BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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.


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For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate is a gift that is always in style, matches with everything you already own, and always fits. It should come as no surprise that it’s the Valentine’s Day token of choice, ranking well above the typical flowers, cards, and unintentionally tragic stuffed animals. Let’s keep it that way, and let’s keep it classy, folks. No dollar store mockolate to show your sweetheart how bad you are at planning ahead, please. Considering the explosion of high-quality options now on the market, there’s no excuse not to go the extra mile to seek out something special. Those efforts to find a truly transcendent box of cacao decadence will be repaid in full with just one bite.

Amore di Mona is part of the new wave of contemporary chocolatiers that stands apart from the rest. Committed to producing exceptional treats that can be enjoyed by all, every exquisite morsel they produce is vegan and gluten-free.

Even the gold wrapping and immaculate box of the Connoisseur Collection exudes opulence and indulgence. It’s clear from square one (no pun intended) that these are no average candies. Impeccably molded, dipped, and decorated, each piece glistens in the sunlight and snaps firmly under pressure. Seven entirely unique flavors are included in the assortment, ranging from solid chocolate hearts with various accouterments to dipped and drizzled caramels. Unsurprisingly, the chocolate itself is exceptional: Dry, smooth, intense dark chocolate, but not the least bit harsh, it’s very easy to eat without risking either palate fatigue or a sugar coma.

Finding good vegan caramels can still be challenging at best, but this box may very well end the search. Each “caramela,” as they are called, possesses a firm bite, soft chew, and subtly nutty, toasted sweet flavor. Although I must admit that I found myself craving a tiny extra pinch of salt at times, there’s really little to fault about the final execution. Favorites will only be a matter of preference, because you can do no wrong with any of the options. Pieces containing cranberries shine with tartness from the dried fruits, bitterness of the chocolate, and just the right amount of sugar to smooth out any hard edges. Meanwhile, those that incorporate whole coffee beans are predictably bold, in all the right ways; the coffee flavor never overwhelms, only delights with an extra crunchy texture.

Each morsel is a handcrafted work of edible art. Beautiful to look at, and even more enjoyable to eat. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to spoil someone you love or simply yourself, but don’t forget that chocolate is always in season.


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Blender Bender

To anyone who’s ever eyed their rapidly growing collection of kitchen equipment and shrinking counter space with dismay, there comes a point when only the most essential tools can still make the cut. A blender will always be at the top of that list, but even so, are you really making the most of it? Wonder no more, because The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters will keep you happily spinning away from breakfast to dinner, and everything in between. Tess is the unrivaled guru of all things blended, blitzed, and pureed as far as I’m concerned, which makes it all the more shameful that I’ve withheld a proper review of this book for nearly two years. Her blog is an invaluable resource for eaters of all tastes and cooks of all skill levels. She understands the zen of a spinning blade like no one else I’ve met, combining her expert knowledge with a trained palate and penchant for crafting unique recipes. I never feel as though I could do proper justice to all her skills, but instead of sitting this review for another year or worse, I hope this small sample of my experiences might inspire others to go out and try more for themselves.

When my enthusiasm for a mango sale left me with a considerable surplus, I turned to Tess for some suggestions. A smoothie would have been too obvious, too ordinary, so the Magic Mango Massage salad immediately caught my eye as an intriguing approach to managing this embarrassing excess. Though it didn’t strike me as a necessarily harmonious pairing on paper, the fruits’ naturally sour edge matches the gentle bitterness of the dark leafy greens beautifully. Light, sprightly herbal notes add freshness while the tangy, spicy dressing, tempered by the sweet mango chunks and creamy avocado, completes the picture with a flourish. Simple but so well balanced, the whole assembly is a shining example of what ordinary ingredients can do when combined in just the right proportions.

Goma Dofu, a study in subtlety and a delicacy when correctly executed, is done proper justice by this easy recipe. It ultimately comes down to only 3 main ingredients when all told: tahini, vegetable stock, and kuzu starch. Wobbling like a softly set custard, its unassuming appearance belies rich sesame flavor. Nuances of umami whisper gently throughout, leaving the lucky eater with a surprisingly rich impression. Creamy, cool, and refreshing, it would be an ideal appetizer to enjoy on a hot day.

Though the juicing trend has failed to spark my interest, to say the least, I can still fully appreciate a tall glass of vegetable juice when the mood strikes. Thus I found myself drawn to the Spicy Gazpacho Grab, which is really more of a sippable soup than a thin, unfulfilling drink. This ruby red elixir sparkles with just the right accent of spice, reminiscent of V-8, only so much brighter and bolder. Both thirst-quenching and satisfying, I would even be tempted to leave the blend slightly chunky next time around, serving just as I would for the traditional chilled tomato soup.

If The Blender Girl Cookbook doesn’t restore your blender to a place of honor in your kitchen, nothing will. Since publication, Tess hasn’t stopped dreaming up new recipes for even a minute, unleashing a full book focused on smoothies and a companion app as well, with no sign of slowing down. Rumor has it that another cookbook is in the pipeline as we speak. In the meantime though, this wealth of fool-proof formulas will keep me blending smoothly for months, if not years, to come.


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Down and Dirty with Clean Eating

Holiday indulgences still weighing heavily on the minds (and hips) of many winter revelers, the added stress of New Year’s resolutions brings out the worst in some people. I’m not talking about those determined to follow the gospel of the latest diet fad or exercise craze- They’re only trying to do what’s right, what society expects of them for all their gustatory sins. No, I’m pointing straight to those spreading this propaganda, pushing the miracle cures and instant detoxes, complete with catchy slogans so obtuse that it’s hard to find any true meaning behind them. “New Year, New You” is undoubtedly one of the most prevalent, springing up again year after year, the elastic of its tenor just as punchy in 2016 as it was in 2006, and perhaps even 1996. It’s a good thing most consumers can’t remember the marketing pitches from these forgotten eras, or else we’d all be bored to tears for the redundancy of it all.

As a food obsessive and enthusiast, the saying that really gets to me above all others is the call to “Eat Clean.” Tell me, when was the last time you got a plate of food at a restaurant and thought, Oh, I’m so hungry, but this meal just came out much too dirty for me. What would that even look like? A plate full of soil, wriggling earthworms and all? Would it constitute a reasonable excuse for sending the dish back, an offense on par with receiving a carbonized, unforgivably burnt pancake? My own personal mantra has become a reactive “Keep Your Laundry Clean and Your Food Dirty.” Yes, I want to buy my kale with ladybugs still clinging to the leaves. Yes, I will actively seek out potatoes that are in dire need of a good scrub. I want my food to be that dirty, because to me, “dirty” should be synonymous with “fresh.”

Rant aside, there are still some redeeming side effects to the annual revitalization of healthy eating. While I may not be a fan of the label, I do love a hearty meal that doesn’t contain the same amount of oil required to power a snow blower through a foot of icy slush. Thus, titles notwithstanding, I’ve found some real edible gems in Terry Walters’ work. A prolific recipe writer, I’ve been enjoying her food for years now, and this brief feature itself is long overdue. Eat Clean, Live Well was released well over a year ago, but has proven to be a real catch in a sea of nutritionally-oriented cooking tomes.

Pictured above, the red lentil patties in particular have become an indispensable staple for quick meals, perfect for preparing in batches, freezing, and reviving on the fly. The crisp exterior allows them the fortitude to withstand the burger treatment, standing strong without crumbling on the bun yet yielding to a downright creamy interior texture. For a more elegant meal, they function beautifully atop roasted or sauteed vegetables, drizzled with delicate herb-infused sauces and garnished with tender micro greens. Or, as is most often the case, they’re downright dreamy paired simply with tahini or a pungent, garlicky aioli sauce for dipping.

Don’t fall for the hype; eat as dirty as you like. Just make sure you wash your hands before sitting down at the table.

Red Lentil Patties with Garlic and Fresh Herbs

Reprinted with permission from Eat Clean Live Well © 2014 by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

1 cup red lentils
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro or any combination)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup gluten-free bread or rice crumbs

Rinse and drain lentils and place in pot with vegetable stock or water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer covered 15 minutes until lentils are mushy and all liquid is absorbed (you may want to leave lid cracked open slightly to prevent pot from boiling over). Remove from heat and set aside.

In large cast iron skillet, sauté garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft (about 3 minutes). Add roasted red pepper and sauté 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and transfer mixture to a bowl. Add lentils, fold in herbs and sea salt, and season to taste with pepper. Gradually fold in breadcrumbs until batter is thick (you may not need all depending on how dry your lentils are) and set aside for 2–3 minutes to allow batter to thicken.

Drizzle cast iron skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Scoop batter and roll into 1 1/2 -inch balls. Place in skillet and flatten into patties 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Cook until crispy (4–5 minutes per side), transfer to baking sheet and cover to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter until ingredients are used up and serve.

SERVES 6 (makes twelve 2 1/2-inch patties)

Printable Recipe

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