Meant To Be Broken

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If it already is broken, it might not need fixing in the first place.

Broken rice (Cơm Tấm) is intentionally fractured, not defective. Once upon a time, in the earliest days of milling and manufacturing, it did begin life as the cheaper alternative to pristine long rice, though that’s no longer the case. In fact, it can command a premium price, especially overseas where it’s harder to find. Stumbling upon it randomly while perusing the endless aisles at MT Supermarket, I knew I hit the jackpot.

Contrary to the negative implications that might be associated with a “broken” item, it’s just as nutritious as any other whole grain. In fact, it has the added benefit of cooking more quickly due to the shorter, fragmented pieces.

If you think regular white rice is a brilliant blank canvas for soaking in flavorful sauces, just wait until you break this party up; impossibly porous, this segmented cereal drinks in every last drop like an edible sponge. Soft, sticky, tender yet toothsome, you get the best of all textures in every bite.

You could enjoy it in any other short grain rice recipe for a change of pace, though it’s most popular in Vietnam as street food. Flanked by pork chops, fried egg, meatloaf, pork skin, and sweet fish sauce, you would be hard pressed to find a dish any less vegan.

Rather than attempting to twist this dish into something utterly unrecognizable to accommodate my demands, I was inspired to break up with tradition and try a fresh approach.

Fragrant, subtly sweet, delicate and supple, this exquisite cracked cereal shines with a gentle approach to seasoning. Slightly nutty, warm and toasted, yet also bright and floral with hints of citrus, it’s already quite a prize cooked only in plain water. It would be a grave disservice to the grain if such a wealth of flavor was obscured. Thus, I merely accentuated the natural complexities locked within, adding a touch of sugar, salt, and a few drops of lemongrass oil. Butterfly pea tea (“blue matcha”) provides a bold blue hue, but the rich palate of flavors outshines even that vibrant veneer.

Serve with ripe mango, papaya, peaches, coconut, or any fresh fruit, really. Feel free to experiment! You can’t mess this one up; it’s already broken.

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Finger Licking Good

Growing up, my family was never much for fast food. My parents weren’t food snobs or health nuts, they just saw the value in a sit-down meal at a casual restaurant if we were going to eat out. There were certainly sporadic trips to golden arches on occasion, especially during road trips where alternative options were few and far between. There were no forbidden foods, no deprivation, no unmet cravings; I just never really developed a taste for it.

Only later as an adult did I really come to appreciate the art of fried chicken. Of course, I was already vegan by then, having never sampled the original animal. Though it wasn’t a rule, the only thing that my mom could not abide was a trip to KFC. Emotionally scarred by a hot, greasy summer flipping the bird back as one of her first part-time jobs in her youth, we never paid Colonel Sanders a visit. The details she shared were few and far between, but it’s not hard to imagine how that kind of gig could turn someone against such deep fried delicacies.

I’m still leery of it, not so much for the health aspect, but for the heat, mess, and waste. It’s already sweltering here in central Texas, and it will only get worse. The last thing I need is to steam up the kitchen while redecorating the walls with oily splatter. No thanks! This sounds like a job for the air fryer.

Taking everyone’s favorite, most versatile vegetable, cauliflower stars in this classic comfort food. Coated in a light, crisp batter infused with eleven herbs and spices, the secret formula is one I’m quite happy to divulge. Instead of buttermilk, I use yogurt to add tangy flavor and tenderness, amplified by a splash of lemon juice and balanced by the sweet kiss of maple syrup. It’s a delicate harmony in every bite.

If you’re craving something a bit more meaty, never fear. You can use the same batter to blanket tempeh, tofu, rehydrated soy curls, or any of your favorite chicken alternatives. I can’t lie, I really love using cauliflower because that way, I can still call it “KFC” – Kentucky Fried Cauliflower.

This fresher, lighter, easier rendition won’t leave grease on your hands, but it’s still finger licking good!

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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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