BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Worth Its Salt

Considering my legacy of dessertfocused cookbooks, it might surprise some to know that my salt tooth often speaks louder than my sweet tooth. Call it an inevitable balancing act, brought on by years of saccharine excess, but it seems that there’s not enough salt in the world to compensate for my reckless, sugar-coated youth. I’ll still dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream or a plate of chocolate chip cookies, but there’s a good chance I’ll spike each serving with a pinch (or two) of coarse salt before indulging.

Clearly, I’m not alone on this impulse. Gourmet salts have taken off in a category all their own, exploring new territory with different flavors far more adventurous than the classic mixtures of herbs and spices. San Francisco Salt Co. is one of the leaders of that pack, blending gourmet ingredients with high quality sea salt for a luxurious finishing touch. While various flavors of smoked salts have been a mainstay of the brand for many years, their newest release offers something unique to this crowded, salty category. Whisky Smoked Sea Salt elevates the concept to a lofty new realm, utilizing empty barrels once employed to age Teeling’s Irish Whiskey to lend deep, oaky aromas to this most humble of seasonings.

Dusty grey and fine as soft beach sand, the powerful scent that emerges from the package is stunning. Earthy and downright primal, like a carefully tended campfire, there’s no liquid smoke nonsense going on here. It’s the truly natural, unmistakable aroma that even the most advanced flavor labs could only dream of synthesizing.

The flavor is naturally a bit more restrained when paired with food. Unless you add a heaping teaspoon of salt to every meal, it’s only natural that it would take a backseat to the taste of the food itself. That doesn’t mean that it disappears into the scenery by any means. As with any good finishing salt, it serves to accentuate those savory morsels, adding subtle notes of smoke that add depth and character otherwise impossible to achieve in a single bite.

Frosting the rim of a tall, icy glass of Bloody Mary, there’s no better way to get a full-frontal hit of this richly smoked salt. Regardless of your final destination on either sweet or savory route, it’s one unmistakable, inimitable condiment that’s definitely worth its salt, and then some.


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When In Rome

Rumblings about the latest legume superfood have been reverberating through the food scene for years now, but until lately, little proof could be found on grocery store shelves. Lupini beans (otherwise referred to as Lupine/Lupin) have been called the “perfect protein,” boasting even greater numbers than soybeans along with the full complement of essential amino acids. They’ve slowly begun to work their way into meatless meals, snack foods, and baking mixes, but few opportunities have allowed them to shine all by themselves. The main problem plaguing this humble bean is a natural bitterness that is very difficult to overcome. Prepared at home, they must be soaked, boiled, drained, boiled, rinsed, and boiled some more. Even then, pickling might be necessary to cover up any residual off flavors. Even worse, getting the process wrong isn’t just distasteful, but possibly poisonous. High levels of alkaloids can cause everything from dizziness to potential liver damage. That alone could scare off most reasonable eaters.

It’s not all doom and gloom in the lupini kingdom, though. Initially recognized for their nutritional prowess, they’re finally getting attention for their unique culinary potential as well. Brami has taken out their bitter bite and made it easy to enjoy them as a new kind of savory snack. Imploring us to “snack like a Roman” in reference to their Italian origins, it took a bit of modern technology to bring this ancient food back into relevance. Fully cooked and seasoned to enjoy much like edamame, needing no refrigeration and thus ideal for eating on the go- Although with my lack of grace, I’m not sure I could daintily eat them in public. It takes a bit of practice to gently ease the beans out of their tough skins without shooting them clear across the room.

The serving size might appear small, but it makes for a highly satisfying snack, indeed. These beans possess a very mild, slightly sweet and nutty flavor, accompanied by a firm, meaty texture. Of the four flavors, the garlic herb variety was my favorite, and likely the greatest crowd-pleaser of the batch. Overall mild and agreeable, the garlic flavor won’t put you at risk for dragon breath, but offers enough interest to entertain the palate. Chile lime is presented with equal finesse; tangy, warm spice accompanies the natural earthiness of the lupine without overwhelming it. This delicate balance can also be found in the bolder hot pepper flavor which dances with punchy seasonings that resist the urge to beat you up. Sea salt is for purists, but also seems ripe for additional creativity. Think of them as mixed nuts, capable of accommodating both sweet and savory tastes, and the sky is the limit.

I, for one, hope that the lupini bean continues to find new fans abroad. As a self-contained super food that genuinely lives up to the moniker, it’s hard to imagine a more versatile, tasteful option for healthy snacking.


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Keep Your Cool

There are certain world records that no one wants to break. No one would be proud to claim the title of World’s Most Accident-Prone Person, or boast of sporting the World’s Longest Nose Hairs, for example. Unfortunately, the world itself has been officially awarded the unfortunate record of World’s Warmest Year, as of 2015, and we’re right on track to continue that winning streak for 2016.

Some of us have it worse than others. Living in the sheltered weather bubble that is the bay area, protected by a perpetual blanket of fog, it’s hard to imagine the crushing heatwave smothering the east coast right now. I don’t say that to brag- It’s with both awe and sympathy. I genuinely don’t know how you folks manage to survive yet another round of unprecedented heat and humidity.

No doubt, ice cream must help. It’s the only real relief that I would fully endorse on any day, and in any climate, for that matter. Even though temperatures around here rarely break the 80-degree mark, I’ve fully indulged in more than my fair share of frozen desserts this summer, thanks in large part to So Delicious. Their soothing cashew- and coconut-based treats are guaranteed to take the sting out of the most brutal days of summer sun. Short of churning your own, quite frankly, there are no better nor more diverse mainstream brands out there.

Although it’s tempting to hoard all of this frozen goodness for myself, I know there are many hungry ice cream-lovers out there suffering far more than I am this season. That’s why I want to share the wealth, and offer a FREE So Delicious product to two lucky readers! Anything your heart desires is up for grabs, but of course, I can’t recommend the ice cream highly enough. To enter, head on over to the giveaway page here, and don’t forget to leave a comment about your favorite ice cream flavor. You have until August 10th to enter, so get to it! I wouldn’t want anyone to sweat through the whole summer without a bite of cold comfort.


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Aquafab-ulous

“It’s made with WHAT?!” she reared back in a moment of candid horror and mild disgust, suddenly eyeing the open jar with suspicion.

It’s the not-so-secret ingredient taking the world by storm, dubbed a “miracle” by some and a food science breakthrough by others. Admittedly, to the uninitiated, it does take some careful explaining. In case you hadn’t heard, aquafaba is the excess liquid found in any ordinary can of chickpeas, just like the ones likely sitting in your pantry right now. Describing it simply as “bean water” hasn’t proven very effective in my experience, so be prepared for some serious questioning from the less adventurous eaters.

Beans in general are still a rather contentious ingredient in desserts, but even the most crunchy granola types give pause when considering more savory applications for this new baking staple. It takes a whole lot of moxy for a national brand to adopt such a potentially polarizing new concept, but Sir Kensington’s seems to have no qualms diving into the aquafaba deep end. Despite producing traditional, non-vegan mayonnaise options as well, their innovative Fabanaise is entirely eggless and plant-based.

Plain mayonnaise is a tricky thing to review. As a sandwich spread, it must have enough character to warrant an invite to the party, but not so much that it dominates every conversation in the room. No one is eating plain mayo on a spoon (at least, I hope not.) So to say that this creamy condiment is a great addition to other dishes, but doesn’t have much to say by itself, is a compliment by my estimation. Fairly neutral and mild in flavor, I’m happy to report that the Original Fabanaise nowhere near as sweet as something like Miracle Whip, while still retaining a well-rounded profile. My gold metal for mayo still goes to Vegenaise, but this is a very close second finisher.

Where Sir Kensington’s really excels is in their Chipotle Fabanaise. I simply couldn’t get enough of this creamy orange condiment, flecked with red and black pepper, sparkling with spices in every smear. Despite that threatening appearance, it delivers a more subtle warmth, rather than outright heat. Call it mild in terms of sheer scoville units, but the rich, smoky flavor infused throughout ensures that every bite will be boldly seasoned. Slathered on lightly charred corn on the cob, I couldn’t get enough, hitting the bottom of the glass jar before the grill could even cool down.

Consider Fabanaise another big win for one tiny bean. As if you need another excuse to enrich your own pantry, the aquafaba employed by Sir Kensington’s is diverted from an upstate New York hummus company, so your purchase helps reduce food waste, too. Sounds (and tastes) like a win-win-win situation to me.


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The Smiling Nut

Question: What’s a food photographer’s favorite subject?

Answer: Pistachios, because they’re always smiling!

Now you know my best/worst joke. Should I attempt to tell it again in person, I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes, sighing in exasperation, or both at once. Despite that, I’m certain it will still happen sooner than later because I just can’t resist a terrible pun, especially when it relates to food. The likelihood that it might become a prime interjection into standard conversations is also high because pistachios happen to be one of my very favorite nuts, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick just one.

Granted, I’m far from a discerning connoisseur. Typical choices for these edible emeralds range from raw to toasted, in shell or out. Maybe you might get some fancy seasoning sprinkled into the mix, or keep it classic with a shower of fine salt. It’s an embarrassing admission to make in the age of hyper-awareness surrounding food sourcing and the celebration of less conventional options, but it never even occurred to me that there might be different types of pistachios out there. All nuts are not created equal, though history suggests that the pistachio originated from one general region in Asia over 9,000 years ago. Notable growers today include California, which is the sort of green emerald most US consumers are likely to pick up from the grocery store, consciously or not, as well as Iran and Turkey.

Just a single farm from any of these locations might be churning out a half dozen unique varietals, too. Rarely would the average consumer be able to pick them out by name, but the distinction between nuts is striking. Some might range from a mere centimeter to a full inch long; a whole spectrum of green hues can tint the kernels; flavors can dominate with more buttery, woodsy, grassy, or savory notes; textures might be impeccably crisp, or more tender, almost like a raw pea. Just scraping the surface on the micro-mutations of the cashew’s cousin makes me realize just how little I know about this beloved nut.

Greek pistachios had never crossed my radar prior to a press release from Hellas Farms. I wondered how different they could really be from my standard economy pick, a no-name brand from a pirate who’s name rhymes with Grader Schmoe’s. It was surprising to see the warm red blush tinting these nuts, a reminder of where the antiquated practice of dying the shells once came from. A very light kiss of salt accentuated the lightly roasted flavors embedded within, highlighting the high quality nut in a very simple, unfussy way.

The ultimate takeaway from this nutty exploration, however, is not that it’s necessary to seek out pistachios with particular pedigrees; rather, what counts more than anything else is freshness. All too often, packaged nuts sit on grocery store shelves for months, or even years, before you toss them into your cart. It makes a world of difference to have them shipped directly from the source, and especially when that producer has a real passion for their pistachios. No matter from where in the world your pistachios hail, opting for a more carefully cultivated selection will certainly give you something to smile about.


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Tamale Take Down

“They’re pretty good… But I’ve had better,” the woman sitting at a neighboring booth leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.

Seated in one of the most highly regarded vegan restaurants in the bay area, luxuriating in some of the most masterfully composed dishes around, this stunning utterance was enough to induce whiplash. Snapping back into reality out of a food-induced daze, it took a moment to re-focus and discover the source of such heretical words. A small woman with a kind face looked back at me, eyes gleaming with clarity- Or perhaps it was a hint of mischief.

The dish in question was a tamale, lavished with smoked black beans, spiced pepitas, and a luscious avocado crema. Impeccably plated with all the flourishes one would expect of a fine dining establishment, it was a sight to behold, and certainly no slouch in the flavor department. In fact, up until that moment, this could have very well been the pinnacle of tamale artistry in my opinion. Now that impression was suddenly questionable, an uninformed statement based upon only half of the story. I had to get myself these purported transcendent tamales.

I had to go to Flacos.

An east bay institution serving up an entirely vegan menu, the bill of fare is short and sweet. You won’t find any overstuffed “Mission-style” burritos or loaded nachos here, but real deal Mexican meals. Tacos slide out of the kitchen on handmade corn tortillas, thick and crisply toasted. Masa is made from scratch every day, and that dedication to the craft pays off in huge gustatory dividends. The scent of cooking cornmeal wafts out onto the street early in the day, tempting passersby even as breakfast time has barely ended.

Huarache is a regional delight that doesn’t make a big splash in most American states, which is a real shame given its fool-proof flavor combinations. Soft slabs of fried masa lurk beneath a veritable forest of romaine and cilantro, huge servings of refried pinto beans, and slathered with rich, creamy avocado salsa. It’s worth noting that the avocado salsa is available in both mild and spicy formats, but unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I would advise keeping it cool. The heat on the spicy rendition is no joke; I’ve seen grown men weep over their taquitos upon discovering this fatal flaw.

On cool, foggy days, nothing satisfies like a bowlful of pozole, a very simple soup of tomatoes and hominy. While it’s not quite on par with the other, flashier staples, it’s sure to hit the spot if you’re craving a bit of comfort.

But enough beating around the bush. The main attraction, the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the banana leaf-wrapped tamale is hands-down the single item you must order if you can only pick one. Though the mole, caper, potato, and green olive filling sounds like a discordant combination, suspend disbelief and give it a try. The reasons why it works so well remain a mystery, but you’ll never question it ever again. A true rarity in the crowded and heavily promoted bay area food scene, this particular promise lives up to the hype.

Tamales can be ordered a la cart or as a plate, complete with rice, beans, and salad. While you may feel more virtuous by selecting a fully balanced meal, the sides are nothing special. Get the most mouthwatering bang for your buck by doubling down on the tamales instead. It’s an easy choice that you’ll never regret, even for those with a penchant for fine dining. Flacos might very well hold the key to the best tamales you’ve ever had.


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Copper-Plated

All that glitters isn’t gold, but if you’re lucky, it might just be copper. If that sounds like a bum deal at first glance, then you haven’t yet experienced the glory of copper cookware. Renowned for its ability to retain heat and distribute it evenly across the surface of any food, not to mention its undeniable aesthetic attraction, it’s easy to see why copper is the real gold standard for professional chefs. It’s also about as expensive as 24 karats, which is why these gleaming pans are rarely seen outside of the most elite professional kitchens.

That is, until now. Copper Chef is bringing this beautiful vessel to the masses, in gleaming non-stick square pans that boast incredible versatility far beyond the traditional format. The catch is that they’re not actually copper through and throught; copper-coated aluminum with a steel induction plate is a more accurate, albeit less alluring description. Though skeptical of the grand claims made by “As Seen On TV” products, I still couldn’t resist the offer to give them a trial by fire.

No matter what these gleaming pans are made of, color me impressed. With or without a protective layer of oil, not a single thing stuck to the surface, which meant that cleanup afterward was a breeze, too. With capabilities that go far beyond a standard sauté or stir fry, the full set includes a brilliant square stand for steaming, as well as a perfectly fitted mesh basket to facilitate effortless frying. The less traditional square shape may be a detractor for some, but I can only see more opportunities here, as these pans can actually be used as fully functional baking dishes as well. That’s right- You can bake your brownies in the same saucepan that you prepared dinner in! For anyone on a tight spatial budget in a tiny apartment kitchen, the incredible benefits of being able to consolidate pans needs no further explanation.

Almost as soon as I got my hands on this lovely cookware, I knew exactly how to put them to the test: baked mac and cheese. Not just any stove top instant mac, of course, but a fully baked, one-pot rendition, completed with only the Copper Chef pan in service. Turns out that my trial was no challenge at all, resulting in a beautifully baked slab of cheesy, gooey mac and cheese with a crisp breadcrumb crust on top after the first attempt. Looking back on it even now, it seems absurd that it could have been so easy; no boiling or draining water, no transferring slippery noodles into a casserole dish, no whisking sauce separately with all burners firing.

The quest for the perfect mac and cheese is never-ending, but I would implore you to give this one a trial by fire. I doubt you’ll find a baked rendition that’s altogether so quick, easy, and deeply satisfying. For all the shortcuts it takes in preparation, there are no concessions made to taste.

One-Pan Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil (Optional)
1/2 Cup Diced Onion
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tapioca Starch
4 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (1 8-Ounce Package) Shredded Vegan Cheddar
1 Pound Penne Pasta (Uncooked)
3 – 4 Cups Broccoli Florets

Breadcrumb Topping:

2 Slices (About 1 Ounce Each) White or Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, Toasted and Crumbled
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Copper Chef pan over medium heat and begin to heat the oil, if using. It’s not necessary to prevent sticking, but to add a touch more richness to the finished dish. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sautéing until translucent and aromatic. Stir in the miso paste and mustard, and sprinkle the tapioca starch evenly across the top. Try to avoid dropping it in just one place to prevent clumps.

Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk of your choice while stirring continuously. Cover the pan loosely and allow the liquid to come just to the brink of a boil. Uncover, reduce the heat to medium-low, add in the cheddar shreds, stirring and simmering gently until melted. Finally, introduce the pasta and broccoli, mixing thoroughly to incorporate and distribute all of the goodies throughout. Let simmer, undisturbed, for about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together all of the ingredients for the breadcrumb topping except for the fresh parsley. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top, and very carefully move the pan into the oven. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Top with the parsley and serve hot!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

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