BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Fiddler on the Plate

Wild edibles can be elusive creatures; hiding where you least expect them, and absent where they aught to be found. A hunt worth pursuing, it just takes a bit more effort to get dinner on the table if foraging is involved. Luckily, here in New England, the forests are ripe with fiddlehead ferns, and I was determined to find them. Hundreds of ferns spring up every year in my own backyard, but alas, they’re not the tasty sort that you’d want to consume. Clearly, it was time to search farther afield, as there was no chance I would miss out on these short-lived seasonal specialties for yet another year. An epic journey ensued, or a wild goose chase, depending on who you ask, with over 50 miles traveled. Out into the vast, untamed natural beauty of… Whole Foods in New York City.

Yes, I know, I’ve lost all “foodie” cred for admitting that, but I just couldn’t find those suckers anywhere. Not by poking through the swamps or shopping in any local markets- There’s good reason I always miss out on fiddlehead ferns every spring. Still, this was the next best thing to foraging in the great outdoors, and the bounty still ended up being free. Our gracious cashier didn’t know how to price them, readily admitted this problem, and handed over the goods free of charge. Gotta love that kind of luck.

Most important to any dish utilizing these delicate wild vegetables is to keep it simple, and allow those ferns to shine. Taking inspiration from their coiled shape, I thought of shrimp scampi, minus the seafood of course. Though it’s hardly a revolutionary recipe, it was a delightfully fast, satisfying dish, which would pair beautifully with just about any protein accompaniment, be it bean or wheat. Garlicky strands of noodles intertwined with the stars of the show, brightened by a hit of lemon and fresh herbs, it simply screams “spring!” Fiddlehead ferns do have a sadly short window of availability, so don’t wait; go and “forage” some for yourself, before it’s too late!

Fiddlehead Scampi

1/2 Pound Fiddlehead Ferns
1/2 Pound Angel Hair, Spaghetti, or Linguini
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1 Shallot, Finely Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons Mirin (or White Wine plus 1 Teaspoon Agave)
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
3 – 4 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Chopped
1/8 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
Salt, to Taste
Zest of 1 Lemon

First, prep your fiddleheads by removing any particularly long ends and remaining papery “scales.” Wash well, particularly if you did find them yourself out in the wild. Cook in boiling water for a full 10 minutes, drain thoroughly, and immediately plunge them into a bath of ice water to arrest the cooking process. Once thoroughly chilled, drain once more and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package, and drain well. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil to prevent the strands from sticking, and set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat the remaining oil and toss in the prepped shallot and garlic. Saute over medium heat for about 5 – 7 minutes, until softened and lightly browned. Add in the mirin and lemon juice, simmering for about 2 minutes to allow the alcohol to cook and mellow a bit. Add in the cooked noodles and fiddleheads, tossing to incorporate with the sauce, along with the parsley, cayenne, and salt. Cook for 1 – 3 more minutes until piping hot, and finally top with the lemon zest.

Serves 3 – 4 as a Side

Printable Recipe


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Heart Beets

Unromantic and full of teenage angst, I’ve hated Valentine’s Day with a passion for the better part of my “adult” life. Back in middle school, while all the other kids were still crafting cute cards to share amongst friends, I went home and embroidered the words “Love Bites” in sparkly seed beads on a black t-shirt. Paired with inky-black dyed hair and baggy pants approximately eight sizes too large for my frame, it was the perfect ensemble that said Don’t even think about talking to me today. I was simply charming as a child.

Though still fairly bitter about the rampant commercialism inherent in most Valentine’s Day celebrations, forced sentimentalism, and being single in general, I’ve warmed considerably to the concept since then. Instead of writing it off as a couples-only event, it’s become more about appreciating the people I care about most in my life, be it my mom, my dad, my dog, or what have you. Sure, there’s a good bit of love shared everyday so a holiday needn’t be necessary, but isn’t it nice to have a legitimate excuse to spoil these wonderful people more than normal? That’s my new understanding of Valentine’s Day.

The perfect V-Day dinner isn’t full of supposed aphrodisiacs or drenched in fine wine; It’s all about the care that goes into preparation. Pierogi, a delight that rarely if ever graces our table, sounded like the ideal dish. More involved than your average weeknight meal, shaping each individual potato pillow must be created with great attention to detail. If that sort of dedication doesn’t say “I love you and I want to feed you very well tonight,” then I don’t know what does.

A casual affair through and through, it’s the gesture that speaks louder than words. You don’t need to make your pierogi shaped like fussy hearts (although you certainly could) because it says enough that you would make them from scratch. Better yet, these are no average pierogi…

Made to match the occasion, they’re stuffed with an alluring pink filling of red beets and mashed potato! That savory, earthy flavor paired with the lightly herbaceous wrapping is simply irresistible, especially when pan-fried and paired with a smidgen of vegan “sour cream” on the side. Of course, you could go the healthier route and boil them more like ravioli, but come on, live a little- Treat your loved ones to a truly special meal!

Blushing Beet Pierogi

Herbed Pierogi Dough:

2 3/4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Dried Parsley
1 1/2 Teaspoons Dried Dill Weed
1 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 Cup Plain Greek-Style Vegan Yogurt or Vegan “Sour Cream”
1/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

Beet and Potato Filling:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/3 Cup Sauerkraut, Drained
1/2 Pound Peeled, Cooked and Cubed Yukon Gold Potatoes
1/2 Pound Peeled, Cooked and Finely Chopped Red Beets
1/4 Cup Plain Greek-Style Vegan Yogurt or Vegan “Sour Cream”
Salt and Pepper to Taste

To Cook (Optional):

3 – 4 Tablespoons Margarine or Coconut Oil

Prepare the dough by combining the flour, dried herbs, and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.  Separately, mix together the vegan yogurt, water, and oil before pouring these wet ingredients in as well.  Stir thoroughly until the mixture comes together into a cohesive dough, and then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead by hand for 5 – 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes so the gluten can relax, which will allow it to roll out more easily. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet, and add in the diced onion when hot.  Saute for 5 – 8 minutes on medium heat, until softened and beginning to brown around the edges.  Add the sauerkraut, and cook for just 1 or 2 more minutes.  Turn off the heat, and combine the contents of your skillet with the cooked potatoes, beets, and “yogurt” in a medium bowl. Mash together until creamy but still good and chunky, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before assembling your pierogi.

NOTE: You can prepare both components up to this point up to one day in advance. Just wrap the dough up tightly, stash the filling in an air-tight container, and store both in the fridge.

Roll out your dough as thinly as possible, pausing to allow it to rest if it continues to spring back and resist rolling thinner. Cut it out into equal circles with a 3-inch round cookie cutter. Re-roll scraps and repeat.

Place 1 – 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each circle, paint a dab of water around the edge, and seal into half-moon shapes. Crimp the outer edges with a fork to secure.

NOTE: You can again pause here and freeze the pierogi for up to a month. Just line them up on a baking sheet so that none are touching, and let them chill down in the freezer until solid. Transfer to a zip-lock bag or an air-tight container, label clearly, and fit them back into the freezer until you’re ready to enjoy. Don’t defrost; cook them as you normally would, but allow a few extra minutes.

To cook, slide them in a large pot of salted, simmering water for 5 – 9 minutes (up to 15 minutes if frozen), or until they float. Cook only 12 at a time so that you don’t crowd the pot. Remove gently with a slotted spoon. Serve, or for the more indulgent option, pan-fry them in the optional margarine or coconut oil until each side is golden brown; about 5 – 8 minutes. Enjoy with someone (or many someones) that you love!

Makes 30 – 40 Pierogi

Printable Recipe


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Pumped for Pumpkin Season

Throughout all of the seasonal upheaval, one thing that cooks and connoisseur both look forward to with a certain child-like glee is the return of the pumpkin. Like clockwork, the blogosphere will be inundated with pumpkin soups, pumpkin cakes, and pumpkin smoothies and in no time at all, the sting of losing summer will begin to fade. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. For the past couple of years though, mother nature has thwarted this comfortable transition, finding new ways to wipe out the current crop of pumpkins and create mass panic amongst foodies everywhere. This year it’s the devastation of hurricane Irene that’s driving shoppers to wipe grocery store shelves of canned pumpkin clean, stock piling for the inevitable shortage – Mostly caused by other people stuffing their pantries as well, rather than any actual scarcity.

Very reluctantly using one of my last remaining and so very precious cans of the orange squash puree, I set out to ease the pain of entering into full fledged autumn and create something special. Pumpkin ravioli, each delicate envelope of thin pasta packed with savory, slightly cheesy pumpkin goodness, sounded like the perfect option. The good news and bad news is that the pumpkin element ended up being pushed out of the spotlight, upstaged by the unassuming supporting actor; the sauce. Yes, it was all about the sauce.

A simple “cream” sauce enriched with chopped mushrooms for that extra umami umph, it’s a versatile accompaniment that wears many hats. Pairing beautifully with all sorts of autumnal dishes, you could also pour a generous dollop over fluffy, homemade biscuits and call it gravy, and it takes on that extra role without missing a beat. It may not be particularly innovative, but with so much seasonal upheaval, sometimes classic comfort food really is best.

So the ravioli were a bit disappointing, but by no means bad. The good news in this situation is that since the pumpkin didn’t stand out, you could seamlessly substitute pureed butternut squash, sweet potato, parsnips, or pretty much any slightly sweet winter squash or root vegetable. Just mix 1 cup of puree with 1/4 cup of vegan parmesan, plus a pinch of salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and stuff about 1 – 2 teaspoons between two wonton wrappers, dabbing the edges with water to seal. Simmer the ravioli very gently for just 2 – 3 minutes, until the wontons are al dente. Toss with mushroom creme sauce, and forget all about that awful pumpkin shortage.

Mushroom Creme Sauce/Gravy

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
16 Ounces Cremini or Button Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
2 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/4 Cup Vegan Parmesan
2 Tablespoons Chickpea Flour
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Set a large skillet with high sides or a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Allow the oil to get nice and hot before adding in the onion, and sauteeing it for 8 – 10 minutes so that it softens and begins to barely take on color. Add in the minced garlic along with the chopped mushrooms, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 5 – 6 minutes. The mushrooms should reduce significantly in size.

Separately, whisk together the “milk” of your choosing, thyme, “parmesan,” and chickpea flour until smooth. Pour this mixture into the skillet or saucepan, and stir well. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan frequently to ensure that nothing burns. Cook for another 6 – 8 minutes, or until the liquid thickens and bubbles begin to break on the surface. Turn off the heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve while hot!

Makes Enough for 3 – 4 Servings of Ravioli

Printable Recipe


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Reunited and It Tastes So Good!

Nine years is a long time to go without a childhood favorite. Comfort food that evokes the warmest, coziest memories, even if it did come out of a blue box and was composed of more chemicals than you might find in the average chemistry set. Something about that simple amalgamation of noodles and cheese-product sauce managed to reach the farthest corners of my young brain, imprinting a deep appreciation for the day-glow orange noodles. Sure, I’ve since had numerous non-dairy renditions, some even quite good and worthy of recommendation, but none were quite right. Some unidentifiable piece of the puzzle remained lost, that “perfect” mac and cheese just beyond my reach.

Every vegan and their mother and best friend has a unique formula for creating their ideal mac, so it was one of those things I simply didn’t pursue. There were enough recipes that came close enough; why keep picking on something so close?

But then, there was the mac that changed everything. Assigned by VegNews to shoot their signature macaroni and cheese, as formulated by Allison Samson of Allison’s Gourmet, it was admittedly the first time I had ever made or eaten an oven-baked casserole version of the classic dish. That first bite was just short of transcendent- And even more so if you consider that fact that the original recipe included absolutely no nutritional yeast. A potato-based sauce, standing in for rich, cheesy-creamy-goodness? You bet.

And thus, my macaroni quest began.

Drawn back to my memories of simple stove-top mac, my first adaptation was to lose the casserole dish and bread crumbs. Feel free to add both back into the equation, as I was definitely impressed by how much those crispy edges added to the mix; it’s merely a matter of personal preference.

Naturally, I couldn’t keep away from the nooch, what with it’s delicious umami notes and undeniably “cheesy” essence.

Rich, but not unctuous or artery-clogging, this is perhaps as close to perfection as I’ve tasted in nine years or more. Creamy, very saucy (who hasn’t wished those boxes made about twice as much sauce?), bright but natural orange in hue, this is the mac I’ve been craving all along. That long awaited reunion tasted even better than I had hoped!

Vegan Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from Allison River Samson’s VegNews Macaroni and Cheese

1 Cup Peeled and Diced Yukon Gold Potatoes
1/4 Cup Shredded or Finely Diced Carrot
1/2 Cup Chopped Yellow Onion
1 Clove Garlic, Thinly Sliced
1 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Raw Cashews
1/4 Cup Nutritional Yeast
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/8 Teaspoon Tumeric (Optional, for Color)
3/4 – 1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Neutral-Flavored Oil, Such as Canola or Rice Bran

1 Pound Pasta, Cooked*

*I’m rather fond of tiny spirals or twists here, but elbows are more traditional. Any shape you’ve got, other than long spaghetti, pretty much works though.

Place the cut potatoes, carrots, onion, and garlic in a small sauce pan, and pour in the water. Set over medium heat on the stove, and bring to a boil. Once the water reaches a vigorous boil, cover the pot, turn down the heat to medium-low, and let simmer for 15 minutes, until the potatoes are extremely tender.

Meanwhile, prep the other ingredients to speed things along. Place the cashews, nutritional yeast, salt, mustard, lemon juice, paprika, and tumeric (if using) in your blender. A high-speed blender is recommended for the best results, but you can also use an ordinary machine as long as you have patience. Give these ingredients a light pulse just to begin breaking down the cashews slightly.

When the vegetables on the stove are fully cooked and ready, pour them into your blender along with all of the cooking water. Add in 3/4 cup of the non-dairy milk, and turn on the blender to its highest setting. Thoroughly puree the mixture, until completely smooth and lump-free. If you’re using a blender that isn’t so hearty, this could take 6 – 10 minutes. With the motor still running, slowly drizzle in the oil, to allow it to properly emulsify. Check the consistency; if you like your sauce a bit thinner blend in the remaining 1/4 of non-dairy milk.

Pour the sauce over your cooked noodles, and serve immediately.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Viewed Through a Different Lensi

Whether it officially came from China or Italy, there is one thing that absolutely everyone can agree on: Pasta is delicious, in all of its various forms. I have yet to meet a single person who flat out did not like pasta, any sort of pasta, or couldn’t be won over with a few persuasive dinners. Should such a person actually exist out there who refuses to be swayed, I simply don’t want to know them. Satisfyingly toothsome, uncomplicated, laughably easy to prepare, and an ideal blank canvas for every sauce, vegetable, and protein conceivable; what’s not to like? Even the cheapest, mass-produced noodles are happily incorporated into richly sauced dishes without protest. As I stirred $.80/pound pastina into a vat of minestrone one evening, I thus had to ask myself, Is there any merit in seeking out a higher standard in pasta production?

The answer is resolutely “Yes!” Although Pasta Lensi took the pain out of the experiment by providing two bags for trial, I know for sure that this will change my pasta purchasing habits. Touted as “authentic Italian pasta,” Pasta Lensi comes in 16 shapes, some familiar and some novel, each made of simply durum wheat semolina and water. In a food so simple, you can really taste the purity of the ingredients, and these noodles truly allow the golden, slightly toasted and vaguely nutty flavor of wheat to shine though. Instead of being just a bland base, these unique noodles actually have flavor- Imagine that! And like any real food stuffs, these even have expiration dates printed on the bags, which I have never seen on the usual blue boxes that land in my shopping cart.

As soon as I lay eyes on the Gigli, I knew it was destined to support a hearty, full-bodied stew of a dish. Considering the open bottle of red wine in the fridge, it didn’t take long for me glom on to the idea of a mushroom and seitan bourguignon. That incredibly rich, decadent stew is worthy of a post in itself, but for now, I was fixed on how the pasta would hold up. Needless to say, there needn’t have been any doubt in my mind, as the unique shape was perfectly suited to hold that sauce and complement the “meat” of the matter. A seriously satisfying bite, the varied thickness added interest and texture like I hadn’t expected, lending a pleasant density and heft overall.

It wasn’t long before the Trottole made it’s aspirations clear, and I could hear it crying out for a creamy white sauce, much like the traditional spirals in macaroni and cheese. Keeping it simpler and less cheesy, I went for a quick herbed bechamel sauce with broccoli, which was happily held between the springy twists. Who needs cheese, real of faux, when you can make such a luscious sauce out of merely soymilk? For something so potentially pedestrian, it was truly the pasta here that elevated the dish to something worth of dinner party status.

Though fancy shapes may not always be in the budget, it is clear that higher quality basics will always be worth the price, and Pasta Lensi will be at the top of my “splurge” list.

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