BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Ask the Magic Eight Ball

Did you have one of these all-knowing oracles when you were a kid? An insightful and sage advisor with a clear vision of the future, the magic eight ball was indispensable for an indecisive child like myself. Such helpful words of wisdom it dispensed on command! So many problems solved in an instant!

Okay, in truth, my magic eight ball was not the greatest resource in trying times. Maybe it was still in training as a psychic, or had some commitment issues, but I could never seem to get a straight answer out of that thing. Even if I asked it something simple, like, “should I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?” it would respond with something dismissive. “ask again later,” or “cannot predict now” were the top two results, no matter how lovingly or aggressively that silly plastic ball was shaken. I doubt it even had a single word of positive reinforcement to offer from its narrow rolodex of comments.

Many years later, I’ve come to find that I was seeking inspiration from the wrong eight ball entirely. Eight ball zucchini, while lacking in fortune telling skills, are unmatched in their culinary consolation. No matter how many zucchini have infiltrated your kitchen at this late stage of the summer harvest, these compact spheres can instantly renew your enthusiasm for the green squash.

Begging to be stuffed with delights both sweet and savory, there’s no limit to their potential, unlike the answers offered by an old-school magic eight ball.

Imagine, if you would, the ultimate breakfast and brunch entree. An eggless custard that falls somewhere between a soft scramble and a tender omelette, bursting with fresh vegetables and simple, comforting savory flavors. The essence of summer resounds in every bite. Who could stay hung up on murky future fates when you’ve got one of these lucky little orbs on your plate? Ask of them only questions of utmost importance, like when will the meal be served, and I promise you’ll never walk away disappointed.

Eggless Omelette Eight Ball Zucchini

4 – 5 Medium-Sized Eight Ball Zucchini
1/2 Cup Garbanzo Bean Flour
2 Tablespoons Fresh Dill or Basil, Minced
2 Teaspoons Arrowroot
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Kala Namak (Black Salt)
1/8 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/3 Cup Chopped Sun-Dried Tomatoes
1/4 Cup Diced Red Onion
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and set out a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat.

Slice the stems off the zucchinis about 1/2 an inch from the top and set aside. Using a pointed teaspoon, grapefruit spoon, or melon baller, hollow out the insides of the squash, leaving about a 1/4-inch thick wall on the sides and bottom. Roughly chop the innards and set aside. Brush lightly with olive oil, inside and out, and place the squash shells on your prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, until fork-tender but still firm.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling by whisking together the garbanzo bean flour, fresh herbs, arrowroot, garlic powder, black salt, pepper, and turmeric. Make sure that all the dry ingredients are well combined before adding in the leftover zucchini pieces, sun-dried tomatoes, and onion, tossing to coat. Pour the vegetable stock, oil, and vinegar in all at once, and whisk until smooth (aside from the vegetable additions, of course.)

After par-baking, fill the zucchini up to the top with the eggless omelette mixture. Place the zucchini tops on the baking sheet next to them, lightly brush with oil, and return the whole thing to the oven.

Bake until the filling is softly set; about 30 – 35 minutes. Serve right away while piping hot, or let cool to enjoy at room temperature.

Makes 4 – 5 Stuffed Eight Ball Zucchinis; 2 – 3 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Silent Sunday: Sichuan Situation

Tofu Clay Pot

Turnip Cakes

Hot and Sour Soup

Steamed Bao

Big Lantern
3170 16th St
San Francisco, CA 94103

Garlic Pea Shoots

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant

Vegetable Dumplings

MaMa Ji’s
4416 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94114



Sizzling Eggplant

Bean Curd with Mushrooms

Pot Stickers

Crispy Taro Rolls

Lucky Creation
854 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108


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For the Sake of Sake

While much of the country closes up their beach chairs and dusts off their long sleeve shirts, things are just beginning to heat up in the bay area. Summer always arrives fashionably late, yet the visit never fails to catch us by surprise. When temperatures jump over 20 degrees in a day, topping out around 110 in some particularly hellish pockets of the city, talk of pumpkin spice lattes sounds like a cruel joke. If I should so much as contemplate operating the oven, I swear my entire kitchen would likely ignite like a tinderbox full of gunpowder. After this record-breaking weekend, I can easily imagine what it feels like to live on the surface of the sun.

Cooking under such conditions is out of the question. Rational cravings and hunger goes straight out the window too, for that matter. If it’s not coming straight out of the fridge or freezer, I don’t want to know about it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and only one thing in my arsenal could effectively take the edge off: Ice-cold coffee sake.

Typically a non-drinker, no one is more surprised than I by how quickly sake has become a prized indulgence for me. I’m blaming it entirely on Takara Sake, Berkeley-based sake makers that offer mini museum tours followed by generous tasting flights. There, I discovered that sake is so much more than just fermented liquid rice, and so much more drinkable than the average swill I’m accustomed to. One of their more unusual offerings include sparkling sake, which reminds me of soda; already a guilty pleasure going on many years now. What really hooked me on my last visit, however, was the sweet coffee-flavored sake, a genuine dessert drink that can rival the best coffee liqueur on the shelf.

After securing a sleek bottle for myself, for whatever reason, the first thing that popped into my head was tiramisu. The situation called for something considerably cooler though, so creating a fleet of creamy, subtly spiked popsicles seemed like the only rational option.

Forget about baking ladyfingers or any fussy cake. Since it will simply soften in the sweet, slightly tangy base, crushed vanilla cookies work perfectly fine for this application, soaking up all the sake with ease. If you don’t have access to this heavenly elixir, you can use any plain sake and just increase the instant coffee powder to taste.

Tirami-Sake Pops

1 8-Ounce Container Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Coffee Sake, Divided
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
6 Vanilla Sandwich Cookies, Roughly Crushed
1 Teaspoon Instant Coffee Granules
1 Teaspoon Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder

To make the creamy base, simply blend the cream cheese, sugar, non-dairy milk, 2 tablespoons of the sake, vanilla, and salt together until smooth.

Separately, mix the crushed cookies, the remaining sake, instant coffee, and cocoa powder in a small bowl, stirring thoroughly until the coffee granules have dissolved.

Layer the base and the cookie mush into popsicle molds of your choice. Insert sticks and stash on a level surface in your freezer. Let rest for at least 4 hours, or until solid.

Printable Recipe


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Rush Hour

Rhythmically, persistently, a small child is kicking me in the shins. Propelling his legs with blissful abandon beyond the constraints of his stroller, the rubber-soled shoes strike with a dull thud as regularly as a metronome. This is the least of my concerns though, as I struggle to find an open pocket of air in the overcrowded BART car. A nauseating bouquet of sweat, cologne, and Chinese takeout infiltrates my lungs, mingling together in one pungent, irrepressible plume. Each inhalation skews slightly to one or the other, though none holds particular appeal. Breathing becomes a careful, measured effort, akin to meditation.

Hurtling through tunnels, cutting across highways and open fields, chasing after the fading sun, the train starts and stops, yet not a single person moves an inch. Wedged firmly in place, it would be impossible to fall, even if one gave up standing on their own volition. Familiar vistas flash by through smudged windows, but from my vantage point staring directly into some tall man’s armpit, the scenery looks all the same to me. Somewhere between Embarcadero and West Oakland, I find myself wearing someone else’s headphone wires. Perhaps the whole mob, myself included, is beginning to merge into a single person.

Compared to many, my trip across the bay is mercifully short. Swimming upstream against the current of writhing arms and legs, it takes many gentle shoves, a few accidentally trampled feet, and many profuse apologies to disentangle myself from the mass when the doors finally open at my home station. The stagnant but open air has never felt so good. To all the faithful, tireless workers who continue forward on their journeys, to repeat the trip once again the next day, again and again with no end in sight: I salute you. That onerous commute is a full time job, in and of itself.


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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!


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Summer Rains

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the summer rains.

The cool relief of a cloud burst washing away the built up pressure of the day. The rumble and crack of rolling thunder in the darkness, a lumbering giant invisible in the night sky. The damp long grasses, freckled with pinpricks of dew in the morning. Each component, tactile and visceral, makes up its own flashbulb memory; distinctive, yet distinctly separate. There’s no timestamp, no geolocation, no metadata to click through and extract more information. Surely there were many rainstorms that visited through my childhood, appearing and fading away much like the last, blending into one amalgamated vision, softened by time and distance.

I don’t know how I grew so attached to the comfortable rhythm of weather patterns, so predictable that they were more reliable than the calendar as an indication of the passing days. Back then, summer was endless, stretching on through countless unscheduled weeks, lazy afternoons one after the other, not a hint of stress or guilt associated with inactivity. Punctuating the sweltering evenings with a quiet, soothing staccato on the window panes, their whispered song serving as a lullaby. Filling my mind and washing away the harsh edges, the summer rains were my meditation.

There are no more summer rains these days, far removed from the climate of my childhood. I miss them deeply because their music sang of comfort, an audible reminder of my shelter from the storm. It was my song, set on repeat for days on end; after so many years, it became my anthem.