BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate is a gift that is always in style, matches with everything you already own, and always fits. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Valentine’s Day token of choice, ranking well above the typical flowers, cards, and unintentionally tragic stuffed animals. Let’s keep it that way, and let’s keep it classy, folks. No dollar store mockolate to show your sweetheart how bad you are at planning ahead, please. Considering the explosion of high-quality options now on the market, there’s no excuse not to go the extra mile to seek out something special. Those efforts to find a truly transcendent box of cacao decadence will be repaid in full with just one bite.

Amore di Mona is part of the new wave of contemporary chocolatiers that stands apart from the rest. Committed to producing exceptional treats that can be enjoyed by all, every exquisite morsel they produce is vegan and gluten-free.

Even the gold wrapping and immaculate box of the Connoisseur Collection exudes opulence and indulgence. It’s clear from square one (no pun intended) that these are no average candies. Impeccably molded, dipped, and decorated, each piece glistens in the sunlight and snaps firmly under pressure. Seven entirely unique flavors are included in the assortment, ranging from solid chocolate hearts with various accouterments to dipped and drizzled caramels. Unsurprisingly, the chocolate itself is exceptional: Dry, smooth, intense dark chocolate, but not the least bit harsh, it’s very easy to eat without risking either palate fatigue or a sugar coma.

Finding good vegan caramels can still be challenging at best, but this box may very well end the search. Each “caramela,” as they are called, possesses a firm bite, soft chew, and subtly nutty, toasted sweet flavor. Although I must admit that I found myself craving a tiny extra pinch of salt at times, there’s really little to fault about the final execution. Favorites will only be a matter of preference, because you can do no wrong with any of the options. Pieces containing cranberries shine with tartness from the dried fruits, bitterness of the chocolate, and just the right amount of sugar to smooth out any hard edges. Meanwhile, those that incorporate whole coffee beans are predictably bold, in all the right ways; the coffee flavor never overwhelms, only delights with an extra crunchy texture.

Each morsel is a handcrafted work of edible art. Beautiful to look at, and even more enjoyable to eat. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to spoil someone you love or simply yourself, but don’t forget that chocolate is always in season.


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Blender Bender

To anyone who’s ever eyed their rapidly growing collection of kitchen equipment and shrinking counter space with dismay, there comes a point when only the most essential tools can still make the cut. A blender will always be at the top of that list, but even so, are you really making the most of it? Wonder no more, because The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters will keep you happily spinning away from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between. Tess is the unrivaled guru of all things blended, blitzed, and pureed as far as I’m concerned, which makes it all the more shameful that I’ve withheld a proper review of this book for nearly two years. Her blog is an invaluable resource for eaters of all tastes and cooks of all skill levels. She understands the zen of a spinning blade like no one else I’ve met, combining her expert knowledge with a trained palate and penchant for crafting unique recipes. I never feel as though I could do proper justice to all her skills, but instead of sitting this review for another year or worse, I hope this small sample of my experiences might inspire others to go out and try more for themselves.

When my enthusiasm for a mango sale left me with a considerable surplus, I turned to Tess for some suggestions. A smoothie would have been too obvious, too ordinary, so the Magic Mango Massage salad immediately caught my eye as an intriguing approach to managing this embarrassing excess. Though it didn’t strike me as a necessarily harmonious pairing on paper, the fruits’ naturally sour edge matches the gentle bitterness of the dark leafy greens beautifully. Light, sprightly herbal notes add freshness while the tangy, spicy dressing, tempered by the sweet mango chunks and creamy avocado, completes the picture with a flourish. Simple but so well balanced, the whole assembly is a shining example of what ordinary ingredients can do when combined in just the right proportions.

Goma Dofu, a study in subtlety and a delicacy when correctly executed, is done proper justice by this easy recipe. It ultimately comes down to only 3 main ingredients when all told: tahini, vegetable stock, and kuzu starch. Wobbling like a softly set custard, its unassuming appearance belies rich sesame flavor. Nuances of umami whisper gently throughout, leaving the lucky eater with a surprisingly rich impression. Creamy, cool, and refreshing, it would be an ideal appetizer to enjoy on a hot day.

Though the juicing trend has failed to spark my interest, to say the least, I can still fully appreciate a tall glass of vegetable juice when the mood strikes. Thus I found myself drawn to the Spicy Gazpacho Grab, which is really more of a sippable soup than a thin, unfulfilling drink. This ruby red elixir sparkles with just the right accent of spice, reminiscent of V-8, only so much brighter and bolder. Both thirst-quenching and satisfying, I would even be tempted to leave the blend slightly chunky next time around, serving just as I would for the traditional chilled tomato soup.

If The Blender Girl Cookbook doesn’t restore your blender to a place of honor in your kitchen, nothing will. Since publication, Tess hasn’t stopped dreaming up new recipes for even a minute, unleashing a full book focused on smoothies and a companion app as well, with no sign of slowing down. Rumor has it that another cookbook is in the pipeline as we speak. In the meantime though, this wealth of fool-proof formulas will keep me blending smoothly for months, if not years, to come.


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From Blog to Book

No longer is it a rare feat to see talented bloggers bridging the gap between online text and printed, published prose, but it still takes an incredible amount of determination to successfully make the leap. Considering the wealth of creativity that exists out there in the blogosphere, I can’t imagine a better place to start scouting new authors. Among all of those young hopefuls, Richa Hingle of Vegan Richa always struck me as particularly deserving, so much so that I recall pestering her many years ago about creating her own cookbook already! Pulling from a seemingly inexhaustible trove of inspiration, her recipes stood out as being both familiar, with delicious reference points that were easy to understand, while simultaneously forging a new culinary path. Buffalo Chickpea Pizza? Cauliflower Sandwich Bread? Why didn’t I think of that?

Now showcasing her unique flare for the Indian cooking that began her passion for food, Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen is a breath of fresh air on the crowded bookshelf of new cookbook releases. Humbly claiming to have no formal culinary training, this very approach is what makes Richa’s recipes so compelling. They don’t put an on airs or devolve into confusing procedures with unknown ingredients. While Indian food is still somewhat intimidating to the casual cook, Richa does wonders to demystify the complex flavors of myriad curries, easily guiding the willing reader to all new edible delights.

Kicking things off with a hearty breakfast offering, the Savory Oat Hash (Kanda Poha) on page 27 was just my speed. Oats always make an appearance at day break around here, regardless of seasons or holidays. There’s no reason why the whole grain staple needs to be plain and dull, though. Richa’s approach kicks up the classic to a whole new level; spicy, savory flavors reinvent the old fashioned oat. Textural issues can be one of the biggest pitfalls to preparing this temperamental grain, but none of that struggle was evident here. Comforting, easy to eat, but not the least bit mushy, it was an invigorating change of pace to the typical morning routine.

Seeking ways to use up a considerable stockpile of quinoa, the Potato Quinoa Patties (Aloo Tikki) on page 40 immediately leapt out as a “must make.” Employing red quinoa rather than white, the results were as visually impressive as they were crave-worthy. The spud-based batter was surprisingly easy to work with, holding together beautifully all through the process of pan frying and effortlessly developing a crisp, golden crust around the edges. An incredibly moist, tender interior lurked just beneath the surface, boasting a nuanced, harmonious blend of spices, much more complex than I would have managed solo with my default mix. Paired with a simple chickpea curry, I had myself a complete meal in no time at all. This recipe is a definite keeper, to be made again many times over.

Intrigued by the unconventional blend of curry and puff pastry, I simply couldn’t resist giving the Makhani Vegetable Pot Pie on page 132 a try. Though I feared that the filling appeared impossibly soupy at first, a terrible miscalculation of liquid additions, it thickened beautifully after cooling. For anyone with a more timid palate, or those still uneasy about exotic flavors, this should be the gateway to Indian cooking. Mild overall and subtly sweet, the melange of spices, rich coconut gravy, and fresh vegetables should make this an easy crowd-pleaser, no matter the audience. Plus, when using frozen puff pastry to crown the dish, you’d be hard-pressed to craft a quicker, more impressive meal.

Granted, perhaps you should take my words with a grain of salt, and a big pinch of cumin while you’re at it. Richa has been a dear blog buddy for longer than I can recall, and her cookbook was offered to me free of charge. Why should you take my words of praise at face value? Quite frankly, if you missed out on the opportunity to taste even a single dish from Richa’s Vegan Kitchen, you would be doing yourself, and your taste buds, a terrible disservice.


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Sharp Relief

Ask any chef about the most important tool in their arsenal, and despite constant influx of new cooking technology, their response is invariably the same: The chef’s knife. It’s not the only ingredient in a properly equipped kitchen, but without it, nothing is possible. It’s a shame then that it’s so frequently taken for granted. Used every day without a second thought, abused on hard coconut shells and allowed to grow pitifully dull, I’m just as guilty as anyone. My Global knife has served me well for years, but when I was approached by Ergo Chef with the opportunity to try a new blade, I quickly realized that even at the same price point, all knives are not created equal.

The Crimson Series, so named for the rich red fiberglass handles, boasts a truly beautiful 8-inch chef’s knife that is nothing short of a delight to hold. Living up to the promise of an ergonomic design, it feels as though it was made for my hand, comfortable enough to slice and dice for hours on end. The whole piece is incredibly well balanced too, bearing down with a solid heft without actually feeling heavy. Perhaps most importantly, that blade is sharp as a razor, effortlessly slicing through any foodstuffs in its path without any drag to speak of.

When the most mundane of tasks like chopping vegetables can become a genuine pleasure, it revolutionizes the whole cooking experience. A simple knife upgrade can do that, and this is definitely one worth investing in.


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Prepare for the Worst, Expect the Best

As the holidays grow closer by the minute, everyday meals can sometimes take a backseat to party planning. Thankfully, Nava Atlas is here to save the day, or at least the dinner, with a guest post sharing some handy tips on meal planning. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the breadth and depth of the kitchen wisdom packed into Plant Power. For more advice, and of course, more delicious recipes than a hungry eater could imagine, you simply must check out the book for yourself.

As an early holiday gift, Nava and her publishers have kindly offered a copy to give away to one lucky reader. To log your bid, all you need to do is read through these prime tips below and add your own meal planning pointers, or perhaps your favorite meal to prep in advance, in the comment section. As per usual, make sure you leave your name and email in the appropriate boxes. This giveaway is only open to those with US addresses. You have until Friday, November 28th at midnight EST to enter.

And now, without further ado, take it away, Nava!

7 Simple Meal-Planning Strategies for the Plant-Based Kitchen

Here are some of my tried-and-true meal-planning tips for making cooked-from-scratch meals a daily reality, even after the most exhausting days. You’ll find much more detail on how to accomplish all of these strategies, plus lots more of these kinds of tips in Plant Power: Transform Your Kitchen, Plate, and Life with More Than 150 Fresh and Flavorful Vegan Recipes by Nava Atlas, from which this was adapted (©2014, published by HarperOne, reprinted by permission). Photos by Hannah Kaminsky. Back when my kids were growing up and I still was in the midst of the classic juggling act, I was a lot more disciplined about meal planning. I found that it really did buy me time and sanity. For our family of four, I planned three meals per week. If I made ample quantities, I could count on leftovers for three more dinners. And leftovers can always be tweaked so that they’re slightly different the next day. For example, today’s salad can be tomorrow’s wrap; tonight’s soup-and-wrap dinner can become tomorrow’s soup-and-vegan-quesadilla dinner. What do you see as your ideal meal-making style? Decide whether you want to make different meals every night or most nights and rotate them through the season or whether you want to try the three-meals-with-leftovers strategy. If you want to be a seat-of-the-pants cook, more power to you. For that kind of spontaneity, you’ve got to have an especially well-stocked pantry and fridge as well as the imagination to look at a bunch of ingredients and envision what they can become.

  1. Plan three full meals for each week. From those meals, you can plan two nights of leftovers, which makes life easier—though this is challenging if you have hungry teens or athletes at home. Don’t think of leftovers as boring. They can be repurposed in ways that might not make it into the culinary hall of fame, but with a few tweaks they can be as tasty as the original preparation. For instance, leftover chili can become Cincinnati chili mac.
  1. Plan meals before going shopping. Planning your meals before you go food shopping will ensure that you don’t waste time, money, and energy running back and forth to the store all week. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of meal planning per week will simplify your life immeasurably, especially if you have a tight schedule, young children, or both.
  1. Plan meals after going shopping. What? Didn’t I just say to plan meals before going shopping? Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box. When farm market or CSA season is in full swing—or during the summer and fall harvest season in general—and you’re getting basket loads of fresh produce, it may be wiser to retrofit your meal plans to your fresh food finds.
  1. Prepare a few basics for the week ahead. On whatever day or evening is the most home- centered, prepare a few basics for the days ahead. Sunday afternoons and evenings are ideal as you’re looking to the coming week, but do whatever is good for your schedule. Even the simplest things can ease weeknight meal preparation immeasurably.
  1. At least once a week, prepare a big one-pot or one-pan meal. This kind of meal can stretch to cover at least two nights. Such meals include hearty soups and stews, bean dishes, abundant pastas, and casseroles. You’ll find many such recipes later on in this book. Double the quantities if you need to, especially if you have a large family. Then you need little more than salad and fresh whole-grain bread to accompany the meal.
  1. Develop a weekly repertoire. Make slight variations on your standard recipes each week so that meals don’t get boring. For example, Friday dinner has long been a pizza and salad meal, but within this basic framework, there are endless variations!
  1. Create a seasonal repertoire. An alternative to a weekly repertoire is a seasonal repertoire, consisting of ten or fifteen basic meals that you like best. These ten tasty meals— one for each weeknight for two weeks—are repeated as needed throughout the season. Weekends can bring a heavenly leftovers buffet. That doesn’t sound too daunting, right?

UPDATE: The entry period has now ended and with the help of my favorite random number generator, a winner has been chosen…

Lucky commenter number 6 happens to be Terri Cole! Congratulations Terri, and thank you so much to everyone else who shared their smart, thoughtful, and helpful meal planning tips. Stay tuned for the next big giveaway, coming up soon!


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From A to Vegan, and Beyond

The clock hasn’t yet struck noon and already the restaurant is bustling. A line has begun to stretch around the corner and out the door while waiters carefully navigate the tiny space with their apparently bottomless, steaming carafes of darkly roasted coffee. Sunday, the last precious day of the weekend, used to be a time to sleep in and take it easy, but now it’s become the end-all, be-all day for brunch. Taking in the scene from a sunny corner, I can’t help but marvel at how quickly my generation has embraced this development, right alongside another, deeper reaching culinary trend: Veganism. As if to underscore this point, vegan options are woven in right alongside the other new American fare, highlighted by bold “V’s” as if to underscore my train of thought. 10 years ago, would the word “vegan” have resonated so thoroughly with so many people? Joined by my friend and dining partner in crime, Elizabeth Castoria, I can think of no person better to contemplate this rise in veganism with.

Author of the newly released How to Be Vegan, Elizabeth has experienced the shift in perception first hand, having embarked on her own cruelty-free path at the tender age of 17. Though this shifted her interested in predictable ways in regards to animal rights and food, nothing could alter her passion for writing. After achieving her masters in fiction at New School University, she quickly shot up through the editorial ranks. Modestly waving her numerous accomplishments off like a whiff of something unpleasant, it seems that her success still hasn’t fully sunk in. “To be honest, I picked a major in college because it seemed like an easy thing to do, but then it somehow worked out.”

It could have only worked out based on the strength of her work. After spending many years as the editor of VegNews magazine, bringing the vegan community together to become connected in ways it could have never been before, Elizabeth has always spoken from the heart. Inspiration comes naturally when the subject matter is so compelling, and as a prolific reader, there’s no shortage of engaging pieces out there to drink in. Working endlessly to refine and hone her craft has yielded the impressive results we all found on the new stands and still refer back to today, giving Elizabeth an irresistible resume when publishers came calling.

Offered the opportunity to create a lifestyle guide for new, curious, or confused vegans, Elizabeth saw that it was a growing niche to be sure, but one that hadn’t yet been fully satisfied. Though her entry isn’t meant to be the last book on the subject with encyclopedic entries, she offers something that far too many similar authors work to curtail: Her unique voice. Conversational but authoritative, with a good dose of her trademark humor added to the mix, it’s not a dry or boring read to slog through. It’s a book you’ll actually want to pick up, work through from cover to cover, and return to time and again later on down the road.

Reckless creativity is the standard approach to all of her endeavors, including her adventures in the kitchen. Less keen on following a specific formula than simply combining what’s in season with what’s currently in the pantry, she’s quick to credit Robin Robertson with her assistance in developing the recipe section in How to Be Vegan. One particular dish that Elizabeth picked out as a favorite is the Soyrizo Pasta, a super-simple, comforting combination of any pasta shape that might be handy, tomatoes, a generous handful of garlic and spices, and lightly sauteed soy-based chorizo. Also included are food staples that even the most novice of cooks can master, producing dishes that will still impress and satisfy. The question of “what’s for dinner” will inevitably enter the conversation where veganism is concerned, so this fool-proof arsenal will have even the pickiest palates covered.

As if on cue, as our thoughts shift to treats and good eats, our food arrives. I waste no time tearing into my tofu scramble while Elizabeth more delicately works on her Burmese tea leaf salad and samusa soup. Between the two of us, it’s a brunch fit for vegan kings; a signifier of the radical shift in the perception of veganism in general over the past few years. While the uninformed may regrettably still be stuck on the classic protein question, the lifestyle is more widely accepted, understood, and accessible than ever. Elizabeth’s book is just one more piece to the puzzle that makes transitioning away from the standard American diet a piece of dairy- and egg-free cake. She delves deep into the heart of the matter, explaining the cruelty of circuses and factory farms in non-confrontational language that doesn’t preach or accuse. “My goal for How to Be Vegan was never to convert anyone, but to provide realistic, everyday information to help readers form their own conclusions about common issues, and advice to stop the cycle of cruelty whenever possible.”

Indeed, far from merely covering the food as most popular media is drawn to do, Elizabeth doles out wisdom on vegan clothing, makeup, travel tips, eating out, relationships, and even how to deal with close-minded naysayers without losing your cool. Considering the depth and breadth of information packed into this slim paperback, it’s surprising to hear that it came into being just about a year after the ink had dried on the final contract. “Nothing motivates like a deadline,” Elizabeth admits. There’s no magic to the writing process nor a time when the words flow most easily; it comes down to creating a firm schedule and clear goals to strive for. Although inevitable, the curse of writer’s block hasn’t been able to slow down the stream of sage advice. A long run through San Francisco’s lush green spaces always does the trick, clearing out the mind and making space for a fresh start. Clearly, what ever she’s doing to harness her full creative capacity, it’s working. How to Be Vegan has remained in the high ranks of Amazon.com’s vegan book section ever since its initial release, and has been well-received by the blogosphere at large. The real impact, however, is one that’s a bit more difficult to quantify. With this stellar literary entry, one can only imagine the countless lives, both human and animal, Elizabeth has already touched.


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Nog-Off: Speed Round Rematch!

Two years after the first fight for vegan nog supremacy went down, the landscape of dairy-free, egg-free holiday beverages has finally shifted once more. The first change is not a happy one; it seems that the Earth Balance Soy Nog has thrown in the towel, bowing out of the game altogether. This would have left a gaping hole in the lineup, but the good news is that a spry newcomer has stepped up to the plate in its wake. Going by the name of “Holiday Nog” by Califia Farms, this rookie is a definite underdog, having appeared on the scene with little fanfare and almost no web presence. It doesn’t help matters that these shapely 48-ounce bottles are Whole Foods Market exclusives, severely limiting their availability across the country.

What the Holiday Nog lacks in distribution, it makes up for in innovation. The first almond-based nog on the market, it fills a niche previously untouched, meaning that those first punches land with great impact on the largely soy-based competitors. Touting itself as a lighter choice, it goes beyond the standard comparison to traditional eggnog, and goes straight for the kill, hitting where it hurts and boasting lower sugar content than any of the other commercial options out there. True to the claims, this milky elixir pours freely, approximately the same viscosity of standard almond milk. Fine for a solo sip, but that kind of thickness really can’t support an added splash of holiday “spirit”.

Without any detectable almond flavor, it was a brash, borderline harsh and definitely manufactured nutmeg note that dominated, storming in a bit too hard and heavy to really enjoy. The rookie must have tired itself out in that first barrage, because the sweetness struck me as rather lacking, too. Some will definitely appreciate this aspect, owing to a light hand on the organic cane sugar, but quite frankly, I wanted a treat that could stand up to the promise of eggnog, and this just wasn’t doing it. Sorry, sports fans, but this kid is down for the count, leaving So Delicious as the reining champ.

For you folks keeping score at home, that brings the final ranking, from most highly to least recommended, to…

1. Coconut Nog by So Delicious

2. Silk Nog by Silk

3. Holiday Nog by Califia Farms

4. Rice Nog by Rice Dream

Don’t let me tell you what to fill your mug with, though. Host you own nog-off at home and taste the options for yourself! I’m giving away a $25 gift certificate for Whole Foods Market, furnished by the natural grocery giant itself, so that you can pick up a full complement of eggless nogs, or whatever else might bring you a bit of edible holiday cheer. All you need to do is be a resident of the US, and leave me a comment about your favorite commercial nog, homemade recipes, or what you like to make with your excess nog once the holidays are over. Make sure your name and email are both entered into the appropriate boxes so I know who to contact! The entry period will be open until Friday the 13th at Midnight EST, so start talking!

UPDATE: After consulting with my very favorite random number generator, together we determined that the winner of the gift card would be…

The owner of comment #40, otherwise known as sara!

If that wasn’t the result you were hoping for, don’t despair. You can still snap up a coupon good for 50 cents of off Califia Holiday Nog should you want to give it a try yourself. Stay tuned for more giveaways to come, too!

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