BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Wish I Was There

Whipping bitterly cold gusts of air against my exposed skin, the wind howled mercilessly, landing a barrage of freezing punches from all directions. Inescapable, unrelenting, this assault makes each step outside feel like a mile away. Winter in New England can be a challenge to cope with on the best of days, and through the eyes of a SAD-sufferer, no day is a good day. Days blur, sloppily, slowly, into one ugly mess of endless slush, ice, and darkness.

Lighting the way through these murky moments is the promise of imminent escape. Having the foresight to book a ticket back to Hawaii while airfare was still reasonable was the smartest impulse buy (not to mention the most expensive) I made all year. Memories of warmth, sun, and genuine happiness fuel a stubborn persistence to keep hanging on just a little while longer. White-knuckling it through the stress of final exams and bleakness of winter’s descent, the day of departure simply can’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, the tastes of Hawaii provide some small comfort, a tiny tropical oasis in the midst of less favorable conditions. Turning back to those incredible macadamia nuts that I had been saving for a rainy day, stashed way back in the depths of the freezer for safe keeping, savory inspiration pulled me away from my standard palate of sweet ingredients.

Seeking something light and bright to contrast with all of the other, heavier comfort foods keeping me afloat, quinoa proved an ideal canvas to paint the colors of Honolulu upon. That concept turned out quite literally, as dried hibiscus blossoms (the official state flower) and red beet juice stained the white grains a dainty shade of dusty rose. Buttery macadamias and a generous splash of coconut milk lend richness to the otherwise lean pilaf, balancing the opposing desires for clean flavors and soothing touches of decadence. Flavored simply with a backdrop of garlic and scallions, the floral infusion is what sets the dish apart. Each bite brings back visions of brilliant blooms, stretching upwards to kiss the cloudless blue sky.

Although it won’t stop me from counting the days until my Hawaiian adventures begin anew, a heaping helping of warm quinoa does help time pass at least a little bit more easily- And certainly much more deliciously.

Mahalo Macadamia Quinoa Pilaf

2 1/3 Cups Water
6 Dried Whole Hibiscus Blossoms, or 6 Bags Hibiscus Tea
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup Red Beet Juice or Puree (Optional, for Color)
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Raw Quinoa
1 Cup Macadamia Nuts, Coarsely Chopped
1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil
1 Large Sweet Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Large Scallion, Thinly Sliced

Place the water and hibiscus blossoms or tea bags in a large saucepan over medium heat, and bring the water to a boil. Cover, remove the pot from the stove, and allow the tea to steep for about 30 minutes.

Squeeze out and discard the spent blossoms or tea bags. Return the pot to the stove and introduce the coconut milk, beet juice or puree, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the liquids to a full boil before adding in the quinoa. Cover and turn down the heat to low, keeping the contents of the pot at a gentle simmer. Cook for 16 – 20 minutes, until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Turn off the heat but keep covered for 10 minutes to steam and finish cooking.

Meanwhile, toss the macadamia nuts into a dry skillet over medium heat, and stir constantly until they’re lightly toasted and smelling irresistibly nutty. Quickly transfer to the pot of quinoa to prevent them from burning and lightly wipe out the skillet.

Melt the oil to the skillet before adding in the onion and garlic. Saute, stirring periodically, until golden brown all over. Transfer to the pot of quinoa, along with the pepper and scallion. Mix thoroughly to combine and distribute the nuts and onions evenly throughout the quinoa. Stir in additional salt to taste, if desired.

Serve immediately while still warm, or chill for at least four hours for a refreshing cold salad.

Makes 6 – 8 Side Dish Servings

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Eau de Risotto

Perfume is one of the greatest public threats, especially when lavished with careless excess. Smelling good is an admirable desire, one to be encouraged for sure, but the chemical cocktails that some hapless souls feel compelled to bathe in are far more offensive than a little B.O. Sensitivity to scents is on the rise, perhaps from overexposure, but the average cologne has simply never appealed to me, always too pungent and completely unfamiliar. If I ever wanted to smell like something other than myself, it wouldn’t be an indescribable aroma defined only by a brand name, but something edible. Anyone who knows me probably saw this one coming, but food scents are a completely different story, literally adding a welcome spice to the day.

For years, vanilla extract was my perfume of choice; a dab on the wrist and behind the ears set me in the right mood for a day at school. Floor cleaner is best in lemon, that bright citrus simply screaming out “I’m clean!” far clearer than any product touting itself as ocean wave, or the equally mysterious “fresh rain.” Likewise, my hand soap smells like tomato vines and body lotion has notes of cucumber.

Call me scent-sensitive, but these omnipresent aromas affect not only my mood, but also my cravings in a big way. That fact became abundantly clear as soon as a new grapefruit facial scrub was incorporated into the daily beauty routine. Within just a few washes, I found myself yearning for a taste of that bold, sour, sprightly flavor. Never mind that it had been years since I last sampled this blushing citrus fruit- I suddenly couldn’t get enough, eating them straight and incorporating the segments into just about everything.

That’s where this highly aromatic risotto came in. Perfumed with grapefruit, juicy chunks of the flesh are sprinkled throughout, bursting with bitterness that perfectly cuts the rich, creamy base. Accented by the spice of wasabi and a topping of peppery watercress, it’s a lively savory side that may very well steal the show at dinner time. Don’t fight those strong flavors, but pair it with a more mild protein, such as tamari-baked tofu or a simple chicken-style seitan cutlet. Otherwise, feel free to turn it into a one-pot meal by adding in a can of rinsed chickpeas, or 2 cups of shelled fava beans for a real seasonal treat.

No matter how many offensive scents you may encounter in your daily trials and tribulations, the aroma of this risotto bubbling away on the stove will surely set you right.

Grapefruit and Wasabi Risotto

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil or Olive Oil
1 Leek, Thoroughly Washed and Thinly Sliced (White and Light Green Parts Only)
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 – 3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Sushi Rice
3 – 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock, Warmed
1/4 Cup Mirin
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Large Pink Grapefruit
1/2 Cup Plain, Unsweetened Vegan Creamer or Coconut Milk
1 1/2 – 3 Teaspoons Wasabi Paste*

To Finish:

1 Medium Ripe Avocado
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2 – 4 Ounces Watercress
Avocado or Olive Oil (Optional)

*The amount of heat that wasabi paste packs varies greatly depending both on brand and age. Most are still mixtures of horseradish and vinegar, but what’s more concerning is the occasional inclusion of milk-based additives, so read labels carefully. The longer you keep a tube in the cupboard, the less spicy it will taste, so keep that in mind as you begin to incorporate it into your cooking and adjust the quantities accordingly.

Set a large saucepan over medium heat and warm the oil before adding in the leek and garlic. Saute for 5 – 8 minutes, until softened and aromatic, before stirring in 1/4 teaspoon salt to draw out more of the vegetables’ moisture. Incorporate the rice, stirring to coat, and cook until translucent; about 3 – 4 minutes.

Pour in the first cup of warm vegetable stock, mirin, and nutritional yeast, reducing the heat to medium-low, keeping the liquid at a gentle simmer. Stir periodically, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot with your spatula to prevent the mixture from sticking and burning. Once the liquid has mostly absorbed into the grains, add in another cup of vegetable stock.

Meanwhile, zest the grapefruit and hold the zest off to the side. Supreme the fruit, lightly chopping the segments into bite-sized pieces.

After about 25 minutes of cooking, the liquid should have absorbed into the rice, and the rice will be creamy but tender. Turn off the heat and add the creamer, grapefruit zest, and 1 1/2 teaspoons wasabi paste, stirring thoroughly. Gently fold in the chopped grapefruit pieces, being careful not to smash them or break them up further. Add more salt or wasabi paste to taste.

To serve, thinly slice the avocado and toss it in the lemon juice. Spoon out the portions of risotto into bowls and top each one with a few slices of avocado and a generous handful of watercress. Drizzle with an additional drizzle of oil if desired. Enjoy immediately while piping hot!

Serves 3 – 5 as a Side Dish

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In the Eleventh Hour

Long before the word “vegetarian” had even entered my vocabulary or tofu occupied a place on my plate, Thanksgiving turkey nonetheless failed to excite any hunger in my young belly. I had yet to cultivate a true appreciation of any greener fare, and yet the side dishes were what always held the key to holiday dinner bliss. Anything starchy, buttery, and sweet was piled on with aplomb, moderation be damned. No matter how they were prepared, potatoes especially were key to a successful meal, often turning up in multiple forms to satisfy all family members. Mashed, roasted, scalloped, or fried, they all had equal billing on the menu, devoured far more enthusiastically than the obligatory bird.

Ironically, this habit has made the main dish beside the point, the backup singer rather than the star of the show. I’d gladly make space for another side dish or two than an extra serving of seitan roulade, no matter how delicious or painstakingly stuffed.

That’s why I have no compunctions about suggesting yet another starchy side, even in this eleventh hour of Thanksgiving prep. Inspired by my grandpa’s classic potato puffs, my rendition lightens the potato load with golden butternut puree. Pumpkin could effortlessly slip into that same role as well, if canned butternut is hard to come by. Crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, these tiny mountains of mashed potatoes finally introduce the textural interest that plain old smashed spuds lack. Mercifully, their compact design allows for advance prep as well; bake them through as instructed, chill until dinner time, and them pop them back into a 400 degree oven for 5 – 10 minutes, just to heat them through.

Butternut Potato Puffs

1 Pound Yukon Gold Potatoes, Peeled and Diced
1 15-Ounce Can Butternut Squash Puree
3 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine or Coconut Oil, Melted
1 Teaspoon Seasoned Salt
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Poultry Seasoning
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Whole Flax Seeds, Ground

Place your peeled and cut potatoes in a medium-sized pot of cool water. Set over moderate heat and bring up to a boil, reducing the heat to a lively simmer and cooking them until fork-tender. Drain thoroughly.

Mash the potatoes as smoothly as possible before adding in all of the remaining ingredients, mashing and stirring to combine and beating out any lumps. Transfer the mashed mixture to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe the potatoes into small rosettes on two baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silpats. Aim for them to measure approximately 1 1/2 – 2 inches across the bottom, but there’s no need to break out a ruler here.

Place the whole sheets in the freezer for about an hour, until solid. Once they’ve had ample time to chill out, preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

Bake for 15 – 18 minutes, until golden brown all over. Serve right away while still hot.

Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Dozen Puffs

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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

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Biscuit Eater

Biscuit-making and -eating is not in my heritage; I can’t recall having these savory, flaky quick breads on my dinner table even once throughout my childhood. It’s a shame, really, because they’re such a tasty and effortless side that perfectly compliments almost any meal. Traditional or “authentic” southern biscuits may be beyond the scope of my abilities, but I do know that I like mine tall, tender, and fluffy, with more flavor than just plain flour can bring to the table. Fresh herbs and a healthy handful of vegetables liven up this simple staple, making it ideal for serving with soups, smothered in gravy, or just eaten solo.

Garden Herb Biscuits

2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Coarse Sea Salt or Kosher Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Parsley
2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Chives
1 1/2 Teaspoon Fresh Thyme
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
4 Ounces (1/2 Package) Vegan “Cream Cheese”
1 Cup Finely Grated Carrot or Zucchini (or a Mix of Both)
3/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar

Additional Melted Non-Dairy Margarine (Optional)

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

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. Make sure the greenery is well distributed throughout the dry mixture. Cut the margarine and “cream cheese” into tablespoon-sized pieces before adding them in next, and use a fork or pastry cutter to further incorporate the two. Once you achieve a coarse consistency where there are no chunks of fat remaining that are any larger than peas, toss in the carrot and/or zucchini shreds. Finally stir in both the non-dairy milk and vinegar at once, and mix with a wide spatula just until the thick batter comes together. If you’re into the old-fashion way of doing it, you can also mix by hand, of course.

On a very lightly floured surface, pat out the dough to about 1 – 1 1/2 inches tall. Use a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out the biscuits, and space them out equally across your prepared baking sheet. Gather up any scrapes, pat back into shape, and cut again, until the dough is all used up. You should get 6 – 8 tall biscuits out of the mix.

If desired, brush a small amount of melted margarine across the tops of the biscuits for an extra buttery flavor, and then pop them into the oven. Bake for 18 – 22 minutes, until golden brown all over. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before eating, just so that you don’t burn your mouth!

Makes 6 – 8 Tall Biscuits

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