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

Printable Recipe

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Fountain of Youth

In a business as ruthless and cut-throat as the restaurant industry, it’s a well known fact that few fledgling establishments survive beyond a single year. Such depressing statistics are far from shocking when you consider the cost of rent, rising prices for food, and aggressive competition on all sides. That makes the longevity of a place like St. Francis Fountain truly remarkable, speaking volumes of the menu, of course, but also the fiercely loyal following it’s created over the past one hundred years in operation. Yes indeed, first opened in 1918, this little slice of Americana has beaten the odds for a century, with no signs of fading away.

It’s the kind of place where some things never change. Wooden booths where young lovers and families of many generations alike convene over classic breakfast fare, no matter the time of day. Nostalgic signage lines the walls, bearing such endearing statements like “we’re glad you’re here” that you can’t help but believe their genuine sincerity. The relentless march of time is evident in the menu, however. The option to have a milkshake made with soy gelato, or scramble platter swapping eggs for tofu, was probably not part of the original plan.

While it’s true, you will find toast in ample supply here, it’s a far cry from the $9 avocado creations assembled for Instagram notoriety; rather, they’re the default side dish to all savory entrees, toasted dry, with a side of vegan butter on the side for all who wish to remain dairy-free. Sourdough seems mandatory for such a classic San Francisco institution, no matter the pairing. In this case, roughly crumbled chunks of tofu slathered in a mild ranchero sauce will cure what ails you, sauteed with as many (or as few) vegetables as your heart desires, scrambled to taste.

Best known for a quirky dish that’s offered as a side but eats like a full meal, the “Nebulous Potato Thing” defies definition, which is part of the appeal. A mountainous pile of hash browns, crisped on the outside, tender and buttery on the inside, arrive at the table like a gustatory challenge. Even the half portion is immense, enough to satiate any reasonable eater for a full day. Spicy pico de gallo is crowned with a generous dollop of creamy guacamole for the vegan version at no extra charge. In this day and age when just the green fruit alone can command sky-high prices, this just may be the bargain of the century.

Like any greasy spoon worth its griddle, pancakes flip onto plates in a diverse palate of fruit flavors. Banana walnut is a real winner, yielding large chunks of toasted nuts and sweet banana in every forkful. Granted, the syrup isn’t pure maple, but it suits the venue for its no-frills, unpretentious sensibility.

Though not explicitly stated, the chocolate egg cream, arguably one of the greatest obscure soda fountain staples, can still get its fizz on with a quick soymilk swap. This may be the only place in the city, if not the entire west coast, willing to serve up this slice of childhood sweetness for alternative eaters. Even if you wake up late, don’t sleep on this option.

Limited hours preclude it from being the late-night haunt of many stoners’ dreams, but every morning, seven days a week, St. Francis Fountain consistently delivers the hits to soothe the hungover and the heartbroken, to feed the community, body and soul.

It’s hard to say what might be coming out of the kitchen in another hundred years from now, but based on its track record, I’d sure like to think that it will be hot, comforting, and easily veganized.

St. Francis Fountain
2801 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

New Year, New Stew

Rubbing the sleep from our eyes as sunlight floods the room, still slightly subdued from last night’s festivities, we all wake to greet the new year: Welcome, 2018! Ripe with potential, the days ahead unfurl before us, bright and gleaming like gems, a treasure to discover along the way.

Encouraged to seize this opportunity for personal renewal, the temptation to reinvent oneself is strong. We’re encouraged to set lofty goals for a “new year, new you.” The hype has grown considerably quieter over the years, thankfully, but still it persists. I’m here right now to say that if you’re still feeling tempted by those invasive marketing tactics, you’re not alone, but you’re already good enough. Smart enough. Pretty enough. Fit enough. Kind enough. If you’re even considering what you’d like to improve about yourself, you’re thoughtful and motivated and intelligent enough to make it happen, if that’s what you really want. But you don’t need to, and you don’t need to pretend to, if you don’t. You’re exactly the same person you were before the sun set last night and the ball dropped at midnight, and that’s exactly who you need to be. You are already the best YOU out there. DON’T throw it all away in an attempt to start with a “new” you all over again.

Understand that in all honesty, I’m saying this as much for you as I am for me, because sometimes it’s easier to see the goodness in others than yourself. That doesn’t detract from my conviction in those words, but further strengthens the sentiment. If you can start to see positivity and have a more optimistic perspective of your world, you can manifest that same light, too.

Motivational pep talk out of the way, let’s move full steam ahead into the best year yet, shall we? Embark on this new journey forward with something hearty, soul-soothing, and utterly effortless in case holiday revelry is still ringing in your ears.

Murky gruel the color of swamp water is typically the defining characteristic of split pea soup, but beneath the surface lies true inner beauty. Mixing in frozen sweet peas at the very end brightens up the situation considerably, lending both fresh pops of pigmentation and flavor. Unlike most bean soups, no soaking is necessary to tenderize the legumes, cooking quickly into an instantly an creamy, thick stew.

Simple Split Pea Soup

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Small Red Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Medium Sweet Potato, Peeled and Diced
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Cup Split Green Peas
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 Tablespoon Fresh Rosemary, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Cup Frozen Green Peas
Salt, to Taste

Heat your pressure cooker on the sauté setting and add the oil. Add the onion and garlic, cooking until translucent and aromatic; about 6 or 7 minutes. Add in the sweet potato, soy sauce, split peas, vegetable stock, paprika, rosemary, and pepper, stir to incorporate, and lock in the lid.

Once sealed, cook on High Pressure for 18 minutes. Let stand for 3 minutes longer before opening the valve to release the remaining pressure.

Stir in the frozen peas (no need to thaw in advance) and season with salt to taste. Give the mixture a vigorous stir to further break up the split peas for a thicker, smoother texture, if desired.

To make this soup on the stove top, without a pressure cooker, simple cover and simmer on low heat for 35 – 45 minutes instead.

Makes 3 to 4 Servings

Printable Recipe

Sunshine on a Cloudy Debate

The backlash was so swift and violent, it surprised me, even after years of studiously avoiding any and all comment sections. Immediately, cries of injustice came from the purists; lectures spouted from the health-fanatics; doubts, bordering on outright disgust, resounded among picky eaters the world over.

Risotto made from sunflower seeds? What sort of heresy was this? How could you even call it such a thing, lacking grains entirely, traditional or alternative, and smacking of trendy food revelry? Besides, think of the nutrition!

It wasn’t until I read these complaints, numerous and increasingly frenzied, did I stop to consider how controversial the concept may be. We’ve seen endless twists on classic dishes at this point, spinning some brittle concepts well beyond their breaking point and still happily eating the pieces afterwards. Was this recipe really so malicious?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was simply enchanted. The point that these curmudgeonly commenters missed was that the motive was always to put flavor first. Sunflower seeds have been the backbone of many delicious concoctions, and it’s incredible to see their texture wholly transformed by merely cooking, soaking, or toasting them, to say nothing of the corresponding alchemy of taste. Slowly simmered with aromatics, they soften to a toothsome bite, not quite like rice, granted, but something else genuinely worthy of savoring.

Just the thought of featuring sunflower seeds, an often undervalued bit player, brightened my day, informing my inspiration for the completed meal to come. Naturally sweet, gently earthy carrot juice and turmeric lend a cheerful golden hue, blending with a small measure of the seeds to yield its own creamy base, no dairy need apply. Spring produce still holds sway over my mind and appetite right now, but with summer vegetables already on their way, I’m now plotting the next plate with crisp steamed green beans, halved cherry tomatoes, and perhaps grilled corn kernels instead. It really doesn’t take much to brighten anyone’s day with a comforting bowlful of this avant-garde risotto. Just don’t spoil it by listening to the haters.

Sunshine Risotto

1 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Small Shallots, Finely Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Cups Raw Sunflower Seeds
Zest and Juice of 1 Lemon
2 Cups 100% Carrot Juice
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
1/4 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
Salt, to Taste
1/2 Cup Fresh or Frozen Peas, Thawed
Finely Chopped Chives
1/2 Pound Asparagus, Trimmed, (Halved if Particularly Thick) and Blanched

Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. When it begins to shimmer, add in the shallots and saute until translucent. Introduce the garlic next, stirring well and cooking until lightly golden and highly aromatic. Toss in the sunflower seeds, stir gently but consistently for about 5 minutes before following with the lemon zest and juice, carrot juice, and vegetable stock. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 35 – 45 minutes. The seeds should be tender but still toothsome; al dente, if you will.

Transfer 1/2 cup of the seed mixture to your blender along with the coconut milk, nutritional yeast, miso paste, pepper, and turmeric. Thoroughly puree to achieve a silky, golden custard. Fold this cream back into the main mixture, cook on low for just 2 – 4 minutes longer until piping hot and the puree has slightly thickened to luxuriously coat the whole seeds.

Add salt to taste, if needed. Ladle onto plates, top with peas and chives, and serve with asparagus alongside.

Makes 2 – 4 Servings (2 as an Entree, 4 as a Side)

Printable Recipe

Take It Easy

Clear, defining factors that separate Creole from Cajun cuisine are difficult to tease out of each bubbling hell-broth of boiling gumbo, but the difference between typical low country cooking and the offerings at Easy Creole are unmistakable. Born on the bayou, seafood is practically synonymous with the traditional fare, and a love of wild game means that no offal is too awful for inclusion. Uprooting the concept and bringing it to Northern California, this one-of-a-kind kitchen populates half of the menu with entirely vegan options. Though an unthinkable compromise to some, it takes only a taste to realize that no concessions are made when it comes to the underlying flavor, heart, or soul.

Original inventions like Thai Peanut Etouffee meet classic Mahattan Maque Choux or Mushroom Stroganoff, all on the same plate and served over white or brown rice. Unfamiliar with these bold compositions? Don’t be shy, just ask for a taste! Unfailingly friendly servers readily dish out samples, as if doling out tasting spoons at an ice cream parlor, until you strike upon the perfect stew to suit your mood.

An endlessly evolving menu brings a new excuse to drop by every day, but makes it difficult to recommend any particular dish, for fear of heartbreak or disappointment. Luckily, a few of my favorites have proven to be returning staples, enjoyed on many occasions in the past and no doubt many more to come.

Spinach and Mushroom Etouffee is a personal favorite, a creamy and deeply savory combination that hits all the right notes when I’m craving a bite of comfort. It’s a dish that can pull me out of the house at a moment’s notice, as soon as it appears on Easy Creole’s Instagram feed. Considering how often I fall victim to that siren song, perhaps it would be wise to stop following that endless stream of temptation. That said, falling into that delicious trap time and again over the course of two years has yet to disappoint.

Most medleys are quite mild, designed to accommodate for all tastes and all hot sauce preferences, of which the choices are downright mind-boggling. Over two dozen bottles of fire water populate each table, right alongside a generous shaker of nutritional yeast. You know you’re in the right place when you see those golden yellow flakes in ample supply, mixed in with the other condiments as if it was no big deal. Though the cheese and sour cream toppings are out, raw onions are always a good choice to add crunch and cut through the richness of any of the luscious, rich stews. Don’t forget to finish the meal with a side of perfectly crisp garlic bread, satisfyingly greasy in all the right ways.

One constant, at least, is dessert. Dairy-free Rice Pudding is served chilled year-round, spiked with unexpected flecks of citrus; a zesty contrast to the predictable cinnamon-spiced approach. Fruits may vary, but expect soft stewed apples or simmered raisins in most cases. Dive in with an open mind and don’t sweat the details. As promised by the restaurant’s name, it’s easy to fall in love with.

Easy Creole
1761 Alcatraz Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Copper-Plated

All that glitters isn’t gold, but if you’re lucky, it might just be copper. If that sounds like a bum deal at first glance, then you haven’t yet experienced the glory of copper cookware. Renowned for its ability to retain heat and distribute it evenly across the surface of any food, not to mention its undeniable aesthetic attraction, it’s easy to see why copper is the real gold standard for professional chefs. It’s also about as expensive as 24 karats, which is why these gleaming pans are rarely seen outside of the most elite professional kitchens.

That is, until now. Copper Chef is bringing this beautiful vessel to the masses, in gleaming non-stick square pans that boast incredible versatility far beyond the traditional format. The catch is that they’re not actually copper through and throught; copper-coated aluminum with a steel induction plate is a more accurate, albeit less alluring description. Though skeptical of the grand claims made by “As Seen On TV” products, I still couldn’t resist the offer to give them a trial by fire.

No matter what these gleaming pans are made of, color me impressed. With or without a protective layer of oil, not a single thing stuck to the surface, which meant that cleanup afterward was a breeze, too. With capabilities that go far beyond a standard sauté or stir fry, the full set includes a brilliant square stand for steaming, as well as a perfectly fitted mesh basket to facilitate effortless frying. The less traditional square shape may be a detractor for some, but I can only see more opportunities here, as these pans can actually be used as fully functional baking dishes as well. That’s right- You can bake your brownies in the same saucepan that you prepared dinner in! For anyone on a tight spatial budget in a tiny apartment kitchen, the incredible benefits of being able to consolidate pans needs no further explanation.

Almost as soon as I got my hands on this lovely cookware, I knew exactly how to put them to the test: baked mac and cheese. Not just any stove top instant mac, of course, but a fully baked, one-pot rendition, completed with only the Copper Chef pan in service. Turns out that my trial was no challenge at all, resulting in a beautifully baked slab of cheesy, gooey mac and cheese with a crisp breadcrumb crust on top after the first attempt. Looking back on it even now, it seems absurd that it could have been so easy; no boiling or draining water, no transferring slippery noodles into a casserole dish, no whisking sauce separately with all burners firing.

The quest for the perfect mac and cheese is never-ending, but I would implore you to give this one a trial by fire. I doubt you’ll find a baked rendition that’s altogether so quick, easy, and deeply satisfying. For all the shortcuts it takes in preparation, there are no concessions made to taste.

One-Pan Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil (Optional)
1/2 Cup Diced Onion
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tapioca Starch
4 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (1 8-Ounce Package) Shredded Vegan Cheddar
1 Pound Penne Pasta (Uncooked)
3 – 4 Cups Broccoli Florets

Breadcrumb Topping:

2 Slices (About 1 Ounce Each) White or Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, Toasted and Crumbled
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Copper Chef pan over medium heat and begin to heat the oil, if using. It’s not necessary to prevent sticking, but to add a touch more richness to the finished dish. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sautéing until translucent and aromatic. Stir in the miso paste and mustard, and sprinkle the tapioca starch evenly across the top. Try to avoid dropping it in just one place to prevent clumps.

Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk of your choice while stirring continuously. Cover the pan loosely and allow the liquid to come just to the brink of a boil. Uncover, reduce the heat to medium-low, add in the cheddar shreds, stirring and simmering gently until melted. Finally, introduce the pasta and broccoli, mixing thoroughly to incorporate and distribute all of the goodies throughout. Let simmer, undisturbed, for about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together all of the ingredients for the breadcrumb topping except for the fresh parsley. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top, and very carefully move the pan into the oven. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Top with the parsley and serve hot!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe