BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Toast of the Town

Living in the land of the original $4 toast, it’s easy to become jaded about the countless open-faced sandwiches now infiltrating menus across the country. In fact, looking back at this story now, $4 seems like a remarkable bargain. It’s not uncommon to see a single slice of crusty bread command $6, $7, or even as much as $12 dollars if topped with half an avocado and paired with a frilly salad. Strange but true, the toast trend appears to be here to stay, and is only inflating alongside the inscrutable local economy.

Friends, it’s time to take toast back. I don’t mean that we should all be making Instagram-worthy edible artworks on thickly sliced, grainy artisan loaves, but that we should be able to take some average sandwich bread, throw it in a toaster, and spread something delicious on it. Is that so much to ask? I think that a lot gets lost in translation when it comes to the endless array of topping options, at least when ordering toast at a restaurant. When it arrives at the table with over an inch of spreads, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, it’s a wholly delicious creation, but don’t call it toast; you’ve gone well beyond those boundaries and into the terrain of tartines.

Getting back to home toast, all that really matters is starting out with decent bread and slathering on a quality topping. Pick out a sweet option and you could be looking at breakfast, snack, or dessert; talk about getting a real bang for your buck. Nocciolata Dairy Free will instantly cure even the most severe chocolate craving. A flawless dupe for the beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Nutella, it’s sticky yet silky smooth, and honestly sweet enough to pass for frosting. It feels outrageously indulgent to pass for a morning meal, and yet somehow easy enough to rationalize as a healthy choice, thanks to all those wholesome hazelnuts packed into each jar. Don’t question that logic; just slather it on thick, and if anything, top only with a pinch of coarse salt for maximum enjoyment.

Plain nut butters naturally make for a more neutral base, but that doesn’t mean they should lack flavor. Vivapura’s raw pecan butter is a shining example of a superlative spread, positively radiating nutty aroma upon opening the jar. It’s hard to believe that something so luscious could be just so simple, containing only nuts and salt. Almond butter may be having a moment, but pecans have all that richness, and then some.

Many have decried the toast trend, pointing out blatant price gouging as if that wasn’t the case for every other dish on offer, but that’s not my MO. I just think we should start taking toast back; back into our own kitchens, and back to its more humble roots.

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Hip To Be Shared

Puffed snacks represent the pinnacle of junk food innovation and technology. No matter how hard you try, there’s simply no way to replicate that characteristically light, airy, yet impossibly crisp texture at home; trust me, I’ve gone through the ringer in my own kitchen, to no avail. Coated in powdered cheese of varying fluorescence hues, the salty morsels have been staining fingers since the 1930s but never gained much traction among the nutritionally conscious. That should come as no surprise, since questionable oils and highly processed dairy ingredients have long been the “best” that these salty treats could offer.

Hippeas is a new company set to change all that, turning away from the traditional corn base and towards one composed of everyone’s favorite legume: the chickpea.

Much more substantial than your typical puffed snack, each kernel boasts a sturdy, satisfying crunch, backed by impressive protein and fiber values. Unlike the Styrofoam whips of yore, one serving really will do… Although the tempting flavors might convince you keep munching.

Six unique seasonings offer a different taste for every craving. Cheese is the gold standard, the essential foundation of the puffed snack hierarchy, so the Vegan White Cheddar has very high expectations to live up to. While the overall effect doesn’t disappoint, it doesn’t entirely deliver either. Evoking the flavor profile of creamy mac and cheese, it will certainly scratch that savory itch, but an incongruous sweetness detracts from the experience. Simply put, they’re highly enjoyable, but would never fool an omnivore.

Where Hippeas shine is in their more creative offerings that make no allusions to imitation. Delicious within their own right as a completely unique snack, the Far Out Fajita was the stand-out winner by my account. Cumin and coriander ring clearest out of the seasoning melange, imparting a Tex-Mex vibe. Further munching evoked the flavors of crunchy falafel, which made me think they would pair brilliantly with a bold tahini dip.

Pepper Power presents a strong showing for the most basic option. Thoroughly flecked with ground black pepper, each bite provides a nice balance of spice and salt, creating a subtle warmth that doesn’t overwhelm. By contrast, Sriracha Sunshine takes a bolder approach, but falls far short of its scoville target. The initial taste is of vinegar, with a timid heat following quietly, slow to build up steam. Excess sweetness brings down the spice considerably for these morsels, but in the case of Happenin’ Hickory, that same quality creates a pleasing balance. Accented with tomato, onion, and garlic, the overall effect delivers the impression of barbecue sauce more than pure hickory smoke, but is highly munchable nonetheless.

For those with a sweet tooth, Hippeas has something for you, too! The taste of Maple Haze rings true for pancake syrup with subtle buttery undertones. Take a bag with you to the theater next time; I think they’d make delightful alternative to caramel corn.

The full line of Hippeas aren’t perfect across the board, but one thing is for sure: They’ve mastered the elusive ways of the puff, and taken the “junk” out of this particular junk food favorite. There’s a whole lot to savor if you stick with the top hits.


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Coconuts Get Cultured

“Plain” is almost never a compliment, nor a desirable description. The word evokes a certain homeliness, blandness, a lack of zeal or zest. Even worse than “basic,” which suggests a comforting familiarity, there’s little to say in defense of plainness.

Applied to yogurt, however, “plain” is the holy grail, the standard by which all cultured non-dairy products are to be held, and so few make the cut. Rare is the company that will even venture to offer such a demanding flavor in the first place. Without added fruits or flavors for embellishment, there’s nowhere to hide a lackluster base, marred with unpleasant sour notes or strange aftertastes. What’s even more elusive is a blank slate without sweeteners, making savory applications all but impossible. Despite the abundance of new vegan options on the market now, you still have to plan on making your own or finding a suitable substitution. If you happen to live in the bay area, however, you now have another option: Yoconut.

Yoconut is a small but rapidly growing startup created by self-described foodie Bonnie Lau. If you voted in the recent Veggie Awards, you may have noticed this brand on the ballot, right alongside industry giants like Silk and So Delicious. That alone should say volumes about the product- Not yet distributed in mainstream markets, but already competing with the big shots. What sets Yoconut apart is its focus on quality, which is immediately apparent from a cursory glance at the label. No weird gums, no preservatives, no sugar at all; just smooth and creamy coconut, plain and simple. The Original is a cook’s dream, able to blend seamlessly with dips and dressings of all stripes, finally giving “plain” a good name.

Granted, what most eaters will want to know about are the flavored varieties, and I’ll have you know that they’re held to those very same high standards. Vanilla simply shimmers with seeds from the whole bean, without any syrup sweetness to diminish from its glory. Chocolate is admittedly still under development, but the latest rendition I sampled was a revelation; nothing like the pudding I had come to expect from such a title, but a legitimate cocoa-tinted cultured snack. Nothing else on the market comes close to this sort of highly sophisticated approach, and I for one hope the final formula doesn’t stray too far from this exquisite initial taste.

Right now your best bet for scoring a few of these precious containers is directly from Bonnie herself, at the Fort Mason Farmers Market held every Sunday from 9:30am to 1:30pm. Keep a close eye on local grocery store shelves though, because I have a feeling it won’t be long before this small business strikes out in a big way.


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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.