User Friendly

Meet your new best friend: The Friendly Vegan Cookbook! No, that’s not a typo, despite how ubiquitous the term “vegan-friendly” has become in common parlance. Turning the phrase around makes it an all-encompassing embrace of the concept, rather than the outlying exception. Toni Okamoto and Michelle Cehn, two of my favorite people, have teamed up to create over 100 recipes that will serve you well, quite literally, from daybreak to sundown.

For the reluctant cook, the flexitarian, or the hungry health enthusiast, this one’s for you. Carefully curated with nostalgic fare like stuffed shells, pizza, and chickenless noodle soup, these glossy pages bring a taste of comfort to life in stunning full color, and flavor. It certainly helps that Michelle herself is an accomplished photographer, capturing lustrous still life scenes vibrant enough to warrant framing.

Naturally, I’m drawn to the dessert section of any cookbook first. Sweet and simple, the Fudge on page 204 is an easy win. You’ve gotta love a decadent homemade treat that you can make in minutes with seven ingredients (or only six, not counting the salt.) Even though my pantry was ill-prepared for such spur of the moment inspiration, I had just enough to pull off this small miracle. Ideal for a quick craving, unexpected guests, or holiday gifts, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down these slow-melting nutty, chocolaty morsels.

Turning to more hearty meal options, the Mac ‘n’ Cheese on page 63 was calling to me from the moment we met. No packaged vegan cheese need apply to make this creamy, gooey goodness. I took some liberties to simplify mine, skipping the baking dish and extra vegetables to make a stove-top style, blue box dupe. Nutritional yeast, AKA vegan catnip, and a touch of soy sauce takes this one to boldly savory new heights.

Another reason to love this collection so much is that it truly represents a wide swath of the vegan community itself. Tapping other lauded cookbook authors for contributions, Stephanie’s Deviled Potatoes on page 141 comes from none other than Stephanie Dreyer. Plant-based meal planning expert and the founder of Batch Cooking Club, this unstoppable mother of three knows a thing or two about making foolproof recipes on the fly. Presented as finger food that’s party-ready, I’d argue these tender little potato bites are also ideal everyday snacks or sides. Protein-rich cannellini beans make the filling both balanced and substantial, brightened with the bite of mustard and black pepper.

Whether you’re a friendly vegan or still just vegan-friendly, you can’t go wrong with The Friendly Vegan Cookbook. If you don’t take my word for it, try it yourself: Enter your details in the form below for a chance to win a copy of your own! Tell me in the comment section about your go-to best friend in the kitchen. Is it a certain seasoning, special equipment, or an actual human helper? There are no wrong answers, as long as you respond in the first place!

Continue reading “User Friendly”

Dynamic Duo

Can true harmony be found in a single sweet bite? That’s the theory behind Sweetduet, touted as “a luscious duo of chocolate and fruit for the mindful snacker.” Treading the fine line between decadent and dietetic, the results make no compromises on either side. While the packaging reads like health food, the taste is pure indulgence.

Dates are at the heart of this dulcet symphony, and not just when dipped in dark chocolate. Date nectar is actually the sweetener of choice, imparting notes of amber caramel, a touch of malt, and a hint of macerated fruit. Beneficial trace vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B, iron, magnesium, potassium, give it an extra boost that straight sugar can only dream of. This superfood infusion is exactly what makes it such a great choice for anyone on your gift list.

Better than your average box of chocolates, there are no duds that get left behind in this assortment. Soft, fudgy, unsulfured dried fruits offer style and substance, seamlessly blending smarts with satisfaction. Dates, mangoes, apricots, and pineapples take center stage as the curtain of cacao drops away slowly. Together, they dance for a fleeting moment of bliss, as the initial hit of intense chocolate melts, allowing the fruit to then take the lead.

The love of chocolate is nearly universal. Bridge that final gap by finding that sweet spot where the nutritious choice is also the most delicious. Sweetduet has you [and those naturally nectarous fruits] covered.

Sweetduet can be purchased online for local Los Angeles pickup or nationwide next-day shipping. Treat yourself, or your loved ones near and far, for a sweeter, healthier holiday.

Czech Mate

How did such a humble, unassuming Czech pastry become so deeply intertwined with Texan foodways that it became an inextricable part of southern culture itself? While it remains largely unknown just beyond state borders, kolaches are serious business to any conscious eater. I had never heard of such a thing before visiting the Lone Star State, but kolaches are as essential to the local cuisine as barbecue. Arriving along with European immigrants in the late 1800s, central Texas became the nexus of kolache creation.

Technically, the savory version most popular in my immediate area are klobasneks, NOT kolache. Both employ a lightly sweetened, buttery yeasted dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings, but genuine kolaches are sweet breakfast treats, employing fruit preserves, cream cheese, or poppy seeds for flavor. Klobasneks are arguably more popular in these parts, calling for any sort of meat, from sausage links to ground beef to shredded chicken, cheese, jalapenos, and sometimes even egg and potatoes. Truth be told, any sort of stuffing might reside within these baked buns. For the sake of simplicity, they all get wrapped up under the kolache moniker. Those wise enough to tell the difference are also smart enough not to pick a fight.

Terminology aside, what makes for the best kolaches? It’s all in the dough. Supple, pillowy soft, catching the light with a subtle buttery shine, the tender bread should practically melt in your mouth. Impossibly light for such a rich mixture, it’s a delicate balance of art and science to achieve the perfect crumb. Years of experience with tireless practice are the secret ingredients; otherwise, the standard recipe is largely unexceptional. Flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and all the other usual suspects are present.

The key is all in quantity. Speaking with chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish, his carefully honed formula makes liberal use of butter, both in and brushed on the rich dough. Coming from a long line of Czech bakers, his recipe reflects that heritage to create the best version around, vegan or not.

“When I said I wanted to open my own place, one of the first things I did was make and sell kolaches at various events in an effort to get my name and face out there,” chef Vanis explained through email.

“Before that, when I lived in Houston, I would occasionally pick up work at a bakery that made kolaches. Even though grandma always had kolaches made and on hand, I was never a part of making them, like I sometimes was with cinnamon rolls. I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy them so much now. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but as I think about the baking and enjoyment of kolaches, there’s an opportunity to create new memories that are connected to grandma’s house. I don’t feel like I missed out on a chance to bake them as a child. I do feel grateful that I have those fond memories attached to them now.”

According to Craig, poppyseed or plum are the most traditional fruit fillings, but the sky is the limit. Any jam or preserves will bake in beautifully to make sweet pastries, and any sort of savory meatless or vegetable stuffing can create a hearty stuffed bun.

What remains a mystery is why the art of the kolache has stayed contained within the Texas Czech Belt, when the base formula is infinitely adaptable, and its appeal so universal. If you’ve never been so lucky to see them in local bakeries, do yourself a favor and start your own family tradition, baking from scratch.

Continue reading “Czech Mate”

A Pumpkin In Every Pot

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, you recently carved a delightfully ghastly jack-o’-lantern face out of pie crust. I know, it’s quite a reach, but humor me for a moment, will you? Imagine, with those features missing from an otherwise perfectly good, full sheet of pastry, the possibilities for further baking witchcraft.

Pumpkin is still at play here, but under a more savory guise, you see. Humble pot pie pulls on an autumnal cloak in this phantasmic fall affair. Beneath that buttery, golden brown exterior lies a rich stew of tender orange squash, bolstered by an infusion of pumpkin puree throughout. A touch of umami tomato paste and warming spices sets it apart from the standard child’s play.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Such a wildly abstract thought could easily be written off as a dream… Vanishing almost as quickly as the dish itself.

Continue reading “A Pumpkin In Every Pot”