BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Not-So-Secret Supper Club

There’s no sign out front. No two menus are ever the same. Walk-ins are not accepted. One would be hard pressed to call this arrangement a “restaurant” by the traditional definition, and yet the chef plays to a rapt audience, selling out tickets for almost every dining session. Bay area natives will likely know this poorly kept “secret” supper club well, striking up the band with Sound & Savor for over 13 years now. My first experience in this elusive underground establishment left a lasting memory, filled with the warmth of community as well as good food, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Attending dinners and classes almost as often as they’re offered, Chef Philip Gelb and I became fast friends in the process.

Known as much for his confidence with spice as his finesse with more delicate flavors, Phil has a style that doesn’t fit well into any predefined category, unafraid to cook to his own beat. Now he’s sharing that same approach with voracious eaters abroad, with the release of Vegan Underground: Improvisations on World Cuisines.

The contents transcend superficial cultural boundaries, seamlessly merging the defining characteristics of multiple distinctive cuisines into a brand new culinary adventure. Venturing boldly into unexplored territory, these recipes remain approachable, familiar for their original roots, recalling all the best flavor notes from high to low.

From Trinidad doubles to fiery mapo tofu, crispy fried okra to pistachio-walnut ice cream, the diverse range of delicious options promises appetizing options for all palates. Ramen remains a particular favorite of mine, and it’s a true pleasure to finally see other perennial crowd-pleasers like the green gazpacho and polenta peach cake in print.

Capturing the photos for this fresh compilation, I was lucky enough to experience these meals in person, as cooked by the master, but I can vouch for this home cook’s translation as well. Since not everyone, locals included, are lucky enough to snag seats for these limited engagements, I’m absolutely thrilled to give away a copy of Vegan Underground to four readers! Enter through August 10th by commenting below: Have you ever been to an “underground” restaurant, or have you dreamed of starting your own? Tell me about your experiences and ideas! Log your submission on the official giveaway page, and find additional ways to improve your odds there, too.

For as many cookbooks flood the marketplace every year, there are none that can match the creativity and sheer passion found within these pages. You won’t find Vegan Underground in mainstream bookstores or on Amazon.com, so don’t miss your chance to own a copy today.

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Cut and Dried

Populated by little more than starchy potatoes and papery onions mere weeks ago, market stalls are suddenly bursting with a rainbow of fresh produce. Giant, plump blueberries the size of grapes; gnarled heirloom tomatoes as unique and delicate as snowflakes; peaches fragrant enough to double as air fresheners; I want them all, and I want them in volume. I’m that hungry shopper tasting one of each sample, even when I know exactly what I’m going home with that day. I’m the one buying three pounds of strawberries for a recipe that only calls for two. The lure of summertime produce is one that I’m powerless against, buying in bulk despite cooking for one. I’ll eat cherries one after another, no matter how many are piled up high, until all my clothing is hopelessly stained red.

Still, endlessly voracious for that taste of sunshine, I can never get my fill. There’s only so much space in my freezer to save that seasonal bounty, and the laborious process of proper canning still eludes me. Options for preservation beyond a day at best have been severely lacking, until I stumbled upon the world of dehydration.

Embraced by the raw food movement for its ability to “cook” while preserving more nutrients than conventional heating methods, the concept itself is as old as time. Leave something edible out in the sun, keep away the bugs and prevent it from getting moldy, and slowly draw out the moisture until it can be stored for leaner times. Humidity, fluctuating temperatures, and the open air itself present serious barriers to upholding this time-honored tradition. Modern technology has gotten into the game, reviving the dehydration concept as more than just a utilitarian function, but also a doorway to more creative cuisine.

Given the opportunity to investigate the power of the Tribest Sedona Express, I jumped at the offer. Though I had dabbled in dehydration with a dinky little toy of a machine salvaged from a yard sale, my experience was limited, not to mention, unsatisfying. Now, after a year and a half of use, I can’t claim that it’s the first contraption I break out when developing new recipes, but it’s proven its value many times over.

This thing is a food drying powerhouse, bearing 1430 square inches of space across 11 trays to accommodate all the produce your heart desires. It heats up quickly and holds temperature reliably, unless you’d like to specify the intensity yourself at anywhere between 75 – 170 degrees. Long processing times are par for the course still, but no trouble with a 99-hour timer.

My studio is spatially challenged, to put it lightly, so I was reasonably concerned about adding the inherent noise that comes with such a hulking piece of machinery into the mix, working away through all hours of the night. Mercifully, my fears were unfounded; no louder than a modest propeller-driven table fan even on high, I slept soundly while the dehydrator powered through the AM hours.

That’s all well and good for basic pantry stockpiles, but what about the more important issue… Could it keep up with my snacking demands? Happily having munched my way through countless rounds of zucchini chips, coconut macaroons, and assorted fruit leathers, I can confidently report nothing but delicious experiences. One particular favorite that emerged through these trials was a buttery, cheesy vegetable in disguise that I like to call “CauliPop.” Cauliflower all dressed up like movie theater popcorn, it’s a compulsively edible nosh. While it would be a struggle to plow through a full heat of the stuff raw, it seems to disappear instantly once kissed by the warmth of the dehydrator. It’s the kind of deceptively simple formula that you’ll soon find yourself doubling and tripling to keep up with demand.

Emulating one of my favorite snack bar options, I knew it would be easy to cut the crap to fabricate an even simpler dupe. Only three ingredients are needed for these soft, chewy, and super sweet Banana-Nut Chia Bars, all of which are readily apparent from the title alone. In fact, you probably already have what it takes to make them right now! That trusty dehydrator was running nonstop when I finally hit upon the perfect ratio, handily replacing those packaged bars at a fraction of the cost.

Well into my 20th month with this beast on my side, I’m still finding new and delicious ways to use the Tribest Sedona Express. The manufacturer was kind enough to provide one for review, but no amount of fancy equipment could ever buy my praise. I can honestly say that if you’re serious about preservation, healthy snacking, or just playing around with your food, this is the model you want to harness.

CauliPop

1 Medium Head Cauliflower
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil, Melted
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Teaspoon Coarse Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Turmeric

Chop the cauliflower into approximately 1-inch florets, as consistent as possible to ensure they dry at an equal rate. Blanch them by plunging them into boiling water for 3 minutes, until fork-tender but still firm. Drop them into an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process and drain thoroughly. Transfer to a large bowl.

Drizzle in the coconut oil and toss with the remaining seasonings until evenly coated. Place the florets directly on a wire rack, allowing ample space for air circulation, and set the dehydrator to 115 degrees. The “cooking” process will take anywhere from 12 – 24 hours, depending on your preferences. Pull the cauliflower earlier for a softer interior, or let it the machine run for the full cycle to get a crunchier bite throughout.

Makes 1 – 3 Servings

Printable Recipe

Banana-Nut Chia Bars

2 Large, Ripe Bananas
1/4 Cup Chia Seeds
2 Tablespoons Walnuts, Chopped

Mash the bananas and stir in the chia and walnuts. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes for the chia seeds to gel. Spread the mixture evenly over a non-stick drying sheet approximately 1/4-inch thick. Dehydrate at 145 degrees for 4 – 6 hours, or until dry to the touch, firm, and sliceable. Cut into squares or bars as desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Bars

Printable Recipe


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Faux Moo, Real Flavor

To any ice cream enthusiast feeling freezer-burned by airy, bland, or over-sweetened pints: This scoop’s for you. FoMu has been churning out the goods in Massachusetts since 2011, steadily gaining ground as a frozen force to be reckoned with. Super-premium indulgence is their calling card, building each flavor upon a base of buttery, velvety coconut cream. Always on the periphery of my awareness but firmly out of reach, I could only dream of stealing a spoonful for many years, admiring their innovative offerings from afar. Now FoMu is much more than an isolated brick-and-mortar ice cream parlor, expanding rapidly into online sales with nationwide shipping. Dairy-free decadence is just a few clicks away, and I couldn’t resist the urge to finally dive in.

Bourbon Maple Walnut captured my attention first, melding a compelling team of power players into one robust, deep, and soulful blend. Notes of oaky, wooden bourbon barrels are clearly present throughout the creamy base with a rum-forward first bite. This scoop is certainly not shy, while still managing to resist the easy path of tasting purely alcoholic; it’s assertive, not aggressive. Rich like softly whipped cream, frozen before setting into firm peaks, the otherwise unblemished landscape is speckled with small but well-placed walnuts, fresh and crisp, adding a nice crunch. Maple is a bit of a silent partner against these more vocal components, but it does come through in subtle hints, particularly as the ice cream begins to warm and melt, revealing its full bouquet of flavors. Like a good wine, the eating experience morphs as the temperature shifts. It’s truly an intoxicating experience from start to finish, and quite possibly my favorite ice cream of the season thus far.

Salted Caramel treads familiar terrain with a deft confidence unmatched among fellow ice cream innovators. Buttery, subtly burnt notes enclose a darker caramel flavor than the tanned color might suggest. Sticky, almost chewy straight out of the freezer, each scoop is like pure caramel candy. Instantly it begins to melt once freed from the pint, turning into a brilliantly, satisfyingly messy reminder of childhood. Notes of salt ring out clearly in each mouthful, highlighting the toasted, nutty flavors. Ultimately, it’s a simple concept executed with a finesse that’s difficult to rival.



Fresh Mint Chunk
shines white like fluffy snow, punctuated at random by chocolate shrapnel. Soft, gentle, sweet mint flavor delicately leads the way, a far cry from the “toothpaste” flavor that haters typically condemn. Those abundant cacao chunks provide a satisfying crunch with a swift bite, but can just as easily melt into fudge puddles when savored slowly. Well-rounded, herbal, and subtly grassy notes prove that the origins of this mint are all natural. Though not quite as punchy as I hoped, the end result is highly refreshing all the same, perfect for taking the edge off a hot summer’s day.

Avocado was perhaps the most daring of the batch, a wild card to tempt more adventurous eaters. Pale green, you would be forgiven if you mistook it for pistachio at a glance, but one lick will instantly clear up that confusion. Definitely, unmistakably avocado, it’s almost more savory than sweet. Notes of the coconut base are most prominent in this one, where the spare, subtle blend leaves it no place to hide. Exceedingly rich, buttery, and even a touch grassy, much like a smooth olive oil, small scoops will easily satisfy. Startling at first, give it a chance and it will really grow on you. Though unconvinced at first, I found myself going back for “just one more taste” until the pint was empty.

Although I wish FoMu might open up shop nearby, perhaps it’s better that this sort of treat remains only on special order. Accessible, but not a daily indulgence, it’s easier to rationalize those oversized servings as a rare luxury.


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Take It Easy

Clear, defining factors that separate Creole from Cajun cuisine are difficult to tease out of each bubbling hell-broth of boiling gumbo, but the difference between typical low country cooking and the offerings at Easy Creole are unmistakable. Born on the bayou, seafood is practically synonymous with the traditional fare, and a love of wild game means that no offal is too awful for inclusion. Uprooting the concept and bringing it to Northern California, this one-of-a-kind kitchen populates half of the menu with entirely vegan options. Though an unthinkable compromise to some, it takes only a taste to realize that no concessions are made when it comes to the underlying flavor, heart, or soul.

Original inventions like Thai Peanut Etouffee meet classic Mahattan Maque Choux or Mushroom Stroganoff, all on the same plate and served over white or brown rice. Unfamiliar with these bold compositions? Don’t be shy, just ask for a taste! Unfailingly friendly servers readily dish out samples, as if doling out tasting spoons at an ice cream parlor, until you strike upon the perfect stew to suit your mood.

An endlessly evolving menu brings a new excuse to drop by every day, but makes it difficult to recommend any particular dish, for fear of heartbreak or disappointment. Luckily, a few of my favorites have proven to be returning staples, enjoyed on many occasions in the past and no doubt many more to come.

Spinach and Mushroom Etouffee is a personal favorite, a creamy and deeply savory combination that hits all the right notes when I’m craving a bite of comfort. It’s a dish that can pull me out of the house at a moment’s notice, as soon as it appears on Easy Creole’s Instagram feed. Considering how often I fall victim to that siren song, perhaps it would be wise to stop following that endless stream of temptation. That said, falling into that delicious trap time and again over the course of two years has yet to disappoint.

Most medleys are quite mild, designed to accommodate for all tastes and all hot sauce preferences, of which the choices are downright mind-boggling. Over two dozen bottles of fire water populate each table, right alongside a generous shaker of nutritional yeast. You know you’re in the right place when you see those golden yellow flakes in ample supply, mixed in with the other condiments as if it was no big deal. Though the cheese and sour cream toppings are out, raw onions are always a good choice to add crunch and cut through the richness of any of the luscious, rich stews. Don’t forget to finish the meal with a side of perfectly crisp garlic bread, satisfyingly greasy in all the right ways.

One constant, at least, is dessert. Dairy-free Rice Pudding is served chilled year-round, spiked with unexpected flecks of citrus; a zesty contrast to the predictable cinnamon-spiced approach. Fruits may vary, but expect soft stewed apples or simmered raisins in most cases. Dive in with an open mind and don’t sweat the details. As promised by the restaurant’s name, it’s easy to fall in love with.

Easy Creole
1761 Alcatraz Ave.
Berkeley, CA


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Mac Daddy

Passover has mercifully passed on by without incident, the week without leavened bread already a distant memory. Jumping right back into the typical glutenous routine as quickly as pizza crust can crisp and brown back to life, the cupboards miraculously refill with wheated treats, and boards of matzo just as suddenly disappear. Still, its influence lingers, the drive to create kosher eats still strong and the inspiration of past successes just as compelling.

One of my strongest food associations with the holiday, right after matzo ball soup, of course, is coconut macaroons. Sad to say, it’s a regrettable negative mental link, once correlated to the stale, mummified nuggets found at the bottom of an ancient tin can, likely the very same guest invited to a decade of celebrations. Sinewy, overly sweetened strings of processed coconut were woven throughout, like sugary balls of yarn, obliterating any genuine flavor, natural or otherwise.

It needn’t be this way. Coconut macaroons are effortless to make from scratch, suitable for all diets and palates, but many prepared options exist that can deftly carry the torch, too. Coco-Roons first hit the market years ago with a modest selection of standard flavors. Since then, the family has expanded to include more innovative offerings.

Chocolate and vanilla, the mandatory classics, are presented with a bit more flare as Brownie and Vanilla Maple. While such fanciful monikers may be a bit more hype than truth, there’s no arguing that these macaroons are far and away a huge upgrade over the sad leaden lumps that haunt my childhood memories. Vanilla Maple tastes surprisingly more of rum than maple; subtle, unexpected alcoholic notes play among the tropical coconut flavor, surprising but not unwelcome. Brownie offers adds a nicely rounded, robust cocoa taste to the mix, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s equivalent to a decadent fudgy square. For some slightly more avant-garde options, Salted Caramel is a standout, dazzling with warm, toasted notes, heightened by that extra bit of seasoning. Lemon Pie does indeed bear an impressively creamy, custard-like lemon flavor; bright but not tangy, it falls firmly into the sweet camp, rather than sour.

More importantly than the individual flavors though, each tiny morsel is moist, soft, and sweet. Very fresh, full coconut flavor, they employ short strands of flaked coconut to create a more pleasing texture, while still remaining relatively faithful to the original script. Traditionalists would undoubtedly enjoy the modern upgrade, and the fact that they happen to be gluten-free, vegan, and raw are just added bonuses.


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Wave of the Future

If you can blend it, you can milk it. Once defined and dominated by soybeans alone, the very nature of non-dairy drinks is hotly debated by enthusiasts and detractors alike, struggling to find commonalities that might link that vast array of plant-based sources crowding out the antiquated plastic jugs of cow juice. It’s not just the sales figures that are booming, but the unparalleled variety and access that consumers can now enjoy, just as easily opting for an almond, hemp, or oat mustache instead. New blends are still popping up rapidly, before you can even empty your first frothy glass. Now, along with those nutty and beany staples, the lactose intolerant can stock their fridges with banana milk.

Banana Wave presents itself as a game changer seeking to disrupt the industry, but the whole truth is less likely to make real waves. Built upon a foundation of bananas, soymilk, and gluten-free oats, in that order, it’s more like a thin blended smoothie than a true dairy substitute, bearing a viscosity similar to a simple protein shake.

Surprisingly subdued in flavor, the initial impact was less sweet and potent than anticipated, perhaps to placate drinkers that might not be entirely on board with a fruity intrusion. Flax oil, though a welcome change of pace from lower quality canola or safflower, contributes a discordant note and slightly mineral aftertaste. An impressive battery of vitamins and minerals bolster the nutritional profile, proving that it has more to offer than the average watery mammalian formula. Undeniably smooth and creamy, it certain still has its charm. I could see this being a great grab-and-go snack, if only it was packaged in single-serving cartons. Overall, it’s a great concept that hasn’t yet realized its own full potential. I’m looking forward to the day when I see Banana Wave on the shelf, right alongside the heavyweights battling it out for non-dairy dominance, but I don’t think it’s quite ready to roll with the punches just yet.


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Got Greens?

Milk mustaches are out; juice mustaches are in. Unlocking a world of flavor and liquid nutrition that dairy could only dream of, it’s no surprise that fresh pressed produce has taken up the torch in this race for beverage dominance. Green Mustache is one of many companies making a splash with blended fruit and vegetable smoothies, all built upon a foundation of leafy greens like kale and spinach. Inspirational though unexceptional in this burgeoning field, the differentiating factor in their origin story is that these drinks are blended with younger tastes in mind, palatable for both kids and adults alike. More importantly, they don’t neglect the need for more traditional snacks with more mainstream appeal, which is what first sparked my attention- And appetite.

Though not green in color or overt taste, Mustache Munchies “Cheddarish” Crackers quietly sneak a serving of vegetative goodness into these adorable handlebar crisps. Tanned to a gentle golden hue, these aren’t the screaming florescent orange wafers of similar mainstream competitors. Instead, they’re a study of careful balance and nuance, bearing a subtle nutty undertone and light but naturally cheesy essence. Each piece is a perfect little bite, ensuring no crumbs nor mess to contend with later when munching on the run.

As a serial granola bar-eater, sweet snacks start to lose their appeal early on in the day, which makes these satisfyingly crunchy crackers an ideal alternative. I never thought a mustache might look good on me, but these lightly salted morsels could add stylish new flair to any smiling face.