No Bones About It

What’s your go-to Chinese food order? When the menu is as thick as a novel, which section to you flip to first? I find it’s always a struggle to balance cravings for the familiar with the impulse to try something new. Venturing into unknown territory can be risky, but the delicious payoff could be even greater. This is true of any cuisine, but few cover such breadth and depth of different flavors; if you can’t read the original Hanzi, you never know exactly what might land on your plate.

For my family, I could usually predict what would end up on the table, especially if we’re talking about standard Americanized Chinese food. When I was younger and much pickier, it was always a tofu and vegetables in garlicky brown sauce for me. Probably chicken with black bean sauce for my mom, and some sort of stir fried noodle for my sister, hold the vegetables. We most likely got a plastic quart container of wonton soup to share, maybe some fried rice, and extra crispy wonton strips, even though my mom hated how greasy they were.

Scenes like this replay in my mind all through the holiday season. Chinese takeout is an essential part of Christmas to me, this single most important tradition that must be observed every year. While everyone else tore into presents underneath a big evergreen tree, we dug into paper takeout boxes at the kitchen table. Everyone picked at least one dish they wanted most and everything was shared, but the only thing that I never ate was my dad’s choice of boneless spare ribs.

Lurid red and gleaming in the light, I just didn’t understand them. How can ribs be boneless, for one thing, and what gives them such an unearthly color? Unwilling to gamble on the unknown, I stuck with my staples, year in an year out. Only now, as a vegan, avid food explorer, and nostalgic child of the 90’s, have I returned to the concept with insatiable curiosity.

My dad still loves the dish, so there must be something to it. Luckily, bones are not something I ever need to worry about with vegan proteins, taking mystery meat out of the equation entirely. Beet juice is my favorite source of scarlet food color, lending a subtly earthy flavor that harmonizes beautifully with mushroom stock at the same time. Garlic, ginger, and five-spice powder sing out clearly from that savory soy base, creating the signature flavor that truly defines the dish. Soy curls soak in all that flavor in half the time of traditional prep, speeding right through the cooking process with the help of an air fryer.

Most places would pride themselves at having meat so tender that it practically melts in your mouth, but that was not such a selling point for my dad. Even if the food was still blazing hot upon delivery, he would put the whole thing straight into the toaster oven to crisp up the edges. As such, my rendition is on the extra-crispy side, blackened around the edges, super juicy, and thoroughly lacquered with sweet, sticky glaze all over.

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays with your family or just craving this old school staple, these are the boneless spare ribs you wish the local takeout restaurant would make. At least, they’re everything I wanted from the dish, any time of year.

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Peppered with Sweet Presents

Sugar cookies iced with delicate features come to life; chocolate snow caps shake off a light dusting of powdered sugar to reveal cacao crevasses; peanut butter blossoms bloom in the dead of winter. Christmastime is cookie time, and everyone has a favorite. Taste memories are intrinsically linked with these cherished, traditional flavors, which makes it hard to break away and try something new.

What if I told you there was a way to satisfy the craving for nostalgia, while still feeding the desire for adventure? Small twists on established crowd-pleasers make sure that everyone walks away happy. Besides, in the case of my Chocolate Pfeffernüsse, who’s ever complained about adding in some extra chocolate?

German “pepper nuts” are basically soft, anise-forward gingerbread bites with a hint of alluring cardamom that lingers like a sweet memory. Condensing a world of flavors into such small packages, these classic holiday treats are long overdue for a modern revival.

This year, I have Rodelle helping me make that comeback possible. Their extracts and cocoa powder are essential staples in my pantry all year round, but they really shine when it’s time to bring out the very best treats for the holidays. You can taste that quality in every bite thanks to Rodelle Gourmet Cocoa Powder, Vanilla Extract, and Pure Almond Extract here. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t entrust such an important task to any other brand.

As if the boldly re-imagined morsels, blanketed in a powdery sheath of confectioner’s sugar was not enough of a gift, Rodelle has offered to further sweeten one lucky reader’s holiday with a GIVEAWAY!

You’ll be able to bake right along with me using the best possible ingredients. This generous bundle includes (1) 4oz Pure Vanilla Extract, (1) 8oz Gourmet Baking Cocoa, (1) 2oz All-Natural Vanilla Paste, and (1) 2oz Almond Extract. To enter be sure to follow @RodelleVanilla on Instagram, and find more ways to rack up entries below.

Rodelle Baking Bundle Giveaway

Everyone’s a winner here, because you can still enjoy these divine chocolate cookies no matter what. You might want to double the recipe if you plan on sharing, though.

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Nog-Off, 2021

Eggnog is to Christmas what pumpkin spice is to autumn; the flavor that embodies a moment in time, lingering as a taste memory inextricably linked to merriment, lingering with sweet resonance long after the cup has been drained. Originating sometime around the Middle Ages, it was an opulent indicator of wealth, being so laden with expensive spices, sugar, and rich dairy products. Today, as the popularity of eggnog continues to rise, it’s become a widely available indulgence for everyone to enjoy. Greater demand means more options, which follow perfectly in step with an explosive profusion in eggless, milkless nogs.

Oat milk has forever changed the dairy-free landscape which means that this year, we have more vegan options than ever to raise a glass with. Clearly, we’re due for another Nog-Off.

For this fiercely festive showdown between heavyweights, we have fourteen contenders in the ring. Both the bottom and top selections from the previous round have bowed out, setting the scene for a fierce battle on a level playing field.

I soon found myself drowning in a sea of nog. Mercifully, there are no complete losers in this game, and I wouldn’t be upset to have any of these cartons in my fridge again. Different situations call for different drinks, however, so I thought it would be best to break it down accordingly.

Probably the Same Product: Natural By Nature Oat Nog and Sprouts Oatmilk Nog. I noticed after judging, they both had the same lurid yellow color which was notable by itself. Flipping them over to compare labels, the nutritional facts matched exactly, as did the ingredients. Oops. The only difference? Sprouts’ costs $1.50 less.

Most Like Coffee Creamer: Milkadamia Veggnog. The only commercial macadamia nut nog in existence, it’s exceptionally smooth and rich but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was drinking French Vanilla coffee creamer. There’s not a hint of spices nor eggy flavor to speak of. You could doctor them with an extra pinch of nutmeg for an instant fix, but they’re not winning awards straight out of the container. Strikingly, I found this more suitable than the actual coffee creamer made by Nutpods, which is unsweetened and flat out bland.

Most Natural: Fronks Vegan Eggnog. If you want every ingredient to count, you can absolutely taste it in this blend of whole foods. Cashews, almonds, and dates are the foundation, lightly kissed by a touch of cinnamon and cardamom, for a more nuanced spice blend. It tastes pure and fresh because it is! Made by hand in small batches for local distribution, it’s the closest you can get to homemade without pulling out a blender.

Best for Sipping Solo: Califia Holiday Nog Almondmilk. Light but not watery, rich yet low in calories, I could drink this one all day long without any trouble. Thank goodness it also happens to come in the largest bottle of all, with a total of twelve half-cup servings.

Best with Booze: Chobani Oat Nog. Coming from a long line of oat milks and creamers, it should come as no surprise that this thick oat blend is perfectly engineered to balance out the bold, sometimes harsh edge of rum, bourbon, or brandy without tasting watered down. Also, it has a notable malted, toasted, earthy flavor that would harmonize beautifully with additional spirits.

Most innovative: Good Karma Holiday Nog. Allergens, who? Made with cold-pressed organic flax, this is the nog for everyone. No nuts, no soy, no funny business. While it doesn’t carry the same weight as genuine eggnog, for that same reason, it’s exceptionally drinkable and even refreshing.

Best for Baking: So Delicious Coconut Milk Holiday Nog. The last remaining coconut option on the list, this nog has a powerful, candy-like sweetness that puts it squarely in dessert territory. Strong seasonings ensure that it won’t just fall into the background like any other non-dairy milk if employed to make festive cupcakes, cheesecakes, and more.

Best on a Budget: Trader Joe’s O’Nog. The most affordable option on this list, one generous quart will only set you back $2.99. Every dollar counts when budgeting for holiday gifts, and the most expensive option on this list, by contrast, will set you back $12.99 for a pint.

Best for Most People: Good & Gather Oatmilk Holiday Nog. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if there was only one nog I could celebrate the holidays with, to take back home to my family and impress the widest range of palates, after much deliberation, I think it has to be… The Target house brand. I’m still struggling with such a shocking outcome. It’s not the best of all categories, as is made clear above, but those mad food scientists managed to hit the ideal balance that could appeal to the widest audience. Spiced gently, sweet but not sugary, rich but not cloying, it stands out by virtue of… Not standing out.

It’s both a relief and a disappointment that there’s no clear winner, standing tall above all the noise. I wish it was such an easy judgement, but that means it’s hard to go wrong. Where ever you are, whatever you have access to, you can pour yourself a glass of holiday cheer. Isn’t that the real meaning of a Nog-Off?

When all else fails, don’t forget, it’s not so hard to make your own from scratch, too.

What is your personal favorite here? Is there a local specialty in your neck of the woods that would have swept the floor with these national brands? Leave me a comment, and maybe next year, they’ll make it into the rematch!

En Croûte, En Vogue

Once upon a time, in a land far away, vegans everywhere could only force a smile while staring down a plate of steamed green beans with cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve. Before Tofurky was a household name, before seitan worship was accepted in society, we had precious little to celebrate during the festive meal. Now, surrounded by such a wealth of meatless options that are even winning over omnivores, it seems like we’ve suddenly woken up from a bad dream.

It’s easy to find a worthy centerpiece that will satisfy any crowd, but for the best, most memorable feast, it all starts with umami. The so-called “fifth taste” that makes plant-based foods taste impossibly meaty is what Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms are best known for. Rather than just focusing on pure protein, nuance and seasoning takes a merely good recipe and makes it truly great.

Slowly rehydrated overnight for maximum depth of flavor, Sugimoto shiitake are blended into a creamy pâté enriched with toasted walnuts and aromatic fresh herbs. Additional nuts are mixed back in for texture, punctuating each bite with a satisfying crunch. The earthy and wild flavors almost remind me of chopped liver associated with Passover, which could be a game-changer this spring. Such an elegant spread would be enough to serve chilled with toast as a compelling appetizer, but we’re not going to stop there. For the winter holidays, we’re going all out.

Encase anything in a layer of buttery, flaky pastry for an instantly elevated experience. Frozen puff pastry makes this pro move deceptively simple, considering the stunning results. Most people make moves towards Beef Wellington for a showstopping main dish, which is also known in french as Boeuf en Croûte. en Croûte simple means, “in pastry,” don’t you know?

While many renditions use a basic shortcrust, more like classic pie dough, I prefer the laminated layers of puff pastry, draped alluringly in a faux braid across this decadent filling. Don’t be daunted; it comes together in minutes once you take the plunge and get started. It’s easier than wrapping up Christmas presents, but still tastes like a gift.

Dressed up with all the sides and fixings or pared down to solo slices, every serving will dazzle guests. Though boldly savory and lavished with garlic, fresh sage, and thyme, it fits seamlessly into every menu, whether you prefer cornbread stuffing or mac and cheese, mashed potatoes or candied yams, roasted Brussels sprouts or green bean casserole. Don’t forget extra gravy on the side.

Absolutely no one will ask about turkey, glazed ham, or otherwise with this meatless marvel gracing the table. Best of all, it also reheats beautifully the next day, if you can manage to hide some away for leftovers.

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