Bite Me

In times of extreme stress or trauma, regression is a real concern. Young children run for cover under previously discarded blankies, while dogs can forget their training when nature calls indoors. Training wheels snap back onto bikes, lessons once mastered must be retaught. After so many steps forward, it’s time to take a few back. That very same impulse drives otherwise reasonable adults to abandon all pretense of balance and seek solace in the comforting foods embedded into happy childhood memories. Attracted to the nostalgia as much as the taste, there’s no way of knowing just what will bubble up from bygone days.

Here’s an unexpected flashback from elementary school. Miniature chocolate chip muffins, you know the ones, beckoned in neat little plastic packages at the end of the hot lunch line. Truly unfrosted cupcakes, each sweet, squishy morsel seemed to melt away effortlessly, dissolving into a sticky morass of artificial buttery crumbs and waxy chocolate. My parents would have never condoned such nutritionally void treats, but when I could trade for such treasures, there was no stopping me.

Comforting in their simplicity, reassuringly easy to both make and eat, it’s the kind of junk food I might normally rail against. Just eat a slice of cake, or have yourself a proper bran muffin! This wishy-washy excuse for some rational middle ground is just a way to feel better about eating dessert for breakfast. Relative to the austere bowl of oatmeal in the morning, they’re loaded with sugar and white flour, and you know what? That’s exactly what we all need sometimes.

Regression is not permanent. Like so many other things in life, the urge to crawl inward, revert to the safety of nostalgia, is outside of our control. We’re all doing the best we can to survive; be kind to your inner child, plan to grow up another day. A little bite of indulgence certainly wouldn’t hurt right about now.

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Frequent Fryer

It’s the culinary equivalent of the Tickle Me Elmo craze that swept children into a nationwide temper tantrum in the final late days of the 1990’s. All the cool kids have one, or are getting one, because no other toy can compare. This particular modern marvel is considerably more functional, more respectable, but one could argue, no less frivolous than the furry robotic puppet. I’m talking, of course, about the air fryer.

Leading holiday sales for retailers of small appliances all across the map, these wildly popular contraptions are in no danger of selling out, unlike the door buster deals of yesteryear that would inspire fist fights in minimal parking lots. There’s a different model for every day of the year, and well beyond. Demand hasn’t waned but supply has exploded with such a surplus that prices have fallen to irresistible rates, even without a Black Friday discount. Paralyzed by an overabundance of choices, where does the tentative, newbie fryer begin?

First, we need to talk about what an air fryer really is. Purportedly an alternative to deep frying, without any mandatory fat, hyperactive home shopping network hosts would like to shout from the rooftops that it’s a miracle device guaranteed to change your life. Imagine: all the mozzarella sticks, tater tots, and corn dogs you can eat! Welcome back to childhood and Merry Christmas to all! …If only it really worked like that.

It would be more accurate to describe the device as a super-heated countertop oven. Convection heating circulates air at scorching temperatures and breakneck speed, allowing food to cook faster than in a conventional built-in appliance. It works more efficiently because it’s also smaller, although that brings us to our first drawback: The size can be a limiting factor if you want to cook for more than two or three. Larger models are now available, but you will never be able to fit as much food into one as a full-sized kitchen appliance as a simple matter of physics.

The “frying” effect is most successful with prepared, frozen snacks, which have already been at least partially cooked with a fairly generous amount of fat. French fries are the clearest example of this phenomenon, especially since they’re hands-down the most popular order for this short cook to tackle. Crinkle-cut, curly, waffle, skinny, or home style wedges all come out golden brown and impeccably crisp, fluffy on the inside, glistening with the sheen of success- And oil. If you tried the same set-it-and-forget-it approach with raw potatoes sticks, it would a sad, starchy story, with a real limp ending. Set your expectations accurately and understand how to harness the unique abilities of the machine, however, and this toy starts to regain some of the initial shine.

If you’re still craving a healthier alternative to cool satisfying meals from scratch, there’s hope for this crazy contraption yet! I relying on mine primarily as a toaster alternative, since I don’t have space on my counter for both. Set to low temperatures, it can also function quite efficiently as a dehydrator, to preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs, or make some tasty snacks with minimal effort. Best of all, and especially critical as we enter the sweltering summer months, it keeps the kitchen cool, as opposed to the full-sized oven that radiates heat like a genuine furnace. As a general guideline for converting existing recipes, reduce the temperature by 25 – 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) and the baking time by 25%. It will take a bit of trial and error if starting from scratch, but plenty of resources and general guidelines are already out there to make the process painless. You can also find handy charts for best practices regarding specific produce picks.

For your initial voyage on the SS Air Fryer, it will be much smoother sailing if you let the experts pilot the ship. Start with recipes specifically designed for complexities and eccentricities of the machine to turn out hits right from the beginning. My favorite cookbooks are The Vegan Air Fryer by JL Fields, Vegan Cooking in Your Air Fryer by Kathy Hester, and The Essential Vegan Air Fryer Cookbook by Tess Challis, in no particular order. These three highly respected authors also have many other tips and tricks folded into the mix, so you’ll be well educated on the capabilities of your shiny new gadget by the time you read them cover to cover.

Okay, so what about the air fryer itself? Of all the colors, shapes, and sizes, how could you possibly choose the perfect model? I can’t claim to have tried them all, but over the course of two years, I have gone through three different unique types: The Philips GoWISE 3.7-Quart, the Power Air Fryer XL 5.3 Quart, and the Power Air Fryer XL Pro 6 Quart. Which did I ultimately chose to keep?

Presenting, the winner of this round, the Power Air Fryer Pro (previously named the “Oven Elite” at the time of purchase)! Shaped like a miniature, traditional oven with moveable racks, it’s simply more versatile and easier to use than models that only provide a solid basket receptacle. This one provides that too, along with a rotisserie spit, rotating metal skewer attachment, and wire mesh basket. Furthermore, it’s a bit more spacious than the aforementioned options, and the separate racks allow you to cook multiple foods at once. Breaking down all the finer points to consider:

Pros:

  • Much more space! Wire racks allow you to separately cook different foods at the same time.
  • Rotating mesh basket means no more stopping and shaking food halfway through the cooking process to ensure more even browning.
  • Works brilliantly as a dehydrator; minimum temperature of 90 degrees.
  • Excellent and seamless toaster oven replacement. Creates a consistently golden crust on bread, bagels, and beyond. There’s even a dedicated pizza button for reheating leftovers.
  • Removable and non-stick drip tray makes for easy cleanup afterwards.

Cons:

  • Not exactly plug-and-play. Had a hell of a time figuring out how to install the skewers, and still couldn’t stop them from falling out eventually, regardless of the configuration.
  • The window is nice, but it would be more helpful if the light inside the unit stayed on after you closed the door. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose if you can’t see when the food is done?
  • Maximum temperature of 400 degrees. I’d wager that’s enough for 90% of all cooking needs, and most foods could just be cooked for a little bit longer to compensate, but it can be limiting for more precise, high-heat preparations.

Ready to embark on your exciting journey towards extra crispy, perfectly tender, and simply easier homemade meals? With expectations appropriately set and temperatures properly dialed in, the much lauded air fryer is a handy little helper that can make it happen. Naturally, all those years of testing and tasting have built up a considerable backlog of my own recipes to share, so stay tuned for much more!

Spring Thaw

Drinking in the sunshine with a bottomless thirst, tiny shoots burst forth with renewed vigor after a long winter’s slumber. Awakened by the warmth, heads still full of dreams, they blossom with intoxicating brilliance. Splashing color like splattered pant across cracked sidewalks, breaking through the earth’s crust in empty alleyways, everything is fresh and new again. Anything is possible.

Spring is the season of renewal, a shift toward forward motion that I can feel acutely in my bones. At last, I can throw off heavy knit blankets and rise with the sun again. At last, I can take deep, restorative breaths, not sharp and shallow gasps, to fill my lungs with the scents of freesia, jasmine, and lilac.

Inspiration abounds; from farmers markets to urban foraging, there’s no shortage of new, novel, inspiring ingredients. One unconventional source has haunted me for years, though, like a promise unfulfilled. Back when I aspired to a career in fine pastry, crafting fancy plated desserts in Michelin-starred kitchens, El Bulli positively captivated me. Creating dishes based upon nature but crafted with startlingly sophisticated, scientific methods, it was like nothing I had seen before. I spent all my allowance money on obscure, out of print cookbooks, trying to decode their magic. That’s where I first came across the concept of “Deshielo,” also known as “Thaw”

Deshielo was inspired by the ice melting in spring with the first shoots sprouting out of the frozen blanket. The description of the dessert itself is as daunting as it is confounding. “Coffee and licorice sponge and yogurt gelatin with concentrated lemon sorbet, rose sugar, and frozen water powder. Different herbs and flowers blooming in matcha tea sugar.”

Many years later, modified, simplified, my rendition has finally blossomed into a reality. Cake is now the feature, infused with robust coffee flavor and the licorice-y perfume of fennel. Crisp cacao nibs contrast sharply to the soft, moist crumb beneath, but that’s only the beginning. Lemon granita lends a unique chilling effect which draws out the citrus elements of the brew. Matcha sugar, a study in balance between the bitter tea leaves and pure crystalline sweetness, peeks out from this frigid topper, crowned with a glorious shoot of fresh mint, a few fallen candied rose petals at its side. Yes, it’s quite a lot of flavors all in one bite, many that would seem to conflict on paper, but they coalesce into a stunning springtime celebration on the plate.

It’s not quite molecular gastronomy, far more humble than fine patisserie, but a genuine, passionate ode to the spirit of the season.

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An Educated Palate

Math has never been my favorite subject. If there was one black mark on my quarterly report card, it would be filed under algebra, or calculus. Quite frankly, it’s a small miracle that anyone let me graduate with such a flimsy understanding of numbers in general. One limited concept that I can comfortably wrap my mind, and my lips around, is pi.

Okay, you got me. Not actual pi, but pie. Flaky pastry and comforting fillings both sweet and savory always make perfect logical sense. Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is the only day of the year I’m happy to bridge the gap between baking and calculating.

This year, I’d like to present to you an appropriately educated provision. Inspired by daigaku imo, imagine a chunky sweet potato pie with a touch of Asian flare. Directly translated, daigaku imo means “university potatoes.” Though still murky in origin, the name can be traced back to two plausible explanations.

Tokyo University, sometime in the early 1900’s, saw the rise of this cultural sensation. Some say a snack shop began offering lightly fried sweet potatoes drenched in sugar syrup and tossed with sesame seeds, while others are adamant that it was a student selling these sweet and savory delights to raise funds for tuition. Either way, we have Japan to thank for yet another viral food hit.

Rather than pulling out a vat of bubbling oil, my adaptation uses only a touch of toasted sesame oil to roast the tubers to fork-tender perfection. Creamy yet still toothsome, the pale white flesh takes on greater dimension with the umami notes of soy sauce rather than plain salt, plus the acidic edge of vinegar for balance. These subtle, delicate nuances will keep tasters guessing, but this is a culinary equation that’s easy to solve.

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The Trouble with Truffles

When it comes to truffles, how much is too much? Is there even such a thing as “too much” when we’re talking about the most savory, hyper-palatable substance found in nature? Sure, it’s easy to go overboard with a few seemingly harmless extra drops of truffle oil, turning a previously balanced dish into an acrid chemistry experiment gone wrong, but that’s another story entirely. Most commercial options rely on entirely lab-created chemicals for their aroma, without a single fleck of fungus in sight. Carried by cheap filler oils, these knock-offs lack the subtle nuances, earthy richness, and depth of pure umami intensity distilled within real truffles. Dirty diamonds locked within nubby black exteriors that could just as easily be mistaken as rocks are the key to this taste of luxury that no scientist can replicate.

When you go all-in on the real deal, you’ll know the difference when you taste it. Immediately it hits you, sweeping you off your feet before that first bite even hits your taste buds. The aroma alone can stop a conversation in its tracks and turn heads, like a dazzling supermodel making a grand entrance at a party. This bombshell doesn’t need any makeup or designer clothing to captivate, though. All that brilliance and more is found within; inherent, implicit, obvious to see beyond shallow outward aesthetics.

The real trouble with truffles is that their delicate nuances begin to fade almost as soon as they’re unearthed. Part of their scarcity is due to this ephemeral quality. Even if you can get the real deal, fresh isn’t always best. Personally, my top pick is always preserved, since there’s no gambling with lack of access, nor variable quality. At least that’s the case with Truffle Hunter. There’s nowhere to hide on these short labels fronting meaty shavings of black summer truffles, lightly brined and kept pristine in extra virgin olive oil. In that two-for-one punch, you get the full-bodied fungus, AND true infused truffle oil.

Genuine luxury is sinking your teeth into one of those substantial sheets of pure umami power. Frequently recommended as a topper for crostini, that suggestion made me think of toast, which naturally leads to avocado toast, and the inspiration to embellish was unstoppable from there.

Avocado toast elevated to the status of fine fare, this breakfast staple is now fit for a crowd. Taking basic staples to the next level, a tiny dose of white truffle balsamic vinegar is blended into creamy, luscious cashew ricotta, harmonizing with the beautifully marbled slabs of black truffle sparkling on top.

Resting atop a lightly seasoned crust of crisp breadcrumbs, each layer is more decadent than the last. Buttery, bright green avocados take on a greater degree of decadence, heightened by the intense, earthy, almost nutty notes of truffles. You could always gild the lily with a finishing kiss of truffle salt… But that might just test the theory that too much is never enough.

Simply sublime, sublimely simple. It may be tough to go back to plain old avocados on bread after just one bite.

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Emergency Rations

Warranted or not, panic wrought by the coronavirus has spread to pandemic levels, faster than the illness itself. Food scarcity is a concern that most city dwellers have the luxury of ignoring, but suddenly doomsday preppers are wiping grocery shelves clear of dry beans, grains, and spices. It’s the end of days for the avid baker caught off guard. Surely it’s a temporary state of affairs, but when dire cravings strike, what’s one to do without easy access to ingredients previously taken for granted?

Lucky for you, I’m terrible at planning on a good day, so I have years of experience working with a limited pantry. Skipping past all the fancy flourishes and contemporary conveniences, you can still make superlative sweets, comparable to the most indulgent high-end baked goods.

Just plain flour, oil, sugar, and cocoa are at the heart of these treats. Embellish with nuts and chips if available, but it’s far from necessary. These basic staples hit high marks for every category; soft and tender, crisp around the edges, sweet with a touch of salt to accentuate deep chocolate flavors, they’re ready for you at the dawning of the apocalypse. The world at large may turn into a hellish land populated by zombies and shut-ins, but at least there will be dessert at the end of the day.

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