BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Thai One On For Size

What is your personal litmus test when judging a new restaurant? Is it the spaghetti marinara at a place touting homemade pasta? The scallion pancakes at a dim sum joint? Hopefully it’s something common, found across all menus, to best compare, since the simplest dishes are the most telling. It takes attention to detail, consideration for ingredients, and true skill to make the basics stand out within a sea of similar options. Perhaps it’s unfair to appraise an eatery based on their drinks, but for me, Thai restaurants live or die by their Thai tea.

Traditionally made with copious amounts of syrupy dairy mixed in, simply finding a vegan brew can be quite a feat. If you’re willing to swap coconut milk and sugar for the sweetened condensed milk, you’ve already won a gold star by my assessment. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to convert this special treat, and yet surprisingly few think to offer such flexibility in the first place. It wouldn’t be such an issue if I could just whip up a big pot of it at home, but like all things that seem deceptively simple, hitting those same sweet, subtly spicy notes had proven elusive through exhaustive trials.

Mixes exist for those who want the authentic flavor without any of the extra work, but there’s no way around those pesky artificial colors. While I can’t promise that my unique blend would pass the standard litmus test, I’m quite pleased to say that it will do the trick when a craving hits.

That’s especially true when those same flavors enliven a cool and refreshing glass of chia pudding. Coconut milk thickened with yogurt and sweetened with a restrained hand top off this healthy reinterpretation, suitable for breakfast, snack, and dessert alike. Celyon or assam tea would be most traditional for this application, if you can get your hands on either, but let’s be honest: True “authenticity” goes out the window as soon as a home cook picks up the whisk. In this case, I’d argue that might be a very good thing indeed.

No one will think that this take on Thai tea came from the latest and greatest restaurant on the block, but it sure does satisfy the craving in a whole new way.

Thai Tea Chia Parfaits

3 1/2 Cups Water
1 Tablespoon Black Tea
1 Tablespoon Rooibos Tea
1 Whole Star Anise
1 Green Cardamom Pod
2 Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Tamarind Concentrate
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/2 Cup Coconut Palm Sugar or Light Brown Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
3/4 Cup Whole Chia Seeds

1/2 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Cup Vegan Vanilla Coconut Milk Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Light Agave Nectar

To make the pudding, you’ll first need to make strongly brewed of Thai tea. You’re welcome to use a prepared mix in place of the tea leaves and spices, but for anyone who doesn’t have access to such luxuries or doesn’t have it on hand in time to satisfy urgent cravings, this blend of black and rooibos tea will do the trick. Heat the water in a medium saucepan along with both teas. Lightly smash the whole spices with the side of your knife to help release their flavors before adding them all in, along with the tamarind concentrate and turmeric. Cover and bring the mixture just to the brink of boiling.

Stir in the sugar, turn off the heat, and keep covered. Let steep for at least 30 minutes, undisturbed. The longer the tea steeps, the more flavorful it will be, but let it sit for no more than 2 hours to prevent the more bitter compounds of the tea from being released.

Strain out the leaves and whole spices before stirring in the vanilla extract and chia seeds. Let the chia seeds begin to hydrate and absorb the liquid, and stir again after 15 minutes to break up any clumps. Divide the mixture between 4 – 6 glasses and place them into the fridge. Chill thoroughly, for at least 2 – 3 hours, before serving.

Right before serving, mix together the coconut milk, yogurt, and agave. Drizzle it over the top of each chia pudding and lightly swirl it in. Don’t blend it entirely for the most striking effect, and the most satisfying flavor contrast.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Grab the Melon by Its Horns

Sharply spiked, thorny, and clad in an arresting hue of traffic cone orange, it was clear that this alien fruit was coming home with me from the moment we first met. It was just too bizarre to put back down, despite its pointed protests.

The kiwano, otherwise known as a horned melon, is truly a sight to behold. It becomes even more alluring once cracked open, revealing downright monstrous innards of large seeds suspended in a jelly-like green morass. Best described as an African cucumber, the flavor is quite similar to this familiar vegetable. Some claim to taste notes of banana and lemon as well, suggesting that it would be well suited for both sweet and savory applications. Unfortunately, the truth is considerably more bitter: The gooey mess is impossible to eat out of hand, watery at best but entirely bland at worst, and overall, quite disappointing.

Talk about misjudging a book by its cover!

That said, it has its charm as an exotic garnish, based entirely on its unnerving, almost unnaturally neon hue. Shock and amaze your friends this Halloween by presenting them with a ghastly glass of rice pudding, topped by this exotic produce pick.

You can’t beat it for shock value, but truth be told… You wouldn’t be losing anything in the flavor department if you left out the kiwano. No recipe needed here, as any rice pudding formula will do the trick. However, consider this your warning: While the kiwano does have horns, it certainly won’t bite back.


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The Ultimate Sushi Burrito Roll-Out

Wide-eyed, mouth agape, and stomach rumbling, I remember the very first time I heard of the concept. Sushi always had a special place in my heart and on my table, from a weekly after school maki roll habit to special birthday dinner requests, often cited as my last meal selection when asked. Despite my youth, I thought that such relentless passion had already exposed me to all the category had to offer. New vegetable, legume, or fruit combinations could shake things up from time to time, but there was nothing earth-shattering to be found in this time-honored edible art form.

That was until I came across sushi burritos. Hulking bundles rivaling the size of a newborn, these babies were instead swaddled in oversized sheets of slick, glistening nori, overstuffed with a rainbow of fresh and widely varied ingredients. Just one order would satisfy the average eater, if not push them right over the edge into a contented food coma. Back in the early days, there was only one: The Sushirrito, the granddaddy of them all. Scrolling through blogs that featured mouth-watering photos of the beast, I vowed that one day, I would venture out west, if only to taste this legendary creation for myself.

Almost a decade later, it’s safe to say that this is no longer a passing trend, but a hot ticket item that’s here to stay. Sushirrito has expanded its empire all the way out east to New York, with plans to unveil its 8th and 9th outposts soon. More tellingly, however, is the number of rivals now on the scene that offer up their own perspective on the giant sushi wrap. What might surprise you is the fact that all of these fish-centric establishments offer wholly vegan options, and the greatest variety is actually found across the bay, in Berkeley and Oakland. So who makes the one veggie sushi burrito to rule them all? It took me over a year of eating and countless packets of soy sauce, but what follows is my official* ruling on the very best of the bay area.

*Completely unofficial.

Pulling off the greatest upset in sushi burrito history, the young upstart Sushinista gets the gold star in this competition. Less than a year on the scene and still flying well below the radar, their offerings are some of the least traditional, but accordingly most inventive and exciting. Portobello mushrooms slathered in a mild green curry sauce are the shining stars of this menu, complimented by a range of seasonal vegetables and crunchy toppings that have previously included such unsung delights as persimmon and Asian pear.

Giving credit where credit is due, Sushirrito still carries the torch in San Francisco proper. Quite frankly, it’s hard to beat the obscenely rich mushroom fries found in the “Buddha Belly,” ringing with umami and wholly satisfying on their own. I’m tempted to call it a tie with my top pick, but points ultimately had to be deducted for sloppy construction. Kudos for providing a roasted garlic tofu aioli, but that added sauce frequently created soggy nori, leading to catastrophic blowouts while eating. You’ll eventually need to attack it with a fork in the end.

Big bonus point and serious kudos go to Sumo Roll for being the ONLY establishment offering not one, but two veganizable options. Although both the veggie-forward “Kabuki” and curried tofu “Midori” automatically come with egg-based aioli and one with slaw, just let your sushi burrito artist know about your dietary needs and they’re more than happy to customize. Ask for the tangy miso-ginger sauce instead, and you’ll be in business. Hat tip to Sumo Roll for providing what is quite possibly the best value around, serving up truly sumo-sized servings that don’t hold back on the flavorful fillings.

Placing Torpedo Sushi so far down the list feels downright heretical, considering the consistently luscious slabs of avocado and chunks of baked tofu wrapped up in every bundle. They simply got edged out for offering smaller portions, and occasionally bulking up their rolls with more rice than fillings. Burritos can be somewhat hit-or-miss based on these proportions, so I’d be more inclined to order the “Veganator” in rice bowl format instead.

Traveling back to downtown Berkeley, Sushi Secrets certainly doesn’t skimp on the goodies wrapped up in their “Denemon,” throwing unexpected ingredients like purple potatoes and corn into the mix. Unfortunately, their wraps also suffer from issues with structural integrity, and the sweet and sour dressing dominates the entire composition, drowning out any nuances that the unique vegetables might provide. Once unwrapped, the whole thing is liable to explode into your lap, and sadly, it’s not even worth the effort of picking up all the shrapnel.

Ordering sushi from a truck might seem sketchy, even when opting for a fish-free meal, but We Sushi has proven itself as a reliable source for sushi satisfaction. The “Vegan” burrito is solid, a fine fix if you’re craving vinegared rice and veggies, featuring sweet potato tempura most prominently, but nothing to rave about. It’s the beige cardigan of sushi burritos; reliable, comfortable, but nothing you’d want to show off in public. Go ahead and order up if you spot the truck parked in your neighborhood, but don’t go out of your way to hunt it down.

Pulling up the tail end of this edible parade, the “Tofu Teriyaki” burrito at Sushi Taka seems more like an afterthought than a feature. Ordered without spicy mayo, the wrap tastes only of seaweed salad. Soft tofu squares dissolve without any notable texture, and the promise of teriyaki flavor goes unfulfilled. In a word: Pass.

Honorable mention goes to Nombe, for taking the fusion concept to the next level and actually wrapping their sushi burritos in flour tortillas. These are a rotating item on the menu, but I don’t think you’re missing much if you don’t see them during your visit; the combination of carb-on-carb is just a total starch-fest, especially considering the fact that rice takes up more than half the bundle to begin with.

It’s safe to say that sushi burritos are officially having their moment out west, but time will tell if that enthusiasm of oversized maki rolls will continue their spread across the country. There are highlights and low lights to be found, with wide variations all over the board, but overall, there’s a lot to love about the concept.

Have you had sushi burritos? Have you made sushi burritos? Tell me about it, and let’s craft a better burrito, together!


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Wordless Wednesday: Once (or Twice) in a Millennium

Heirloom Tomatoes & Nectarines

Warm Roasted Turnip & Brussels Sprout Salad

Peanut Glazed Smoked Tempeh

Butternut Squash Ravioli

Seared Chickpea Cake

Smoked Potato & Beet Cake

Vindaloo Glazed Cauliflower

Passionfruit Crème brûlée

Chocolate & Confections

Millennium Restaurant in Oakland, CA


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Plot Twist

It’s one of those days. The sky is still dark when you finally wrestle off the heavy covers and swing your feet out of bed, never seeming to lighten a single shade all day. Rain falls intermittently, just enough to mock any attempt made to leave the house while remaining dry. Strangers hustle by with umbrellas carelessly outstretched, acting more as blunt weapons than shelters from the elements. How many times can you get whacked in the face during a brief 10-minute walk? Oh, let’s keep a tally and find out; it’s easy to lose count while tabulating the results in your head.

You know the script and play your part, muddling through as best you can, but wait- Who’s writing this story anyway? Why should you stick to your lines when a much more satisfying ending could be crafted with a bit of improvisation?

Here’s the plot twist you’ve been craving. Get home, throw off your muddy boots, cozy into a soft sweater, and break out the flour and yeast. There’s no antidote to those days, but there is a salve, and it comes in the form of baking bread. Something about the kneading of dough is indescribably cathartic, while the warmth of the oven can melt the iciest of hearts. Merely the smell of fresh dough transforming into golden brown loaves has a wholly restorative quality, even before taking a single bite.

Savory herbs mingle with roasted garlic in a rich, aromatic filling woven through every layer of soft, tender dough. You might think that they’re fussy, or too fancy to serve as an everyday loaf, but it takes no more work than the average bread. Treat yourself to something a bit more special than the standard; take back control and write your own story.

World Bread Day 2016 (October 16)

 

These two loaves are my ninth annual contribution to World Bread Day, and second submission to the baking contest mixed up by Simply Organic and Go Dairy Free. Should you find yourself in a baking rut and need new material to revise your personal script, just hit these links for ample inspiration, both sweet and savory.

Twisted Garlic and Herb Bread

Dough:

1 Package (2 1/4 Teaspoons) Active Dry Yeast
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1 3/4 Cups Warm Water
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
3 – 3 1/2 Cups Bread Flour

Garlic and Herb Schmear:

2 Heads Garlic, Roasted
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Pumpkin Puree
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
2 Tablespoons Simply Organic Dried Parsley
2 Teaspoons Simply Organic Dried Rosemary
2 Teaspoons Simply Organic Dried Thyme
1 Teaspoon Simply Organic Dried Oregano
1 Teaspoon Simply Organic Ground Black Pepper

In a large bowl, combine the yeast, agave, and warm water. Let stand until the yeast reactivates and surface of the liquid becomes bubbly; about 5 minutes. Stir in the oil, salt whole wheat flour, and 2 cups of the bread flour, mixing with a sturdy wooden spoon or the dough hook attachment of your stand mixer.

Once the initial addition of dry goods has been completely incorporated, add the remaining cup of bread flour. Slowly knead by hand or machine for 10 – 15 minutes until the dough is smooth, supple, and elastic. If it still seems very wet, add up to 1/2 cup additional bread flour.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover with a clean kitchen towel.
Let rest at room temperature until the dough has doubled in size; about 1 – 1 1/2 hours, depending on your local climate.

Meanwhile, prepare the garlic and herb schmear by first squeezing the cloves of roasted garlic out of their skins. Place them in a small bowl and roughly mash with the salt. Let the mixture remain somewhat chunky, but smooth enough to spread without too much difficulty. Add in all of the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly to combine. Set aside.

After the dough has properly risen, punch it down and divide it into 4 equal pieces. Take one at a time and on a lightly floured surface, press it into a rough rectangular shape. Use a rolling pin to further smooth it out, until it measure approximately 15 – 16 inches long (the exact width isn’t critical.) Cover the surface evenly with 1/4 of the garlic and herb schmear, and roll the dough up in a tight cylinder exactly the same way you would for cinnamon buns. Repeat this process with the remaining dough and schmear.

Now that you have your 4 filled rolls of dough, focus your attention at two at a time, to form each loaf. With the seam-sides down, use a very sharp knife to slice right down the center of each roll, but NOT all the way through. You want to reveal the layers within, but not cut the dough entirely in half. Press the tops of the two split rolls together to adhere, and very gently twist the pieces together, keeping the cut sides facing up. When you reach the end, press the bottoms together to seal, and curl both ends under to keep the pieces from separating in the baking process. Very carefully move the twisted loaf over to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and allow the loaves to rise once more, until not quite doubled in size. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until golden brown and utterly aromatic. The tempting smells will make it very difficult to wait, but allow the bread to cool completely before slicing and serving.

Makes 2 Loaves

Printable Recipe


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Where There’s Smoke…

What does autumn taste like to you? Millions would likely respond with a resounding cry of “pumpkin spice” without a second thought, while others might venture down the less celebrated paths of chai, chili, apple pie, or perhaps speculoos. Happily, this isn’t a question we need to fight over. There are no wrong answers, nor any unsatisfying suggestions on this list. They all share one common thread, and that is a palate of bold, warm, yet utterly soothing spices. Colder days call for hotter dishes; succulent blankets to wrap around our tongues. While there’s never a bad time to ramp up the seasonings, a well-equipped spice rack comes in particularly handy around this time of year.

If asked the same question, I might hem and haw in my typically indecisive fashion, but in my heart I always know the answer immediately: Gingerbread is my everything when the temperatures drop and the sunlight wanes. Something about the combination of sticky dark molasses paired with the bite of ginger, belting out its sweet song along with a full cadre of spicy backup singers, makes it feel as though everything is right with the world, at least for those fleeting moments of indulgence. If it were lacking even one of those critical spices, the harmony would be thrown out of balance.

Even so, I can’t help but tinker. Lately I’ve been obsessed with smoky flavors, starting with a few innocent additions of smoked tofu and beets gracing my daily salads and quinoa bowls. Now I’m looking farther afield to the dessert course, finding little if any smoky sweets to experiment with. Clearly, this is a void that needs to be filled. I can think of no better candidate to step up to the plate, quite literally, than gingerbread. Smoky chipotle powder is right at home here, adding a piquant peppery accent to liven up the typical palate. Smoked salt was an obvious winner to continue the theme throughout each tender, sticky bite, and crunchy smoked almonds absolutely seal the deal. It might sound overwhelming in print, but there’s no denying the taste- It may be difficult to return to the same old gingerbread blend after adding a bit of smoke into the mix.

The primary push to explore the smokier side of dessert came from a call to action by Simply Organic and Go Dairy Free. They’ve invited a very talented team of bakers and food obsessives to spice things up with both sweet and savory recipes fit for dairy-free diets. To check out these submissions, vote, enter to win prizes, and find more exclusive recipes, visit Go Dairy Free.

Take your time to luxuriate in all the spicy possibilities out there. The good news is that this cake only gets better with age, as the flavors mingle and meld, over the course of a day or two. Don’t wait too long though; it may be hard for others to resist nibbling away at the edges, until not a single crumb is left. Trust me on this one.

Smoky Chipotle Gingerbread Cake

2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Cup Smoked Almonds, Roughly Chopped
1/4 Cup Crystallized Ginger, Finely Chopped
2 Tablespoons Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Salt
1 1/4 Teaspoons Simply Organic Chipotle Powder
1 Teaspoons Simply Organic Ground Cinnamon
1 Cup Brewed and Cooled Coffee
1/2 Cup 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/4 Cup Molasses
3/4 Cup Pumpkin Puree
3/4 Cup Light Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Grated Fresh Ginger

Faux-Fondant Glaze:

3 Cups (3/4 Pound) Confectioner’s Sugar
1/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1 Teaspoon Simply Organic Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan; Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices. Mix well to distribute all of the seasonings throughout the dry goods, and double-check that there are no clumps.

Separately, mix the coffee, maple syrup, molasses, pumpkin, sugar, oil, and ginger until smooth. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry, and stir with a wide spatula to bring the two together. Being careful not to over-mix, stir just until the batter is smooth and not a second longer. Transfer the batter into your prepared baking pan, smooth out the top, and pop it in the oven.

Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean- Perhaps with a few moist crumbs sticking to it but certainly not wet. Let cool completely before preparing the icing.

In a medium saucepan, combine confectioner’s sugar, water, and agave. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches 100 degrees. It won’t look very different from when you began, but should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Quickly pour the icing over the cake and smooth across the top and over the edges. It sets quickly so you want to work fast!

If time allows, this cake does get even better with age, so try to make it a day in advance for the flavor to really meld and sing. I don’t blame you if you can’t wait though; simply allow the glaze to set before slicing and serving, at least.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Eat to the Beet

Well into my second decade of veganism, it’s difficult to imagine anyone turning up their noses at beets, even though I was once firmly in that camp, too. Dark and earthy, they’re a polarizing specimen that still divides many otherwise harmonious dinner parties. Somehow the haters always take me by surprise, no matter how many times I see the look of disgust pass their eyes upon the vaguest mention of these humble root vegetables. Perhaps they’ve simply never had beets prepared with the love and care they need to shine; a bit of coaxing and a slow oven transforms the beet into a sublimely sweet, tender delicacy, no matter what other spices are invited to the party.

I will forever fight to win over those who haven’t been properly introduced to the kinder, gentler ways of the beet. Golden beets are the gateway to greater beet appreciation; milder yet somehow brighter than their blood-red brothers, they positively glow on the plate.

Naturally rich and full-bodied, it doesn’t take much to dress up a gold beet. Salty, cheesy tofu feta draws attention to the beets’ striking sweetness, which is further accentuated by a spritely twist of citrus. Something so simple couldn’t possibly be so good… And yet it surpasses all expectations, especially for someone expecting that same old taste of “dirt” they associate with those much maligned vegetables. No matter how seemingly indelible the stain on one’s memory may be, these beets will leave behind only contented smiles, and perhaps a healthy new craving.

Stuffed Golden Beets

8 Small or 4 Medium Gold Beets
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Tofu Feta, Crumbled, Plus More to Serve if Desired
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 Teaspoon Orange Zest

When selecting your beets, bear in mind that larger ones will be easier to work with, but they will take longer to cook. Smaller beets make for excellent appetizers while medium ones are ideal single-serving side dishes.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Remove the greens from the beets and reserve them for another recipe (like creamed greens or pesto.) Scrub them very thoroughly; the skins are thin enough that they’re entirely edible, but need a good cleaning first. Rub olive oil all over the outsides of the beets and sprinkle with salt before placing them on your prepared baking sheet, giving them plenty of space to breathe so that they cook more evenly. Cover with another sheet of foil to prevent them from browning too much.

Roast for 60 – 75 minutes, until fork-tender. Let stand until cool enough to handle, and then slice off the top 1/4 of each beet. Use a melon baller to hollow out the larger part, being careful to keep the outer walls intact. Save the innards for another recipe (try my Pistachio-Quinoa Pilaf!)

Crumble the tofu feta and toss it with the lemon and orange zest before stuffing it into the beets. Mound it up slightly, and replace the tops to mostly cover the filling. Return the beets to the oven for another 15 minutes or so, until lightly brown and warmed through. Crumble additional feta over the top if desired.

Makes 4 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe