BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Banh Mi and Banh You, Too

Please don’t call the authorities, but I think I may have just robbed a sandwich shop.

It was an accident, I swear. My intentions were good through the entire transaction, my demeanor nonthreatening, the cashier entirely unconcerned by my presence. It was all so mundane, so unremarkable that I might have forgotten the whole scene by tomorrow if not for that one sticky detail. All I wanted was a sandwich, an honest meal after a long day. Something easy and fast, unchallenging flavors to soothe the ache of comfort food cravings. Indeed, I got precisely that; a glorious banh mi, decked out in crisp pickled vegetables and beautifully burnished lemongrass tofu.

In five minutes flat, from the moment I burst through the door at Cam Huong, my order was ready, stuffed to bursting with bean curd still warm from the fryer. I raced home, cradling my treasure close to my chest, like a precious baby swaddled in deli paper. Only after I tore through the wrapping paper and took my first monstrous bite did I realize my potentially larcenous predicament. Checking my wallet, only three one-dollar bills were missing. That wouldn’t even be enough to cover the tip for most bay area meals. How could that possibly suffice for a full 8 inches of sub satisfaction? Even a prepackaged gas station peanut butter and jelly sandwich would command a 5-spot, at least.

I suppose this makes me a fugitive on the run now. I’m neither armed nor dangerous, but I do command a ferocious appetite, so if you ever need a partner in banh mi crime… I’d gladly become a repeat offender.


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Back to the Roots

A flavor that defies all seasons and locations, root beer is nonetheless inextricably linked to memories of my childhood summers, celebrations both big and small in cozy easy coast suburbs. Reserved for grand finales rather than the accompaniment to a meal, this fizzy elixir would rarely arrive at the party alone. Creamy scoops of ice cream always set those bubbles off in perfect contrast, the pale vanilla dollops slowly melting, melding into the dark sea of syrupy sweetness. If you were lucky, it might all be topped off with a swirl of chocolate syrup; just enough to hint at a cocoa undertone, never so much as to steal the show.

Few desserts have shaped my palate quite like that combination, inspiring a wide range of spin-offs over the years, the most “famous” of which can more or less lay claim to landing my first cookbook deal. No matter how many times root beer re-enters my consciousness, in any sort of shape, I will never grow tired of its unique spices, herbal and earthy in all the right ways.

It’s effortless to infuse root beer flavor into absolutely anything, thanks to the magic of baking extracts and concentrates. Armed with this secret ingredient, I’ve set my sights on another adolescent favorite: The classic rice crispy treat.

Not only is the flavor more mature, but the grains themselves are all grown up. There’s still some rice in there for good measure, but it’s kissed with cocoa, adding a greater depth to the whole conversation. Most notably, tiny flecks of crunchy quinoa cereal and popped sorghum round out the affair, lending a distinctive nuttiness not found in the original invention.

That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appealing treat for kids and adults alike. Lacking the fancy cereals, this formula will easily work with all rice crispies just as well. Go ahead and play around with your top breakfast cereals, because as it turns out, just about anything light and crunchy will do. Bathed in a binding mixture of root beer and maple syrup, even the most humble of breakfast fodder can be transformed into an ambrosial sweet snack.

Nostalgia is a strong pull for the overall concept, but the flavor itself will bring you back for more, whether you grew up indulging in root beer floats or not.

Popped Root Beer Crispy Treats

2 Cups Crispy Quinoa Cereal
2 Cups Cocoa Crispy Rice Cereal
1 Cup Popped Sorghum
1 1/2 Teaspoons Refined Coconut Oil*
1/2 Cup Grade B Maple Syrup
6 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
1/8 Teaspoon Salt
2 Teaspoons Root Beer Extract

*Opt for refined coconut oil to minimize the coconut flavor, or if you’d prefer, simply use your favorite vegan butter instead.

Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease. Combine both cereals and popped sorghum in a large bowl. Set both aside.

Set a medium saucepan over low heat and begin by melting the margarine coconut oil. Once liquefied, add in the maple syrup, sugar, and salt, stirring as needed until the sugar crystals dissolve. Bring the mixture to a steady boil and then cook for an additional 3 – 5 minutes, until it appears to have thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the root beer extract.

Pour the contents of your saucepan over the dry mix and fold it in carefully but briskly with a wide non-stick spatula, being careful not to crush the cereal.

Pour everything into your prepared pan and gently press it out into an even layer. Let cool completely before cutting into bars.

Makes 10 – 12 Bars

Printable Recipe


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Go Fourth and Conquer

Fellow Americans, arm yourselves with a cold beverage and prepare for the party of the summer! If you’re really on the ball, you’ve already checked out of work and are easing into a full four day weekend, packed with all the things that make this country great: Explosions, drunken revelry, and more food than you can comfortably consume but still manage to, heartily. It’s a no-holds-barred celebration of summer, and I believe that very same free spirit should apply to the menu, no matter what your specific plans are. Whether you’re planning a low-key affair with just a few friends, a giant neighborhood bash that includes a couple of zip codes, or some very patriotic Netflix and chill alone, this is not an event that calls for culinary frippery. Leave the recipes in the kitchen, but take these ideas to the celebration.

Potato salad is pretty much mandatory, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be larded up with a thick miasma of creamy dressing and unidentifiable “vegetables.” Rather, try out a vinaigrette version and think of more flavorful additions. Some of my favorites include caramelized onions, thinly shaved fennel, olives or capers for some briny goodness, and meatless bacon of any variety. It doesn’t take too much to make it shine, so keep it to 5 inclusions at the most and don’t overthink this one.

Corn, one of the only crops indigenous to North America, is another friend that must be invited to join the fun. The absolute freshest sweet corn is a joy to eat cold and raw, but if you live more than 1 hour away from the fields, toss your ears on the grill for a real treat. Take a page from elote and slather it vegan mayo, sprinkle generously with paprika and nutritional yeast, and finish it off with a squeeze of lime. Eaten straight off the cob, it will be incredibly delicious and extremely messy if done right.

Anything on a stick. (Seen here: shishito peppers.) Enough said.

As many dips as you have chips! My vote goes for hummus or guacamole, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be plain. Dress up your chickpea spreads with spinach or artichokes to recall some of that old school flavor, or go bold and douse your guac with a generous squeeze of sriracha.

Though they may be “traditional” mains, skip the hot dogs and hamburgers this year. Instead, stuff some fresh veggies and celebrate the height of growing season here in the states. Any sort of grains and beans make fine fodder here, with bell peppers or zucchini serving as prime vessels, and you can even wrap them up and toss them on the grill, too.

For dessert, all you need is fruit. Yes, really, coming from the sweet-toothed baker, take my word for it! Something light, sweet, cold, and refreshing will hit the spot after a day out in the sun. The only acceptable alternative is ice cream, because really, when is ice cream ever a bad idea?

There you have it: A plan of attack suitable for the laziest of citizens, because working hard on this weekend of rest would be downright un-American. Happy Birthday, America! You’re looking pretty fine for all your 240 years.


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The Smiling Nut

Question: What’s a food photographer’s favorite subject?

Answer: Pistachios, because they’re always smiling!

Now you know my best/worst joke. Should I attempt to tell it again in person, I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes, sighing in exasperation, or both at once. Despite that, I’m certain it will still happen sooner than later because I just can’t resist a terrible pun, especially when it relates to food. The likelihood that it might become a prime interjection into standard conversations is also high because pistachios happen to be one of my very favorite nuts, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick just one.

Granted, I’m far from a discerning connoisseur. Typical choices for these edible emeralds range from raw to toasted, in shell or out. Maybe you might get some fancy seasoning sprinkled into the mix, or keep it classic with a shower of fine salt. It’s an embarrassing admission to make in the age of hyper-awareness surrounding food sourcing and the celebration of less conventional options, but it never even occurred to me that there might be different types of pistachios out there. All nuts are not created equal, though history suggests that the pistachio originated from one general region in Asia over 9,000 years ago. Notable growers today include California, which is the sort of green emerald most US consumers are likely to pick up from the grocery store, consciously or not, as well as Iran and Turkey.

Just a single farm from any of these locations might be churning out a half dozen unique varietals, too. Rarely would the average consumer be able to pick them out by name, but the distinction between nuts is striking. Some might range from a mere centimeter to a full inch long; a whole spectrum of green hues can tint the kernels; flavors can dominate with more buttery, woodsy, grassy, or savory notes; textures might be impeccably crisp, or more tender, almost like a raw pea. Just scraping the surface on the micro-mutations of the cashew’s cousin makes me realize just how little I know about this beloved nut.

Greek pistachios had never crossed my radar prior to a press release from Hellas Farms. I wondered how different they could really be from my standard economy pick, a no-name brand from a pirate who’s name rhymes with Grader Schmoe’s. It was surprising to see the warm red blush tinting these nuts, a reminder of where the antiquated practice of dying the shells once came from. A very light kiss of salt accentuated the lightly roasted flavors embedded within, highlighting the high quality nut in a very simple, unfussy way.

The ultimate takeaway from this nutty exploration, however, is not that it’s necessary to seek out pistachios with particular pedigrees; rather, what counts more than anything else is freshness. All too often, packaged nuts sit on grocery store shelves for months, or even years, before you toss them into your cart. It makes a world of difference to have them shipped directly from the source, and especially when that producer has a real passion for their pistachios. No matter from where in the world your pistachios hail, opting for a more carefully cultivated selection will certainly give you something to smile about.


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A Cheesecake for the Ages

Now synonymous with New York, the Americanized cheesecake as we know it has only been around for about a century, beginning life a mere shadow of the dense and rich dessert it became. In fact, cheesecake originated sometime around 1500 BCE, from the hands of inventive ancient Greeks and Romans, frequently used as offerings to the gods. This rendition merely combined soft cheese with flour and baked it into submission; pastry bases only emerged sometime in the first century, with sweeteners joining into the mix shortly thereafter. From that point forward, there was no stopping it. Today it might look like the explosion of cupcakes or other trendy food crazes, but of course, without the aid of social media, the cheesecake’s popularity spread at a glacial pace. Eventually reaching the hands of more creative bakers, various cultures developed their own unique approaches, utilizing various cheeses, flours, spices, and eventually, fruits and chocolates. We’ve come a long way, baby.

I’d like to think that the evolution of the cheesecake isn’t yet over. There’s still so much left to explore through the medium of tangy cream cheese perched atop a cookie-like base. In fact, going by that very loose description, why does it need to be a full-fledged cake at all? Can’t we bring it back from the edge of decadence and debauchery, back a bit closer to it’s more humble, less saccharine beginnings? I’m not suggesting we whip up a batch of salty cheese nuggets, but just consider a cheesecake fit for everyday eating, perhaps with a few nutritional benefits to speak of.

I bristle at the overused turn of phrase, but it really is true; you can finally have your cheesecake and eat it, too! Re-imagined for the 21st century, the illustrious dessert has been stripped of all its highfalutin’ frippery and restored back to its original brilliance, suitable for the commoner and the gods alike. Simple squares replace the traditional wedge, making a knife and fork unnecessary for enjoyment. What’s not so plain to see is that underneath the hood, these luscious bars conceal a considerable dose of plant-based protein, furnished by the new Pro(Zero) Natural Strawberry Jam Protein Powder. Simultaneously bolstering the structure of this snack and contributing volumes of fresh, fruity flavor, the powder’s inherent sweetness considerably reduces the need for added sugar. Remarkably flavorful, Pro(Zero) really nailed the flavor of ripe strawberries simmered down into a rich spread, condensed into a satisfying, wholesome package.

Oh, and most importantly of all, did I mention that the finished treats taste amazing? Sure, these brilliant little squares may be a far cry from what the ancient Greeks and Romans had in mind when they first invented the concept, but let’s be honest; they couldn’t even dream up a treat this heavenly, even if it was the food of the gods.

Strawberry Protein Cheesecake Bars

Oatmeal Cookie Crust:

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Water
1/4 Cup Coconut or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3/4 Cups Quick-Cooking Oats
1/2 Cup White Whole Wheat or All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Protein-Packed Strawberry Cheesecake Filling:

1 1 12-Ounce Package Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
1 (8-Ounce) Container Vegan Cream Cheese
1/2 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Strawberry Jam Protein Powder
1/3 Cup + 1/4 Cup Strawberry Jam or Preserves, Divided
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line an 8×8-inch square baking dish with aluminum foil. Lightly grease and set aside.

Whisk together the olive oil, water, and sugar in a medium-sized bowl before adding in the remaining dry ingredients for the crust. Stir well to combine and form a cohesive but slightly crumbly dough. Transfer the mixture into your prepared pans; using lightly moistened hands, press it into the bottom of your pan so that it’s in one even layer. Bake 15 – 18 minutes until lightly browned and let cool.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling by first draining the tofu of any excess water before tossing it into your food processor or blender. Puree thoroughly until completely smooth. Add in the “cream cheese” and pulse to incorporate. Scrape down the sides and blend again, ensuring that no lumps remain before adding the protein powder, 1/3 cup of the strawberry jam, lemon juice, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly until completely smooth and creamy.

Pour the cheesecake filling on top of the par-baked crust, and smooth out the top with your spatula. Tap it gently on the counter a few times to knock out any air bubbles. Take the remaining 1/4 cup of strawberry jam and spoon dollops all over the surface. Use a flat knife or spatula to gently marble and swirl the jam throughout, being careful not to disturb the crust underneath.

Bake for 40 – 45 minutes, until the edges appear set but the center remains ever so slightly wobbly when tapped. It will continue to firm up as it cools.

Let cool completely before moving it into the refrigerator, where it will continue to solidify until it can finally be sliced into bars, after a minimum of 4 hours.

Makes 12 – 16 Bars

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

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