BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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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I ♥ Nalo

Some things never change, like the soothing rhythm of the ocean, day in and day out, as waves lap against the shores of Oahu. Every visit seems to pick up right where the last left off, as if the whole island had been put on pause in my absence. There’s a timeless quality about the majestic rain forests; the towering mountains and their plunging craters; the flora and fauna buzzing, chirping, and making merry throughout it all. There’s a certain comfort knowing that no matter how long it takes me to return, Hawaii will remain as enchanting a place as the day I first met it.

And yet, in my heart, I know that this is a consolatory lie. Imperceptibly, without conscious intention, everything changes. You can never truly go home again if you’re expecting “home” to align with questionably maintained memories. However, in the case of Honolulu’s evolving food scene, this is a very good thing indeed. One of the newest and most buzzed about establishments to take root in the past six months is Ai Love Nalo, an unassuming outpost on the far-flung coast of Waimanalo. Housed in a former gas station, it would be easy to drive right on by without a second thought, as nothing from the outside hints at the culinary treasures within.

Despite the fact that it’s a considerably trek for city-dwellers, factoring either traffic or bus schedules into the equation, or both if you’re particularly unlucky, it’s a journey always worth taking. Hit Hanauma Bay along the way and make it a day trip; the only way to top those dazzling sights is to follow them with a stellar meal.

Boasting a menu composed of locally-sourced produce and entirely vegan options, you’ll want to take a number of friends for the best experience. Heck, get out there and make some new friends! Join one of the long communal picnic tables out back and introduce yourself; there are no friendlier folks on earth than those living in paradise, as far as I’ve seen.

That said, if there was only one dish to order, it would have to be the Oh WOW Laulau. Wow, indeed! No where else on earth have I found vegan laulau, let alone such a stellar rendition. Traditionally consisting of fatty pork and/or fish steamed in taro leaves, this version eschews the meat in favor of hearty root vegetables, adding creamy coconut into the mix for richness. Not to be overlooked is the Tofu Poke provided on the side, claiming to be spicy but really bearing just enough warmth to taste perfectly balanced. This was easily my personal favorite from the small sampling of dishes provided, but it’s a close call when all the options are so good.

Another front runner is the BBQ Portobello Sandwich. Mushrooms marinated in a bright, smoky barbecue sauce practically sing between two whole wheat buns. Coconut slaw tops off the assemblage with just the right amount of subtle sweetness to contrast the deeply savory flavors within.

Simpler but no less spectacular dishes include the Roasted Veg Platter and Roasted Veg Avocado Sandwich. The way that the vegetables are treated with respect, from the moment they’re harvested from nearby farms to the care taken when they reach the kitchen is evident with every bite. Cooked with care and proffered generously with each serving, even the basics make the trek out here worthwhile. I’m still trying to recreate that impossibly umami gravy offered on the side. It’s one of those things that are so astoundingly, inconceivably delicious, it’s impossible to deconstruct.

Each entree promises an ideal amount of food; satisfying diners without over-stuffing them. That said, you’ll still want to make room for dessert, especially when you see the towering bowls full of Outta This Swirled Soft Serve. Cool, naturally sweet spirals of banana-based soft serve are dressed to the nines with cacao sauce that hardens much like magic shell, granola and coconut flakes tumbling down the mountainous terrain, and fresh fruits that vary based on local availability- Expect papaya always to be in ample supply, based on the thriving papaya trees on premise. Each order is abundant enough to be a considered a full meal in and of itself.

Although it’s foolish to imagine that anything would remain impervious to the inevitable current of change touching all corners of modern life, Ai Love Nalo is one thing I hope will still dazzle in the same place, in the same ways, next time I come back.


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Ranch, Reinvented

“Obsession” is a good way to describe the level of devotion for many otherwise easy-going eaters across the US. Inspiring a following that borders on fanatic, it makes an appearance on over 25% of menus across the nation. That’s all restaurant menus, in all states, so while it may not sound especially impressive at first, consider the diverse number of cuisines found coast to coast, including the the chefs who wouldn’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot stalk of celery. I’m talking about ranch dressing; the tangy, herbaceous condiment that has become inextricably linked with edible Americana. Even back in the days of my vegetable-hating youth, I too succumbed to the creamy comfort of pale, iceberg salads smothered in enough ranch dressing to sink a ship. Stealthily consumed under the pretense of eating a healthy serving of vegetables, I could empty out those family-sized bottles at an alarming rate.

Ranch has been re-imagined and revitalized in striking new ways since then, appealing to many previous detractors with brighter, bolder flavors and countless bases that cater to more wholesome diets. The concept itself has become so prevalent in popular culture, in fact, that it’s transcended that original format to become a wholly unique flavor. No longer a mere condiment, anything can be ranch-flavored.

That’s where Biena Chickpea Snacks come in with the introduction of their new Rockin’ Ranch Chickpeas. Crunchy garbanzo beans are the new bacon, as far as I’m concerned, proliferating in the snack aisle and home kitchens alike in a rainbow of flavors. The key to their success is their versatility, not only as stand-alone snacks, but also components in other dishes. The most obvious approach to incorporating these nuggets of crunchy goodness into your daily diet is to simply throw a handful into any green salad, replacing those tired old croutons with invigorating new zest. Especially true of these particular gems, the ranch flavor is ideal for perking up even the barest bowl of leafy greens. Bold and tangy notes of vinegar provide the first wake-up call; assertive but not aggressive. Savory garlicky undertones come through with each and every crunch, appealing to a wide range of palates. Despite being generously coated with spices and seasonings, this flavorful dusting won’t cake on your fingers or turn them fluorescent colors should you choose to simply munch out of hand. Overall, the flavor is remarkably ranch-y, yet sure to appeal even if ranch isn’t exactly your dressing of choice.

It would have been easy to plow through a full bag (or two) as fuel for marathon study sessions, but I wanted to make more out of these crispy chickpea gems. My mind quickly went to the classic pairing of buffalo wings and ranch dressing, but with a heartier and more wholesome slant.

Simple and easy enough to suit the most hectic weekday dinner rush, this hearty stew combines all the best parts of a spicy buffalo wing marinade with a few basic pantry staples, elevating the concept well beyond standard bar fare. Thick and rich, each spoonful sparkles with just all the right spice to ring true. Who needs fried fast food when little more than a few humble beans can trump the whole flavor sensation? A cooling ranch creme serves to balance out the heat, and of course, a generous handful of those addictive crunchy ranch chickpeas adds the much-needed textural contrast to complete the picture.

Even as the days grow longer and warmer, this is one satisfying one-pot dish that will stay on my menu as a perennial favorite.

Buffalo-Ranch Chickpea Stew

Buffalo Chickpea Stew:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1/2 Large Yellow Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Stalks Celery, Diced
3 Tablespoons Chickpea Flour
1 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth
1/2 Cup Tomato Puree
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
2 Tablespoons Hot Sauce, such as Frank’s Red Hot
Salt, to Taste

Ranch Crème:

1/2 Cup Vegan Sour Cream
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

To Serve:

Ranch-Flavored Crunchy Chickpeas, Store-Bought or Homemade
1 – 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Set a medium pot over moderate heat and add in the oil. Saute the onion, garlic, and celery together until softened, aromatic, and just beginning to caramelize around the edges. Sprinkle in the chickpea flour and stir well, coating the vegetables. Cook lightly, for just a minute or two, to gently toast and cook the raw flavor out of the flour. Slowly incorporate the vegetable broth, stirring constantly to ensure that it properly hydrates the flour without clumping. Once simmering, introduce the tomato puree, chickpeas, and hot sauce next, stirring well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let simmer until the liquid has significantly thickened; about 10 – 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the ranch crème by simply mixing together all of the ingredients in a separate bowl. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Once the stew is thick and bubbling away happily, add salt to taste and ladle it out into individual serving bowls. Top with dollops of ranch crème, crunchy chickpeas, and sliced scallions. Enjoy!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Background Information

Every single photo, be it simple or complex, novice or professional, must always start with two essential components: A subject and a background. Whether we’re talking about people, products, or skyscrapers, it’s the same story. Mercifully, greater control is bestowed upon the photographer lucky enough to work with food, effortlessly modifying textures, colors, and patterns to best highlight the dish du jour. Inevitably cast as the backup singer by definition, photographic backgrounds never get the praise they deserve for setting the scene. Few single components can lay claim to the same power when it comes to affecting the whole composition of a piece in one fell swoop. Such responsibility naturally comes with serious drawbacks, especially when you find your microscopic apartment studio bursting at the seams with huge wooden boards and slabs of worn ceramic tiles. Lest every image start looking the same, it becomes imperative to start diversifying your options, and fast.

Uber Gray Grunge From Ink and Elm Backdrops

For a number of years, I found moderate success using lengths of contact paper as one approach to expand my collection of backgrounds, but this approach has distinct limitations. Rarely do the most useful patterns come in a matte finish, leading to distracting reflections or harsh shiny spots under the glare of strobe lights, especially if there should ever be the smallest wrinkle in the roll.

It was a serendipitous moment of aimless online shopping when I stumbled across Ink and Elm Backdrops. Though clearly developed with the portrait photographer in mind, I immediately saw potential for my inanimate focal points, too. Made of high-quality vinyl, the big question would be how that texture would translate under the close scrutiny of a macro lens. Don’t expect deep wood grain or genuine stone surfaces, but happily, not a single image came out screaming “ARTIFICIAL PRINT BACK HERE! THIS IS ALL A FARCE!” Good news too, since I hate it when my props yell at me.

Heirloom Planks From Ink and Elm Backdrops

Best of all for food photography, these surfaces are highly washable. Go ahead, lay your greasiest potato chips right on top, splash around with cookies dunked in milk; nothing seems to shake these sturdy foundations.

Flexible sizing is another big benefit that traditional alternatives can’t boast. Small squares are available for your basic shoot, but if you want to create a whole Thanksgiving spread on a rustic oak table spanning a couple of feet in both directions, they’ve got you covered, too. Plus, each sheet easily rolls up for compact storage when it’s all said and done.

There is one very serious pitfall to ordering through Ink and Elm, however. Their expansive catalog is so extensive, it’s almost impossible to pick out just one or two patterns!


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Hospitality in the Green Mountain State

Embarking upon my wild adventure to the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s, it was a given that there were be numerous sweet samples to entertain my taste buds over the following days, but I could have never anticipated the delights that awaited me beyond the industrial freezer case.

My first taste of Vermont came in liquid form, with a tall, bubbly Maple-Sage Tonic, furnished by Juniper Bar & Restaurant and savored in front of the roaring fireplace at the Hotel Vermont. The partnership between these two establishments proved to be a seamless marriage of efficiency and harmony time and again throughout my short stay.

Perusing the typical menu online, there were clearly one or two default meatless options on offer, but nothing to indicate the level of culinary finesse we were soon to encounter. Developed specifically for the Ben & Jerry’s blogger gathering, the chef went above and beyond the call of duty. Greeting us with a lavish welcoming dinner served up family-style, it was dangerously tempting to spoon out a second or third generous helping of every dish.

Ideal for the plummeting winter temperatures outside, the coconut stewed tofu with kaffir lime and peanuts was a top pick, rich and hearty, yet crafted with incredible artistry. The bright citrus notes shone through the coconut broth, infusing each tender cube of tofu thoroughly. Though the seitan cassoulet with cattle beans and celeriac won’t win any beauty contests, it was probably my favorite course of the evening. Bearing incredible depth in each creamy, comforting bite, it was a study in umami that I couldn’t get enough of. It’s exactly the kind of elevated home cooking that I crave after a long, trying day of travel.

I can’t go without mentioning the show-stopping dessert. Despite being absolutely stuffed on savories, I shamelessly devoured every last crumb of the tender chocolate layer cake. Smothered with a rich coat of ganache, nearly solid enough to qualify as a solid bar of chocolate by itself, the flaky sea salt and chopped pistachios on top truly did gild the lily… But I wouldn’t complain about their inclusion, to say the least.

By the end of the trip, I wanted to set up permanent residence in that plush queen-size bed. It wouldn’t have been difficult either, considering the positively luxurious room service menu offered specifically for all of us alternative eaters staying the night. Never before have I experienced the true decadence of a chef-prepared morning meal delivered right to my bed, and let me tell you that even against the impossibly idealized picture painted in so many movies, the real life experience exceeded all expectations. There’s something unspeakably luxurious about having someone else make even a humble bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and maple syrup for you, no matter how uncomplicated the task may be. Even now, looking back on all the incredible bites I enjoyed throughout this crazy adventure, it’s those quiet moments wrapped up in the soft bed sheets with a cup of hot coffee by my side that I genuinely crave the most.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to highlight an establishment that doesn’t readily advertise their prowess in vegan cooking, but these offerings were each so outstanding that it’s absolutely worth the extra effort of making a special request. If you’re booking a room with Hotel Vermont or making dinner reservations at Juniper, let either of these fine establishments know in advance, and you can rest assured that you’ll be well taken care of.

This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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Ben & Jerry’s – The Inside Scoop

Blinking sleepily, stupidly at the gate, it took a full ten minutes for the meaning of the digital scrawl to sink in. My cross-country, red-eye flight had been further delayed, now rescheduled to depart sometime in the predawn hour of 2AM. A punishing schedule already awaited me upon arrival, complete with a second plane to catch and events lined up from the moment the wheels hit the tarmac. For all this tumult, I would only be in Burlington, Vermont for a two days all told. What on earth could possible be worth that kind of suffering?

Ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but Ben & Jerry’s new 100% vegan line of almond milk frozen desserts. It’s the one food news story that the whole world is buzzing about lately, omnivorous or otherwise, and I was given the rare opportunity to see the birthplace of this extraordinary creation.

Though the dead of winter would be my last choice for when to visit this picturesque east coast town, the white carpet of snow and cozy blanket of clouds were not without their charms. If only I had an extra day, or perhaps even an extra hour, I would have loved to explore the myriad vegan restaurants just around the corner, but I was here on a bigger mission.

Along with a select group of exclusive, top drawer food bloggers, I was treated to an incredible adventure in the Ben & Jerry’s factory and test kitchen. Our main objective, of course, was to get the goods on the buzz-worthy new pints, developed both for the sake of hungry customers demanding dairy-free options, and to decrease the deleterious environmental impact that goes along with milk production. It was made very clear that these four initial flavors are only the beginning of that pursuit. Although it took 3 years and between 70 – 90 trials in development, there are promising hints that pending the success of this launch, we may eventually have even more flavors tempting us on store shelves.

Delicious and ambrosial as the tasting session was, my highlight of the trip was getting the opportunity to play around with the almond milk base to fabricate a “limited edition” frozen dessert. So exclusive that you will never see it in production, it was still a joy to mix up a big batch of the creamy concoction with any and all the chunky mix-ins my heart desired. Working in teams, my group was responsible for unleashing the “Drunk’n Pumpk’n Pie” upon the party, complete with toasted marshmallows, graham cracker crust pieces, and a generous splash of bourbon. Each spoonful had a whole lot of spirit, but alas, it was no match for the truly superlative “Southern Roots” dreamed up by the competition.

Ben & Jerry’s, if you’re listening: Please put this one on the official line up! Outrageously thick ribbons of caramel swirled through every square inch of the creamy peach bourbon jam base with a hint of cinnamon, intertwining with crunchy chunks of toasted pecans. Within our small, secret sampling society, this creative and unabashedly indulgent mix was a hands-down winner.

But… What about the REAL dairy-free offerings now hitting grocery store shelves and scoop shops nationwide, you ask?

For the full scoop on the flavors themselves and my personal tasting notes, head over to my official review on Go Dairy Free.

This post was is sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.