Noshtalgia

Nostalgia (nos·​tal·​gia):
1 The state of being homesick : homesickness
2 A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

Nosh (näsh):
1. Food
2. To eat enthusiastically

Noshtalgia (nosh·​tal·​gia):
Longing for a food you can no longer eat

Every time I return to my hometown on the east coast, I’m hit by a wave of noshtalgia that could drown the strongest Olympic swimmer. Driving by the space where my culinary roots originally grew, at Health in a Hurry, I’m suddenly yet predictably swept out to sea. The taste memories come flooding back; the white bean delicata, the almond pate nori rolls, and oh, the beet marmalade! What I would give for just one more bite.

Slowly, painstakingly, I’ve begun to reassemble the recipes by sheer force of will, powerful cravings, and a touch of good luck. All previous formulas have been lost to time, but some were so powerfully ingrained through repetition of preparation and consumption that they reemerge from their decade of slumber fully intact, unharmed.

As if they had been written down on the backside of a napkin that I finally thought to turn over, I find the formula instantly, without any revisions nor concessions made.

Welcome back to the world, Lemon Curry Rice Salad.

Arguably our most popular dish, I must admit that its charms were lost on me at the time. Adding raisins to a savory entree was still unappealing to my immature tastes, and the base composition was so basic.

Rice, curry vinaigrette, some vegetables and scallions, tossed and dished out. Sure, I ate plenty of it given the opportunity, and made gallons at a time to fill the front cases, but I never thought it would be something I yearned for when it was gone.

Older, wiser, and hungrier than ever, one bite of the grain and vegetable amalgamation brought me right back to those early years, blending up batch after batch of dressing, thinking for sure it was more than we could ever use and yet discovering that somehow, it still wasn’t enough to feed the hordes that arrived for their fix.

Warming, well-seasoned but not spicy, the golden elixir brightens a riot of textures, from the crunch of toasted cashews to the toothsome grains of rice, crisp carrot strings to the tender green peas and chewy dried fruit. It’s a daring, seemingly discordant combination, a diverse set of distinctive characters, that somehow manage to work together in delicious harmony.

Now I get it. Now, after reducing quantities to a more manageable amount, it would have been wise to double up, at least.

When you fall in love with the warming, tangy, and sweet blend, rest assured that it’s well suited to scaling up. Double, triple, quadruple, or more; feed an army or just keep some on hand to arm yourself against sharp pangs of noshtalgia. Trust me, you won’t regret it; this one has stood the test of time.

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Be the Light

When the sun doesn’t shine, be your own light.

Until you can’t.

If that time comes, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re broken.

It just means you’re human.

When the light goes out, there’s still a flicker of hope burning. Maybe it’s so small, smaller than a castoff spark, threatening to fade away. So small that you can’t feel its warmth. Not even a pinprick brightens your view.

But it’s there.

When you can’t be your own light, someone else can. Someone else can hold that flame and keep it safe, even when it seems to slip right through your fingers. Someone else cares, even if it feels like they don’t.

You are not alone.

There is still light, even if it’s not visible.

Try to believe, in the face of tremendous doubt, or fear, or despair, that it will come roaring back to life. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but it’s there, and it will.

I promise.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline Network is available 24/7 across the United States. Please call 1-800-273-8255 immediately.

Closing Time

In the final days of the year, it’s natural to look back, taking stock of the previous twelve months, preparing to move forward anew. Rather than unleashing another navel-gazing list of top ten greatest hits, I want to take a moment to remember the dearly departed. 2019 saw the untimely demise of hundreds of restaurants across the nation, fickle business that it is, but it feels particularly poignant when it hits so close to home. The bay area has lost some bright stars this round, which deserve to be properly honored and mourned.

Early in February, while we were still recovering from winter’s torrential rains, Hella Vegan Eats shocked the east bay with a controversial departure from Classic Cars West. After fighting tooth and nail to graduate from their colorful food truck to a static brick and mortar space, it was a huge blow. No more pot sticker burritos, no more mega babe burgers! The same style of ballsy, down home comfort food has resurfaced in the form of Gay4U, revived by partner Sofi Espice at Garden House in downtown Oakland as a regular pop up.

Meanwhile, chef Adina Butler took up the reins in the freshly vacated space left behind by the duo, slinging hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fried delights to compliment the casual outdoor space. Sadly, that too was not long for this world, folding seven months later under unknown circumstances. What remains is a very vegan-unfriendly menu, and many unanswered questions.

Perhaps most devastating to the dining scene at large was the closure of Sanctuary Bistro, one of the very few high-end eateries that offered an entirely plant-based experience, in addition to a completely gluten-free menu. Owners Barry and Jennifer Jones Horton promise that in time, the sanctuary will rise again in Charlotte, NC, to delight diners on the opposite coast anew. Birth announcements have yet to be released.

Longstanding greasy spoon Saturn Cafe seemed indestructible, weathering the ups and downs of Berkeley politics and pricing for over a decade, proving itself beyond the typical short lifespan of the average eatery. It, too, fell to economic pressures, serving up its last plate of scrambled tofu and pancakes in July. The original Santa Cruz location, established in 1979, still soldiers on, but NorCal denizens are left in the dark for their midnight milkshake cravings.

Eatsa launched in San Francisco back in 2015 as an innovative, tech-centric concept centered around one humble grain: quinoa. Served in cubbies reminiscent of the automat experience of yore, without any human interaction, it was slated to be the next big thing. At its height, the company had six locations across multiple states, but soon ran into difficulties. No amount of pricing incentives and recipe reconfiguration could save it. One by one, all outposts quietly turned out the lights, and didn’t return. Supposedly, in addition to the empty retail spaces, they left behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.

In a world already lacking sweetness, the departure of D&H Vegan Ice Cream comes as a particularly devastating blow. Without warning or explanation, the scoop shop was suddenly wiped off the map overnight. The soy based scoops melted away faster than I had time to get in a single lick, sweetening the Lake Merrit area for just a hot minute.

The prize for shortest run goes to Collective Kitchen & Bar, however, surviving on shaky footing for only three months of operation. A spinoff from three members of Juice Bar Collective, the offerings largely reflected their fresh pressed heritage, squeezing out juices, salads, and rice bowls with apparent success. Landlords don’t care about social media reviews, though, and an irreconcilable dispute forced a premature end for the venture.

Not a restaurant per say, but the source of noodle enlightenment to many, Baia Pasta was renowned for its superlative noodles. Selling directly to consumers from its storefront in Jack London Square and restaurants for their comforting carb creations, the cost of doing business became too much for founder Renato Sardo to bear. Unwilling to sell the company at the cost of quality, the legacy of this peerless pasta ends here, while the master returns to Italy for a simpler life.

Finally, some good news to mix in and lighten all the bad; Pizza Moda, purveyors of fine pies with an eye towards seasonal ingredients and vegan alternatives, has turned off the pilot light on their pizza oven, but not for long. Celebrated brother and sister duo Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, responsible for The Butcher’s Son, have taken on the project, seeking to revive the fine Italian dining experience in a fully vegan format. With the promise of even greater eats on the horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2020.

Which losses do you feel most acutely, at home or abroad? Restaurants come and go, but their memories (and Yelp pages) live on forever, if the community remains.

Barking Up the Right Tree

Regardless of holiday party plans, as host or attendee, no matter how long or short (or nonexistent) gift and wishlist’s may be, I have two words for you: Peppermint Bark.

All it takes is chocolate and crushed candy canes, yet it can elicit the same level of enthusiasm as a laborious multi-tier Christmas cake. You’d think the stuff was sprinkled with pure gold judging by the way some people clamor to snap up piece after piece, as if they had struck it rich at the dessert buffet.

Something about the combination of creamy chocolate slabs, festooned with crunchy red and white striped mint confections seems to strike a chord with everyone, young, old, jolly, and curmudgeonly alike. It’s all about the ratio and quality of ingredients that always hits the sweet spot.

For all the breathless praise this classic confection receives, the real beauty is in its simplicity. Even the fanciest renditions, decked out in layers of dark and white chocolate, can be made by the pound in a matter of minutes, for pennies on the dollar. If you’ve forgotten someone in need of a sweet holiday greeting, or need a last-minute contribution for a party, peppermint bark has your back.

This year, my bark is even better than a quick little bite. Blending cocoa butter with brilliant, full-bodied vanilla, freshly ground candy cane, and rich cocoa, I’m starting from scratch, building my bar from the ground up. Maybe I took it a bit too literally at that, but I couldn’t resist the double entendre of making it look like bark of the earthier sort while I was at it.

Of course, it’s still the very same straightforward concept at heart. Any shape will do, be it a bar or snowflake or edible spoon. The only way to mess this one up is to not make it at all.

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Doodling in the Margins

When you’re ready to jazz up your sweets this holiday season, there’s more than just cinnamon in the spice rack. Snickerdoodles epitomize the power of this humble seasoning, bringing the full bouquet of warm, woodsy, piquant notes out to the surface, quite literally, by varnishing chewy sugar cookies with a crackled cinnamon coating. Though it’s hard to argue with that elegant simplicity, that tried-and-true method that children of all ages, including children at heart, adore, there’s a lot to be said for embracing the saltier side of the pantry.

No longer a crazy concept, adding just a pinch of salt to sweets is now the norm, embraced by wise bakers seeking to amplify the layers of flavors already in place. By emphasizing those saline crystals, even the most basic tastes take on greater dimension. Case in point: The pretzel. Without their darkly varnished exteriors sparkling with coarse salt, they would merely be dry bread sticks. Take the next step forward, adding crushed pretzels to the tender cookies we all know and love, and an equally startling, yet wholly satisfying transformation can take place.

In stark contrast to the supple cookie dough beneath, crunchy layers of everyone’s favorite bar snack turn this treat up to eleven. It’s the kind of cookie that has real staying power, after the other guests have gone home and the decorations are carefully packed away, after Christmas, New Year’s Day, and beyond.

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