Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Advertisements

Peace, Love, and Avocado for All

San Francisco is home to the original hippie, the flower child borne of the 1967 Summer of Love, though only faint traces of the counter culture movement remain today. Largely replaced by tech workers with smartphones in their pockets rather than floral ornaments in their hair, it disappoints me to no end that we don’t even have an outpost of Flower Child out in the bay area. Had it not been for a trip out to Austin, TX, I never would have even known of the peaceable chain.

During my whirlwind five-day visit, I managed to drop in not once, but twice; a real rarity for a food traveler with a bucket list of restaurants to eat at, not historical sights to see. Given more time, I might have simply taken up residence on those plush benches lining the walls instead of booking a proper hotel room. True to concept, the vibe is essential to the experience, setting it apart from other fast-casual dining experiences. Seeking harmony between all sorts of eaters, the menu is clearly labeled with abundant options for the vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free, and omnivorous among us.

Vegetable-forward dishes allow peak produce to shine, like the simple heirloom tomato salad spiked with balsamic vinegar and shreds of fresh basil strewn about like confetti. Crisp cubes of watermelon sweetly contrast and provide balance overall. A rotating list of seasonal sides offers other savory treats like roasted yuzu Brussels sprouts, blistered snap peas, or curried cauliflower, depending on the time of year.

Poke bowls are a rising food trend for good reason, especially evident when the concept is applied to a fishless main. Tender cubes of marinated beets join forces with lighted brined mushrooms, both salty and umami, with all the fatty decadence of avocado to drive the combination home. Crunchy wasabi peas are an unexpected touch of whimsy in this ode to whole foods. The spicy bites are a good reminder that healthy eating shouldn’t be boring, nor are those choices black and white.

If there was a signature dish at Flower Child, the Mother Earth Bowl would be the undisputed winner of that title. It’s the one that everyone talks about in newspapers, magazines, and blogs the world over, each source breathlessly extolling the virtues of its copious components. The appeal is obvious just from a glance at the bare ingredients; roasted sweet potato and portobello mushrooms, broccoli pesto, charred onions, avocado, and cucumber, all perched upon a bed of ancient grains and lavished with red pepper miso vinaigrette. It really is like having the whole world in a bowl before you.

While I can’t get those same chill vibes out in NorCal, the flower children in the kitchen were generous enough to spread the love with this harmonious secret formula.

Mother Earth Bowl
From Flower Child

6 ounces Super Grain Mix: red quinoa, farro, and barley, cooked and tossed.
2 ounces sweet potatoes, roasted
2 1/2 ounces Portobello Mushroom, roasted
½ ounces Arugula
1 teaspoon daikon sprouts
1 teaspoon rice wine vinaigrette
1 tablespoon broccoli pesto*
1 tablespoon red pepper miso marmalade*
2 tablespoons cucumber relish*
¼ avocado, fanned
1 teaspoon hemp seeds

Broccoli Pesto:
1 cup broccoli, blanched
4 ½ tablespoons black kale, blanched
2 ¼ tablespoons roasted salted pistachio
1 1/3 tablespoons spinach
1 teaspoon garlic
1 teaspoon mint leaves
1 ¼ teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
¼ tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons water

Red Pepper Miso Marmalade:
½ cup peppadew peppers, rough chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, rough chopped
2 teaspoons ginger, peeled & rough chopped
1 1/3 tablespoons miso paste
1 ½ tablespoons seasoned rice wine vinegar
3 teaspoons tamari
3 teaspoons grapeseed oil
1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Cucumber Relish:
1 cup cucumbers, peeled, seeds removed, and ¼ dice
2 tablespoons. seasoned rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon evaporated cane sugar
2 teaspoon sesame chili oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
½ teaspoon mint leaves, minced
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt

Broccoli Pesto Directions
1. Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth and emulsified.

Red Pepper Miso Marmalade Directions
2. Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth and emulsified.

Cucumber Relish Directions
3. Combine all ingredients and mix until incorporated.

Mother Earth Bowl Directions
4. Roast sweet potatoes and Portobello mushrooms and set aside.
5. To prepare dish, toss arugula with sprouts and vinaigrette, then spoon Super Grain mix in
the center of the bowl.
6. Place sweet potatoes on top, next to Portobello.
7. Place arugula next to mushrooms and cucumber salad next to arugula.
8. Top with pesto, marmalade, and avocado across the center of the dish.
9. Finish with hemp seeds.

Printable Recipe

Silent Saturday: Leftovers from Austin

(As I begin packing my bags for the next great adventure, it’s becoming clear that if I don’t share the last roundup of photos from my time in Texas now, I probably never will. There are still many more photos from my time in the “friendship state”- If you’re interested in seeing the full set, browse on over to my Flickr album.)

Vegan Breakfast Platter with Vanilla-Pecan Pancakes from Kerbey Lane Cafe

Garden Breakfast with Tofu Scramble from Bouldin Creek Cafe

Vegan ‘Harvey P’ Rueben from Shhmaltz

Beet Mushroom Walnut Burger from Counter Culture

Avocado Carpaccio and Black Bean Taco from Tyson’s Tacos

Vegan Crab Cakes with Smoked Vegetables from Lady Luck

The Classic Vegan Cheese Detroit-Style Pizza from Via 311

Spicy Veggie Prawns with Collard Greens from Nice-N-Ful

Cauliflower Steak with Curried Lentils and Caramelized Onions from Hyde Park Bar & Grill

Jackfruit BBQ Plate from Unity Vegan Kitchen

Silent Sunday: Sweet on Austin

Zombie Sundae (with Chocolate-Chai and Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream) from Sweet Ritual

Austin Cream Pie Donut from Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwich (with Chocolate Chip Cookies) from Moojo

Currant Scone and Iced Chai Tea from The Steeping Room

Chocolate-Dipped, Coconut-Covered Frozen Banana from Bananarchy

Birthday Cake Cupcake (Strawberry Cake with Almond Whipped Topping) from Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop

Nada Moo Vanilla Chai Sundae, Ice Cream Social Hosted by Counter Culture

Chocolate, Carrot, Lemon, Coconut, Cookie Dough, and Mint Chocolate Chip Cupcakes from Sugar Circus

Dreamsicle Cupcake from Capital City Bakery