BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Soup or Salad?

Dear California,

I understand you’ve been having unseasonably warm weather lately, despite the stark contrast of chilly days and near-freezing nights over on the opposite side of the country. I feel your pain, really I do, but not everyone else sees it this way. I write to you as a friend, not to criticize but to suggest toning down the complaints, at least until Halloween has passed. Some of New England is getting mighty jealous, and I hate to see such petty things come between you two.

Love, Hannah.

PS, did you ever find the cell phone charger I left at your place two years ago?

It’s a tricky time of year, when the stretch of land makes the distance between our country’s coasts all the more apparent. Jump on a plane and you’ll find yourself in an entirely different climate, one that can feel so vastly different that it may as well be a different planet. Suddenly I have to worry about our slow-ripening tomatoes getting hit with the first frost before they ever have a chance to mature, while friends hundreds of miles away bemoan the summer that just won’t quit.

Always seeking that elusive middle ground, some compromise that will make everyone happy, I offer you this odd-ball recipe. Soup that can be served just as satisfying hot or cold, the concept is nothing new, but the content might give unsuspecting eaters pause. With a good bit of leftover Caesar dressing but feeling too cold for straight-up salad, I decided to take a gamble and turn the classic combination into a more liquid format. A light starter, bright with sharp acidity, it’s an excellent way to kick off any meal. Chilled, the flavors have more time to meld and harmonize, but warm, it soothes the soul and takes the edge off a brisk day. Such an avant-garde serving suggestion may not suit everyone’s tastes, but it’s sure worth a try, no matter what coast you find yourself on.

Caesar Soup

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Small, Trimmed and Cleaned Leeks (White and Light Green Parts only) (6 Ounces)
2 Small Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Yukon Gold Potato (6 – 8 Ounces), Peeled and Diced
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
3 1/2 – 4 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Pounds Romaine Lettuce (About 2 Hearts), Plus 4 – 5 Firm Inner Leaves for Garnish
1 Cup Baby Spinach
1/3 Cup Vegan Caesar Dressing, Plus 1 – 2 Tablespoons for Garnish
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Salt, to Taste

Garlic and Herb Croutons

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Fresh Thyme (or 1/2 Teaspoon Dried)
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Coarse Salt
2 1/2 Cups 1/2-Inch Cubed Sourdough Bread (About 3 1.5-Ounce Slices)

To begin the soup, coat the bottom of a medium saucepan with olive oil and set it over medium heat. Add in the leeks and garlic, gently sauteing until softened and aromatic; about 3 – 4 minutes. Be careful not to brown the vegetables, but rather allow them to sweat. Add in the potato, lemon juice, and 3 1/2 cups vegetable stock, and bring the mixture up to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and let bubble quietly for 10 – 15 minutes, until the potato is fork-tender.

Transfer the contents of the pot to your blender and thoroughly puree. Introduce a few handfuls of spinach and romaine at a time, blending until the bulk has been chopped down, and then adding the next bunch. Puree until completely smooth- The soup will not be nearly as enjoyable if it’s not perfectly silky in texture. Finally, add the dressing, pepper, and salt to taste, blending briefly to combine. Either chill for at least 3 hours for a cold version, or serve right away to enjoy it hot.

For the croutons, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with a silpat or aluminum foil. (Note: I wanted to save some energy so I made mine in a little toaster oven. The pieces all fit, but barely, so be mindful of your space if you go that route.)

Place all of the ingredients in a large bowl, and toss to coat all of the bread cubes. Pour everything onto your prepared sheet, and spread out the cubes so that they’re all in one even layer. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring halfway through the cook time, until golden brown and crisp. Let cool completely before serving.

To serve, ladle out the soup into bowls and top with some of the reserved, chopped lettuce, a drizzle of extra dressing, and a handful of croutons.

Makes 4 – 5 Side Dish or Starter-Sized Servings

Printable Recipe


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Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!


18 Comments

Play it Cool

One of life’s great ironies is that summer brings in the widest selection of the most tempting produce, but also oppressive heat that makes it a less than appealing proposition to turn on the stove or oven to cook with it. To get the most bang for your vegetative buck, chilled soups are the way to go. Little prep work yields lots of flavor and something that can be enjoyed even as the mercury pushes 100. Though easily the most recognizable cold starter on the block, there’s so much more to the category than the classic gazpacho.

That’s where my creamy cucumber concoction comes in. Featuring my favorite vegetable of all time, the saying “cool as a cucumber” has withstood the test of time, and truly makes this soup the best food for impossibly hot afternoons or evenings. Ideal for both parties or solo servings, it takes almost no effort to whip up, and will keep in the fridge for at least three days, gaining a more complex and harmoniously melded flavor in time. The balance between creamy, soothing yogurt and the sharp punch of horseradish makes each bowlful much more exciting than the pale appearance might let on. Taking inspiration form tzadziki, a generous handful of fresh dill lends a garden-fresh flavor that brightens the whole dish.

For a satisfying, no-cook summer soup, think beyond gazpacho- Save the tomatoes for garnish this time around.

Cucumber-Yogurt Soup

3 Pounds Cucumbers (About 4 Medium Cucumbers)
1/4 Cup Shelled Hemp Seeds
1 Clove Garlic
2 Cups Plain, Unsweetened Vegan Yogurt
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Prepared Horseradish
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper
1/2 Cup Chopped Fresh Chives
1/2 Cup Chopped Fresh Dill
1 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Medium Tomatoes, Seeded and Diced

Peel and slice the cucumbers in half, removing watery seeds if necessary. Finely dice 1 cucumber, and set aside. Chop the remaining cukes into medium-sized chunks, and toss them into your blender, along with hemp, garlic, “yogurt,” vinegar, olive oil, salt (starting with the lesser amount), horseradish, and pepper. Thoroughly puree until completely smooth. If using a low-powered blender, be patient and give it plenty of time to break down the seeds, straining if necessary. Add in the chopped herbs, and slowly begin to blend again. Incorporate the stock slowly while the motor runs, until it reaches your desired consistency.* Give it a taste, adding more salt if needed.

Stir in the reserved diced cucumber by hand, in addition to the seeded and diced tomatoes. Serve immediately or chill for up to three days. For best flavor, chill for at least three hours before enjoying. Stir in additional stock after chilling if needed, as it does tend to thicken as it sits.

*You could also keep it very thick, omitting the stock, to serve it as a dip.

Makes 6 – 7 Cups Soup

Printable Recipe


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White as Springtime Snow

White gazpacho has been something of an enigma to me ever since I first learned of its existence. Thick, rich, and creamy, it seemed the absolute antithesis of the light but bold, veggie-packed tomato gazpacho I already knew and loved. Both are chilled soups, but the similarities ended there. Like the differences between spring and summer, it can sometimes be difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins, but it’s as clear as night and day when viewed from a distance.

Deceptively light and refreshing, the paler version of this old school soup is far richer and more satisfying than such a simple preparation would lead you to believe. Perfectly suited to warm, muggy days, but still hearty enough to hold an overwintered appetite in check, it’s the best thing for days betwixt and between two (or three) seasons. I could hardly do such a classic, straightforward recipe as written though- Especially not when the short-lived white asparagus beckoned from nearby grocery shelves. Rather than using stale bread or green grapes to make up the bulk of the base, I opted to feature the subtle vegetal flavor of these precious blonde stalks. Standard green asparagus could make a fine substitute in terms of flavor, but naturally, you’d end up with a green gazpacho instead.

For added flair, freshly plucked violets or other edible flowers are completely optional, but instantly liven up the otherwise monochromatic color palate with style.

White Asparagus Gazpacho

1 Pound White Asparagus, Ends Trimmed
1/2 Cup Sliced or Slivered Almonds
1 Small Shallot, Diced
2 Cloves Roasted Garlic
1 Medium Cucumber, Peeled and Chopped (Seeded if Necessary), Divided (Reserve 1/4 Cup for Garnish)
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 – 3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil or Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 – 1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Stock

Truffle Oil, to Garnish (Optional)
Additional Slivered Almonds, to Garnish

Bring a large stockpot full of water to a boil. Dunk in the prepared asparagus very briefly, for about 1 – 2 minutes, in order to blanch. Drain and immediately immerse the stalks in an ice-water bath to cool them down as quickly as possible and arrest the cooking process. Drain once more and roughly chop before tossing the pieces into your blender. Puree the asparagus along with all of the other ingredients, except for the oil, water, and garnishes. Once smooth, slowly drizzle in the oil while the machine continues to run, to emulsify the mixture. Repeat this process with stock, adding enough until it reaches your desired viscosity. Note that if you make this soup in advance and store it in the fridge, you will likely need to thin it out further after it sits. Serve immediately or chill for a more refreshing, ice-cold soup, and top portions with the reserved chopped cucumber, additional almonds, and truffle oil, if desired.

Serves 4 – 6

Printable Recipe


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Winter Warmer

Not yet winter, you say? I dare you to repeat that after this last week in stormy New England. Losing power for 2 1/2 days in the sub-freezing temperatures would have been bad enough, but the cherry on top of this snow sundae was sliding on the ice and crashing my car into a telephone pole. Minimal at worst, the air bags didn’t even deploy, and yet the damage somehow totals upwards of $4,000. Completely incomprehensible to this car-illiterate new driver.

The point is, it’s never too early for some comforting winter dishes that can warm you up from the inside, especially when it’s damn near apocalyptic outside. I may have lacked the resources to make this particular soup in my moment of greatest need, but the craving for a bubbling cauldron of savory stew reminded me of this previously unpublished recipe.


Please excuse the dark, mediocre photo… It’s almost a year old and I haven’t had a chance to shoot a new one!

Inspired by saag paneer, and Indian dish with gently stewed spinach and cubes of soft cheese, this vegan version utilizes kale, the leafy green of the moment, and achieves a silkier texture through the use of pureed potato. A stunning one-bowl meal, complete with greens and protein, not to mention a crave-worthy spicy flavor profile, my hesitation to share it stemmed from impatience. Factoring in the time it takes to press the tofu, bake the tofu, and simmer the soup, it’s not one to make on the fly.

However, thanks to the new tofu innovation from Nasoya, their latest vacuum-packed Sprouted Tofu cuts the prep time in half. Packaged and sold already pressed, the firm, dense texture is perfect for this application, as well as any other dish that calls for pressed tofu. Thanks to this simple improvement, I can see many repeat performances for my green monster of a soup coming up in these colder months!

Kale Saag Soup

Tofu Paneer:

1 16-Ounce Package Vacuum-Sealed Sprouted Tofu, or Extra-Firm Tofu, Pressed for 1 Hour
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Zest and Juice of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

Kale Saag Soup:

2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
2 Small Yellow Onions or 1 Large, Chopped (About 1 Cup)
1 1/2 Tablespoons Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
2 1/2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Garam Masala
1 Teaspoon Mustard Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Turmeric
1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
3 Cups Water or Vegetable Stock
1 Medium Potato, Peeled and Chopped (About 1 Cup)
1 Bunch Kale, Stemmed and Chopped
1 Cup Coconut Milk
1/2 Teaspoon Salt, or to Taste

Fresh Parsley or Cilantro for Garnish

First things first, preheat your oven to 350 degrees so that you can get the tofu “paneer” going. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes, and toss them into an 8-inch baking dish along with the remaining ingredients. Mix well to coat the tofu, and then arrange the cubes in one even layer, so they’re not overlapping (touching is fine.) Bake for 45 minutes until just barely golden around the edges. I don’t recommend tasting them plain; on their own, the “paneer” Will taste fairly sour and salty, but can balance out the soup (or most other dishes you want to throw them into) beautifully.

Meanwhile, get the soup going by melting the coconut oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add in the chopped onions, and saute until softened and translucent; about 5 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic, continuing to cook until the onions take on a tinge of golden-brown color, which could be around 5 – 8 more minutes. Throw in all the spices next, and saute with the other aromatics for just a minute or two to bring out the flavors, but be careful not to burn anything.

Pour in the water or stock, and be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot thoroughly to loosen and incorporate anything sticking. Follow that with the potato, and cover the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a lively simmer. Let bubble away for about 15 minutes, until the potato pieces are fork-tender. Mix in the chopped kale a little bit at a time so that it can wilt down and fit properly in the pot. Cover once more, and simmer for a final 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add in the coconut milk. Either transfer the soup to your blender in batches to puree, or hit it with an immersion blender, until very smooth. Add salt to taste.

Ladle your smooth kale saag soup into bowls, and top with cubes of tofu paneer and the chopped fresh herbs of choice. Serve piping hot.

Serves 4 – 6

Printable Recipe


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It’s What’s Pho Dinner

Would a noodle soup by any other name be less soul-soothing? Pho may be a relative newcomer to the American melting pot, but a craving for those distinctive flavors paired with slippery rice noodles has quickly taken hold of the nation’s appetite. Redolent of exotic spices with a certain savory richness ever-present in the background, it’s traditionally meat that brings the umami element to the party, but vegan alternatives abound. The largest stumbling block for recreating this unfamiliar flavor profile in my own kitchen was one simple spice: Anise. A lovely, licorice-like, naturally sweet warmth, by no means is it a despised ingredient in my eyes, but I can’t help but approach it with great hesitation. A powerful component of any dish, it can quickly overwhelm, even when added with the lightest hand. No matter how I tried to trust the plentiful online recipes, I couldn’t bring myself to attempt them faithfully.

For the pho-fearing, there is at last an easy, approachable answer. Pacific Natural Foods, purveyor of a whole world of soups and stocks, has just unveiled their new Vegetarian Pho Soup Base, a blank canvas for your very own Vietnamese noodle soup masterpiece. Built upon a foundation of mushroom broth, it has savory flavor to spare, with comforting, familiar undertones capable of supporting any combination of toppings and hearty additions.

What really makes most servings of pho, however, is the myriad condiments that you choose to complete your bowl. Aside from noodles and tofu, chilies, hot sauce, lime juice, beansprouts, mint, basil, cilantro, green onions, and/or shallots are all fair game, depending only on a matter of taste. Taking a more sparing route to better taste the broth in question, there was nothing to obstruct the unique seasoning of this surprising soup. Immediately struck by the clear anise essence, at first, it was just as I had feared. Within a few worrisome moments however, it transformed into something entirely new to my palate, a highly nuanced and complex amalgamation of both sweet and hot spices. Not for the timid, it was somewhat sharp upon my initial slurp, but still nothing to dive into a bucket of non-dairy milk over. Impressively fearless for a commercially available packaged offering, regardless of authenticity, I was thrilled to get such a bright, bold kick right from the first spoonful.

Forget about that plain Jane “chicken” noodle next time you’re craving comfort; Pho delivers all that heart-warming familiarity, plus an exciting bouquet of delicate but highly flavorful Vietnamese seasoning all in the same bowl.


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Back to Reality, and Tomato Soup

After a long weekend at Vida Vegan, with nothing but the best catering options and free-flowing coconut milk beverage all day long, supportive and smiling faces everywhere you look, and let’s not forget the communal nooch bowl, the transition back into the real world would have been challenging in the best of circumstances. That was a given for everyone who participated in this shared dream of a blogger meetup. What I wasn’t prepared for was the rough landing back at home, and I don’t mean on the airplane. Pitch black, shockingly frigid for a late August day, a vacant house with no electricity sat waiting where I remember leaving my welcoming, loving home. A shell of what it should have been, fallen trees had cut the mainline; the patient had long bled out and died on the spot. We could only pick up the pieces now.

All the reports indicated that Irene was largely over-hyped, there was little serious damage, and so why should I have expected anything else? No one was hurt, no windows broken, and only minor flooding to be found, but the real devastation remained silently waiting in the kitchen- more precisely, the fridge.

Working up my courage, and with one deep breath, I yanked open the fridge door as fast as possible, like tearing off a stubbornly adhered bandage. Puddles of water accumulated on the floor in seconds, and immediately a rancid odor polluted the air. Spoiled. Rotted. Beyond saving. Anything perishable, had clearly passed on long ago.

Notable exceptions were found, after sifting through the wreckage. Glorious heirloom tomatoes stuffed hastily in the fruit bin remained blemish-free, and a few heartier veg also miraculously survived. With a few solid pantry staples and a trusty gas stove, my mission was clear: electricity or no, there was soup to be made.

Generous spices amped up this ordinary offering, lending a warmth that higher temperatures couldn’t deliver alone. Ordinary, unremarkable, but so incredibly comforting when the very ground itself seems to be shifting underfoot. Moroccan seasonings were the inspiration, but only in a very loose interpretation did they emerge in the final dish. Measurements for those spices are approximate, so taste frequently as the soup bubbles along.

Such a small effort served us all well; I had a big bowlful right then and there, and later on in the day, my mom dished it up as a sauce over pasta.

Thankfully, the power did finally go on yesterday afternoon, and normalcy is slowly returning to the everyday routine. I’m still mourning the loss of no less than eight homemade ice creams, but if that’s the worst of it, I’d say we got off pretty easy on this natural disaster.

Spicy Tomato and Chickpea Soup

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Large Yellow Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Stalk Celery, Finely Diced
3 Large Tomatoes, About 3 Cups Diced
1 1/2 Cups Water or Vegetable Stock
1 2.8-Ounce Tube Sun-Dried Tomato Paste
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce or Tamari
1 15-Ounce Can Chickpeas, Drained
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1 Teaspoon Dried Parsley
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, Crumbled
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Basil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Standard soup procedure here: Heat the oil in a medium-sized stock pot, and add in the onions and garlic first. Saute for about 5 minutes, until softened and translucent, and add in the chopped celery and tomatoes. Cook for 5 more minutes before adding in the water or stock. Stir in the tomato paste, soy sauce, chickpeas, and all of the spices and herbs until thoroughly combined. Allow the mixture to simmer away, melding the flavors and concentrating the tomato-y goodness, for 45 – 60 minutes. It’s perfectly edible once merely heated through, but given enough time to mature, the flavor improves noticeably. Finish with enough salt and pepper to satisfy your own personal preference.

Serves 2 – 4

Printable Recipe

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