Totopos por Todos

In the same spirit of equally amorphous concepts like salads and curries, basically anything you throw on top of tortilla chips can be considered nachos. In fact, many further blur the lines with alternative bases like pita chips or potato chips, deftly dancing across cultural boundaries with ease.

Unlike the aforementioned culinary abstractions, nachos can trace their lineage directly to one single innovator. Mr. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maître d’ of Club Victoria in Piedras Negras, Mexico was not even a chef, but a tirelessly hospitable host. When, in 1943, a group arrived at the restaurant and the cook was no where to be found, he leapt into action. Piling up what scant ingredients he could find, the towering plate of tortilla chips topped with sliced jalapeños and melted cheese was an instant hit. Named for the man of the moment, the Nachos Especiales, would forever change the way that Mexicans, Americans, and the world at large, ate their chips.

There’s no one “right” or “best” way to make nachos; they’re the ultimate blank slate, infinitely adaptable to your personal tastes. Though it defies the conventionally accepted definition, even the chips are variable, if you’d rather a base of fries or tots. Personally, I must insist that some form of cheese or queso is mandatory, but from there, just a few ideas for toppings include…

  • guacamole or diced avocado
  • pico de gallo
  • shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • fresh spinach
  • fresh or grilled corn
  • roasted red peppers
  • halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • whole pinto or black beans
  • re-fried beans
  • sliced black olives
  • fresh or pickled jalapeño
  • fresh or pickled red onions
  • meatless grounds
  • pulled jackfruit
  • crumbled tofu
  • sour cream or cashew crema
  • hot sauce
  • pepitas
  • scallions
  • cilantro
  • fresh lime juice

That’s not even the half of it. Think about the possibilities for a breakfast variant, and even sweet options for dessert nachos! Given the endless choices, what are your go-to’s?

Flipping the Bird

When I was a kid, the closest thing I ever had to fried chicken was the sporadic nugget or tenders at Friendly’s, eaten as the obligatory protein that would unlock the gates to dessert. Meat was never a feature for me, so I had no problem making the switch to veganism, even in those early days when eating the plant-based alternative meant whipping up a pot of beans. Things sure have changed in recent years, accelerated by technological advances and the quickening drumbeat of climate change. It’s not just the compassionate choice, but simply the most sensible one for the planet.

That’s all to say that I’m fortunate enough to have expanded my palate since going vegan so many years ago. Rather than feeling the constraints of a restrictive diet, pledging to try anything plant-based has opened up my eyes to a bold new world of food, quite literally. Though fried chicken isn’t exactly the pinnacle of culinary achievement, it’s still quite a marvel to behold, for the beautiful simplicity of the art form.

Shatteringly crisp, a properly fried, greaseless crust should give way to quick, sharp bite, revealing tender, juicy flesh within. Meaty, but not sinewy, firm but yielding to the tooth, that texture is where 90% of the experience lives or dies- And in this case, nothing should have to die to fulfill that craving. Some are made of soy, some gluten, others pea protein, and still others use a combination approach to achieve plant-based prowess. Luckily, my only intolerance is to animal cruelty, so Austin is my vegan oyster when it comes to exploring these deep-fried delights.

Stunned by the breadth and depth of options suddenly at my disposal, I decided to embark on a noble quest to find the best vegan fried chicken in this fair city. Even as I ate, watching the plates pile up, even more restaurants opened with hot and fresh new options. Thus, this critique is forever a work in progress. At this rate, seeking out vegan fried chicken may soon become as relevant as hunting down vegan hummus; though it’s possible to go astray, you’d have to try very hard to mess that one up.

This is far from an exhaustive list, presented in no particular order; the rapidly evolving restaurant scene makes it impossible to keep a complete catalog of options. Rather, it’s my little black book of favorites, featuring plant-based renditions to do proper justice to the breaded bird. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve excluded fully vegetable-centric versions, buffalo wings, and barbecue, focusing on complete proteins, simply seasoned and fried only.

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Bread So Nice, I Made It Thrice

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.

-Pablo Picasso

Adversity gives us perspective; despair informs our joy. Without suffering, we would never know what it means to be truly happy. Human nature is to avoid pain, which is a general approach I would advocate for, too, but sometimes the greatest victories rise from the ashes, like the phoenix reborn.

Much has been said about the devastation wreaked by the impossible winter storm here in Texas. It’s not what I imagined for my first winter in the deep south, that’s for sure. The experience has left a mark, visibly inside flooded and now moldy apartments across the state, and mentally, still haunting nightmares and wakeful moments alike. To be honest, I’m not quite over it yet, and I was one of the lucky ones. I lost power for three days, while temperatures plummeted into the single digits, and water for six. Melting snow in the fireplace to have water to drink and dredging out the pool to flush the toilet weren’t exactly the survival skills I was taught as a girl scout. I would have likely frozen to death if not for the endlessly kind friends within my orbit. From a swashbuckling rescue across the ice-slicked tundra, gliding through the black of night under dark traffic lights, to the seemingly small offer of a warm shower, I owe these people so much.

Which is why I made them all bread.

For the first loaf, it was a matter of what I could piecemeal from a kitchen that wasn’t mine, that could be reasonably fabricated without fancy equipment. Homemade bread, soft and tender, aromatic and still warm from the oven, is a simple pleasure that everyone can appreciate. It transcends the question of sweet or savory, avoids the pitfalls of expensive ingredients, yet tastes like love itself in every bite. Thick-cut, chewy rolled oats give body to this simple sandwich bread, adding just enough interest to make it a treat without further embellishment. That said, it’s at the peak of perfection when toasted and smeared with a fat knob of vegan butter.

The loaf was further refined with a second run, rising to even loftier heights with more patience and experience. Again, the company and context added a certain seasoning that mass-produced baked goods could never have. Bread is a living thing, you know; it’s like a pet that you must nurture and train with equal parts kindness and respect.

Only when I finally returned to my own kitchen did I finally master the art. For something that started as a throwaway formula, not even written down, it became a highly sought-after prize, with inquiries about the recipe coming in left and right. So, in case you were one of the lovely people following my harrowing journey on Instagram or Facebook, thank you. This last loaf is for you.

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Let the Good Times, and Rice Balls, Roll

Get your favorite fat pants on and pull up a chair; it’s almost time for Fat Tuesday! You never need an excuse to indulge, but Mardi Gras is the best excuse to splurge on rich Cajun and Creole fare. No need to repent with fasting and self-denial for Lent, as per the Catholic tradition, though. When you’re eating plant-based, even the most lavish feast can be rationalized as a “healthier” choice. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself when I reach for a third, fourth, and maybe fifth round of fried jambalaya.

Italians would call them arancini, but it just hits different when you say it with a southern twang. Plump, sticky sushi rice is slowly simmered with the holy trinity, tomatoes, garlic, and a powerful punch of savory spices. Morsels of meatless sausage meld with the mixture for a substantial, satisfying bite. It’s a complete meal in one convenient, crispy package.

Dip, dunk, or plate the sizzling hot spheres with creamy remoulade sauce, tangy and punchy, spiked with vinegar and hot sauce to really get the party started. Go all out with a dollop of scallion pesto on top, or for a simpler finishing touch, sprinkle on plain scallions generously and call it a day.

With such bold flavors condensed into these tiny packages, you couldn’t ask for anything else… Except, maybe, one more helping.

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Cornball Humor

Bestowing the title of “Crunchiest Snack Ever” on any single tidbit makes a big statement, especially when that honor comes from Whole Foods Magazine. While the exact criteria for judging such a lofty achievement remains undefined, the fact is that Love Corn is a resoundingly crisp, crackling, munchable savory treat.

For something as simple as fresh corn, salt, and oil, these little morsels make a big impact. There’s no denying that signature crunchy texture, but the underlying flavor is just as noteworthy. Naturally sweet like peak harvest summer corn, accentuated with just the right touch of salinity, even most plain variety packs a punch.

Designed to be eaten out of hand as a healthier alternative to chips or crackers, where Love Corn really shines is in the kitchen, and on the dinner table. Since I could easily pound a full package out of hand, it’s much more gratifying to spread that enjoyment throughout a number of meals. Toss those crunchy kernels into salads instead of bland croutons for an instant upgrade, or top baked potatoes for a crunchy change of pace.

In a pinch, they’ve turned into my mealtime saviors too, rehydrating beautifully in soups and stews, filling the gaps when the produce bin is empty and local corn harvests are still months away. Of course, things get really exciting when you consider the broader flavor options: BBQ, Habanero, and Salt & Vinegar varieties are like built-in flavor bombs with their own seasoning packets. Drop in a pouch and watch any entree come to life. Instant black bean and habanero corn taco filling, anyone? How about BBQ corn chili? Once you start looking at these compact kernels more as meal starters, it’s hard to go back to boring old canned corn.

That’s where the inspiration for these Elote Hush Puppies came from. Looking for a way to use up the last handful of cornmeal in the pantry, it struck me that these little flavor nuggets would be an ideal inclusion on this twisted southern side dish. Traditionally made from a simple corn-based batter, the classic approach is essentially deep-fried cornbread. Bumping up the spices and topping these crispy bites with tofu cotija, however, elevates them to a whole new level.

Taking a page from my favorite Mexican street food, elotes, they’re served alongside vegan mayo for that essential creamy, decadent experience. Technically, I suppose it might be considered esquites since the kernels are cut off the cob, but it’s all done in the same spirit. The combination of cheesy, spicy flavors with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy crumb is utterly irresistible. If you thought that Love Corn was already addictive, you’ll have to be careful with these puppies.

I’m all about spreading the love, so to help you whip up your first batch, I’m thrilled to share a free sample of Love Corn to everyone! You can snag a taste of each flavor when you cover $2.99 for shipping. Now there’s no excuse for settling for subpar snacks.

Whether you crunch right in and eat them straight or use them in grander culinary creations, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Love Corn. At least, I know I did!

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Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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