BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Thai It, You’ll Like It

Despite growing up so close to the hustle and bustle of New York City, I spent the majority of my formative years in the safety of small towns. These modest, insular neighborhoods are the perfect place to foster a care-free childhood, complete with tight-knit communities, safe neighborhoods, and sleepy streets that go quiet at 9 PM, even on a Saturday. Many cherished memories were made around the babbling brook a short walk from my home, collecting the Queen Anne’s lace that grew in abundance on either side of the stream. Although I’d consider myself more of a city slicker these days, I wouldn’t change those early years for the world. There’s no better place to develop a sense of identity, since there are fewer distractions or outside forces telling you what to be. What small towns are not so great for is cultivating a finely tuned palate. For the first dozen years of my life, I can easily count the number of world cuisines that had passed my lips on just one hand. Oh, but wait, do hot dogs count as a particular national specialty of any sort? Shamefully, my final count could end up being far less.

Thai food was entirely foreign to me, in every sense, pretty much right up until the prior year. It’s not the most rare or exotic culinary find, as globalism has brought so many worldly edibles closer to home than ever, but solid examples of these flavors had eluded me in sleepy coastal Connecticut. Only when I went to Hawaii did I find the immersive experience that I was craving. The landscape is ripe with stellar, dare I say, authentic offerings from just about every part of the world, with particularly strong offerings from Asian countries. It was there that I found Opal Thai, and my hunger for the cuisine has never been greater.

Nothing that I could fabricate at home would reach anywhere near those gustatory heights, but hunger drives one to gamble a bit in the kitchen. Som Tum, otherwise known as green papaya salad, is easily my favorite way to begin a meal. Served chilled, the tender yet crisp strands of unripe papaya are cooling, yet still popping with bursts of heat from abundant flecks of chili peppers. Brightly acidic, tangy, and slightly salty, with just a touch of sweetness to take the edge off, every component must be in perfect balance to achieve a successful, harmonious dish. The most challenging part of the composition is preparing vegan fish sauce, but once you make up a single batch of the funky stuff, it will last in your fridge for ages, facilitating almost instant salad satisfaction.

Of course, the key ingredient, green papaya, eluded me in my limited hometown grocery stores, which is why I took a page from the ever-popular zucchini noodles that proliferate as summer brings an abundance of the green squashes. They don’t stay crisp as long as papaya, so just make sure you leave them undressed until the minute you’re ready to serve. It may not be the genuine article, but it transports me to a delicious new world of flavor with every single bite.

Thai-Style Zucchini Ribbon Salad (Based on Som Tum)

1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar, or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
3 – 4 Ounces (A Big Handful) Skinny Green Beans, Lightly Blanched
2 Medium Zucchini, Spiralized or Julienned
1/2 Cup Halved Grape or Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 – 1 Red Thai Chile, Thinly Sliced
Handful Skinny Chives or Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Tablespoons Roasted and Salted Peanuts, Coarsely Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly, so prep all of your vegetables first and you’ll zip right through the rest of the preparation. For the dressing, whisk together the lime juice, coconut sugar, vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It will seem like a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, that’s exactly what you want! This isn’t like a traditional salad dressing; it should soak into the noodles a bit, and you will have a bit of a pool at the bottom when it’s in proper proportion.

In a medium bowl, place the green beans, zucchini ribbons, and tomatoes. Pour the dressing on top and toss to coat. Add in the chili, just a little bit at a time, until it’s spicy enough for your personal tastes. Give it one more good toss to mix everything around and evenly distribute the ingredients before transferring everything to a serving dish. Top with a generous handful of sliced chives and chopped peanuts.

Don’t waste time chit-chatting; Eat immediately!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Not-So-Southern Biscuits

Biscuits remain something of an edible enigma to me, defying definition; as elusive as the fleeting aroma released from the oven as they spring forth, from raw dough to fluffy golden cakes. Growing up far from the southern border, I can’t claim any “authenticity” in my own attempts at biscuit fabrication, but there’s no way I’d let a lack of experience stop me from treading forth into such savory waters. I may not know exactly when to serve them, what to top them with, or how to pair them with your average meal, but if I have to build my entire menu around this simple side dish, so be it. Through trial and a whole lot of error, I’ve found my perfectly nontraditional biscuit formula that’s worth all the fuss.

Crisp, with a crackling amber-brown crust on the outside, but tender and soft on the inside, these coarse little breads bear far more flavor than your average wheat flour rolls. A harmonious marriage of cornbread and scone, these particular quick breads burst with the summery essence of corn, all bundled into a tidy handheld package. Enriched with the exotic taste of coconut milk, there’s a certain depth and buttery flavor to the crumb that no stick of congealed dairy products could ever hope to impart. They may have been inspired by the typical cream biscuit construction, hailing from the northernmost reaches of the country in Maine, but the end results transcend all boundaries. Something about the bright corn flavor makes me think of summer and backyard cookouts, although they would make just as fetching accompaniments to a cozy winter stew.

There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy these unconventional biscuits- The only key is that you enjoy them as soon as you can. Hot out of the oven, still steaming when you split them in half, and with a modest pat of buttery spread melting into every nook and cranny, the experience is of pure, freshly baked bliss.

Cornbread Coconut Biscuits

1 1/3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2/3 Cup Medium-Grind Yellow Cornmeal
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Coarsely Ground Black Pepper
6 Tablespoons Vegan Margarine, Chilled
1 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk, Plus More to Finish

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with either a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt, and pepper until thoroughly blended. Cut the cold margarine into 1/2-inch pieces before tossing them in as well, mixing to coat with the dry goods. Use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut the margarine in, stirring and mashing so that you achieve a coarse, crumbly consistency. You don’t want the margarine to become completely incorporated, but there should be no pieces remaining that are any larger than petite peas.

Shake the coconut milk well before opening to ensure that it’s properly mixed. Pour it into the bowl and stir with a wide spatula, just until the mixture comes together. Never mind an errant lump or two; they’ll bake out just fine!

Once you have a slightly shaggy, sticky dough, transfer it to a well-floured surface and pat it into a rough rectangle about 1-inch thick. Take a very sharp knife and cut it in half lengthwise, and then into either thirds or fourths crosswise, depending on how large you want your biscuits. This will result in 6 or 8 neat little squares. Gently transfer the cut biscuits to your prepared sheet pan, reshaping slightly if necessary, and brush the tops lightly with additional coconut milk to promote browning.

Bake for 18 – 22 minutes until golden brown all over. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before digging in. To save the biscuits for later, let cool completely and store in an air-tight container at room temperature. The finished biscuits will keep for up to 4 days.

Makes 6 – 8 Biscuits

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A Quiet Comfort

The overstuffed bus limps along, laboring through rush hour congestion, pausing to catch its breath at almost every street corner. It groans and wheezes as passengers filter out, the crowds gradually thinning as the street numbers increase, moving farther away from the bustle of downtown. Finally, finally, after an hour of holding my breath to squeeze in between the seasoned commuters, I finally stumble down the short staircase and roll out down the steep hill ahead. Darkness hasn’t yet settled in, but it looms ever closer, tugging insistently at the edges of overcast sky. Despite the howling wind, the pair of keys rattling in loose grasp is the only sound I can hear, so focused on getting in the door, getting back “home,” and just being able to unwind.

These are only my first days of school, on campus again for the first time in over five years, and they’ve already taken a lot of out me. In such moments of utter exhaustion, creative cooking is the last thing on my mind, but a girl’s still gotta eat. Working to extract the maximum amount of flavor out of a minimum of ingredients and time, a new sort of “comfort food” emerges, and this seemingly bare carrot soup is one shining example. If you have carrots, you can have soup. Thanks to my friends over at So Delicious, I had the opportunity to try out their new aseptic Culinary Coconut Milk, which is every bit as handy and shelf-stable as the canned variety, but a more environmentally friendly package.

The results are nothing mind-blowing or particularly innovative, but a quiet sort of comfort food that just seems to fit the occasion. Sometimes that’s all we need, right?

Spicy Carrot Soup
Adapted from Bon Apetit

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Pound Carrots, Peeled and Chopped
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cups Water
11-Ounce Aseptic Carton or 14-Ounce Can Full Fat Coconut Milk
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, To Taste
1 – 2 Tablespoons Sriracha
Fresh Parsley, for Garnish (Optional)

Heat the oil in a medium pot over moderate heat. Add carrots and onion and saute until the onions are lightly browned and aromatic. Pour in the water and coconut milk, bringing the mixture to a boil before reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are fork-tender; about 25 – 30 minutes.

Use an immersion blender or traditional standing blender to thoroughly puree the soup until entirely smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and sriracha to taste, thinning with additional water if necessary.

To serve, top bowlfuls with a final drizzle of sriracha for an extra kick of spice, plus fresh parsley leaves if desired.

The soup can be made up to a week in advance when stored in an airtight container.

Makes About 4 Servings

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Dollars to Doughnuts

Name any day of the year, and I’ll tell you what food the calendar advises us to celebrate. National food holidays have become more of a joke than ever, despite never having serious credentials or origins of real significance in the first place. Every food council wants to get their edibles on the map, from soup to nuts- Literally. Celebrating these obscure occasions used to be a fun diversion, a bit of trivia to share and an excuse to eat something different, but now it’s just too difficult to keep up. However, there’s still one event that I’ve been celebrating since junior high, marking the date every time I put a blank calendar on the wall: National Doughnut Day. The first Friday of every June has been designated as a time to indulge in these sweet fried rings or spheres, and not just because the United Fried Snack Cake Board of America* said so. No sir, this holiday goes back to the late 1930’s, when the Salvation Army began giving out free doughnuts to soldiers who served in the war. There’s real history behind this joyous, delicious affair.

*Totally fictitious organization, but someone really ought to consider establishing this, don’t you think?

Happily, everyone can join in on the fried festivities now, war veteran or not. Although there are quite a few shops giving away free oily goods to mark the day, you can do so much better by turning to your own kitchen rather the drive through for doughnut satisfaction. A fear of frying puts many cooks off, but with a simple recipe and a healthy dose of caution, you’ll be rolling in hot, crispy doughnuts, fresher and tastier than anything else on the market. Cake-based doughnut holes fit the criteria beautifully: There’s no yeast that needs to awaken or dough to rise, no fussy shaping or cutting to speak of. You can just mix and fry at a moment’s notice.

One of the greatest benefits of fabricating your own fried treats is the freedom to flavor them in any way your heart desires. Chocolate is always a winning pick, one that I couldn’t resist for this particular celebration. Do you really think I would choose just plain chocolate doughnut holes, though? Clearly you don’t know me very well…

Hidden inside of each tender sphere is a gooey, sticky marshmallow, turning these average munchkins into one-of-a-kind hot chocolate doughnuts, inspired by mugs of hot cocoa topped with a crown of mini mallows melting on top. The crisp, sugar-coated exterior gives way to the most moist chocolate cake you could hope to taste, the marshmallow in the center adding equal parts indulgence and nostalgia. To further the “hot” part of the theme, cinnamon sugar or even a spicy, cayenne-flecked sugar could provide the finishing touch, but a simple, straightforward sweetness was exactly what I was craving.

Hot Chocolate Doughnut Holes

20 – 30 Vegan Mini Marshmallows
1 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1/3 Cup Natural Cocoa Powder
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil

To Finish:

1 Quart Neutral Oil, for Frying
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar

Before getting started on the batter, place your marshmallows in a single layer on a plate or small sheet pan and stash them in the freezer. They must be frozen solidly before going into the hot oil or else they’ll melt away completely! Allow at least 30 minutes before using your icy mallows.

The batter comes together very quickly, so first begin by pouring the neutral oil into a medium pot with high sides over set over medium heat on the stove.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl, stirring to combine. Separately mix the non-dairy milk, vinegar, and olive oil before pouring the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry. Stir just until the batter comes together with no remaining pockets of dry goods. The mixture should be somewhat on the wet side and definitely sticky, but manageable when handled lightly. Scoop out heaping tablespoons of the batter and stuff a single frozen marshmallow into the center of each. Use lightly moistened hands to shape the dough around the mallow, rounding the raw doughnut out into a rough ball and making sure that the marshmallow is fully sealed inside. Handle them gently, since the dough is very soft.

When the oil hits 360 – 370 degrees, carefully lower 3 – 5 doughnut holes at a time into the pot. Cook for 4 – 5 minutes, turning the doughnuts as needed to ensure even frying all over. The best way to tell if they’re done is to watch and listen to the oil; at first, it will fizzle up madly and seem to almost hiss, but by the time the doughnuts are finished, the surface of the oil should be much calmer, and you will hear more of a pinging sound.

Use a spider strainer or slotted spoon to lift the doughnut holes out of the oil and drain them on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining doughnuts. Let them cool for at least 15 minutes before rolling in the additional granulated sugar, and serve as soon as possible. Doughnuts don’t get better with age, and I wouldn’t recommend keeping them beyond a day. Luckily, with doughnut holes this good, I don’t think you’ll have any problem with leftovers!

Makes 20 – 30 Doughnut Holes

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Drowned in Cacao

Considering the thrilling news about my book and the rising temperatures outside, it’s no surprise that ice cream has been on my mind lately. Starting off the season on a high note with one of my personal favorites, an affogato is the perfect transitional dessert for a lingering spring with a few sudden heat waves thrown into the mix.

Classically prepared with vanilla ice cream, the frosty scoops are unceremoniously drowned in steaming hot espresso, mingling for those few fleeting seconds to create a sensation that vacillates between hot and cold, cold and hot, and finally hot once more. It’s the kind of dessert that you can’t get wrapped “to go” at a restaurant, that you can’t get prepackaged; it must be enjoyed immediately, but above all else, thoroughly. Perhaps I love it so much because it really forces you to be in the moment, rather than mindlessly munching on stray cake crumbs or a few leftover cookies. It’s more of an experience than dish, when you get right down to it.

Of course, I’m hardly the sort to do anything traditional when it comes to food, so my flavors vary as wildly as the weather. The only constant has been that strong, dark shot of espresso poured on top… Until I discovered there was such a thing as chocolate tea. Pacha provided me with the opportunity to sample their cacao infusions, providing the inspiration for my inverse affogato. Instead of pouring espresso on top, why not freeze it as the ice cream instead? Steeped for twice as long and at double-strength, the chocolatey brew marries harmoniously with the creamy coffee ice cream, giving life to a new mocha flavor, as delicate as it is complex.

If the world is not black and white, why should all affogato remain merely vanilla and espresso?

Inverse Affogato

Espresso Ice Cream:

1 Can (1 3/4 Cup) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Instant Espresso Powder or 1 Tablespoon Instant Coffee Powder
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
1/4 Cup Kahlua or Coffee Liqueur

To Serve:

Strong Brewed Cacao Tea, Hot

To make the ice cream, simply toss all of the ingredients except for the liqueur into a medium saucepan and whisk thoroughly. Make sure you break up any clumps before turning on the heat to medium. Whisk periodically until the mixture comes to a boil. Cook at a full boil for 2 additional minutes, and then remove the pan from the burner. Add in the liqueur last, stirring to incorporate. Let cool to room temperature and then chill thoroughly for at least 3 hours before churning in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Once churned, transfer the fresh, soft ice cream into an air-tight container and stash it your freezer for at least 3 hours before serving.

To serve your affogato, simply scoop the ice cream into a heat-safe dish and pour as much of the hot cacao tea on top as desired. Eat immediately!

Makes About 1 – 1 1/2 Pints Ice Cream

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Big Fish in a Small Pond

If we can all agree that 2013 was the year of the coconut, then I do hereby declare 2014 the year of the vegan fish. Perhaps the trend isn’t quite so widespread or pronounced- You’re not about to find mock seafood woven into everything from granola bars to non-dairy beverages, thank goodness- but it’s a distinct and growing section of the innovative food industry. While the demand for cruelty-free alternatives has grown to a deafening roar over the past decade, meatless offerings never included any oceanic facsimiles. It was the last frontier of veganism, but no more.

I first became aware of Atlantic Natural Foods and their Vegetarian Fishless Tuna back in the cold days of winter, and thanks to my snail’s pace of turning out a review, they have since updated their branding. It now falls under their Caroline’s line, bearing a shiny new label, but the product itself remains the same. Soy-based and packed in a tin can just like the “real” thing, it’s the only fishless canned tuna on the market. Gone are the days of Tuno, but anyone who misses the stuff should be thrilled; Caroline’s is a clear improvement.

That said, for anyone unaccustomed to fishy flavors, steel yourself as you pop the lid for the first time. The pungent aroma hits you right away, and unfortunately, it’s not exactly an enticing one. Smelling quite a bit like cat food, it doesn’t look too much better, either. In all fairness though, real canned tuna has always grossed me out, even when I was an avid fish-eater. Appearing to be little more than TVP in water at first blush, a flaky yet substantial, satisfying texture reveals itself at first bite, imitating the grain of cooked tuna surprisingly well. Leading with an unmistakable oceanic flavor, only a slight soy aftertaste gives away its true origins. Though first impressions may not be stellar, it’s pretty darned close to canned tuna, as far as I can recall, and I found myself quickly warming to the unique taste. Best of all, it’s not just a starchy copycat like many of the existing konjaku-based faux-seafoods, but has some real protein to speak of, making it a sound nutritional choice all told.

Though I would venture to guess that 95% of buyers will inevitably turn their fishless tuna into good old fashioned tuna salad, I wanted to go with a lighter, cleaner presentation to really highlight the mock meat. Composing a platter of tuna nicoise salad was a real treat, since it took almost no effort for a huge flavor payoff. Chickpeas tossed with a touch of sulfuric black salt took the place of hard boiled eggs, and the tuna itself needed only a light dressing of olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, and a handful of sliced scallions to really sing. I couldn’t get enough of this veggie-packed plate, devouring the entire thing in record time.

What I truly yearn for when it comes to seafood, though, is Japanese food. Considering that fish really makes up the foundation of this cuisine, the potential for even a canned alternative is nearly limitless. Sushi would have been the obvious (albeit undoubtedly delicious) route, so I instead opted to make a delightfully briny, somewhat salty furikake topping out of my remaining fishless fixings. Serving to both extend this rare ingredient while also extending its shelf life, you really get the most bang for your buck when it can be used over the course of countless meals. Plain old sushi rice comes to life with just a light sprinkle of this simple condiment, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to topping potential. Think of the salads, french fries, popcorn, and noodles that could all benefit from a little extra umami. As long as you don’t include it as an option at your next ice cream social, I’d say all the rest is fair game.

Fishless Furikake

1/2 Cup Very Thoroughly Drained Vegan Tuna
2 Teaspoons Tamari
1 Teaspoon Mirin
1 Teaspoon Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Toasted White Sesame Seeds
2 Tablespoons Toasted Black Sesame Seeds
1 Sheet Toasted Nori

Preheat your oven to 225 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Simply toss the “tuna” with the tamari, mirin, and oil to thoroughly coat. Spread it out into one thin, even layer on your prepared baking sheet and slide it into the oven. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes, until darkened in color, reduced in size, and dry to the touch. They may not feel crispy just yet, but they will continue to dry as they cool.

Cool the fishless tuna flakes completely before combining them with both types of sesame seeds. Use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the sheet of nori into inch-long strips. Stack the strips on top of each other and then cut them into very thin ribbons, just a few millimeters wide. Add the nori into the mixture, stir well, and store in an air-tight container at room temperature. The furikake will keep for at least a month, possibly longer- I couldn’t save any long enough to find out!

Makes About 1 Scant Cup

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Pea-Brained

To say that I’ve been feeling a bit scattered lately would be putting it lightly. Silly little oversights have punctuated the last couple of days, spicing up the mundane routine with strange surprises sprinkled here and there. Dirty dishes some how find their way back into cupboards, unwashed; recipe components are completed, and then forgotten until the meal is fully devoured; days seep through my fingers like water, obliterating a once rigid posting schedule. Nothing to be alarmed about, but it’s clear that running on autopilot is not serving my needs particularly well lately. “Pea-brained” would describe the situation quite nicely, and not just because of my increasingly dimwitted mistakes. Spring is on my mind, driving me to the point of distraction. Longer, brighter days captivate me while simultaneously throwing off my finely tuned rhythm, and the influx of fresh, vibrant produce easily overwhelms my senses. What to eat first? Where to go, what to do? Every winter seems interminable, so when it finally relinquishes its icy grip, it feels like a brand new world out there.

The best cure for seasonal disorientation is immersion, so let’s jump right in and celebrate the other reason for my pea-brained state: Peas! In all their green glory, this simple salad combines snow peas, pea shoots, and English peas to showcase their myriad textures, flavors, and shapes. The rather silly, rhyming title doesn’t fully do this combination justice, but was unavoidable thanks to the matcha tea-infused dressing, lending equal parts bitterness and sweetness to the blend.

In case you’re suffering from an equally pea-brained daze, a heaping helping of this bright, fresh homage to the humble pea might just be the antidote.

Three Pea Tea Salad

6 Ounces Snow Peas, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal
4 Ounces Pea Shoots
8 Ounces Raw English Peas

Green Tea Dressing:

2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Tablespoon Yellow Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Fresh Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1/2 Teaspoon Matcha Powder
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

I think you can already see how this one should come together, but in case you need someone to hold your hand, here’s the rundown: Toss the sliced snow peas, pea shoots, and English peas together in a large bowl. Separately whisk together all of the ingredients for the green tea dressing, beating the mixture thoroughly until smooth. Pour it all over the vegetables, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately!

Makes 3 – 4 Side Dish-Sized Servings

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