would be an excellent option for a spring or summer gathering. Of course, you needn’t wait that long- I enjoyed it just fine even in the freezing days of December.

All the previous success was nothing, however, compared to what I believe is the crowning jewel of this collection: The Matzoh Ball Soup (page 115). A simple but surprisingly difficult staple that both bubbies and their babies adore, it’s one dish that I’ve been missing since becoming vegan. Passover would come and go, and I could only look longingly at those pillowy spheres floating in golden broth being devoured. Previous attempts had been spectacular failures, ranging from cannon ball dumplings to magically dissolving and disappearing matzo balls, so I was pretty much convinced that I would never eat anything nearly as good as the original.

Well, I think you know where this is all going by now. I want to state, for the record, that these are the best damn matzoh balls ever. No, perhaps they’re not “fluffy” in the truest sense of the word, but they’re so ethereally light, the simple soup, so perfectly rich and comforting, that the first spoonful brought me right back to my childhood. This is what I had been missing, and will never again go without. For this recipe alone, the cookbook is worth its sticker price, and then some. (The key to absolute soup perfection, by the way, is a truly delicious no-chicken broth, so don’t skimp!)

I’m typically not one to host lavish dinner parties, but the Holiday Vegan Kitchen may slowly convince me to change my tune.

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