Feta Accompli

Feta, the stuff of myth and legend, has been a hot commodity since Byzantine Greece, first appearing in written record in Homer’s Odyssey. Loosely described as curdled sheep’s milk, it was the Cyclops that began what could be considered the first cottage industry business out of his cave.

Not to discount the early efforts of an innovative entrepreneur, I just can’t help but think it’s high time to stop following the herd. Over 6,000 years later, we ought to collectively crawl out from under that rock and start a new narrative for feta. No more sheep, no more strife.

Celebrating a robust 50-year heritage, Follow Your Heart may not have quite the same storied lineage, but they’re certainly out there making history. Introducing the very first dairy-free crumbled feta on the modern market, the “alternative” is one so good, it’s really impossible to justify traditional methods.

Firm, squeaky curds, briny and and slightly sour, like buttery unsweetened yogurt, they’re good enough to Greek out about. Each package contains diverse proportions of gleaming white morsels, ranging from nuggets the size of marbles to tiny specks akin to sea salt or coarsely ground pepper. This varied consistency is ideal for most applications; the smaller pieces evenly coat the vegetables, grains, or proteins in the mix, while the heftier chunks stand out for bold bites of concentrated cheesy flavor.

It’s a good thing there’s such a wide range of particle sizes, including such a fine spray that defies roving fingers, because it would otherwise be too tempting to simply eat out of hand.

This feta was born to be used in recipes, and not just salads, either. Blending Greek origins with Italian inspiration, it’s right at home in pillowy soft planks of fresh baked focaccia. Here, it gets mixed into the dough itself to infuse that distinctive umami flavor throughout, with more sprinkled directly on top for an irresistible browned surface. Nothing more is needed to dress up such a simple but bold bread, though it would be pretty incredible sliced in half and filled with your favorite sandwich fixings.

Soft, tender, and buttery slabs of flat bread would be hard enough to resist, but when each slice has morsels of compellingly salty feta embedded into every bite, no amount of willpower stands a chance. Give in and take a big bite; as your teeth sink into the crisp, caramelized crust, pushing past toasted garlic and aromatic herbs, you’ll wonder why you don’t bake bread everyday. That is, until you polish off a pan in record time, perhaps. It might be dangerous to make a regular habit. The feta is both the cherry on top, and part of the essential foundation. No other cheese will do, and certainly not one made from conventional dairy.

Follow your heart, mind, and stomach to a better feta. This will go down in history as yet another innovation that makes milk moot.

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Wordless Wednesday: Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

Kimchi Soup with wood ear mushrooms, cabbage, miso

Chickpea Panisse with new mexico chili, spinach, tokyo turnip, grapefruit chermoula, sunchoke, smoked paprika

Brussels Sprouts with preserved yuzu, cashew, tamari, aleppo

Spicy Tomato Pizza with olive, caper, cashew puree, chili oil, parsley + extra maitake mushrooms

Gather
2200 Oxford St.
Berkeley, CA 94704

(Title Reference; Seize the Day)

Scoby Snacks

While the rest of the world came down with a serious case of sourdough fever, I remained immune. In San Francisco, of all places, where starter was almost literally growing on trees, nothing could convince me to try taming the wild yeast once again. Multiple attempts have proven that I’m just the neglectful sort of child that would repeatedly kill their own mother, and the last thing I needed was more heartbreak. Watching bakers boast of plump, golden loaves all across the internet, I was impressed, but remained unmoved. The only living organism I wanted to tend to was my beloved fur baby, and maybe myself, I suppose, on my better days.

Then, out of the blue, a kind neighbor offered extra kombucha scobys for free. Far less demanding dough-mestic responsibilities, all you need to do is brew a big pot of tea, plop in a disc of fungus, and forget about it for a few weeks. I could do that!

More accurately, a scoby is not a mushroom, but a “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast,” thus the acronym. Touted for its powerful probiotic quotient, the yeast is what converts sugars into CO2 and ethanol, and the bacteria then convert the ethanol into amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins. Though the resulting flavors are quite complex, the procedure is not. The most important ingredient is time, which was the only thing I had in abundance at the beginning of quarantine. After 2 – 4 weeks, you have a refreshing brew to quench your thirst, and a brand new scoby to do it all again.

After a few batches, of course, the scobys start to stack up. It’s wise to keep backups in a scoby hotel if everything should go awry, but even with robust reserves, there’s bound to be excess eventually. There’s no such thing as a useless scoby, however! I may not kill my mothers anymore, but sometimes, I will confess to eating them.

Yes, you can eat your scobys! They look like disgusting sheets of phlegm, but trust me, their culinary value far outshines their initial appearance. (Notice I did not include a photo of my scobys. I just can’t make that look appetizing.)

Puree any amount to seamlessly weave it into your daily diet, particularly in:

  • Smoothies
  • Blended Soups (especially chilled soups, like gazpacho)
  • Fruit Leather
  • Baking (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1 large egg)
  • Creamy Dressings or Vinaigrette (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1/4 cup oil)
  • Dog Food or Treats

While brainstorming new ideas for using up this bounty, it’s most useful when I think about it like yogurt. Once blended, it’s thick and somewhat creamy, sour and tangy, and works well as a binder. Given its origins, I typically pair it with tea or coffee flavors by default, which is how this verdant verrine came about.

A fresh batch of green tea booch inspired this simple layered snack. Excess scoby is blended into the matcha base along with non-dairy milk for a creamy, pleasantly bitter, subtly sweet start. Set with agar like conventional Japanese kanten, a second stripe of translucent kombucha gel rests on top, almost like an adult Jello cup. Since each component is only lightly cooked, brought to the brink of a boil just to properly hydrate the agar, you’ll get the greatest benefits from all those live probiotics, and the freshest flavor from the tea.

There are some things in life you can never have to much of: love, fresh air, chocolate… And now, I’d like to add kombucha scobys to that list. Before you start cooking, don’t forget to spread the joy with your neighbors. You can cut a scoby into pieces and each fragment remains as potent as the whole for kick-starting a new brew. If you’re nearby in the area, hit me up for a scoby fix to dive into this fuzzy ferment yourself! Otherwise, it’s just as simple to start from scratch with store-bought culture. I promise, it’s much easier than sourdough, and the results are just as gratifying.

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Cutting Edge Cuisine

Let’s cut to the chase: Ceramic knives don’t get the respect, or the place of honor on the cutting board, that they deserve.

Ceramic may sound like a delicate, impractically fragile material to make strong, sturdy kitchen implements from, but it’s different from the dainty plates and coffee cups sitting in the cabinet. My top recommendation, Vos Knife, uses zirconium oxide, which is even harder than stainless steel or carbon steel. It’s more likely that your vegetables will shatter than the blade here.

Light as a feather, ceramic knives glide through fresh produce like a breeze, making them ideal for precision cuts, garnishes, and fine dices. The sharp edges, combined with such easy handling gives the user complete control. No more squished tomatoes or ragged, stringy celery. Instead, imagine slices of crisp apples so paper-thin that you could read through them. If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, they’re ideal for practicing knife skills.

Low-maintenance and long-lasting, ceramic knives retain a razor-sharp edge considerably longer than metal knives, which means they rarely need to be sharpened. As an added benefit, they’re almost impervious to stains and odors. Go ahead, chop those onions with abandon! Butcher your bloodiest red beets! It may look like a horror scene in the kitchen, but you won’t shed any tears over it.

The Vos Ceramic Knife in particular has a specially designed ergonomic grip, fitting like a glove in hands both big and small. The same can be said for all of their colorful, practical equipment. The ceramic peeler especially, as part of the 7-piece utility set, has quickly become an indispensable staple in my tool kit. Effortless zucchini ribbons, without busting out the bulky spiralizer? Sign me up!

Or, in this case, how about sweet potato fettuccine in a creamy melted onion sauce? Thin shavings of onion caramelize and seem to dissolve away into a rich cloak that fits the tender strands of spuds like a glove. This is where the chef’s knife really shines, making easy work on those onions without any tears. A sharp knife will damage fewer cells in the onion, thereby releasing less of the irritating oxalic acid into the air. Goggles, chewing gum, lighting candles, and other folk remedies can’t compare; the truth hurts, but that’s nothing to cry over.

Further expediting the caramelization process is a tiny pinch of baking soda. It’s the secret ingredient that softens, browns, and breaks down the onions in a fraction of the time.

Though simple in concept and effortless to prepare, the complex flavors could have anyone fooled. You could keep it straightforward and serve this dish as a side, or dress it up with crispy sauteed tempeh and toasted pecans for a dynamite main entree. If you just start with the right tools, half the work is already done.

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Run Down Runaround

Walking into Philip Gelb‘s underground restaurant, you never know quite what to expect for dinner, no matter how carefully you study the menu in advance. It’s been many months now since I had the luxury of that fully immersive, in-person experience, but there are some moments indelibly imprinted in my memory.

It was a taste unlike any other I had encountered before, being shamefully uneducated on the entire Caribbean culinary canon in general. Leading with heady aromatics, simultaneously fiery hot yet creamy and soothing, it’s both familiar and entirely foreign. Tender vegetables enveloped in a voluptuous broth, almost thick enough to qualify as custard, smoldered quietly in deep earthen bowls. Dissecting the fundamental building blocks, the spices didn’t appear particularly exotic, nothing terribly esoteric; the combination of seemingly discordant elements, mixed with a generous pinch of technique, is where the true magic happens.

Run down stew is a staple of Jamaican cuisine, typically made with seafood, but no two cooks make it quite the same way. Coconut milk is the only constant, utterly irreplaceable component. Long simmered over low heat, the rich broth reduces to concentrate the flavor, thicken to a velvety consistency, and take on a subtly toasted, nutty aroma. Flavor like that doesn’t come out of a can; time and patience are really the most important ingredients here.

The genesis of the name is a bit murky, some attributing it to the way it’s cooked down and some of the more delicate vegetables fall apart. Personally, I’d like to believe that it comes from the ability to revive anyone who’s feeling a bit run down themselves. Forget about watery chicken soup; this stuff can truly soothe the soul.

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