Caring is Sharing

Sometimes, being vegan is easier said than done, especially depending on where you live. Even as veganism rises in popularity, many restaurants and grocery stores still have only a small selection of plant-based options. However, this movement has been continuously on the rise and wider varieties of food and cosmetic items have popped up, particularly online. The accessibility of these virtual shopping ops mean that it’s effortless to spoil that special vegan in your life with thoughtful, cruelty-free gifts shipped directly to their door.

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Totopos por Todos

In the same spirit of equally amorphous concepts like salads and curries, basically anything you throw on top of tortilla chips can be considered nachos. In fact, many further blur the lines with alternative bases like pita chips or potato chips, deftly dancing across cultural boundaries with ease.

Unlike the aforementioned culinary abstractions, nachos can trace their lineage directly to one single innovator. Mr. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maître d’ of Club Victoria in Piedras Negras, Mexico was not even a chef, but a tirelessly hospitable host. When, in 1943, a group arrived at the restaurant and the cook was no where to be found, he leapt into action. Piling up what scant ingredients he could find, the towering plate of tortilla chips topped with sliced jalapeños and melted cheese was an instant hit. Named for the man of the moment, the Nachos Especiales, would forever change the way that Mexicans, Americans, and the world at large, ate their chips.

There’s no one “right” or “best” way to make nachos; they’re the ultimate blank slate, infinitely adaptable to your personal tastes. Though it defies the conventionally accepted definition, even the chips are variable, if you’d rather a base of fries or tots. Personally, I must insist that some form of cheese or queso is mandatory, but from there, just a few ideas for toppings include…

  • guacamole or diced avocado
  • pico de gallo
  • shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • fresh spinach
  • fresh or grilled corn
  • roasted red peppers
  • halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • whole pinto or black beans
  • re-fried beans
  • sliced black olives
  • fresh or pickled jalapeño
  • fresh or pickled red onions
  • meatless grounds
  • pulled jackfruit
  • crumbled tofu
  • sour cream or cashew crema
  • hot sauce
  • pepitas
  • scallions
  • cilantro
  • fresh lime juice

That’s not even the half of it. Think about the possibilities for a breakfast variant, and even sweet options for dessert nachos! Given the endless choices, what are your go-to’s?

Kiss and Tell

One small batch of nostalgia, coming right up.

For someone who built a career on sweet treats, my kitchen has been churning out distinctly savory dishes lately, with desserts far and few between. It’s tough testing so many sugary indulgences when you’re baking for one, and the pandemic has cut severely into my opportunities to share. Still, there’s no denying the call of cravings, a deep, undeniable, almost primal urge for the comfort that only a bit of sugar might bring.

Large pies are out of the question, as are elaborate entremets. Nothing too fussy, nor too perishable in reasonable quantities for a solo eater to take down. Most days, I can satiate those innate desires with sensible poached pears or macerated strawberries with softly whipped coconut cream, but there’s something about the ritual of actually baking that soothes the soul, almost more than the act of eating the end results.

To that end, I turn to this scant handful of treats that comforted me as a child. Impossibly picky, there wasn’t much I wanted beyond the basics, which is where these cocoa kisses came in. Meringues tinted with a hint of chocolate, my mother modified a recipe right out of The Joy of Cooking to create a cookie that was crisp, light as a cloud, but slightly gooey and soft on the inside. Perhaps it’s not the proper form for a true meringue, though who’s to judge when they were snapped up as soon as they could cool?

Bringing down the yield to a more manageable quantity, you can whip up a batch in minutes, and feel just fine about devouring them just as quickly. Anytime I feel that familiar craving for nostalgic sweetness, I won’t deny it; this is the kind of self-care that everyone deserves.

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No Harm, No Fowl

To anyone who still hasn’t tried any of the myriad chicken alternatives on the market now, I must ask: What are you, chicken? Ten years ago, I would have understood the trepidation. They were more frequently referred to as “mock meats,” which was fitting, considering they generally made a mockery of vegans trying to win over dubious omnivores. Old school plant proteins certainly have their place, but to compete with the hyper-realistic options now readily available, it’s time to embrace the other, other, OTHER white meat.

The best thing about these hot new chicks, aside from the complete lack of cholesterol, death, and cruelty, of course, is the fact that they work seamlessly in any preexisting recipes you may have held dear. No need to give up those favorites, or even modify them! Anyone could go vegan by simply opting for different brands the next time they go shopping.

As a seasoned herbivore, sometimes I need to stand back and marvel at the selection. In many cases, I’m trying dishes for the first time at the ripe old age of thirty-something, simply because there hasn’t been a means for easy replication before. In other cases, greater accessibly lends itself to further experimentation, because there’s nothing to risk here. If it doesn’t turn out, there’s no big loss.

Such is the case with chicken salad. No, I never had chicken salad before going vegan. I was raised to believe that mayonnaise was the Devil’s condiment, and adding fruit to a savory dish was purely verboten. Nope, nothing about that odd mixture of gloppy white meat slopped between two slices of bread appealed to me, so I wasn’t exactly clamoring to recreate it.

Honestly, its a good thing it took me so long to warm to the concept. Only with age and experience can I fully appreciate the subtle nuances and intricacies that make it a perennial staple in so many households. It’s all about balance, harmonizing textures and tastes that contrast and compliment, elevating the everyday into something worth eating on repeat. Everyone has their own formula, tweaked to suit individual preferences, so at long last, this one is mine. I hope you personalize it in turn, allowing the classic to live on, without any animal ingredients involved.

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Strike Oil in Hill Country

As one of, if not the single most important pantry staple in kitchens worldwide, olive oil is big business. Production has more than tripled in the last 60 years, skyrocketing beyond 3,262,000 tons at last count in 2019. From that endless pool of golden oil, US production is a comparative drop in the bucket; less than half of a percent of that figure is grown domestically. Finding a local olive oil producer out in the middle of Texas, of all places, is akin to finding a mirage in the desert.

However, against all odds, Texas Hill Country Olive Co is not a heatstroke-induced day dream, but a real place just 40 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Austin. Winding down twisted roads that cut through open fields, the brief journey out of town drops you into a wholly different world. Situated on 17 acres of pristine alkaline soil, the orchard is home to 2,000 olive trees. What began in 2008 as a winery quickly evolved into a world-class olive oil powerhouse, netting the small business top honors in the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) for their very first harvest, back in 2010.

Locals and tourists alike gather to take a peek behind the curtain, enjoying guided tours that run the length of the grounds and back through the mills within the facility. When I visited back in late February, it was perhaps not the most auspicious time; still reeling from the devastating winter storm, the damage was readily apparent. Trees lay barren, cracked and bleeding vital sap down every weathered trunk. Typically, olive trees can withstand a change of about 15 degrees over a 24-hour period, not the mind-bending 90-degree shift we saw over the course of a week. Some can be saved by severe pruning, but others can only be salvaged as mulch or fertilizer at this point. The only olives visible outside were found on the ground, dried and withered, ghostly reminders of previous growth.

Despite that, there’s still hope in the forecast. Flowers are blossoming now alongside April showers, and each individual flower will develop into a single olive. All olives start green, slowly darkening on the branches to a dark mottled plum hue. Unlike large scale commercial operations, you won’t find any lye or chemicals to artificially force this brilliant metamorphosis. Come September and November, the harvest will begin, yielding anywhere from 18 – 35 pounds of fruit per tree. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that it take 14 pounds to make one 250ml (1 cup) bottle of olive oil.

Presses imported from Italy complete the transformation right on site. Flesh and pit alike go straight in; washed, crushed, and made into paste, the mash is agitated at 65 – 85 degrees to maintain the illustrious designation as “cold pressed.” Spun at high velocity, the paste is separated from the oil using centripetal force.

After seeing such love and labor go into every golden drop, you can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of flavors presented in each lavish tasting flight. Dancing through different blends and flavor-infusion oils, various balsamic vinegars are presented as complimentary and contrasting pairings. Explosive aromas overwhelm the senses, astounding the unprepared with every subsequent sip. It’s a heady experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Don’t fill up on the complimentary bread and apple dippers, though. The Orchard Bistro at the heart of the everyday operation is a destination in itself. Menus vary seasonally, sourcing local produce with an emphasis on cooking everything from scratch. Much is culled from their own garden for freshness that can’t be beat.

Ask the chef about vegan options, and they’ll make sure you’re taken care of. Perennial staples include crisply toasted crostini, whole olives, and olive oil with homemade sourdough bread for dipping. For a light lunch, the antipasto salad is far better than your average leafy affair; a riot of colors, adorned with pickled vegetables and marinated chickpeas. The heartier grain salad includes tender, toothsome farro with the produce du jour. Don’t forget to check the daily specials for the soup offerings, hot or cold. I was lucky enough to drink down a creamy cauliflower bisque when I stopped by, lavished not with heavy cream, but [of course] olive oil.

Plan to spend a day out at Hill Country Olive Oil Co, taking in the fresh air, relaxing on the dog-friendly patio, and if you come later in the summer, getting your game on in their planned bocce ball court. Make sure you grab a bottle of the signature strawberry-balsamic lemonade, sweetened primarily with the concentrated vinegar itself. Before long, you’ll feel like part of the family here, too.