BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Contrary to popular belief, ceviche needn’t include any seafood to be considered “authentic,” or more importantly, to be considered delicious. One of many dishes with murky origins, it’s largely credited to the Peruvians, but it made its mark on cultures across all continents. If one were to look at the Latin etymology, it would simply mean “food for men and animals;” an ambiguous free-for-all with very little meaning other than the fact that it was, indeed, edible. Turning to Arabic, we see the foundation for “cooking in vinegar.” Persian would agree, going further to suggest that it was a “vinegar soup.” Sure, fish or meat was almost always invited to the party, but that doesn’t mean it was essential to the soul of the dish.

Scores of creative ceviches abound, plant-based and seasoned with a wide palate of different cultural perspectives. The most successful ones that I’ve come across take texture into account even before the flavor is considered, as backwards as that may sound. Few people realize just how much of the eating experience comes down to texture, which is why ceviche is a particularly fascinating preparation to experiment with. As long as it has a somewhat meaty yet springy texture that approximates something like shrimp or calamari, accompanied by a brightly acidic twang, you can craft a highly satisfying vegan rendition, no questions asked. Thus, upon biting into a fresh, juicy lychee, inspiration for a new approach struck me like lightning.

As the rest of the country starts hunting through their closets for long-forgotten sweaters and scarves, predictably, the bay area is forced to start shedding layers. The heat continues to skyrocket and the only thing I want to eat is something quick, cold, and satisfying. Ceviche fits neatly into that definition, no matter what else you consider essential. Packing it with buttery avocados and young coconut meat adds richness to this otherwise very lean preparation, fit for either a light meal or a good snack. Packed with crisp vegetables, everything is open to interpretation based on your personal tastes and accessibility. Want to mix it up? Consider ripe tomatoes, cubed watermelon, fresh corn, marinated mushrooms, chunks of fried plantain, or even steamed sweet potatoes, just for starters. Borrow from as many different cultures as you like; for ceviche, as long as it’s cold and raw, pretty much anything goes.

The only inviolable rule is to use ONLY fresh lychees, and I must be adamant about that. Canned can never compare, possessing both an unnatural sweetness and unpleasantly sour, metallic aftertaste. If you can’t find fresh, just double up on the coconut, and choose your own vegetable adventure from there.

Island Breeze Lychee Ceviche

10 – 12 Fresh Lychees, Peeled, Pitted, and Quartered (About 2/3 Cup)
1 Fresh Young Thai Coconut, Meat Removed and Diced
1/2 Large Cucumber, Peeled and Seeded
1 Small Avocado, Diced
3 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1 Tablespoon Pineapple Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Red Jalapeno, Seeded and Finely Minced
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Packed Fresh Cilantro, Roughly Chopped
Salt, to Taste

To prepare ceviche, you shouldn’t really need written instructions to break it down, but here goes: Toss everything together in a large bowl except for the salt, cover, and let marinate in the refrigerator for 15 – 30 minutes. Season with salt to taste and serve thoroughly chilled, with crackers if desired.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Cold Noodles For Hot Days

Call it ramen 2.0, or perhaps a limited summer edition of everyone’s favorite noodle. Chilled ramen dishes are nearly as abundant and diverse as hot renditions, but are overwhelmingly underrated, uncelebrated and overlooked, in favor of more familiar preparations. Not all soups must emerge from the kitchen with a plume of steam, nor gently charred and still radiating heat. When it already feels like you’re standing in an oven just by opening up the front door, nothing hits the spot better than a refreshing bowl of ramen on ice, no matter the flavor.

They start out just as before, made of the very same stuff as their hot brethren and cooked in the same fashion. The difference is that after reaching the perfect state of toothsome tenderness, the spry young strands are immediately plunged into a shock of ice-cold water, simultaneously arresting the cooking process and dropping the temperature down quite a few degrees. Expertly guided once again by acclaimed chef and noodle master Philip Gelb, the results were practically instant- But clearly far superior.

Confronted with a bowlful of fresh, naked noodles, the options of embellishment are simply overwhelming. Every Asian culture has their own unique summertime staples that color the humble alkaline noodles with a rainbow of different flavors. Starting simple, the Japanese tsukemen truly allows the delicate nature of this handmade pasta to shine. Plunging mouthfuls into a bowl of deeply savory chilled broth, topped with a light smattering of scallions and a touch of wasabi for a bright finish, each mouthful is an essential experience of cold noodle elegance.

Kongguksu, hailing from Korea, might be the least known ramen preparation in the western world. It is a great shame that its popularity is not more widespread across the states, as it has no equal when it comes to both refreshment and satisfaction. Floating in a sea of homemade soymilk, enriched with sesame and almonds, ramen noodles are treated to a bath of rich, creamy soup. Ice cubes are tossed right into the bowl to keep things cool, through and through, ensuring that the first taste will be just as brilliant as the last. The secret is all in the soy beans, of course. Taking the extra step of removing the hulls creates the most silky texture imaginable. Though tempting, don’t even dream of taking a shortcut and buying prepared soymilk; once you’ve gone through the trouble of making your own ramen, soaking a few beans should be no big deal.

Finally, bringing the heat through bold spices but no actual fire, Szechuan Sesame Noodles are the most intense yet crowd-pleasing way to cool your noodles. Infused with lip-tingling, mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, there is nothing subtle about this dish. It’s an in-your-face, action-packed thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. That intense flavor can be adjusted according to preference, but the whole point of this dish is to make you sweat to maximize the cooling effect. It’s scientifically proven that sweating is actually one of the most effective ways to beat the heat, and this Chinese staple will definitely yield delicious results.

It would be impossible to pick one favorite from these three completely unique takes on the cold ramen noodle. Luckily, Chef Philip was generous enough to offer his recipes for all of them, so you don’t have to choose. Bear in mind that each preparation will need a new batch of ramen noodles and serve about four hungry eaters.

Now there’s no reason you can’t keep your cool this summer, and still do it in good taste.

Ramen Noodles

Bring 2 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Drop in noodles and cook for about 60 seconds. Once the noodles are al dente, rinse in cold water to immediately stop the cooking process.

Japanese Cold Noodle Dipping Sauce

Dipping Sauce:
1 2/3 Cup Kombu Dashi (Seaweed Stock)
1/2 Cup Sake
4 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Palm Sugar

Optional Additions:
Sliced Scallions
Grated Daikon

Wasabi or Karashi (Hot Mustard)

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Set over medium heat, bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Let cool and chill completely before serving. Add in as many of the optional ingredients into the sauce as desired, to taste, or set them out in small bowls for diners to mix into the sauce at will.

Kon Gook Soo / Kongguksu (Cold Soybean Noodle Soup)

1 Cup Dried Soybeans, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
2 Tablespoons Raw Sesame Seeds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
1/4 Cup Raw Almonds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
6 Cups Cold Water
1 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon White Pepper
1 English Cucumber, Julienned
Crushed Ice, as Needed

Cook soybeans in 1 quart of boiling water for 15 minutes. Rinse and drain. Place soybeans in a bowl, fill with water, and gently rub the beans until they split and the hulls come off. The hulls will float to the top and can be easily discarded while draining the water. Remove at least 90% of the hulls.

Add the hulled and drained soybeans to a blender along with the sesame seeds, almonds, and cold water. Puree on high speed for 2 minutes and chill this mixture until very cold. Add salt and pepper, stirring well and adjusting seasonings to taste, as needed.

Divide the cooked noodles between four bowls. Place a handful of ice in each, and top the noodles with sliced cucumber. Pour the soymilk on top and serve immediately.

Cold Szechuan Sesame Noodles

Sesame Sauce:
1/2 Cup Kombu Stock
1/4 Cup Roasted Peanuts
1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 (or More) Fresh Thai Chili
2 Teaspoons Minced Garlic
1 Heaping Teaspoon Szechuan Peppercorns, Toasted
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Dark Chinese Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Palm Sugar
1 Tablespoon Chiankiang Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Minced Fresh Cilantro
1 Tablespoon Szechuan Chili Oil

Garnish:
English Cucumber, Slivered
Scallion, Chopped
Beansprouts

In a blender, add all the sauce ingredients and puree until completely smooth. Chill thoroughly.

To serve, toss together the noodles, sauce, and all of the garnishes desired. Serve immediately.

Each Preparation Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Lazy Day Luxuries

Browsing through the latest issue of a prominent food magazine, the leading sentence of yet another summer recipe round up grabbed me by the throat. Proclaiming August the “laziest month,” it struck me as a particularly bold declaration, forcing me to consider how plausible such a blanket statement might actually be. When else would we, collectively as a workaholic society, sneak out of the office sooner, take longer siestas, or justify more extended weekend adventures? December would be a close contender, but when you factor in the stress of holidays and family obligations, it’s clearly out of the running. Perhaps they’re right; perhaps August does take the cake for stringing together the most laid-back, unhurried days on the calendar.

So, as July inevitably slips through our fingers, it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare to seriously take it slow. I’m all about minimal effort resulting in maximum impact, which is why I can’t get enough of The Blender Girl‘s raw key lime pudding.

It first graced my hot and humid east coast kitchen a number of years ago and has become an annual summer staple ever since. It’s baffling that I somehow neglected to include it in my initial review of her brilliant cookbook, but I suppose I was subconsciously saving it for the more languorous days that best suit the no-muss, no-fuss preparation.

I’ve barely done anything to the original formula, which only goes to show what a solid recipe Tess has concocted here. I’ve never gone out of my way to actually use key limes, and yet it still bears a sprightly, zesty flavor thanks to the balance between standard limes and lemons. I’d venture to say that adding a touch of grapefruit to the party might be a delightfully tangy addition, too. It’s a good thing we have the whole month of August ahead of us- I’ll undoubtedly have many more batches of this refreshing raw treat to experiment with.

Raw “Key Lime” Pudding
Modified slightly from The Blender Girl Cookbook by Tess Masters

1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Lime Juice
1/3 Cup Light Agave Nectar
2 Medium-Sized, Ripe Avocados, Pitted and Peeled
2 Medium-Sized, Ripe Bananas, Chopped
1 Teaspoon Finely Grated Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Finely Grated Lime Zest
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

It’s easy enough to figure out how this one comes together, but in case you need some hand-holding, here’s how it all goes down: Throw everything into your blender and process until completely smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides of the container if needed. Transfer to four individual glasses or ramekins, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, until chilled. Serve the same day to prevent browning.

Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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White as Springtime Snow

White gazpacho has been something of an enigma to me ever since I first learned of its existence. Thick, rich, and creamy, it seemed the absolute antithesis of the light but bold, veggie-packed tomato gazpacho I already knew and loved. Both are chilled soups, but the similarities ended there. Like the differences between spring and summer, it can sometimes be difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins, but it’s as clear as night and day when viewed from a distance.

Deceptively light and refreshing, the paler version of this old school soup is far richer and more satisfying than such a simple preparation would lead you to believe. Perfectly suited to warm, muggy days, but still hearty enough to hold an overwintered appetite in check, it’s the best thing for days betwixt and between two (or three) seasons. I could hardly do such a classic, straightforward recipe as written though- Especially not when the short-lived white asparagus beckoned from nearby grocery shelves. Rather than using stale bread or green grapes to make up the bulk of the base, I opted to feature the subtle vegetal flavor of these precious blonde stalks. Standard green asparagus could make a fine substitute in terms of flavor, but naturally, you’d end up with a green gazpacho instead.

For added flair, freshly plucked violets or other edible flowers are completely optional, but instantly liven up the otherwise monochromatic color palate with style.

White Asparagus Gazpacho

1 Pound White Asparagus, Ends Trimmed
1/2 Cup Sliced or Slivered Almonds
1 Small Shallot, Diced
2 Cloves Roasted Garlic
1 Medium Cucumber, Peeled and Chopped (Seeded if Necessary), Divided (Reserve 1/4 Cup for Garnish)
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 – 3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil or Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 – 1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Stock

Truffle Oil, to Garnish (Optional)
Additional Slivered Almonds, to Garnish

Bring a large stockpot full of water to a boil. Dunk in the prepared asparagus very briefly, for about 1 – 2 minutes, in order to blanch. Drain and immediately immerse the stalks in an ice-water bath to cool them down as quickly as possible and arrest the cooking process. Drain once more and roughly chop before tossing the pieces into your blender. Puree the asparagus along with all of the other ingredients, except for the oil, water, and garnishes. Once smooth, slowly drizzle in the oil while the machine continues to run, to emulsify the mixture. Repeat this process with stock, adding enough until it reaches your desired viscosity. Note that if you make this soup in advance and store it in the fridge, you will likely need to thin it out further after it sits. Serve immediately or chill for a more refreshing, ice-cold soup, and top portions with the reserved chopped cucumber, additional almonds, and truffle oil, if desired.

Serves 4 – 6

Printable Recipe


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Red, White, and Purplish-Blue

An event that never registered much importance on my radar, the 4th of July is a welcome holiday nonetheless. Even if it means the smell of meaty cookouts wafting through the neighborhood all day and little more than an excuse to blow up some fireworks in the evening, it’s a welcome holiday in the long, occasionally monotonous stretch of summer months. Without the mandated gatherings of family and friends, spent largely lazing about outdoors, it’s questionable whether I would take the time to pause and enjoy the season at all. Honestly, for such a casual affair where the star of the show is usually the hotdog or hamburger (hopefully tofu dog and veggie burger!), it hardly seems worth fussing over creating a grand spread.

That’s not to say that I’ve completely written off the Fourth as day that good food forgot, but if you are going to put some effort into your edibles, it may as well be in one simple, small, and non-essential dish. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that some people can get very edgy when you threaten their Independence Day grilling ritual. This little thing I’ve whipped up here? Just consider it a bonus… Which may end up being a bigger hit than the star of the show itself.

Blue potatoes, skin left intact, are diced small and tossed in a dab of avocado or olive oil, finely minced garlic and fresh rosemary before hitting the oven. Roasted at 400 degrees, it only takes about 15 minutes for the little starchy morsels to reach a state of crisp on the outside and tender within. Cool before proceeding.

Pull out some nice glasses, or glass jars, or even clear plastic cups if you’re against doing dishes on this most laissez-faire of gatherings. Spoon a layer of chilled blue potatoes on the bottom, and press down lightly to keep the stripes even. Top your blue potatoes with an equal layer of tofu feta (made with white miso only, please)- Which, unlike actual feta, is not nearly so salty, fatty, or cloying, and thus edible in larger amounts in a single dish without throwing the balance out of whack.

Finally, chop two or three large, ripe tomatoes, remove the seeds, and toss with a handful of finely diced red onion, a touch of salt, and some very thin shreds of fresh basil. Drain if watery, and pile up high for the final stripe. Store in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

Whatever you do, don’t call this a potato salad; Deliver it with the title of Patriotic Potato Verrine, and it’s sure to steal the spotlight.