Mangan Tayon! Let’s Eat!

Do you ever eat with your hands? I’m not talking about little snacks like popcorn or crackers. I’m talking about full meals, hearty stews with rice and noodles, scooped up by outstretched fingers reaching across the dinner table. It flies in the face of traditional western etiquette, flagrantly breaking unspoken rules against this literal power grab while in the presence of others. Yet, far from the supposed faux pas I’d been raised to view it as since birth, this is simply the expectation at any of the meals presented by Free for Real Kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no knives, no chopsticks. Hell, no napkins, unless you get into a truly desperate mess.

Crafting a family-style Filipino Ilocano feast featuring vegan versions of traditionally meat-heavy fare, it’s a feat of modern cookery that such bold flavors could even exist in plant-based form. Dinardaraan, also known as “chocolate meat,” would be made with offal and pig’s blood anywhere else, but comes to life here with tofu, preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and fermented black beans instead. Agar-based salted eggs posing as Itlog na Maalat could make anyone do a double take, based on both the uncanny appearance and sulfuric salinity. Jackfruit makes an appearance of course, not as a meat alternative but paired with banana blossoms in the Adobong Langka at Puso ng Saging, a naturally vegan preparation that dazzled with the unassuming combination of tamari, garlic, vinegar, bay leaf, and coconut milk.

More beguiling than the food, however, is the experience of sharing such a feast in such a visceral way with your neighbors. Strangers awkwardly shift around at first, pawing timidly at whatever mysterious mound lays closest, afraid to fully engage. With a few bites comes greater confidence, whetting the appetite for more. Conversations grow louder and deeper, hands fly farther and faster, and the whole room moves and sways in a different kind of dinner dance before long. Dropping formalities to boldly share space allows in a world of new flavor, along with an experience unlike any other.

Kamayan, eating with your hands, fills your heart perhaps even more so than your stomach. No matter how stuffed you end up after heartily partaking in over a dozen delicacies and dessert, warm memories of this communal event still last much longer.

 
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Going Bananas This Summer

Officially, summer has arrived. It’s certainly felt that way for the past month, but at least the weather and the calendar are finally in agreement. Longer days, warmer nights, and of course, cooler eats are here at last. While some people live for the winter holidays, I’d make a strong case for classifying this fleeting moment as the best time of year.

Beautiful weather beckons, teasing me out of the house early in the day, tempting me away from work and towards play. The last thing I want is to be stuck in a hot, stuffy kitchen. I’d much rather reach for any easy treat like Voortman wafer cookies and be on my way. They make so many flavors that there’s always something to suit the season. Made with real fruit, nothing artificial, the flavors are all stunningly fresh.

The light, crisp wafers give way to soft creme filling, both crunchy and smooth, satisfying with every bite. Right now, the banana wafer cookies occupy that prime spot in my snacking routine. Evoking memories of crunchy banana candies of bygone childhood delights, the real magic happens when they’re stored in the fridge. Chilled, they suddenly taste like a fruit smoothie in stick form. That serendipitous discovery happened quite accidentally, stemming from an urge to clear overflowing counters with no shelf space remaining. Into the fridge the package of cookies went, and out came a brand new treat.

Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone right there. Obviously, what’s great alone could be spectacular with just a bit more finesse. No-churn banana ice cream, enlightened with a dollop of tangy dairy-free yogurt, perches temptingly on these edible sticks, every bite as satisfying and wholly refreshing as the last.

Chill out, enjoy the heat of summer, but don’t let the opportunity to indulge in more whimsical sweet pleasures melt away.

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Somebody Call the Kopps

Imagine world-class cuisine with Michelin aspirations, celebrating seasonal, local purveyors, and regional specialties. Take that very same passion, elevating the everyday vegetable without any animal products, and apply it to an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet at a fraction of the cost of a comparable tasting menu. Gourmets and gourmands line up for a spot at Kopps in Berlin, Germany every weekend because the dream actually comes to life right here. The reality is far more satisfying than mere musings to feed the mind.

Easily one of the best meals I’ve had in years, there aren’t words enough to recommend this experience highly enough. Forget what you think you know about steam table warming dishes of limp hash browns or watery tofu scrambles; these are dishes on par with those offered by Millennium, or Candle 79, or Vedge, for some frame of reference. Serving staggering quantities of fine dining-quality food at fast-casual cafeteria prices, a single luxurious Sunday brunch would be worth the cost of round trip airfare alone. I would camp out here every single weekend if it was possible.

Homemade meatless charcuterie lines the cold station along with dairy-free cheeses and butters, begging to be lavished on an array of soft fresh breads. Marinated vegetables sing with a balanced acidic bite to perfectly cut through the richness while incorporating subtle notes of garlic and fresh herbs that are so well blended, it’s impossible to tease the exact combination apart. Of course you have your yogurts, chia puddings, fruits, and granola if you want to keep it continental, but what a terrible shame that would be.

Enter without expectations and prepare yourself for happy surprises. No two days are alike on this menu, which is built around vegetables found in season, first and foremost. Visiting at the height of spargelzeit afforded me the greatest indulgence of thick, fat white asparagus stalks bathed in creamy hollandaise sauce; a highlight of the entire trip, undoubtedly a fleeting delicacy for regulars, too. Pair that with luscious barley risotto, buttery grits, or even tempura fried cauliflower, if you feel the least bit self-conscious about unloading the whole chafing dish onto your plate.

Do come back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths. We haven’t even talked about the silver dollar pancakes, the plum crumble, the berry compote! Leave room for the soup while you’re there, which happened to be a deeply soothing, silky carrot-coconut number on this chilly spring morning. Don’t scoff at the salads, either, which are more than forgettable leafy fare. Tender lentils mingle with roasted beets and a light vinaigrette in one abundant bowl, while lightly pickled cucumbers remain perky and bright in another. A devilish eggless salad tempts nearby, with or without plant-based bacon.

If you managed to leave room for dessert, you’d be treated to airy chocolate mousse, tangy squares of cheesecake, gingersnap cookie bites… And perhaps, by this point, a food coma to last you until the next weekend. Actually, that would be merciful, because it’s awfully hard to go back to any other establishment in the meantime, knowing what you might be missing.

Make reservations well in advance, leave plenty of time to circle the block while hunting fruitlessly for parking, and block out the rest of your day. You have a lot of culinary ground to cover.

Kopps
Linienstraße 94
10115 Berlin, Germany

 

 

 

Bar None

May I introduce you to your new sweet obsession?

Every baker dreams of instantly whipping up sure-fire hits every time they turn on the oven, and eaters, no matter how adventurous, always crave certain comforting staples. While the internet hardly needs another plain old blondie recipe, it DOES need this one. It’s the one I always turn to for potlucks, for presents, and for random sweet tooth satisfaction, year in and year out. Something with enough staying power to see that many repeat performances in my kitchen deserves greater attention.

Super chewy, surprisingly buttery, and singing with sweet vanilla essence, they’re simply the best rendition of the classic bar cookie that everyone should have in their repertoire. There’s nothing crazy going on here; no complicated preparation, drawn out chilling or baking times, crazy ingredients, or any other shenanigans. Just tender slabs of caramelized brown sugar sweetness, filled with rich chocolate morsels, ready to be devoured in under an hour.

The only element that may give you pause is the cassava flour, but it’s not so scary as it may sound. It’s made from the yucca root, like tapioca starch, but comes from the entire tuber, thus affording it more fiber and nutrition than the later. If you can’t find it, don’t want to hunt it down, or don’t care about making your treats gluten-free, make it even easier by swapping in good old fashioned all-purpose flour.

In closing, I must apologize for making this introduction. If you had any attachments to particular blondie recipes previously, I’m afraid this fresh suitor will prove irresistible, leading to quite the sordid affair. I’m not sorry, however, for the joy it will create once you surrender to such an inevitability.

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