BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Honolulu Eats on the Cheap

There’s no such thing as a free meal, and that particular turn of phrase has never been more true in the metropolis of Honolulu. Demand for quality food is high but resources are considerably limited, to say the least, which can create a deleterious financial drain on anyone fond of eating out. It’s the price for paradise; always worth the cost, but difficult to sustain. That said, prime deals can be found, even within vegan parameters, for those willing to hunt.

Strapped for cash and in need of a seriously hearty bowl of sustenance? Look no further than Zippy’s local favorite for almost 50 years. Believe it or not, this classic plate lunch joint offers one of the best values for a satisfying vegan meal on the island. Their Vegetarian Chili happens to be vegan, and you can order it with brown rice for a mere $5.70 plus tax. In Hawaiian currency, this makes the dish practically free, as I figure it. Warm and comforting,you’ll want to hit up the bottle of Tabasco sauce generously provided on each table if you’re seeking anything resembling spice, but the baseline stew is thereby agreeable to all palates. Shake things up by getting your chili over fries or spaghetti instead, and ask for chopped onions on top if that’s your thing. Boca burgers and house-made tofu burgers are also available, although bear in mind that everything is cooked on the same grill. There are nearly two dozen Zippy’s locations throughout Hawaii, so it’s an excellent fallback option in times of need.

Known for the absurdly long lines almost as much as the food itself, Marukame Udon is a bit of an overcrowded sensation out in Waikiki. Thankfully, a second branch recently opened up downtown in the Fort Street Mall, boasting far fewer crowds (especially after the lunchtime rush) and an updated menu. This revision has brought in the one and only vegan main dish, but it’s a real winner that won’t leave you wanting more. The Vegetable Udon Salad, ringing up at $4.70 plus tax, consists of cold udon noodles, cooked to chewy, toothsome perfection, accompanied by avocado and a basic battery of raw vegetables. The sesame-based sauce pulls everything together in a rich, creamy combination, but a splash of soy sauce on top sure doesn’t hurt. Don’t forget to grab some complimentary sheets of nori to seal the deal. Vegan inari sushi and onigiri are also available a la cart, but neither are particularly exciting or necessary. This simple meal is more than filling on its own.

A bit more off the beaten path in the depths of Chinatown, Royal Kitchen looks like the most unpromising little hole in the wall for finding anything remotely vegan. Suspend disbelief long enough to poke inside, and you just may be pleasantly surprised. Standard American-Chinese takeout fare share space in the steam table with more authentic dim sum, available for takeout only. Look further and scope out the trays of baked manapua, soft and fluffy buns stuffed with a wide array of vegetables, and traditionally, meats. Fear not- The Veggie Manapua happens to be free of all animal products, featuring a blend of cabbage, onions, carrots, and mushrooms instead. Incredibly, each sizable bun is only $1.40 each, no tax, so you should have plenty of spare change to indulge in dessert while you’re there, too. Choose from the Coconut, Sweet Potato, or Black Sugar Manapua for a sweet treat, easy to eat on the go. My favorite of the three was the Black Sugar variety, which turned out to be a sweetened bean paste filling not unlike adzuki paste.

These three suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hidden culinary treasures. Honolulu is not a cheap city to live in or visit, but the prices needn’t become a barrier to enjoying great local eats, vegan and all.


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B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Like it or not, modern Honolulu is a rapidly changing world city, adapting local traditions to incoming waves of global inspiration. Although most are quick to take issue with bigger construction projects that are literally transforming and modifying the landscape as we know it, it’s a more positive and exciting proposition from a culinary standpoint. Every return visit turns up fresh eateries, new businesses, and inspiring young entrepreneurs eager to strike out on their own in paradise. It was pure luck that I caught wind of Banán, a tiny operation serving simple, sweet treats out of a stationary food truck, having opened right smack in the middle of my Oahu itinerary.

Quite simply, Banán is bananas. 100% banana soft serve treats in a variety of flavors, to be precise, and plenty of toppings to complement your fruity treats. The only things added to this refreshing base are either additional fruits or herbs for taste; no sugar nor dairy need apply. On a hot January day, there’s no better reward after a brisk hike up Diamond Head, which makes their nearby location on Monsarrat Ave. and accommodating hours ideal.

Unfalteringly generous with samples, the patient and kind scooper on duty successfully convinced me to order a flavor different from my intended pick- A considerable feat indeed. Basil sounds like a dubious pairing with banana, which is why I initially wrote it off as a trendy gimmick while perusing the options in advance. In reality though, this bright green blend sparkles with fresh, herbaceous flavor not unlike mint, regarded as a more conventional dessert addition.

Toppings are 50 cents each or 3 for $1.00, so go for broke and pile them on. The puffed quinoa in particular is a must, introducing both a satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor to the mix. A study in contrasts, just a small sprinkle on top balances out any of the creamy concoctions with ease.

But perhaps I ordered too quickly. Hastily making my selection out of hunger and impatience, my companions quickly trumped my conventional order with custom requests. Combining two flavors in one bowl turned out to be no trouble at all, creating an even wider range of flavor sensations. Luckily, good friends that they are, everyone was more than happy to share the bounty. Ginger-Mint came in as a close second when I took stock of my favorites, but the berry notes of the Acai blend were quite appealing as well.

Upgrade your frozen confection further by trading in the classic cardboard waffle cone or cup for juicy, ripe papaya. Yes, another papaya boat worthy of your time, especially because these fruits are grown locally, and Banán takes the model of sustainability one step further by composting the discarded skins.

Banán sets itself apart from the pack by offering a genuinely healthy treat where few alternatives exist, but even more importantly, by fostering a sense of community by being so keenly aware of their impact. It’s the kind of small business we could truly use everywhere, but no matter how you slice it, this one is distinctly Hawaii grown, through and through.


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Rock the Boat

When it comes to food, little luxuries are not necessarily about overindulgence or decadence so much as they are small gifts you give yourself; modest treats to look forward to on an average day. Especially in the lean days of early January, it’s important to maintain these simple pleasures while everyone else seems to demand austerity, as if trying to atone for their holiday dietary sins. Luckily, it’s not difficult to reward yourself with something both sweet and healthy at the same time! Looking to the tropics for inspiration, a charming new juice shop in Honolulu offers papaya, re-imagined as a breakfast dish dressed beautifully enough to pass for dessert.

It’s far from a complex concept, but at The Salted Lemon, they’ve perfected the art of building an unsinkable papaya boat. Local orange and pink-hued fruits, more brilliant than a sunrise in paradise, are hollowed out and stuffed to the brim with granola, yogurt, banana slices, blueberries, and finished with a light shower of chia seeds on top. The contrast between creamy yogurt and crunchy cereal, flavored with the ripe and juicy fresh fruits, is so simple yet so satisfying. Eating this assembly is a rich experience that carries none of the guilt one might assign to traditional excess. Though the original is not vegan, the staff was more than willing to try something new, making use of my favorite almond-based yogurt once I snagged a cup at a nearby grocery store.

Lest you think that papaya boats are only the stuff of fancy cafes and languorous tropical vacations, just take a gander at the short and sweet formula below. They are effortless to whip up on any typical morning, no special occasion required, and no pretense need apply. All varieties of berries or cut fruits could be considered as welcome additions, so don’t be afraid to shake up the routine and experiment with new toppers.

While anything goes when it comes to vegan yogurt options, there’s no better brand to turn to than So Delicious, offering cultured coconut and almond bases, each boasting a full spectrum of enticing flavors. These prime alternatives make it a breeze to live dairy-free, which is why I wanted to share an equally easy concept as part of their 21-Day Dairy Free Challenge. Consider this your first step towards sweet, creamy satisfaction, and then join in on the initiative for even greater rewards!

Papaya Boats

1 Medium Hawaiian Papaya, Peeled and Seeded
1 Cup Granola, Homemade or Store-Bought
1 6-Ounce Container Vanilla So Delicious Almond or Coconut Yogurt
1 Medium Banana, Sliced
1/2 Cup Fresh Blueberries
1 Tablespoon Chia Seeds
Agave or Maple Syrup, to Taste (Optional)

Divide a 1/2 cup of the granola between two plates to set up a “foundation” for your papaya boat to rest on. This will help prevent it from capsizing when you eat it, and it also adds a nice additional layer of crunchy cereal to enjoy.

Place the remaining granola inside the papaya halves (1/4 cup inside of each) and top that with the yogurt, spooning equal amounts into the two boats. Arrange the sliced banana and blueberries as desired, and top with a sprinkle of chia seeds over the whole assembly. Finish with a light drizzle of syrup if desired, but with properly ripened, seasonal fruit, it should be plenty sweet enough without.

Serve immediately and enjoy!

Makes 2 Servings

Printable Recipe

[Written for Go Dairy Free as part of the Dairy-Free Recipe Potluck, sponsored by So Delicious.]


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Smart Sweets

Though self-prescribed with good intentions, a striking majority of New Year’s resolutions are imagined in a world of extremes. Everything is painted in black and white; there is success and failure, productivity and laziness, good or bad foods. The temptation to simplify the complex “rules” of the road is great for those most desperate for change, especially when so much mainstream advice points in that very direction. What excitement is there in moderation? How could you sell anything based on common sense?

Quite frankly, I’m sick of this all-or-nothing approach. Resolutions themselves are not the problem, but the way society holds us to them. Friends, I’m not expert on the matter, but if you want my advice, I think we should make a bit more room in this renewed healthy eating regimen for chocolate.

As with all healthy eating choices, quality is absolutely essential for success, which is exactly what Vega has built their reputation on. Though best known for their powdered protein and meal-replacement shakes, I was naturally drawn more to their enticing array of snacking selections. Given the opportunity to investigate these unsung heroes further, I knew from the start that it would somehow end in a deceptively decadent dessert. Maca Chocolate Bars provided the real inspiration, with their gently earthy, mineral-y quality and slightly bitter edge calling out for a touch more sweetness to round out the deep cacao flavors. Lovers of deep, dark, serious chocolate would love them as is, but for someone coming off of a holiday sugar high, I must admit that my palate calls for something a bit less intense.

Incorporating the brilliantly “Karamelized” SaviSeed, roasted and sugar-coated Inca peanuts, for a satisfying crunch, Nava Atlas’ fool-proof recipe for unbaked brownies seemed custom made for just these ingredients. A few easy substitutions yielded the tastiest, yet healthiest, raw brownie that has ever passed my lips. As the original formula proves, however, no specialty ingredients need apply; switch up the fruits, nuts, and chocolate for equally delicious treats that will help keep your resolutions on track. I’ve successfully used raisins instead of prunes, almonds instead of cashews, and regular dark chocolate, in additional to Nava’s suggestions, all to the same enthusiastic reception. You have my sweet-toothed word that they don’t taste the least bit like “health food,” and you will never regret savoring that one extra square.

Mega Maca Brownies
Adapted from Nava Atlas’ Unbaked Fudgy Brownies from Plant Power

1 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Pitted Prunes
3 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
4 (1.4 Ounce) Maca Chocolate Bars, Finely Chopped, Divided
1/4 Cup Sacha Inchi, Roughly Chopped

Place the cashews in your food processor and pulse until ground to a fine powder. Add in the prunes, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt, and half of the chopped chocolate. Pulse once more to incorporate, processing until the mixture holds together when pressed. Be patient, as this may take a few minutes.

Add the remaining chocolate along with the sacha inchi and pulse just briefly to distribute the goodies throughout the mixture. These final additions should be roughly chopped but still easily visible. You don’t want to puree the whole thing, since it’s much more satisfying with a bit of texture left in it.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly greased 8 x 8-inch square pan. Use a wide spatula to press it evenly into the bottom before stashing it in the fridge. Chill for at least an hour before slicing and serving. Keep leftovers covered and stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week, or in the freezer for up to a month.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Having a Ball

Talk about a whirl-wind holiday! Is it just me, or did this whole festive day seem to be eclipsed by the madness leading up to it? So much fuss for such a little event, Christmas already feels like a thing of the past, long gone and mostly forgotten. Of course, a few strong drinks no doubt enhances that sensation, and I must claim at least partial responsibility for that this year. While I remain a staunch non-drinker, I have admittedly developed a penchant for alcoholic additions to sweets. This curious dissonance grew more pronounced when my grandma generously gifted me with the better part of her liquor cabinet, previously languishing amongst the bulk wrapping paper and excess Tupperware in the cellar. Glistening bottles of Cassis, Grand Marnier, Framboise, and so many more all beckoned, splashing about beguilingly in the most innocent way a potential poison can manage. Carrying armloads of the ornate glass containers up the stairs and cramming them greedily into an overstuffed bag, little did I know just how these colorful liquids would soon paint my holiday season.

Oh, did I ever have a ball- And I made sure that everyone else had at least a dozen of their own, too! It started simply with my “famous” Pecan Pie Truffles, but all pretense of moderation quickly devolved from there. For friends, family, and anyone who happened to cross my path for the next few weeks, I crafted boozy peppermint mocha bites, chocolatey little numbers enriched with both Kahlúa and Creme de Mènthe. Next there were drunken apple jacks, living up to their names with a generous splash of Applejack to round out a cinnamon-spiced graham cracker base. By far, though, my favorite ball of the bunch were the Speculoos Rum Balls, sticking with the traditional addition of rum, but shaking things up with ground speculoos cookies, a touch of cocoa, and a creamy smear of speculoos spread. The combination of rum and brown sugar biscuits was positively intoxicating, and I swear that’s not just the alcohol’s doing.

There must have been at least 200 balls all told. Nonetheless, every last one was gleefully gobbled up before I realized what a gem I had inadvertently created for New Year’s celebrations as well. Only when it came time to edit the photos did I realize that my pick of the litter, decorated with sparkling pearlized sugar, looked just like the Times Square Ball due to drop at midnight in a scant few days from now. Although I’m quite excited to attend my very first Pineapple Drop this year instead, I don’t see why another round of speculoos balls wouldn’t be a welcome way to celebrate 2015 all the same.

Speculoos Rum Balls

1 7-Ounce Box (About 1 3/4 Cups) Finely Ground Speculoos Cookie Crumbs
1 3/4 Cups Cashew Meal or Almond Meal
1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/4 Cup Natural Cocoa Powder
1/2 Cup Smooth Speculoos Spread
1/2 Cup Dark Rum

1/3 – 1/2 Cup Pearlized Silver Sugar, Sprinkles, or Additional Cookie Crumbs for Rolling

It’s flat-out impossible to ruin rum balls, so let’s keep this tutorial brief, shall we? Simply combine the ground cookies, nut meal of choice, sugar, and cocoa powder in a large bowl. Add in the speculoos spread and rum, and stir thoroughly to incorporate. The resulting mixture will be very thick; you may want to get in there and use your hands to make sure that there are no remaining pockets of dry ingredients. Once fully mixed, use a small cookie scoop or standard spoon to dole out tablespoon-sized pieces. Roll them into balls and then toss them in the sugar or sprinkles, until fully coated.

Store in an air-tight container at room temperature for about a week, or in the fridge for up to a month.

Makes 40 – 50 Balls

Printable Recipe


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Pumpkinundation

Is it safe to come out yet? Have the relentless demands for all things pumpkin-spiced died down, at least to an intermittent, dull roar? I’ve been hanging onto one gem of a pumpkin recipe for months, but selfishly withheld it from the blog-reading public, fearing it would become lost in the sea of squash.

No, wait, don’t click away just yet! Rather than another sweet interpretation of the seasonal gourd, loosely modeled around the flavors of a pie rather than the actual vegetable, I’m much more fond of pumpkin when it actually tastes like, well, pumpkin. Crazy though it may be, I’d much prefer to see pumpkin turn up as a savory offering during the main meal instead of just the grand finale, capped off with an avalanche of sugar and seasonings so strong that they obscure the inherent flavor of the star ingredient. Food producers and well-meaning cooks alike seem to have forgotten the pumpkin’s potential outside of the dessert realm.

Even if you’re feeling burnt out on pumpkin, I would implore you to give it another shot when re-imagined in matzo ball format. Completely nontraditional and aligned with entirely the wrong Jewish holiday, these are definitely not your Bubbie’s matzo balls. Bound together with roasted pumpkin puree, I prefer to think of them more as matzo dumplings, since they bear a denser, more toothsome texture than the fluffy pillows of Passover lore. The goal of this wintery interpretation was not to perfect the vegan matzo ball, but to create something with the same sort of comforting flavors, revamped with a more seasonal spin.

Moreover, purists would be horrified at my cooking methods. A baked matzo ball, for crying out loud? That’s downright heresy in some kosher kitchens, I’m sure. The beauty of this approach is that rather than getting soggy dumplings, halfway dissolved into a puddle of lukewarm soup, they stay perfectly intact until the moment your spoon carves through the tender spheres. Allowing for effortless advanced preparation, just keep the dumplings safely out of the golden, vegetable-rich pool until the moment you’re ready to serve.

On a blustery, cold day when nothing but a heartwarming bowl of soup will do, this is my idea of comfort food. Owing nothing to the overblown pumpkin trend, it’s still worth keeping your pantry stocked with a can of the stuff, just in case a craving strikes.

Pumpkin Matzo Dumpling Soup

Matzo Balls:

1 1/3 Cups Fine Matzo Meal
2 Teaspoons Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Cup Very Finely Minced Yellow Onion
1 1/2 Cups Roasted Pumpkin Puree, or 1 (14-Ounce) Can 100% Solid Packed Pumpkin Puree
1/4 Cup Olive Oil

Vegetable Soup:

6 Cups Vegetable Broth
2 Small Carrots, Thinly Sliced
2 Stalks Celery, Thinly Sliced
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Dill, Minced
1/4 Cup Fresh Parsley, Minced
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, stir together the matzo meal, salt, garlic powder, baking powder, and soda. Yes, it may seem like a lot of salt, but it gets rationed into many little matzo dumplings. Don’t back down on the amount or else you’ll risk making bland balls! Make sure all the dry goods are evenly distributed throughout before adding in the minced onion, tossing to coat. Combine the pumpkin puree and olive oil in a separate container, whisking until smooth, and pour the wet mixture into the bowl. Mix with a wide spatula, stirring thoroughly to combine, until there are no remaining pockets of dry ingredients. Let the matzo batter sit in a cool spot for about 15 minutes to thicken before proceeding.

I like using a small cookie scoop for more consistent dumplings, but a good old fashioned tablespoon will do just fine as well. Scoop out about 2 teaspoons of the matzo mixture for each dumpling, rolling them very gently between lightly moistened hands to round them out. Place each one on your prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch part. There’s no risk of them spreading, but giving them a bit of breathing room helps to ensure more even cooking. Repeat until all of the batter is used and you have a neat little army of raw matzo balls ready to be baked. Lightly spritz the tops with olive oil spray for better browning, if desired.

Bake for 45 – 50 minutes, rotating the sheet pan halfway through, until golden brown all over.

Meanwhile, prepare the soup itself by combining the broth, carrots, celery, and onion in a medium stock pot. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, cooking until the carrots are fork-tender. Right before serving, add in the fresh herbs and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle out some of the soup into each soup bowl and add in the baked matzo dumplings right before serving. Enjoy piping hot!

Makes 35 – 40 Dumplings; About 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap

Who hasn’t landed on a lavishly curated new blog, garnished with extravagant photos tucked between every mouthwatering paragraph, and cursed the fact that the potential for smell-o-vision technology has not been fully realized yet? Better yet, where are those edible 3-D printer inks when you need them? It’s the best and worst aspects of the blogosphere that are inseparable: Inspiring recipes from all corners of the globe can be instantly beamed into your home, but the ferocious hunger that they incite cannot be be satisfied by mere visuals alone. Although this far-flung community is closer than many social groups in real life, it’s hard to bridge that physical gap when you can’t just reach out and share a cookie with your friends.

Thus, the annual Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap is nothing short of a holiday miracle. Started in 2011, I only regret jumping onto this bandwagon so late in the game. Imagining the joy that my own homemade cookies might spread, the moments that their sweetness might brighten, kept my oven churning even through the stress of work deadlines. Finally having like-minded recipients for my sugared creations was a singular thrill, but admittedly, it wasn’t my only motivation. Tired of winter dinner parties where all meals ended with a cacophony of eggs and butter, I wanted some special holiday cookies for myself, gosh darn it!

Sending out three carefully wrapped parcels and anticipating three others in return, my already lofty expectations were far exceeded by the sweetness soon to arrive.

The Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies from Happy To Be a Table of Two were the first guests to check in at this sugar-fueled gathering. The brilliant aroma of chocolate and cinnamon mingled in the air before the zip-lock bag was even unsealed, and I knew I would be in for a treat. Tender, soft, and supple, each generous round was the perfect texture, made even more impressive due to the time and travel involved. Every bite packs in an ideal amount of chips to add bursts of rich chocolate flavor without dominating the whole cookie. A delightful combination of flavors that seems well suited for all seasons, this is one recipe I’m definitely adding into my collection.

The next, truly outstanding creation came courtesy of Loose Leaf Vegan. Her impeccable Chai Thumbprint Cookies rang with a measured balance of salt and spices, culminating in luscious pools of toothsome fudge on top. Supported by a pillow-y yet satisfyingly dense base, the rich chocolate filling absolutely put these morsels over the top. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it though, since I selfishly horded, and have since eaten, every last cookie by myself. The baked beauties are just too good to share.

Unfortunately, the final package didn’t fare as well in the hands of our good old postal system. Delivered with a resounding thud at the front door, it’s no surprise that the contents were crumbled to almost indistinguishable grains of sand. At least two or three good bites survived intact, and I was still able to savor the Orange Almond Cookies and Chocolate Vanilla Swirl Cookies baked by Not So Cheesy Kitchen. Of the two buttery shortbread cookies, I was particularly fond of the subtle citrus notes in the former. Though I could have eaten a boxful in that one sitting, I was happy to get a fine sampling all the same.

As for my own contribution to this grand exchange, I shared a few dozen Speculoos (AKA Cookie Butter) Pinwheel Cookies. Rolled with a stripe of chocolate dough, the trendy brown sugar and cinnamon spread sings with harmonious contrasting tastes. That recipe is one I’ve shared with Go Dairy Free, so please pop on over there to grab the details.

This was my very first cookie swap of any sort, and I can tell you without hesitation that it certainly won’t be my last.

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