BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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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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Curry Favor

Curry is the catch-all solution to an infinite variety of meal planning dilemnas. No time for a complicated dinner? Throw a pot of curry on the stove. Too many random vegetables languishing in the fridge? They’ll all play nicely together in a spicy vat of curry. Need to feed an army on a shoestring budget? Who doesn’t love curry! Thus, I find myself with a spicy stew on the dinner table at least once or twice a week, no matter the season.

Of course, “curry” as I refer to it for these quick-cooking melting pots is a far cry from anything you might find on the entire Asian continent. Generous handfuls of fresh garlic and ginger sauteed with chopped onions, a shower of blindingly yellow madras curry powder, and a drenching rain of coconut milk are the only constants. Never measured, never varied, this foundation guarantees a satisfying, savory brew every time, authenticity be damned. The point isn’t to make a culinary masterpiece, but to placate a growling stomach at the end of a long day.

For as many times as these quick fix curries pass my lips, I still delight at the opportunity to get the genuine article when eating out. The blazing hot green curries of Thailand, the cinnamon-scented curries of Sri Lanka, the gravy-like, sweet curries of Japan; each one a unique delight. While it’s only too easy to reach for that jar of generic curry powder, why relegate these more elegant flavor profiles to only special occasions?

Certain preparations have long held an air of mystique, out of reach for the typically harried weekday dinner and rife with meat or dairy when outsourcing the meal. Defined by a luxurious sauce of spiced yogurt or cream, chicken korma falls squarely into that category, tempting from afar.

Happily, it turns out that vegan korma needn’t be overly complicated nor time-consuming. Truth be told, my interpretation still uses the ubiquitous madras curry powder as a crutch, but only for lack of a proper spice pantry in my tiny apartment kitchen. A homemade blend would undoubtedly send this dish soaring to new levels of flavor, but it really is a winner as written, if I do say so myself. The distinctive twang of plain yogurt harmonizes with the bright acidity of lime, informing the true character of this incomparable variation within this vast category. Vegetables and “meat” are truly interchangeable, depending on your mood, tastes, and access; the heart and soul of any curry is the sauce, and this one is near saintly.

Vegan Chicken Korma

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 1/2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Minced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
12 Ounces Chicken-Style Seitan, Soy Curls, or Meatless Chicken Strips
2 Yellow Onions, Roughly Chopped
1 Large Tomato, Roughly Chopped
1/2 – 1 Fresh Jalapeno, Minced
1 Tablespoon Madras Curry Powder
1 1/2 Tablespoons Garam Masala
3 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Almond or Cashew Butter
3 – 4 Cups Chopped Vegetables, such as Red Bell Pepper, Zucchini, Cauliflower, Sweet Potato, etc.
1/2 Cup Frozen Peas
2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1 6-Ounce Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
Fresh Cilantro, Finely Minced

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the ginger and garlic until aromatic before adding in your protein of choice. Cook until lightly browned all over.

Meanwhile, prepare the curry base. Toss the onions, tomato, jalapeno, curry powder, garam masala, tomato paste, and nut butter into your blender. Thoroughly puree, until completely smooth. Pour the mixture into the saucepan, turn down the heat to medium-low, and add in your chopped vegetable selections.

Let simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, at least. This is the kind of dish that can cook almost indefinitely, until the flavors are concentrated to your liking or you’re simply ready to serve. Once the sauce has thickened and the vegetables are tender, add the peas (no need to thaw, just toss ’em right in), lime juice, and plain yogurt. Stir well and adjust seasonings to taste.

Cook for just a few minutes longer to let the new ingredients mingle and meld properly before turning off the heat. Top with fresh cilantro and serve with rice (black rice is pictured above, but of course and variety you enjoy will do.)

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Tamale Take Down

“They’re pretty good… But I’ve had better,” the woman sitting at a neighboring booth leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.

Seated in one of the most highly regarded vegan restaurants in the bay area, luxuriating in some of the most masterfully composed dishes around, this stunning utterance was enough to induce whiplash. Snapping back into reality out of a food-induced daze, it took a moment to re-focus and discover the source of such heretical words. A small woman with a kind face looked back at me, eyes gleaming with clarity- Or perhaps it was a hint of mischief.

The dish in question was a tamale, lavished with smoked black beans, spiced pepitas, and a luscious avocado crema. Impeccably plated with all the flourishes one would expect of a fine dining establishment, it was a sight to behold, and certainly no slouch in the flavor department. In fact, up until that moment, this could have very well been the pinnacle of tamale artistry in my opinion. Now that impression was suddenly questionable, an uninformed statement based upon only half of the story. I had to get myself these purported transcendent tamales.

I had to go to Flacos.

An east bay institution serving up an entirely vegan menu, the bill of fare is short and sweet. You won’t find any overstuffed “Mission-style” burritos or loaded nachos here, but real deal Mexican meals. Tacos slide out of the kitchen on handmade corn tortillas, thick and crisply toasted. Masa is made from scratch every day, and that dedication to the craft pays off in huge gustatory dividends. The scent of cooking cornmeal wafts out onto the street early in the day, tempting passersby even as breakfast time has barely ended.

Huarache is a regional delight that doesn’t make a big splash in most American states, which is a real shame given its fool-proof flavor combinations. Soft slabs of fried masa lurk beneath a veritable forest of romaine and cilantro, huge servings of refried pinto beans, and slathered with rich, creamy avocado salsa. It’s worth noting that the avocado salsa is available in both mild and spicy formats, but unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I would advise keeping it cool. The heat on the spicy rendition is no joke; I’ve seen grown men weep over their taquitos upon discovering this fatal flaw.

On cool, foggy days, nothing satisfies like a bowlful of pozole, a very simple soup of tomatoes and hominy. While it’s not quite on par with the other, flashier staples, it’s sure to hit the spot if you’re craving a bit of comfort.

But enough beating around the bush. The main attraction, the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the banana leaf-wrapped tamale is hands-down the single item you must order if you can only pick one. Though the mole, caper, potato, and green olive filling sounds like a discordant combination, suspend disbelief and give it a try. The reasons why it works so well remain a mystery, but you’ll never question it ever again. A true rarity in the crowded and heavily promoted bay area food scene, this particular promise lives up to the hype.

Tamales can be ordered a la cart or as a plate, complete with rice, beans, and salad. While you may feel more virtuous by selecting a fully balanced meal, the sides are nothing special. Get the most mouthwatering bang for your buck by doubling down on the tamales instead. It’s an easy choice that you’ll never regret, even for those with a penchant for fine dining. Flacos might very well hold the key to the best tamales you’ve ever had.


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Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe