Not Your Average Joe

Of all the foods that Americans try to claim as their own, the Sloppy Joe may be one of the few that an actually trace their roots back to the good old U.S. of A. First referenced in the 1930’s and attributed to a cook only credited as “Joe,” it has humble beginnings befitting of original description of “loose meat sandwiches.” Doesn’t that just sound finger-licking good?

Many similar dishes exist abroad, owing largely to the simplicity of the concept, but few would recognize the childhood staple outside of these United States. However, the idea is still as foreign to me as tikka masala. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate its unique nuances, but can’t quite put my finger on what makes the best renditions so great. I must have been at least 20 years old before I ever assembled my own meatless melange. My mom never made it for our family meals, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

Lacking that essential reference point, it would be some bold claim to say that my illegitimate version is the best… But feels entirely fitting for this modern recipe revival.

That’s because instead of using the predictable, one-note tomato sauce base, I’ve pumped up the flavor volume with The Beet Goes On sauce from Bold Palate Foods. With a natural, subtle sweetness, deeply earthy savory notes, and bright spices, it’s a dynamite starter for any daring dining adventure. Simmered into an equally hearty and heart-healthy base of tender lentils and chopped cauliflower, there’s no contest when comparing nutritional stats.

Though you could very happily slap this thick stew on a bun and call it a dinner, I love the snappy, tangy bite of dill pickles on top. Conventional garnishes might call for a slice of day-glow orange American cheese, but I prefer to go bold, pouring No Cows on This Ranch dressing all over instead. It’s hard to beat that creamy, cooling, herbaceous contrast.

Tired of toting such big buns? Alternate serving suggestions run the gamut from spaghetti to baked potatoes, french fries, or even tacos. No need to stick to the beaten path when brighter, bolder, and smarter options are out there.

Be bold, and enjoy with reckless abandon.

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Bedtime Story Plot Twist

How do you cope when you can’t sleep at night? Do you burrow deeper under the covers and count herds of sheep? Do you reach for your phone and scroll through social media feeds until your eyes can’t focus and the words all blur? Do you get out of bed to pull out a book, or binge-watch the latest trending series?

Me? I head straight to the kitchen. I’m not looking for a midnight snack, though. The first thing I’ll grab is a bag of flour. While the world outside is dark and still, all I want to do is revel in the soothing simplicity of making bread. Watching the yeast come to life, turning a shaggy, sticky batter into smooth, elastic dough. Gently, methodically kneading the warm mixture is almost like a massage enjoyed vicariously, without any messy human interaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly going through the motions, it’s more about the process than the product. It’s usually a simple sandwich loaf I’ll find rising on the counter in the morning, still bleary-eyed and barely awake. Sometimes I’ll get more ambitious and try something new, a curiosity that I can’t decipher until taking a bite later. In other cases, it’s the perfect opportunity to fulfill longstanding cravings, set aside as being too time-consuming for the average day.

Scallion buns, soft as a pillow, twisted into golden strands that dance with green onions, might just be better than a full night’s rest. The stars aligned when I pillaged the fridge to discover a bouquet of fresh herbs already past their prime. This was their big chance, and mine, to make something magical.

The results would be equally satisfying steamed or pan-fried, but in my sleepless stupor, it was easiest to turn on the oven and walk away. Don’t go too far though, because they bake quickly, meaning you can leave the shaped buns in the fridge to finish off bright and early, rather than staying up all night.

Adapted from The Foodie Takes Flight, I would implore you to watch the superlative video to see how a real pro shapes these twisted sisters. Words can only do so much for such a visual technique.

Next time sleep is elusive and the hum of the oven beckons, I know exactly what I’ll be making. Do you?

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Power Play

Anything meat can do, plants can do better.

This is the rallying cry behind Plant-Powered Protein, the latest and greatest release from the prolific, esteemed cookbook author, Nava Atlas. Today’s innovative alternative proteins prove that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor, texture, or nutrition to enjoy a fully plant-based diet. It seems as though there’s a new option appearing on the market every day; the paradox of choice can be paralyzing, whether you’ve been vegan since the era of TVP, or are just testing the waters now.

Not all proteins are created equal. Where does one start with such a diverse palate of new ingredients? Aside from picking out the best brands, what can you actually make with these mystery meats once you get them into the kitchen? Never fear, Nava is here. In Plant-Powered Protein, she’ll guide you through familiar family favorites, from nostalgic classics to bold global fare, with dishes that are kinder to the earth and animals, not to mention much better for you.

It’s both with personal bias and my honest opinion that I share this book as a top recommendation, since I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ms. Atlas regularly for over a decade now, including this fresh trove of recipes. I couldn’t be more proud to have my photos lend the visual voice to such a compelling collection. Just imagine: Having created all of the meals pictured within, finding not a single failure, and experiencing the instant gratification of such easy instruction first hand. More than a mere armchair reviewer, my endorsement comes from a truly genuine place.

Wrapped up in these glossy pages, complete with recipes for making your own alternatives and suggestions for incorporating them into simple, everyday meals, you’ll get over 125 recipes that would thrill even the consummate carnivore. Bridging the divide between the conventional comfort food and a whole food plant-based approach, there’s something in here for everyone.

How can one possibly pick a handful of favorites from over a hundred tried-and-true winners? Truth be told, I can only go by my favorite photos at this point, since the flavors are all on point, instructions are easy to understand, and standard preparations couldn’t be quicker. All you need to do is figure out what you’re in the mood for. Breakfast for dinner? It’s hard to beat those biscuits with sausage gravy, or a spicy chorizo scramble. In need of a warming stew on a cold day? Set a pot of New England clamless chowder on the stove to simmer, and ease into a big bowlful of comfort.

You’ve also got plenty of lighter options like spinach salad with apples and bacon, or a clean, crisp deconstructed sushi salad that’s also great for a grab-and-go lunch. Flavors span the globe with inspirations that range from Korean, Mongolian, Thai, Mexican, and more. For the adventurous eater, you’ve got a ticket to any delicious destination in these pages.

For special occasions, look no further than the carne asada fries, an indulgent entree that you can totally justify as a balanced meal. You’ve got your starch, plenty of vegetables, healthy fats from avocado, and of course plenty of protein. What more can you ask for? The same can be said of the classic meaty pizza, dotted with spicy meatless pepperoni that puts the conventional rendition to greasy shame. It’s natural to make comparisons, but these recipes are simply unrivaled in flavor AND nutrition.

All that said, don’t just take my word for it. Get into the kitchen and taste these creations for yourself. Everyone should be so fortunate as to enjoy such a comprehensive, compelling guide through the world of meatless options. To that end, I’m thrilled to GIVE AWAY THREE COPIES of Plant-Powered Protein. Yes, three lucky winners will be able to cook up a storm, enjoying Nava Atlas’ delicious wisdom as I have for so many years now.

To enter, leave me a comment below about your favorite meatless entree. Do you use a homemade protein, or do you have a favorite store-bought brand? There are no wrong answers as long as you keep cooking! Don’t forget to come back and fill out the entry form to log your submission, and unlock a number of additional methods to rack up extra entries.

Let’s make 2021 the year that “Where do you get your protein?” becomes a question only suitable for omnivores. Plant-powered is the way to be!

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Pepper-Upper

More than fresh produce, or lack thereof, warming spices define seasonal treats as we enter the winter months. Crystallized ginger dances in soft cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, while nutmeg frosts the top of frothy eggnog glasses. Clove and allspice infuse warm pumpkin pies, but what about a flavor that will really spice things up? Sichuan peppercorns aren’t exactly a typical taste for the holidays, but considering their zest and uncanny ability to lift the spirits, they deserve a place of honor at your next fĂȘte.

Still a somewhat obscure ingredient in the US that may not feature prominently at your mainstream supermarket, both green and red peppercorns have become much more widely available in recent years. Up until 2005, they were actually banned from import into the US, so unless you had access to the black market, you were out of luck. Now, like everything else it seems, they’re easy to find online, if local specialty stores can’t keep the shelves stocked.

Green Sichuan peppercorns are simply unripe berries harvested from the same vine that produces red pepper berries. They bear the same pungency found in the other peppercorns, with hints of citrus and a more earthy aroma. True red peppercorns are left much longer to ripen and dry in the sun. Their real claim to fame, however, is less about their flavor, and more about their effect. The distinctive tingling, mouth-numbing experience is unmistakable, transcending the normal understanding of what constitutes spice. It’s not exactly hot in the conventional sense, but certainly not bland in the least.

Why not apply that unique taste to more festive treats? For something that will take the bite out of winter’s chill and reinvigorate the weary spirit, go ahead and throw a pinch of this secret ingredient into any dish, really. Use it instead of that boring old black pepper and watch your cooking come to life.

If you’d prefer a more measured integration, consider the classic candied almond. Perfect for last-minute gifts, host/ess presents, easy appetizers, or late night snacks, there’s nothing a lovely lacquered nut can’t do. Crisply toasted with caramelized brown sugar, infused with a touch of molasses sweetness, you could stop right there and have a delightful, if basic, little morsel. Add in orange zest and the punch of Sichuan peppercorns to elevate each crunchy nut to a whole new level. Soy sauce instead of pure sodium lends a savory, lightly salty hit at the end.

Bask in the culinary glow of warming spices, and consider adding Sichuan peppercorns into your permanent seasoning lineup. A little pinch goes a long way.

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Blue Christmas

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when that blue corn starts popping
That’s when those blue memories start dropping
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas

That is how the song goes, right? Elvis always said it best, but he didn’t quite get in all the right words. He was a notable foodie in his day, and I know he must have been thinking about his next meal, even if the lyrics didn’t quite match.

There aren’t that many naturally blue foods out there, so I feel fairly confident that the King of Rock and Roll was talking about blue corn. Tamales, the quintessential corn-based staple of Christmas, must have been on his mind. At least, that’s the first thing I was thinking of after listening to the oldies. Crooning on for all eternity every holiday season, it just hits a bit different this year. Physically distant from friends and family this is a particularly blue celebration for many.

Embrace the blues with me and go in for seconds, too. Tender masa made with brilliant blue cornmeal, further enhanced with the intense indigo pigment from butterfly pea tea. Seasoned blue potatoes are the only suitable filling for a such brilliantly saturated dish of course. I’d be tempted to pair it with blueberry salsa, if only they were winter fruits.

It’s okay to feel the blues, and in this case, eat your feelings. Making blue tamales can provide a positive emotional outlet along with a healthy, comforting meal. Now that’s something worth celebrating.

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Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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