True Gossip

Rumors are flying about the new taco spot in Nob Hill, but the buzz is so much more than mere gossip. Although that’s the translation of Chisme, the bespoke restaurant has already proven itself a worthy contender in a city teeming with Mexican eateries. Menu options are limited, focused on a short list of fillings to swaddle in soft, handmade tortillas, served two per order. Simple yet irresistible appetizer staples like chips and guacamole or fried potatoes do beckon, but stay focused here. Take a closer look at those taco options. Not only are the vegan choices clearly marked, but compared to the more meaty entrees, they dominate the colorful paper printout.

Fusion is the name of the game for these unconventional offerings, such as eggplant slathered in peanut mole, or plantains and black beans paired with a creamy coconut ranch dressing. Perish the thought of strained, unsatisfying attempts at “authenticity” here; flavor comes first, regardless of origin. Chisme caters to a different sort of crowd, and those customers seem to be eating it up.

Order at the front, grab a number, and take a seat at the communal table or benches. One might call the space spare and the service no-frills, but it’s warm and friendly, open and inviting, regardless. Besides, in a matter of minutes your surroundings will become irrelevant as a hot plate of food drops in front of you. If there’s only one dish to order, it’s the Jackfruit Taco. Marinated in a savory sauce and fried to crispy perfection, it remains juicy inside, with an impossibly meaty bite all the way though. Greens and cabbage are par for the course, adding a bit of freshness and crunch to the conversation, but the unexpected brightness of the mint verde sauce truly seals the deal. It sounds like a crazy combination, but trust me, it just works.

Don’t sleep on that fiery green hot sauce that comes on the side, either. It’s the sort of condiment that people would steal if it was put into bottles, or for those with more restraint, buy by the case if it was sold in stores. If the heat becomes overwhelming, cool down with a dairy-free coconut horchata for dessert. The sweetness of this cinnamon-spiked elixir could easily rival that of a proper milkshake, but is a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

Stop the gossip and get the facts. Chisme is the real deal.

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Under Pressure

Scores of cookbooks sing its praises, boasting equally effusive reviews to match. Facebook groups gain followers faster than the average religious cult. The Instapot has achieved cult status thanks to the countless innovative yet impatient cooks across the globe, reveling in the abilities of this now ubiquitous kitchen appliance. More than a mere electric pressure cooker, even the most basic models can also morph into slow cookers and rice cookers with the touch of a button, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For the tech-obsessed, you can even find wi-fi connected contraptions, set to start wirelessly through a few smartphone commands, no matter how far from home you start craving a hot dinner. As a previous keeper of the beast, I can personally attest to the power of the Instapot. Moving across the country, one of the greatest sacrifices was leaving that hulking beauty behind on the opposite coast, for no amount of force could ever wedge it into my suitcase.

On the bright side, the world of kitchen gadgets lay out before me again, beckoning, begging for a second look. Is there anything to the name brand, or could other electric multi-cookers simmer, stew, and steam with the best of them?

Enter: The Power Pressure Cooker XL. I’ve had over a year to learn its quirks, putting it to the test with every endless recipe experiments, and am now ready to weigh in.

Like any pressure cooker worth its salt, digital or analog, this baby will pay for itself by churning out perfectly toothsome beans at a quarter of the price of canned, in a tenth of the time it would take to soak and simmer. Instead of soaking overnight and stewing for an hour, chickpeas transform from hard marbles to plump golden nuggets in 30 to 40 minutes. Don’t even get me started about the bounty of excess aquafaba you’ll reap at the same time.

Rice of all colors swells to an ideal al dente consistency every time, as does any other grain you can throw at it; quinoa, millet, farro, amaranth, and rye berries alike cook up effortlessly, allowing you to focus on the main meal instead. Never again worry about scorched pans either, forgotten on the stove to toast the contents to a darker shade of charcoal, thanks to the automatic warming function that kicks into gear as soon as time on the clock runs out.

But beans are just the start. One-pot meals are the saving grace for many hectic days when quick-fix takeout options would otherwise beckon. Soups, stews, chili- You name it, you can pressure cook it. Even my take on a meatless pot au feu, a deeply savory combination of seasonal vegetables that practically melt in the mouth, no longer conforms to the translation of “pot on the fire,” demonstrating that a burning flame need not apply.

When an avalanche of ripe plums rained down from the tree stretching out across the backyard, I jumped at the chance to use one of the rarer features: the pressure canning function. Most electric pressure cookers can’t safely deliver a punishing round of heat and force that is sufficient for proper preservation, which gives this model a serious advantage for the avid jammer or pickle pro. Though skeptical, I followed all the standard canning guidelines, carefully set my plum-packed glass jars in place, and without any fuss nor fanfare, they emerged perfectly sealed, exactly as promised. Truth be told, this was my first solo attempt at canning, so it was a truly sweet victory, indeed.

Venturing further off the beaten path, I opened up the valve and turned the vessel into a compact steam bath. Elevating a half dozen pearly white bao on a small wire rack, the results were nothing short of spectacular. Fluffy buns enclosed a simple mushroom-zucchini filling, hot and juicy at the core, the exterior soft as a pillow.

All told, one fatal design flaw prevents me from giving this particular appliance a completely enthusiastic endorsement. The steam valve, the single most important piece of this entire contraption that allows it to achieve and maintain pressure, does not lock into place. Tiny icons note the open and closed positions, but it could spin endlessly around without perfectly hitting the mark. On more than one occasion I have a endured a full cooking cycle, excitedly lifting the lid only to discover completely uncooked rice, potatoes, or what have you, looking exactly the same as when they first entered the pot, but sitting in slightly warmer water. This doesn’t affect the outcome for steaming, slow cooking, browning, yogurt making, and all other no-pressure situations, but since that’s the main selling point for me, it’s a huge weakness that knocks the Power Pressure Cooker XL down a number of point by my unofficial tally.

A similar failing in the design department is the lack of clear manual settings for those who want to explore less common cooking territory, with dishes that don’t fall neatly into the “stew” or “rice” category, but still require control over high or low pressure. Luckily, approximating a similar preparation and adjusting the timer from there has yet to go too far awry, but it’s not entirely user-friendly.

All told, it’s a strong contender; good long-term performance, an excellent value for the money, and highly versatile for a while range of culinary experiments. Finesse in design can’t quite measure up to the shining example set by the much esteemed InstaPot, but for pure functionality, you won’t regret making this reasonable investment. The Power Pressure Cooker XL will quickly earn its keep.

Equipment provided by the Power Pressure Cooker XL for review, but all content and unbiased opinions are entirely my own.

The Softer Side of Tofu

No longer a foreign, slightly sinister block of bland austerity, tofu has finally come to enjoy mainstream acceptance. Many meatless meals are built upon these solid bean curd foundations everyday, whether the intention is to craft a plant-based dish or not. That sort of universal recognition has been hard won, after many years of residing only within fringe health food stores, or the odd Americanized Chinese stir-fry. Still, what most people recognize as tofu is ironically one-dimensional; firm or extra-firm dominate the shelves, and anything with slightly less structural integrity is deemed crumbly, mushy, or generally unpalatable. If it can’t get crispy or stand up to a solid saute, it just doesn’t make the cut. It’s a real shame that softer, silken varieties are thus overlooked time and again; this rendition is the truest manifestation of tofu, in my humble opinion.

In this form, tofu straddles the line between custard and curd, a savory study in simplicity. Fresh is always best, which could explain some of the hesitance towards equal appreciation. Composed of only quality soymilk and nigari, each element makes a huge impact on the final flavor. The only way to ensure a delicious experience is to make it yourself… And thanks to the convenient tofu kit offered by Morinaga (makers of the very popular self-stable Mori-Nu) that’s not nearly as daunting a task as it may sound. Everything you need is included, from ingredients to hardware.

Granted, the instructions leave quite a bit to be desired. Despite the helpful video guidance for the truly intimidated, there’s no indication of ramekin size or number of servings. Additionally, the time range is quite large, and there are no hints of what to look for when it’s done.

Thankfully, despite these shortcomings, homemade tofu is almost effortless to prepare. You only need to know how to boil water to bring your own bean curd to life. Serving up my first batch still slightly warm, embellished with a bare minimum of garnishes, the experience is downright ethereal. So soft, it practically dissolves on the tongue. Delicate, in texture and flavor, such a product would be impossible to transport or preserve, which is why it far surpasses anything you would find sold in stores. Not aggressively beany but gently nutty, earthy in flavor, it’s the antidote to the super salty, pre-seasoned packs that are simultaneous gaining in popularity.

The beauty of this format is that it can just as easily be dressed up for a sweeter sensation. Topped with adzuki beans gently stewed in brown sugar, my fresh tofu created the perfect creamy base to support this healthy treat.

If you’re still craving something with a bit more of a bite, never fear. It’s just as simple to craft curds with greater density by pressing out some of the water. Rather than pouring the hot soymilk into a serving vessel, let it chill out in the provided mold lined with cheesecloth. After a mere hour or two, you’ll have something primed for slicing. Reminiscent of traditional cheese-making, I couldn’t resist the urge to season mine like feta and toss the cubes into a summery salad of leafy greens, fresh peaches and corn. The results were predictably spectacular.

Although considerably more fragile than mainstream options, the beauty of making your own tofu from scratch is the possibilities for bolder flavorings. Stirring in a healthy dose of sriracha, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs instantly brightened up this particular block, no marination necessary. The sky is the limit for flavorful inclusions, so you only have yourself to blame if you still think tofu is plain and bland.

Bottom line: If you’re already on the tofu bandwagon, this all-inclusive kit will put you over the moon. If you’ve been ambivalent about those soybean blocks, it may finally win you over.

Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!

Summertime Snow Day

“Healthy” ice cream is all the rage these days, churning up new pints that promise more protein than your average energy bar, often with an equally chalky flavor to match. Seeking to redefine the category without the hype, Snow Monkey has an ambitious goal of crafting a frozen treat that is both delicious and nutritious. Superfoods like hemp seeds and sunflower butter blend into unconventional treats, taking a wholesome and unrefined approach to the concept, unlike the icy alternatives.

Fully loaded with 20 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber all told, eaters are encouraged to indulge in the entire pint without remorse. That would be one hefty snack, if not a full meal, as this is one genuinely satisfying and energizing scoop. I daresay the Goji Berry variety may just be the new acai bowl, brilliantly purple and every bit as refreshing, fruity, yet subtly tangy and tart. I must say, however, that the Cacao was easily the winning flavor between the two. Gentle, measured sweetness allowed the natural bitter edge of the chocolate to remain, granting it a greater depth and dimension than most purely chocolate treats are allowed. Reminiscent of chocolate sorbet, it’s light, easy to eat; a refreshing way to refuel without weighing you down.

Granted, Snow Monkey hasn’t hit on the fabled perfect food quite yet. Don’t dig in expecting a decadent ice cream experience, as this powerful formula was conceived of less as an indulgent dessert, but more as high-octane frozen fuel to suit an active lifestyle. Not quite creamy in the traditional sense, but smooth and silky, thick enough to linger momentarily on the palate, it’s a tasty reward that comes close, but may not quite fulfill every sweet tooth’s craving. The banana-forward flavor is another potential barrier to mainstream acceptance, owing much of its sweetness to the pureed fruit.

For a healthy treat, there’s no comparison; I’d dig into the freezer for a spoonful rather than another bite of a boring granola bar, any day of the week.

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.