Noodles for All

Between the hundreds of healthy eating regimes, food intolerance and allergies, and moral dietary restriction, to say nothing of basic taste preferences, the number of landmines one might hit just trying to get the whole family to the table can make everyday meal planning a war zone. When it comes down to it, though, there are just two types of eaters out there: Noodle lovers and noodle lusters. There really is a place where everyone can eat in peace, allowing everyone to fully embrace their cravings, healthy or more hedonistic. Taking great pains to become more inclusive than ever, Noodles & Company has launched a new initiative to offer dishes with flavors and options for every diet, preference, pickiness, and lifestyle.

Figuring out just what is or isn’t vegan is a top concern, especially when some dishes might be just one easy modification away from perfection. Penne rosa sounds inextricably bound by dairy, but believe it or not, can easily come without cream or cheese for a satisfying Italian feast. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask had it not been for the handy new personalized nutrition calculator which lists not only potential allergens, calories, and ingredients, but suggests swaps to better suit your specific needs. Unlike the harsh rules imposed by some unwelcoming, militant chefs, customization is genuinely encouraged here!

Best of all, the encouragement to tailor your meal to taste allows for infinite creativity. Everything is made fresh, to order, so it’s not a problem to mix and match, add and subtract to your heart’s content.

Need something without gluten? Try the pipette, which bear such a satisfying, al-dente bite that I had trouble believing they were made of rice and corn, rather than traditional wheat.

Want something a bit lighter? Go for the zoodles (ie, zucchini noodles), which pair brilliantly with the spicy peanut sauce, if I do say so myself.

Craving all the veggies? Load ’em up, adding a rainbow of produce to the already verdant whole wheat spaghetti fresca, sans cheese.

Need a bigger protein punch? Try the spicy Korean noodles with tofu instead of beef, and avail yourself heartily to extra sriracha on the condiment bar.

I’ve passed by Noodles & Company many times before without giving it a second thought, which strikes me as a terrible oversight now. These aren’t your average bowlfuls of bland, mushy food court pastas. The Japanese pan noodles are the OG plant-based option, standing the test of time as part of the menu since day one. Had I just ventured in and tried those chewy, beautifully charred strands of udon, twisting around tangles of broccoli florets and shredded carrots years ago, this superlative experience would have come as no surprise. It’s a good thing the Noodles & Company empire is continuing to expand, with many more locations in the works.

Whether your food preferences are dictated by a strict diet or a picky palate, there’s a place for everyone at this table.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Noodles & Company. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

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Wildly Different Frozen Food

Frozen meals have always been about convenience, first and foremost. They’re the quick fix to fill the gaps when you’re short on time, energy, or ambition, but rarely the first choice. No matter how satisfying, a cardboard tray of reheated odds and ends will rarely revive to match the appeal of any fresh food. Shortcuts typically require some sort of sacrifice, manifesting as mushy, mealy textures, bland or simply salty tastes, or in the worst cases, all of the above. That said, great strides have been made in just the past few years to offer convenience without compromise when it comes to your freezer fodder. Growing in leaps and bounds, Wildscape is a small upstart with big ambitions to do just that. Their mission, as they say, is to create a world where you don’t have to choose between the food you have time for and the food you really want to eat.

Literally thinking outside of the box, these complete entrees come packaged in reusable plastic containers. Though dubious of this fancy packaging at first, the versatility ultimately won me over. Resealable if you have leftovers, reusable for future meals, and recyclable when you’re all done, they just make more sense than traditional single-use Styrofoam trays. Layered for ideal defrosting, when was the last time a bowlful of merely nuked vegetables looked quite so enticing right out of the microwave? Even before stirring, I wanted to dive right in. Wildscape only offers two plant-based options, but they’re so well executed, they won’t leave you wishing for more.

Peri Peri Portobellos with Sweet Potatoes, Black Beans and Mango, Turmeric Barley, and Toasted Coconut:

Sweet and spicy, the sauce packs some decent heat, unfolding as you eat with a slow and gentle burn. It shouldn’t be so hot as to overwhelm the spice adverse, but offers some genuine warmth to more adventurous eaters. Very tender sweet potato, practically melts in your mouth while the firm, substantial grain demonstrates proper cooking technique; nothing suffering from mushy reheated pasta syndrome here. Considering the fact that portobellos were the headliner, though, I really wish there were more mushrooms. Only 3 or 4 pieces turned up in the whole package.

Gochujang Cauliflower with Brussels Sprouts, Chickpeas & Quinoa, Riced Cauliflower, Cashews, and Pickled Onions:

I’m calling it: This is the best frozen meal I can recall eating, and trust me, I’m no stranger to the ready-made section of the freezer aisle. Just imagine, Brussels sprouts that still have some green left to them, but are still perfectly cooked through! Cauliflower that retains its shape, and cashew pieces are still fresh and crunchy! Yes, yes, and yes, you really can have it all. Well seasoned, properly spiced, it’s bold and flavorful without being truly spicy.

These are no sad TV dinners. Unlike many “healthier” meal solutions that command premium prices, there are genuinely worth the investment. They’re every bit as fresh as homemade, without the work.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Moms Meet and Wildscape. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

 

 

 

Somebody Call the Kopps

Imagine world-class cuisine with Michelin aspirations, celebrating seasonal, local purveyors, and regional specialties. Take that very same passion, elevating the everyday vegetable without any animal products, and apply it to an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet at a fraction of the cost of a comparable tasting menu. Gourmets and gourmands line up for a spot at Kopps in Berlin, Germany every weekend because the dream actually comes to life right here. The reality is far more satisfying than mere musings to feed the mind.

Easily one of the best meals I’ve had in years, there aren’t words enough to recommend this experience highly enough. Forget what you think you know about steam table warming dishes of limp hash browns or watery tofu scrambles; these are dishes on par with those offered by Millennium, or Candle 79, or Vedge, for some frame of reference. Serving staggering quantities of fine dining-quality food at fast-casual cafeteria prices, a single luxurious Sunday brunch would be worth the cost of round trip airfare alone. I would camp out here every single weekend if it was possible.

Homemade meatless charcuterie lines the cold station along with dairy-free cheeses and butters, begging to be lavished on an array of soft fresh breads. Marinated vegetables sing with a balanced acidic bite to perfectly cut through the richness while incorporating subtle notes of garlic and fresh herbs that are so well blended, it’s impossible to tease the exact combination apart. Of course you have your yogurts, chia puddings, fruits, and granola if you want to keep it continental, but what a terrible shame that would be.

Enter without expectations and prepare yourself for happy surprises. No two days are alike on this menu, which is built around vegetables found in season, first and foremost. Visiting at the height of spargelzeit afforded me the greatest indulgence of thick, fat white asparagus stalks bathed in creamy hollandaise sauce; a highlight of the entire trip, undoubtedly a fleeting delicacy for regulars, too. Pair that with luscious barley risotto, buttery grits, or even tempura fried cauliflower, if you feel the least bit self-conscious about unloading the whole chafing dish onto your plate.

Do come back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths. We haven’t even talked about the silver dollar pancakes, the plum crumble, the berry compote! Leave room for the soup while you’re there, which happened to be a deeply soothing, silky carrot-coconut number on this chilly spring morning. Don’t scoff at the salads, either, which are more than forgettable leafy fare. Tender lentils mingle with roasted beets and a light vinaigrette in one abundant bowl, while lightly pickled cucumbers remain perky and bright in another. A devilish eggless salad tempts nearby, with or without plant-based bacon.

If you managed to leave room for dessert, you’d be treated to airy chocolate mousse, tangy squares of cheesecake, gingersnap cookie bites… And perhaps, by this point, a food coma to last you until the next weekend. Actually, that would be merciful, because it’s awfully hard to go back to any other establishment in the meantime, knowing what you might be missing.

Make reservations well in advance, leave plenty of time to circle the block while hunting fruitlessly for parking, and block out the rest of your day. You have a lot of culinary ground to cover.

Kopps
Linienstraße 94
10115 Berlin, Germany

 

 

 

Here’s the Beef

I’m not afraid of controversy, but I’ll avoid confrontation at all costs. I like to think of myself as a peacemaker, but also a rebellious troublemaker deep inside. It’s within this bundle of contradictions that I was both thrilled and appalled by the announcement of a fully vegan burger going on the permanent menu for McDonald’s Germany. Yes, the very same golden arches that can’t seem to make room for animal-free french fries back home in the US. The Big Vegan TS is another daring response to super meaty patties popularized by Beyond and Impossible, made with soy and wheat, swaddled by a sesame seed bun, lettuce, tomato, pickles and red onion. Not just meatless, not just vegan with modifications, this assembly automatically omits any and all cheese, mayo, or animal-derived additives. It’s even prepared in a dedicated deep-fryer, rather than the standard griddle smeared with beef fat. No matter how you feel about the clown at large, this is big news.

Even crazier than its mere existence was the coincidence that I would be abroad just about one week after the initial launch. I had to get one. I couldn’t possibly get one. It went against every shred of nutritional common sense instilled in me, every consideration for supporting small businesses and shunning a conglomerate otherwise responsible for some of the most egregious animal abuse in the world.

Curiousity, inevitably, will be my downfall one day. Believe it or not, however, this was not that day.

Arriving at the table at speeds that only a well-oiled fast food operation could hope to achieve, it looked and smelled every bit as meaty as anything else on the menu. Crisp on the outside, charred and smoky on the nose, while the interior remained juicy, hauntingly pink as promised. Sinking my teeth in to the soft, squishy white bread, lightly stained with grease, it struck me that I had never actually eaten a burger at McDonald’s before in my entire life.

I hated it. I loved it. It was everything I wanted it to be and better, but still worse. It would have been easier just to hate it on principle, but no one can deny that carefully engineered combination of fat, sugar, and salt designed to hit all the pleasure centers of the brain. As my omnivorous dining companion pointed out, the original tastes so minimally like beef in the first place, you could likely swap the two without noticing any difference.

That’s the ultimate point here. The Big Vegan TS is not an entree made with me or the vegan population at large in mind. Forever pandering to millennials and younger generations more concerned about healthy eating, it’s a smarter alternative to red meat for someone who might otherwise indulge without a second thought. Providing a lower cost, mainstream meatless meal in places where accessibility might otherwise be a barrier, it’s a huge step in making real change across an entirely different demographic. Though hardcore vegans may still raise hell about the purveyor, it’s a move that should be celebrated for the overall impact on animal lives.

Hopefully the success of this bold new innovation will encourage McDonald’s worldwide to follow suit in short order. While such decadence would be an admittedly rare indulgence for me, I can’t lie; I’d travel anywhere for those crispy, iconic fries.

 

 

 

Creativity in a Vacuum

Imagine you’re wheeling a grocery cart loaded with fresh, carefully selected, and thoughtfully purchased foods through a parking lot, out to your car. You’re a conscious consumer, opting for organics whenever possible, looking for Fair Trade and Equal Exchange certifications, reading nutrition labels from beginning to end. You load the trunk, gently tucking four bags into the mesh cargo net so they won’t tumble in transit, pull down the sunshade to keep everything cool, and gently click the latch closed. You begin to drive away, when out of the corner of your eye, you see the cart, still holding one more bag, full of food. Inexplicably, you continue on your way home, leaving it to rot in the midday sun.

It’s a dramatization of reality, but a reality we must face nonetheless. Americans waste as much as 20% of the food they purchase, despite the best intentions. Whether it’s an overzealous purchase of prime produce or grand cooking plans that never come to fruition, the old, wilted, moldy, and shriveled results are every bit as inedible. If you’re buying in bulk or merely buying with an eye towards long-term storage, you might as well flush 1/5th of your paycheck down the toilet if you don’t invest in a vacuum sealer.

By removing the excess oxygen surrounding your food, you’re slowing the natural decaying process causing bacterial growth, which keeps everything from fruits to nuts fresh up to five times longer than when simply refrigerated or frozen. Heat-sealed bags are much more secure and durable than any zip top baggies or plastic cling film, which makes it a smarter choice for meal prep and travel snacks, too. Ever since the FoodSaver FM2000 came into my life, it’s saved me from more than just the mundane insult of food waste. Earning a spot on the counter as an essential culinary assistant in its own right, I’ve taken great delight in making quick pickles thanks to the accommodating canisters and containers, dabbled a bit with sous vide, and slashed marinating times in half.

This is not my first time at the vacuum sealing rodeo. Bought on a whim, my earliest model was far from inspiring. Loud as a jet plane, prone to jamming, rough on crushable foods, and notoriously prone to sealing failure, it was quickly ferreted away into the basement, where’s it’s been collecting dust ever since. FoodSaver suffers from none of these common shortcomings; it’s the #1 best-selling vacuum sealing brand for good reason, with the confidence to offer a 5-year limited warranty across the board. Operation really is child’s play, and since they’re all ETL safety certified, you really could let your kids take the reins without worry.

Easy enough to plug and play without even reading the instructions through, I do have a few quick tips for best vacuum sealing practices:

  1. Freeze liquids, marinades, or wet items in advance. Sauces and soups are still great candidates for vacuum-sealed preservation, but only if frozen solid before sealing. Otherwise, the liquid will get sucked right into the machine, which will make a huge mess and could damage the appliance.
  2. Double-bag powdery items, like flour or sugar. Place in a standard zip-top bag first, poking a tiny hole in it to get the air out without releasing all the loose particles, before tucking them into the FoodSaver bag.
  3. Leave some breathing space, especially towards the top of the bag. Avoid the temptation to stuff as much possible into every bag. If you don’t, you may not be able to get a solid seal. However, if you don’t get a good seal first time, you can try making a second seal a bit further up.

The bags are BPA-free, freezer safe, microwaveable, recyclable, washable, and even reusable! Yes, you can keep on dealing and sealing again and again with the very same bags. Simply wipe off any food or residue near the seal area if resealing partially used food, and make sure they’re clean and dry if starting anew.

Using the FoodSaver FM2000, there truly is nothing to lose.

This post was made possible thanks to support from FoodSaver. Some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. I recommend them because I personally find the products helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links.

Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706