What’chu Takuan About?

To most Americans, it’s that strange yellow thing in vegetable sushi. Salty, crunchy, and plant-based, it’s otherwise unidentifiable. Those in the know will recognize them as tsukemono, aka “pickled things,” or more specifically oshinko, which is a pickle made with salt. Daikon radish, a woefully under appreciated vegetable, gets to play the leading role here, slowly morphing from bright white to a luminous shade akin to saffron.

All it takes is time, and lots of it. Traditionally, daikon are sun-dried for a few weeks before ever seeing brine, where they then ferment for months. That process alone creates the signature golden hue, although most manufacturers today take shortcuts. Artificial coloring is used liberally, in addition to chemical preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. These practices are so widespread that few people even know what proper takuan should taste like.

There’s no going back once you cross that line. Ever since getting a bite of authentic takuan, pickled from sun-dried daikon grown in Miyazaki, mass-produced takuan have been ruined for me. It’s impossible to replicate that distinctive crunch, subtly nutty undertone, gentle sweetness, and gently tart flavor. The seasonings serve to enhance the natural flavor of the daikon, rather than cover it up. Like an addict, I’m forever chasing that same high.

“Simple” doesn’t always equate to “easy,” and while it requires little labor, summoning the patience for these pickles to properly mature can be more difficult than the most complex preparation. Ideally, you should set aside two to four full weeks to achieve the proper texture and flavor using traditional methods. Time is the ultimate secret ingredient that no machines can replicate and no amount of money can buy. That said, modern technology can help a good deal; use a dehydrator to expedite the process if you’re worried about leaving food out in the open for that long, don’t have ideal conditions for drying, or just want to get down to the good stuff sooner.

Rich in natural probiotics, takuan is good for your gut, too! No proper Japanese meal is complete without a few slices to contrast with a rich entree, cutting through heavier tastes with a clean, crisp palate cleanser. Once you’ve had the real deal, there’s no going back.

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Jam Session

Tomatoes are the calling card of summer. Plump, red orbs growing heavier on their vines with every passing day, they tease in shades of green and yellow as they slowly ripen. Gradually darkening like rubies glistening in the sun, suddenly, they’re all ready for harvest at once. It’s now or never; grab them by the fistful or regret your mistake for another year. If you don’t take advantage, hungry critters stalking your garden surely will.

That’s how even a modest plot of land can drown a single person in tomatoes. Big or small, standard or heirloom, it’s sheer bliss for the first few days. Then, after a couple rounds of tomato salads, tomato soups, tomato sauces, and tomato juice, tomatoes may begin to lose their shine.

Don’t let it get to that stage. Take your tomatoes while they’re still new and fresh, concentrate them down to a rich, umami-packed tomato jam and you’ll never grow tired. Burning through two whole pounds right off the bat may feel like a sacrifice, but it’s a wise strategy in the long run. There’s going to be plenty more to come to enjoy every which way, without ever reaching your upper limit of enjoyment.

What Does Tomato Jam Taste Like?

A little bit sweet, a little bit savory, I do use sugar in my recipe but not nearly as much as with berry or other fruit jams. It should be just enough to balance and heighten the other inherent flavors. A touch of jalapeño adds a subtly spicy bite, which you could omit or double, depending on your heat-seeking sensibilities.

How To Make Tomato Jam Your Own

  • Use half or all tomatillos instead of tomatoes
  • Increase the garlic; there’s no such thing as too much
  • Instead of jalapeño, use sriracha, smoked paprika, gochujang, or harissa to spice things up
  • Swap the apple cider vinegar for balsamic or red wine vinegar

What Can I Use Tomato Jam On?

The only limiting factor is your creativity! A few of my favorite uses include:

  • Avocado toast
  • Sandwiches or wraps
  • Hot pasta or pasta salads
  • Swirled into creamy soups
  • On a cheeseboard
  • As a burger topping
  • Used for dipping alongside or on top of hummus

How Long Will Tomato Jam Keep?

While this jam isn’t properly canned and thus not shelf stable, you can preserve the harvest by storing it in your freezer for up to 6 months.

You don’t actually need to grow your own tomatoes to make tomato jam, by the way. Store-bought tomatoes taste just as sweet- And savory.

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Macha, Macha, Wo/Man

I distinctly remember my first encounter with salsa macha because it was a completely confounding experience. Staring at this strange, violently red jar of oily seeds, it was introduced to me as “seed salsa.” Up to that point, “salsa” had only been used to describe mixtures of finely minced vegetables, sometimes fruits, accompanying Mexican food. Usually tomato-based, fresh and punchy, I couldn’t connect the dots between that condiment and this one.

Taking the tiniest spoonful to test the waters, I watched rivulets of glistening toasted seeds ooze down my plate, soaking into everything it touched. One bite, and I was hooked. Instantly regretting that timid serving, I bellied up to the bar again and again, dousing my entire meal until my lips tingled and my nose turned red from the heat. It’s the good kind of pain the unlocks all sorts of endorphins, creating an undeniably addictive experience.

The allure owes something about the combination of textures and tastes, with toothsome, crunchy seeds tumbled together in this slick miasma of fiery, nutty, tangy oil. It doesn’t sound like it should work on paper, but it exceeds all expectations in real life. Suspend doubt long enough to give it a try, stop trying to put it to words; you’ll understand in an instant.

What is salsa macha?

Consider it Mexican chili crisp; spicy, savory, and impossibly addictive. Salsa macha is an oil-based condiment that goes with just about everything. It was born in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Oaxaca. As one might guess, the name is derived from the feminine version of “macho,” resulting in gender ambiguity, and its base recipe is ripe for tweaking.

Naturally, I had to take my rendition in a completely inauthentic direction that most people would say has gone off the rails. Sorry, not sorry. It all started with an extra bottle of everything bagel seasoning, when I realized that half the ingredients I needed were all neatly bundled together within. Why not take that idea and run with it? Thus, Everything Bagel Salsa Macha was born.

Most salsa macha recipes are at least slightly blended after cooking, but I wanted mine totally chunky and extra crunchy. You could always pulse the mixture briefly in the food processor to break it down a bit, or completely puree it for a smoother sauce. Make it your own! The only rules for salsa macha is that it must contain chilies, seeds, nuts, and oil. Everything else is up for interpretation.

How can you use salsa macha?

Basically, anything edible is a viable canvas for this chunky, seedy salsa. A few of my favorites and top suggestions for this particular variation include:

  • Bagel with cream cheese
  • Avocado toast
  • Tofu scramble
  • Hummus
  • Pizza
  • Pasta
  • Rice pilaf
  • Grilled or roasted vegetables

Like some of the best things in life, the flavors in salsa macha continue to develop and deepen over time. It’s fantastic right away, enjoyed while still warm, but continues to improve over the coming days. Don’t try to keep it too long, though; the garlic and seeds prevent it from keeping longer than 1 – 2 weeks in the fridge without turning rancid. Of course, that deadline is unlikely to pose a problem. I can barely keep a jar around for more than three days.

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Best of the Worcestershire

It’s hard to pronounce, tough to describe, and even harder to find without animal products. Worcestershire sauce is a flavor enhancer that instantly boosts a wide range of dishes, but is still largely misunderstood.

Making a splash on the culinary scene in the mid-1800’s, this mysterious fermented condiment was invented in Worcestershire, England and debuted by the Lea & Perrins company. Still the leading brand on the market, few worthy competitors have stepped up to the plate. This leaves a gaping hole in the grocery aisle, especially for vegans and those with food sensitivities. That’s because the original formula uses anchovies as the not-so-secret ingredient. While plant-based alternatives do exist, they can still be elusive in mainstream markets.

It’s time we take Worcestershire back. For that distinctive, addictive umami flavor, nothing compares to the power of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder. Despite its earthy origin, this potent food booster doesn’t taste like mushrooms, so you don’t need to worry about your sauce tasting off-key. Enhancing the natural flavors already present rather than adding its own distinctive essence, it’s like magical fairy dust that you really should be using in all of your favorite recipes.

The full power of that umami dynamo is unlocked over time, which makes it especially well-suited for this sauce. Aged and lightly fermented, the savory qualities become even more robust over the course of a few weeks. Though you could very happily enjoy this sauce after just a day or two, your patience will be rewarded in a world of rich umami later on.

How can you you use your homemade awesome sauce? Some of the most classic examples include:

Commercial Worcestershire sauce tends to be much sweeter and more flat, whereas this homemade version is carefully balanced, tangy and tart, punchy and deeply nuanced. Once you give it a try, you’ll never want to go without it again. Luckily, it keeps almost indefinitely in the fridge, stored in an airtight glass bottle. Double or triple the recipe to stay stocked up at all times.

With the right pantry staples on hand, it’s easier, cheaper, and tastier to just do it yourself.

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Love Notes to Oats

Oats are no joke. No longer mere breakfast fodder, they’re the biggest thing since soy, almond, and cashew combined. Where other alternative milk once struggled to gain a foothold, oat milk strides confidently forward, breaking down the doors that previously separated plant-based options from the mainstream menu. It’s not just the cream in your coffee, or milk in your cereal, either; everyday it seems, this old dog is learning new tricks.

Excelling at each culinary test, sweet or savory, you’re liable to find oats in your ice cream, oats in your butter, and even oats in your tacos. Each innovative application is bolder than the last and exponentially more successful. The only thing surprising about the meteoric rise of oats is that it took so long in the first place.

Rich and creamy once blended, it satisfies without the need for expensive, potentially allergenic nuts, fatty oils, or added thickeners. Neutral in taste, it’s the silent partner to any featured flavors, no matter how subtle. From a sustainability standpoint, few crops can beat it for efficiency and yields, even for a bad harvest. It’s no wonder the world has fallen in love with this humble grain.

What does surprise me are the random holes in the market where oats haven’t yet sprouted. While the dairy cases are practically lined with oat straw and husks, the aisle of dressings is utterly barren by contrast. Conventional blends of mayonnaise and mysterious emulsifiers still reign supreme, seemingly untouched by the shift towards plant-based improvements. For me, it’s just one of many reasons to leave the bottles on the shelf and whip up your own dressings at home.

Green Goddess dressing is one of my favorite toppings for an equally verdant bowlful of vegetables. Bright, zesty, bold, and herbaceous, it simply tastes bracingly, invigoratingly fresh. Perfect for spring and summer, especially as tender herbs proliferate. Usually I start with avocado as the base, but now that I’ve found oats, I’m happy to dice those buttery fruits as rich, chunky toppers instead.

The list of healthy hashtags for this one could fill a novel; vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, soy-free, fat-free, corn-free, and so on, and so forth. In spite of all that it excludes, it doesn’t lack a single thing when it comes to taste or texture. Naturally thick and creamy yet incredibly light on the palate, it’s the best of all words, without making any compromises.

I, for one, welcome our new oat overlords. Even if they are bent on world domination, we may just be better off under that kind of innovative, adaptive, all-inclusive leadership.

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Fiery Love Affair

For a spicy gift that will really set your Valentine’s heart aflame, skip the chocolates this year in favor of a more fiery expression of adoration. Chili crisp is the all-purpose condiment that makes every dish irresistible, even if it’s just a bowlful of plain white rice. Heck, you could spoon it over scoops of vanilla ice cream for dessert with equal success, too.

It’s not just for heat seekers hell-bent on toeing the line between pain and pleasure. Aromatics blend in a delicate balance of nuanced flavors, far more complex than your average hot sauce. Satisfying bites of garlic and shallot define the uniquely crunchy texture, while cinnamon, anise, and ginger, create a symphony of complex seasoning.

Ubiquitous in specialty grocers and online, Lao Gan Ma, (老干妈) or “old godmother” is the brand to beat. This simple red labeled jar has dominated the market since its inception in 1997. Cheap, accessible, deeply satisfying across the board; it’s the gold standard that’s hard to beat. That said, anything homemade always has an edge over the competition.

I’m far from the first to take a DIY approach to chili crisp, nor can I claim to have reinvented the concept. I didn’t even rewrite the recipe. Rather, I took a page from Bon Appetit and would implore you to do the same. Show someone you really care by going the extra mile to make a superlative spicy Valentine this year. The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and this one will really set their passion ablaze.