Weather or Not

Mentally battered by an assault of inclement weather warnings, you’d think the general public would have staged a revolt against all forecasters at this point. The anxiety and stress piles up faster than the foretold falling flakes, thanks to the added hype that always comes with incessant social media repetition. Nine times out of ten, expectations don’t match the reality of the climate outside, but the hysteria is sure real. So much as suggest that there might be anything less than blue skies and people will turn out from all corners of the earth to wrestle that last roll of toilet paper out of your hands at the grocery store. It’s like a battle of life and death, to secure a stockpile before the world ends, regardless of the pitifully low probability of even flurries.

This is a phenomenon I’ve become somewhat immune to in the generally mild atmosphere of the bay area, but that same illogical impulse still grips me when I’m least expecting it. Rain is the new snow around here, since it appears so rarely and thus cripples unsteady drivers and fragile public transit systems that don’t know how to cope. I still feel the pain of all those back east, hunkering down for a brutal nor’easter right now, undoubtedly hurtling through their local markets as if their shopping carts were assault weapons.

As darkening skies approach, what’s going into your basket? What are the staples that immediately make the cut as sustenance to hold you through those difficult times (maybe even hours!) when the roads are too intimidating to traverse? Practicality is not my strong suit, and so the parade of groceries marching down the conveyor belt at checkout is typically laughable. Peanut butter, bread, frozen peas; sure, those are wise investments. But the random assortment of chocolates, half-priced hummus, and impulse buy mini gnocchi? Those are perhaps a bit less crucial for long-term survival. I would not fare well if ever faced with a real lock-down emergency.

Luckily, my unreasonable yet well-meaning instincts have led me to create some incredible combinations out of those curiously assembled ingredients. Those mini gnocchi, for example, caught my eye as ideal comfort food when the going got rough, and they didn’t disappoint even when the forecast did. There’s never been a better time to indulge in such a recipe, although I can’t say that there would ever come a bad time, either.

Lavished with a buttery cream sauce made of typical pantry staples, it could very well be the new face of emergency rations, despite its less urgent origins. Dauphinoise potatoes typically layers thinly sliced spuds in a casserole concoction, but since pasta keeps longer and is almost always on hand, gnocchi struck me as a natural extension of the concept. In more dire times, or healthier mindsets, I realized that swapping out the dumplings for simple legumes like chickpeas could make for an equally satisfying, comforting side dish, too. It’s all the same starchy, savory, subtly salty flavors which meld into an effortless indulgence in the end.

If you haven’t already gone through the throes of panic-induced grocery shopping, may I make three quick suggestions? 1) Make a list. 2) Avoid the candy aisle. 3) Write in mini gnocchi as a necessity, no matter how silly it may appear at first glance. You’ll thank me for this later.

Gnocchi Dauphinoise

1 Pound Mini Potato Gnocchi
1/3 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Gently separate the mini gnocchi and toss them into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. They’re so small that they don’t need to be parboiled before baking.

Toss all of the remaining ingredients into a high-speed blender and pulverize on the highest setting until perfectly silky smooth. If you’re using a machine that has a bit less torque, soak the cashews for at least 4 hours in advance before blender, to make them a bit softer and easier to emulsify. Blend for a full 6 – 8 minutes, until the mixture is steaming hot.

Pour the cashew cream all over the waiting gnocchi before easing the dish into the oven. Bake for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, until the gnocchi are fork-tender and the liquid is thick and rich. Top with freshly chopped parsley, if desired, and serve bubbling hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings as a Side; 2 – 3 Servings as an Entree with Salad

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Tradition with a Twist

Thanksgiving purists, avert your eyes.

Truth be told, I can’t recall ever having a green bean casserole on the table at any of my childhood Thanksgiving celebrations. Perhaps there was one though, lovingly prepared by traditionalist grandmother, aunt, or uncle, but I sure never noticed. A holiday fraught with food complications even before I went vegan, there’s rarely been much on the expansive buffet table that got me excited, or even remotely hungry for that matter. Hunk of dry, bland turkey for you, my dear? How about a smidgen of mushy breadcrumbs swimming in a pool of their own tears? What about the gelatinous, can-shaped cranberry “sauce” that clearly has remained untouched up to this decade? No thanks, no thanks, and not on your life.

Mercifully, being that the menu remained more or less the same no matter who prepared it or where we met to eat, it became easier to predict the horrors that awaited me on that fated day of celebration. Prepared for the worst, it was a much more survivable experience, like going into battle with a map of where the landmines were hidden. It was still rough going- Downright traumatic at times, depending on the mortifying family memories that might be unearthed yet again- But at least you’d make it out alive.

Best of all, everyone would be so sick of the typical Thanksgiving fixings the next day that in spite of the copious embarrassment of leftovers, it wouldn’t be too difficult to plead for a dinner of Chinese takeout. That was the true festive meal, for all I was concerned.

Now on my own and separated by every member of my family by over 2,500 miles, I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ve finally gotten my wish, freed from the obligations of the traditional dinner, and I’m not quite sure I really want to escape it anymore. Suddenly those old-school favorites seem ripe with potential, and even though I have no plans or guests to feed, I can’t help but go back and create pieces of the feast that I always wished might be on the table.

That means combining the standard green bean casserole with an infusion of spicy sichuan peppers, just hot enough to make your lips tingle but still keep the inherent savory soul of the baked dish intact. The twist might very well horrify those who expect nothing but the same menu, year after decade after century, but for anyone who’s wanted to shake things up just a bit, I can’t think of a better dish to start with.

Sichuan (Szechuan) Green Bean Casserole

1 Pound Fresh Green Beans, Trimmed and Halved
1 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Shallot, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1-Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Minced
1 Cup Cremini or Button Mushrooms, Roughly Chopped
1 Cup Unsweetened, Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Vegetable Broth
3 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
2 Teaspoons Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Teaspoon Dried Red Pepper Flakes
1/8 – 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Sichuan Pepper*

1 Cup Fried Shallots or Onions, Divided
3/4 Cup Crispy Fried Noodles or Wonton Strips

*Given that true Sichuan peppercorns can be difficult to hunt down at times, you can omit them for an equally delicious, if less tongue-tingling experience.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Pour the sesame oil into a medium saucepan and heat over high. Once blisteringly hot, add the prepared green beans and saute while stirring briskly, until seared all over but still crisp; about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool.

Return the pan to the stove, down down the heat to medium, and add the olive oil, shallot, garlic, and ginger. Cook until aromatic and just barely browned around the edges; about 8 – 10 minutes. Introduce the mushrooms next and cook until softened. If any of the vegetables threaten to stick or burn, begin adding in splashes of the non-dairy milk.

Shake up the vegetable stock and flour in a closed jar to create a slurry. Add it into the pan, stirring to thoroughly incorporate, followed by the non-dairy milk. Introduce the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, pepper flakes and Sichuan pepper next, reducing the heat to medium-low and stirring to combine. Continue to cook, stirring periodically, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil.

Remove from the stove and add the green beans back into the mixture. Mix to combine, folding in 1/2 cup of the fried shallots as well. Transfer everything into a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish and top evenly with the crispy fried noodles and remaining fried shallots. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

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