Hummus

Hummus is smeared across my shoes, embedded into the breathable synthetic fiber, clinging tenaciously inside the vents. It’s as much a part of me as it is my footwear now, inextricably melded into the very foundation of existence.

In Israel, hummus is not an appetizer or a condiment; hummus is a meal. Thick swirls of silken chickpea puree undulate behind lashings of fiery red or green schug, mountains of minced garlic and onions, whole beans, and a flurry of smoked paprika, to be scooped up in warm, soft, pillowy pita bread, all in one fell swoop. Mind you, that’s only the most basic preparation, the bare minimum for admission.

Generous pools of toasted sesame tahini and grassy olive oil meet and mingle, blending, harmonizing together. Tiny rafts of minced parsley float on top, pushed along by the lively desert air. A few heavenly bites in, and small dish of fresh chopped tomatoes and cucumbers suddenly arrives at the table, unannounced. Are they complimentary? Did I order them and forget? This is best left unquestioned, because their brightness is an indispensable part of the party now.

More people pull up chairs, dropping mashed eggplant and strings of pickled red cabbage as they land. Roasted mushrooms sparkling in the midday sun, teasing umami flavor across every bite. A pinch of za’atar here, a sprinkle of sumac there, herbaceous, tangy, tart; no two tastes are ever quite the same. Chasing the same high becomes maddening, an impossible pursuit, yet never once does the endeavor disappoint.

Temperatures begin to fall as the sky glows orange, slowly fading to deeper and darker shades of red. Still, the central bowl remains as bountiful as the conversation, changing shape and color as friends filter in and out, adding their own flavors into the mix. Sometimes spicier, sometimes saltier, the unique blend always seems to suit the personalities gathering around.

Should the bottomless platter of pita travel too far out of reach, outstretched forks and spoons dart out like heat-seeking missiles, locked on to the central schmear. For all intents and purposes, it’s a creamy salad at this point, so why not skip the formalities and go straight for the good stuff?

When the moon trades shifts with the sun, stars blaze ahead, never once allowing darkness to descend. Alley cats cautiously emerge to scavenge for scraps; perhaps an errant chickpea that escaped, a messy dollop of baba ganoush splattered on the sidewalk below. The day continues on heedless of time, interrupted only by the intermittent silence of chewing. Only when the spread is fully demolished, dishes wiped clean, does the party finally pack it in.

Hummus is not just a type of food. Hummus is a way of life.

Lest I leave you hungry for more, here are a few of my favorite hummus recipes:

Broccoli and “Cheese” Hummus
Curry in a Hurry Hummus
Hummiki (Hummus-Tzatziki)
Hummus Primavera
Nacho Hummus

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The Lion’s Share

Do you know where your chocolate comes from? No, not the grocery store, or even the country of origin for the beans. More to the point, do you know who your chocolate comes from?

Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial, highly processed to maintain consistency and low prices, but at the expense of nuanced flavor, to say nothing of the human cost. Only a handful of chocolate makers are producing candy for the mass market, but smaller startups are turning the cacao world on its head by starting from the ground up.

Dandelion Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker rooted in the Mission District of San Francisco. One of the very few operations in the US that go through the full process of roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, and tempering cacao beans in small batches, it’s a full three to four days before any bars are even formed or packaged- all by hand, I might add.

Here, the unique properties extracted through fermenting and roasting high quality beans are celebrated rather than muted. Even the sweetest blends minimize the use of sugar, adding just enough to accentuate the inherent flavors of the cacao, and dairy is never a consideration. Notably, neither is additional cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, or any of the other usual chocolate suspects. Without these typical crutches, everything you taste comes solely from the bean at hand. Finally, it’s chocolate that can speak for itself, and the message is loud and clear: There’s nothing comparable on the market, and almost certainly nothing better.

The real treat is getting to see how it’s all made firsthand, through factory tours and generous tastings if you’re lucky enough to be in town. While the cafe is still light on vegan eats, the drinks are really where it’s at. Incredibly rich, dense, decadent hot chocolate put them on the map years ago, but for a lighter, one-of-a-kind refresher on a hot summer’s day, you really must try the cacao smoothie. If you’ve never had fresh cacao before, brace yourself; this tastes nothing like chocolate. Believe it or not, the tropical fruit is more evocative of pineapple, but mild and with no acidity, blending in notes of sweet Meyer lemon. When given the such a rare opportunity, I would implore you to taste the range of flavors the whole fruit is capable of.

Chocolate is so much more than cheap Halloween handouts. Dandelion Chocolate is working to change that misconception, one handmade bar at a time.

Start Something Delicious

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

The hardest part of any new endeavor, big or small, is just knowing where to start. That much is true for figuring out the opening sentence of a new blog post, building a cabinet from Ikea, or embarking on a different dietary path. Many people find the concept of veganism daunting simply because they don’t know where to begin. Seen as one complex tangle of ethics and guidelines, it’s nearly impossible to pick out one thread from that ball of yarn, let alone unsnarl it from that knotted mess. Setting yourself up for success means starting small. Personally, that brings me to the pantry, where all good meals take shape.

Having a solid supply of essential ingredients makes everything else possible, and I’m not just talking about the meals that are directly impacted by such delicious influence. Being properly fueled is the key to thriving, not just surviving, to power smarter decisions, more positive perspectives, and greater adventures at large. Food is where everything really begins, so my Ultimate Vegan Starter Kit focuses in on the staples that make up the foundation of my plant-based arsenal.

Starting strong also means knowing where to shop, which is why I always turn to iHerb. It’s one-stop shopping for all things vegan, compiled for easy reference in their new Vegan Specialty Store. Unlike other online grocers, iHerb takes the time to label and categorize all of their goods by dietary needs, so you can search specifically for items that are plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, separately or all together if needed! Considering the fact that there are over 6,800 vegan products to chose from, that eliminates the typical search frustration of scrolling through blurry pictures of print labels, and gets right to the good stuff. Orders are shipped to over 150 countries straight from climate-controlled distribution centers, ensuring the quality of their products. You’ll never receive expired goods, in sharp contrast to the gamble you sometimes take when purchasing from massive, multichannel online retailers. If there are ever any concerns, you can email or chat online with a real person 24 hours a day 7 days a week, speaking 10 different languages, no less! From this one-stop shopping experience, I have a few essential recommendations for building your plant-based pantry with ease, and always in good taste.

Stocking a kitchen can sound like a daunting task, but it really isn’t too difficult to gather the essential ingredients that will serve you well through countless meals.

First, I always make sure to have legumes and pulses on hand. That means plenty of canned chickpeas and black beans for ease and convenience, and quick-cooking Arrowhead Mills red lentils. Everything from soul-satisfying soups to rich gravies are no more than 15 minutes away since lentils need no soaking to become meltingly tender. Tofu is like the Swiss army knife of vegan cuisine, effortlessly absorbing any sauce it’s dressed with to make an entirely new dish every time. For my money, Mori-Nu is one of the best candidates to keep around, since it’s completely shelf-stable until opened, and blends the most smoothly for completely silken desserts or smoothies.

Nuts and seeds of all varieties are welcome, although particular emphasis is placed on buttery yet neutral raw cashews, such as those from Bergin Fruit and Nut Company since they can be used to make everything from cheese to mousse. Smooth almond butter is another indispensable staple, and my favorite is Barney Butter since it has no added sugar or salt, making it perfect for any application sweet or savory. Although coconuts are technically fruits, I place them in the same category for the sake of cupboard organization. You could go crazy with all the different types of dried coconut options out there, but my go-to is the Edward & Sons, Let’s Do Organic, 100% Organic Unsweetened Coconut Flakes for their thick cut strips and fresh flavor.

When it comes to seasonings, my spice rack is about a mile long, but there are definitely some bottles that see a lot more use than others. Onion powder, such as that produced by Frontier was a bit of a sleeper hit at the beginning, since I hadn’t anticipated the uniquely savory essence it could contribute even in dishes that aren’t overtly onion-y. Plus, it’s fantastic in recipes that aren’t cooked, since it doesn’t have the sharp, harsh bite of a raw fresh onion. Salt is found in at least a dozen different formats across my stockpile, from coarse to fine, plain to seasoned, and each one has its own special purpose. Gustus Vitae smoked salt is the one I break out for extra fancy foods, since it delivers such a bold, earthy punch, no matter what. It’s a good substitute for liquid smoke as well, in case that’s a trickier item to hunt down. Staying on the salty side, tamari and soy sauce are both the traditional top dogs for instant umami gratification, but there should also be space on the shelf for Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. The differences are faint, but important. It has a lighter flavor that isn’t as overbearing on more delicate dishes, in my humble opinion. The spray bottle format is also quite convenient for spritzing on freshly popped popcorn or a steaming hot baked potato. In a related vein, white miso paste makes all sorts of savories sing, with far more nuance than plain old sodium. Eden Soy makes a variety of organic miso options, but you can also find chickpea miso in case soy is a concern.

Vegan catnip, AKA nutritional yeast, is perhaps the single most important yet misunderstood ingredient when transitioning away from dairy. In small doses, it contributes a subtly buttery taste, and can develop into a full cheesy extravaganza when added with gusto. It can be bought in bulk, but quality varies greatly. To those who think they don’t like it, I would implore you to examine the source before turning up your nose. I’ve used KAL since my earliest days of veganism almost two decades ago, and wouldn’t consider anything else at this point. It has substantial flakes and while some brands can smell like funky gym socks, this one is pure umami bliss.

A house is not a home without pasta, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be plain old white wheat noodles. I love instantly injecting a quick meal with some extra nutrition by using legume-based pasta, such as Seapoint Farms edamame fettuccine. It, along with chickpea, lentil, or black bean noodles have the added benefit of being gluten-free, but I love them for the extra dose of protein they contribute, to say nothing of the distinctive textures and tastes. All you really need to do is toss the colorful strands with some melted buttery coconut oil for some simple, satisfying comfort food.

So, how do all these seemingly discordant components come together to make a delicious meatless meal? I’m glad you asked! There are certain homemade staples I always have on hand as well, essential components that help make a feel more complete, ready and waiting to dispense at will.

Everything is better with bacon, right? As long as it’s meatless bacon, I would have to agree! That impossibly savory, smoky flavor is shockingly easy to replicate on a wide range of plant-based platforms, utilizing everything from eggplant to mushrooms and even banana peels. Reaching into my pantry for the most accessible option, crispy coconut chips form the foundation of my favorite cured pork facsimile.

Invariably, when confronted with the choice of going vegan or staying stuck, the most common refrain from anyone considering the plunge is that they would miss cheese too much. Granted, this was a real concern a decade ago, when I ate my fair share of naked pizzas and waxy grilled cheese sandwiches, there are superlative alternatives now on the market for every type of funky, gooey, or sharp craving any dairy addict may crave. In a pinch, you can even whip up an incredibly authentic Parmesan doppelganger from little more than ground nuts in a pinch of salt! This is one of those recipes that sounds way too good to be true, until you try it.

Egg replacers have long gotten the lion’s share of attention for their essential role in baking, but only recently has the spotlight turned to their place on the table as a stand-alone protein. My goal for this substitute isn’t to make airy sponge cakes or dense, custard-based ice creams, but scramble up a better breakfast entrée. Now you can make your own liquid egg mix, made to JUST pour and go, if you catch my drift…

The grand finale for all this delicious meal prep culminates in the easiest, creamiest, richest vegan carbonara you’ve ever twirled around a fork. Stunningly high in protein and fiber, devoid of even a single drop of dairy, beyond the pull of pork, and without ever breaking an egg, this is the ultimate vegan dinner, made from the ultimate vegan starter kit. After one bite of such a comforting, instantly gratifying dinner, you’ll wonder what was ever stopping you from making the plunge.

Continue reading “Start Something Delicious”

Hot Take on Hot Lunch

Living in the moment is best way to experience life, unencumbered by past regrets and future concerns, but it certainly has its pitfalls, too. Wrapped up in summertime revelry, I didn’t even realize that we’re fast approaching doomsday for every child and young adult under the age of 18: The first day of school. Creeping earlier and earlier across the calendar every year, I feel a bit blindsided to learn that local school will be back in session as early as next week. What kind of cruel joke is that, to pull children out of the sun’s golden glow, away from the beckoning beaches and parks, stuffing them into stiffing locked rooms without windows, without joy, without apologies? Hopefully the transition isn’t as harsh as memory suggests, but it’s still a hard sacrifice to make for anyone yearning to squeeze the very last drops of sweetness out of this fleeting season.

If there was anything that could inspire any enthusiasm for this kind of sacrifice, it would have to be the promise of good food. Of course, that’s pretty much the opposite of what you can expect from any institutional cafeteria menu, which is why a properly packed lunch is essential. Though the dark days of school lunches are well behind me, the memories of soggy PB + J sandwiches and stale granola bars are indelibly seared into my memory. No one should have to endure such hardship, especially if they hope to put any positive energy into their education after noon.

Ages ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was still in high school, I developed a compact little e-book entitled Lunchbox Bites, filled with all the sweet and savory morsels that got me from homeroom to sixth period. No longer available for sale, it’s been languishing among all the forgotten recipes gathering dust in my digital archive. It seems such a shame to waste this potentially helpful resource, as new generations of young vegans grow up with the same hunger for quality nutrition as I once did.

For the love of food, for the good of the community, I’m now making Lunchbox Bites completely free to download. Bringing back old favorites like Coffee Buzz Energy Bars and Root Beer Pudding, there’s plenty for students of all ages to enjoy. Even if you’re just a student of life, there’s never a bad time to enjoy a big batch of Hummus Crackers, too.

Forgive me, if you would, for the antiquated terminology and terrible photography. Consider it an heirloom, a relic of a bygone era. “Margarine” should be read as “vegan butter,” “soymilk” simply as “non-dairy milk” (any variety will do), and canola oil, while fine, would be better if replaced by a light olive oil, avocado oil, or rice bran oil. There’s still a whole lot of good to reap from these basic concepts, and I must admit, it’s somewhat charming to take in the full glory of this throwback to a simpler time.

Prepare yourself properly for a brand new school year; don’t show up hungry, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, make sure you bring enough to share with the class. Cafeteria food doesn’t hold a candle to anything homemade.