BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Rush Hour

Rhythmically, persistently, a small child is kicking me in the shins. Propelling his legs with blissful abandon beyond the constraints of his stroller, the rubber-soled shoes strike with a dull thud as regularly as a metronome. This is the least of my concerns though, as I struggle to find an open pocket of air in the overcrowded BART car. A nauseating bouquet of sweat, cologne, and Chinese takeout infiltrates my lungs, mingling together in one pungent, irrepressible plume. Each inhalation skews slightly to one or the other, though none holds particular appeal. Breathing becomes a careful, measured effort, akin to meditation.

Hurtling through tunnels, cutting across highways and open fields, chasing after the fading sun, the train starts and stops, yet not a single person moves an inch. Wedged firmly in place, it would be impossible to fall, even if one gave up standing on their own volition. Familiar vistas flash by through smudged windows, but from my vantage point staring directly into some tall man’s armpit, the scenery looks all the same to me. Somewhere between Embarcadero and West Oakland, I find myself wearing someone else’s headphone wires. Perhaps the whole mob, myself included, is beginning to merge into a single person.

Compared to many, my trip across the bay is mercifully short. Swimming upstream against the current of writhing arms and legs, it takes many gentle shoves, a few accidentally trampled feet, and many profuse apologies to disentangle myself from the mass when the doors finally open at my home station. The stagnant but open air has never felt so good. To all the faithful, tireless workers who continue forward on their journeys, to repeat the trip once again the next day, again and again with no end in sight: I salute you. That onerous commute is a full time job, in and of itself.

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Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!


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Summer Rains

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the summer rains.

The cool relief of a cloud burst washing away the built up pressure of the day. The rumble and crack of rolling thunder in the darkness, a lumbering giant invisible in the night sky. The damp long grasses, freckled with pinpricks of dew in the morning. Each component, tactile and visceral, makes up its own flashbulb memory; distinctive, yet distinctly separate. There’s no timestamp, no geolocation, no metadata to click through and extract more information. Surely there were many rainstorms that visited through my childhood, appearing and fading away much like the last, blending into one amalgamated vision, softened by time and distance.

I don’t know how I grew so attached to the comfortable rhythm of weather patterns, so predictable that they were more reliable than the calendar as an indication of the passing days. Back then, summer was endless, stretching on through countless unscheduled weeks, lazy afternoons one after the other, not a hint of stress or guilt associated with inactivity. Punctuating the sweltering evenings with a quiet, soothing staccato on the window panes, their whispered song serving as a lullaby. Filling my mind and washing away the harsh edges, the summer rains were my meditation.

There are no more summer rains these days, far removed from the climate of my childhood. I miss them deeply because their music sang of comfort, an audible reminder of my shelter from the storm. It was my song, set on repeat for days on end; after so many years, it became my anthem.


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Jack of All Trades

Anything meat can do, plants can do better.

This isn’t news, but affirmation of fact. Brilliant marvels of engineering, science, and nutrition are bringing greater alternatives to the market every day, but sometimes it seems like the best substitutes have been right under our noses all along, growing in plain sight. Jackfruit is that underdog; the geeky guy in high school that ends up getting the girl and beating the popular kids at their own game. All it takes is a new perspective, some small insight and self-discovery, to unlock its full potential.

Though I adore eating the fresh, sweet fruit, the young, canned jackfruit in brine is the meat of the matter here. Slowly simmered in an aromatic marinade inspired by sweet tea, an irreplaceable summertime brew designed for maximum refreshment, these immature arils tenderize to a texture almost indistinguishable from pulled pork. Spiked with fresh lemon, it has a tart, sweet-and-sour balance, pulling out all the savory stops.

Deceptively simple, the ginger-scallion slaw is not to be underestimated, nor overlooked. Crisp, cooling, yet bright and invigorating in flavor, I could honestly just eat this by the bowlful. It’s an ideal foil to the richly meaty main, and truly completes this deeply satisfying sandwich.

Thinking along the lines of complete culinary inclusion and offering a main dish to suit all diets, I was also inspired by the Steviva Blogger Challenge.

Sugar is neither stranger nor foe to me. As a baker with a serious sweet tooth, I consider myself very lucky that it’s one ingredient that I don’t need to worry about. Many are far more sensitive, and it always bums me out when I can’t share my latest creations with them. For this dish, while you could use plain granulated sugar in a pinch, plant-based Erysweet, made of erythritol, sweetens the deal. It’s not as sweet as table sugar, so it merely smooths out the harsh edges of the citrus and tea in this tangy marinade.

Life is sweeter when it can be shared. Meatless, sugarless, or otherwise, this is a dish that everyone can enjoy*.

*This is especially true if you use tamari instead of soy sauce and opt for gluten-free buns if wheat is an additional concern!

Sugar-Free Sweet Tea Pulled Jackfruit

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Thinly Sliced (About 1 Cup)
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Black Tea Leaves
1/4 Cup Erysweet (or 3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar if Not Sugar-Free)
1/4 Cup Lemon Juice
1/4 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
14 Ounces Young Jackfruit, Drained and Rinsed
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, Crushed
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

Ginger-Scallion Slaw:

1 Cup Roughly Chopped Scallions
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Chopped
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1/2 Medium Head Green Cabbage, Shredded (about 6 Cups)
1 Cup Shredded Carrots

3 – 4 Sandwich Buns, for Serving

Place a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Add the oil and onion, stirring periodically until softened and aromatic. Introduce the garlic and tea leaves next, cooking until golden all over. Give it time, because this could take 10 – 15 minutes to properly brown. Stir in the Erysweet (or sugar, if you’re not worried about making this sugar-free) and then quickly deglaze by pouring in the lemon juice, vegetable stock, and soy sauce all at once. Thoroughly scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure that nothing is sticking and burning.

Add the jackfruit, rosemary, and pepper next, stirring gently to incorporate without splashing. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer until most of the liquid evaporates; about 20 – 30 minutes. Use the side of your spatula to roughly mash/shred the jackfruit once it’s fork-tender.

For the slaw, toss the scallions, ginger, lemon juice, vinegar, and salt into your blender. Pulse to break down the more fibrous aromatics, pausing to scrape down the sides of the container if needed. With the motor running, slowly stream in the olive oil to achieve a creamy emulsification. Pour the dressing over the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl, mixing to thoroughly coat all of the veggie shreds.

To serve, lightly toast the buns and top with generous spoonfuls of the stewed jackfruit and slaw. Devour immediately! These are unapologetically messy sandwiches, so don’t be afraid to dive right in trying to be dainty about it. The buns will only grow progressively more soggy once fully assembled.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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As Good As Ten Mothers

Instantly, his face contorted with a mixture of skepticism and disgust. Though I knew the concept was a bit unconventional, I didn’t realize just how contentious it could be. Just one mention of the recipe sent this man into a fit of mock dry heaves, illustrating the depth of his disapproval with comic effect.

That’s when I knew I had to make it.

More infamous than any other single element of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, garlic ice cream has become the main event for many. Tiny cones of soft serve can be found in every corner of the pungent fair grounds, delighting and appalling in equal measure. Gaining mainstream traction, or at least dubious acceptance, purely as a novelty, the idea nonetheless captured my imagination. Rather than playing it up as a token offering merely for shock value, my goal was to truly celebrate the sweeter side of garlic.

Slowly roasted to golden caramelized perfection, the cloves lose their assertive, harsh bite, bringing their natural sugars to the fore. Every cook and eater the world over has experienced this glorious transformation and knows the magic well. The real secret ingredient in my blend, however, is black garlic. Aged for at least 30 days, the cloves turn into spreadable nuggets of pure garlic candy. The mysterious process transforms the ubiquitous seasoning into an entirely new ingredient, difficult to describe but impossible to forget. It’s the key here to balancing out the more savory undertones of the garlic, while maintaining its integrity. The end results should still taste like garlic, after all- Not like syrupy scampi sauce.

Crunchy garlic chips aren’t necessary to enjoy the full effect of this ode to garlic, but they do undeniably elevate it to a higher level, fit for a fancy affair if you should be so bold. Though they make the scoops look tiny, go for the giant, oversized cloves found in elephant garlic, which are easily 4 times the size of the average bulb and far milder in flavor. They’ll add a satisfying crunch to contrast with this creamy, cool treat.

Granted, this unusual frozen dessert will not be for everyone, like my aforementioned critical friend. Proceed with an open mind and a genuine love of garlic, and you will be in for a treat.

In reference to the post title, if you didn’t see the eponymous documentary, you really must do yourself a favor and download it, posthaste. Another friend on mine, not featured in this brief story, has told me that it was what inspired her to move to California many years ago.

Garlic Ice Cream

3 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 1/2 Tablespoons Arrowroot
2/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Vegan Cream Cheese
1 Tablespoon Black Garlic, Mashed
2 Teaspoons Roasted Garlic, Mashed

Garlic Chips (Optional):

2 – 3 Cloves Elephant Garlic
Olive Oil Spray

To make the ice cream, simply toss all the ingredients into your trusty blender or food processor. Thoroughly puree on high speed for for 2 – 3 minutes, until completely smooth. Pass the mixture through a fine strainer to ensure a flawlessly silky texture, if desired.

Transfer to a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture just comes to a boil. Turn off the heat and let cool. Chill for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator before churning in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Spoon the soft ice cream into an airtight container, and let set in the freezer for at least 3 hours before serving, until solid enough to scoop.

For the garlic chips, peel and slice the giant cloves of elephant garlic as thinly as possible. If you have a small mandoline to ensure consistency, now is when you want to break it out. Lay out the slices in one even layer on a silpat- or parchment paper-line baking sheet, making sure that none overlap.

Lightly spritz with olive oil to evenly coat the pieces. Bake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees 15 – 30 minutes (depending on the thickness of your slices), rotating the pan and flipping over the slices every 10 minutes or so to ensure even cooking, until golden brown and crispy. Let cool and store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 – 3 days, maximum. Top scoops of ice cream with garlic chips as desired.

Makes About 1 Quart Ice Cream

Printable Recipe