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.

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

One week into autumn, and I already feel like I’ve overdosed on pumpkin spice lattes. Granted, my tolerance for the intensely sweet, largely over-hyped drink is far lower than the average enthusiast, but it doesn’t help that it’s already been perking up coffee shop menus while summer was still in full swing. Is it just me, or has the #PSL craze died down a bit this time around? Fewer rants, fewer raves; love it or hate it, I fear we may have collectively reached peak pumpkin spice.

I tease about the fervor every year, but I do still enjoy a strong cuppa myself. The trouble comes when it transforms into other foods and products that should never bear the orange hue. Please, just keep it out of my lip balm, cough drops, and… pet shampoo, at least! Is that really so much to ask?

Still, the overall attraction is undeniable. It’s hard to beat the comfortingly familiar, creamy espresso eye-opener adored worldwide to begin with. Add in an extra dose of sweetness, a touch of nostalgic spice, and the health halo associated with pumpkin itself, to say nothing of the beautiful latte art possibilities, and you’ve got yourself a viral social media hit. When the hype starts to wear a bit thin, though, I have a small tweak that will revive your enthusiasm over the usual brew.

Chai spice, bearing a brighter, bolder palate emphasizing ginger, cardamom, and a pinch of black pepper, makes a strong argument for skipping the one-note cinnamon seasoning typically on standard order. While the most popular (and some would argue original) purveyor of pumpkin spice lattes doesn’t even offer a dairy free option, it’s effortless to whip up a big batch of this spicy pumpkin sauce to flavor not only coffee, but drizzle over ice cream, swirl into cheesecake, and dip into with crisp apples all season long.

Happily, you’ll have plenty to play with, as this recipe does make a big batch indeed. Halve quantities if you must, but once you take your first sweet, invigorating sip, you’ll end up just going back in the kitchen to make more later.

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Plum the Depths

Growing up in New England, with its characteristically rocky soil, temperamental weather, and a deeply shaded backyard, I envied those who could grow their own fruits. Even mundane produce selections like lemons or apples seemed like an exotic rarity when they could be pulled straight from the tree. To bemoan such abundance was unthinkable, but mild complaints became inevitably woven into every conversation with such lucky gardeners. Irrepressibly messy, dropping fruit and attracting all manner of vermin, the problem sounded like one of laziness to me. Just don’t let the precious harvest fall in the first place!

Oh, how naive I was.

Now that I have a plum tree in my own backyard, that tiny square plot of land has turned into a battlefield overnight. Blood-red splatters stain the concrete while sticky pits cling to the tall grasses. Swarms of flies delight in the detritus, although they’re just as happy to follow me inside at the slightest provocation. Short of putting a net across the entire property, catching this downpour of plums would be impossible. While this was a mild irritation in summers past, the situation is considerably more exasperating now that Luka patrols the grounds.

Pouncing on these treats as soon as they’re within reach, he’ll happily eat himself sick, and then just keep on eating once again. He devours them whole, pits and all; a choking hazard that gives me regular panic attacks. The growing season has only just begun and I’m already dreading peak plum production.

Out of fear and frustration, I viciously pruned back the offending branches, ripping off every last plum I could get my hands on. Almost all of the fruit was still immature; bright green, hard, and unbearably sour. Though unpleasant to eat out of hand, I nonetheless struggled to simply pitch them into the compost bin. Sure, they could be pickled, but then what do you do with them? A bit of Google sleuthing pulled up a new flavor sensation I had never encountered before, hailing from the Eurasian country of Georgia.

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be found in both red and green varieties, depending on the plums themselves, but is always an assertive staple for both cooking and seasoning. Some use it at the table like ketchup, but I found it best as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal. Stir into soups and stew to instantly brighten up the flavor, no matter how long it’s been simmering. My favorite use so far has been with simple roasted potatoes, baked until crisp, bursting with the brightness of this distinctive sour blend.

Desperate measures never tasted so good.

Yield: 3 Cups

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Green Tkemali (Georgian Sour Plum Sauce)

Tart, tangy, warmly spiced, and herbaceous, tkemali can be used at the table like ketchup, but truly excels as a marinade and sauce for cooking. Slather some seitan in this vibrant elixir, saute, and serve alongside rice pilaf for an effortless meal.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Total Time 2 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Pounds Unripe Green Plums
  • 1 Whole Meyer Lemon, Seeded
  • 1/3 Cup Fresh Cilantro
  • 1/4 Cup Fresh Dill
  • 8 Cloves Garlic
  • 2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 3/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Instructions

  1. Place the plums in a large stock pot and cover with cold water. Set over medium heat on the stove, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. Cook for just about a minute before turning off the heat and uncovering. Let sit until cool enough to handle; about 30 minutes. Drain out the water and prepare to get messy.
  2. The plums will be very soft, so simply use your hands to squeeze out the pits and stems, removing the skin as well if it comes off easily. Transfer the flesh to your blender, along with all of the remaining ingredients. (Yes, you’re blending that lemon, skin, pith, and all!) Puree until smooth.
  3. Pour the mixture back into the stock pot and set over low heat. Simmer gently for 45 – 60 minutes, until thickened to the consistency of loose ketchup. Cool completely before storing in glass jars in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

3

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 167Total Fat: 1gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 709mgCarbohydrates: 41gFiber: 6gSugar: 31gProtein: 3g

Sending Home the Bacon

What do you get for the man who has everything? More importantly, what do you make for the man who isn’t particularly thrilled by birthday cake, lives on the opposite side of the country, and would never so much as drop a hint about any particular wants or needs? This is the conundrum I face every time my dad’s birthday rolls around. Proving that the ones who give the most are terrible at accepting the same kindness, he’s notoriously impossible to shop for, even when it comes to the most basic necessities. Appreciative of the gesture, he will always accept the typical gifts of shirts, books, and ties with grace, but really, you shouldn’t have. Really.

The only thing I know for sure is that my dad loves music, obscure movies, and ever-so-slightly burnt popcorn to enjoy with both. I have strong memories of working diligently upstairs in my room, only to smell the distinct aroma of toasted, vaguely blackened kernels wafting through the air, and I’d know it was time to take a break. That meant it was 9:00, our designated TV hour, which always came with a heaping handful of his homemade snack mix. Crowning this simple blend was a generous shake of bacon salt, the curiously vegetarian seasoning with a smoky, savory edge. It was a comforting routine, and one that I still miss almost three years since moving out.

If I can’t be there to share the flicks and snacks in person, then I had to find a way to send an edible understudy.

Vegans are making everything into bacon these days, from eggplant to coconut, but my unique blend goes back to a classic mixture of meaty tempeh and deeply umami mushrooms. It’s a simple yet remarkably satisfying seasoning that adds an extra punch to any dish, not just freshly popped corn. Think french fries, avocado toast, veggie burgers, roasted Brussels sprouts, corn on the cob, bar nuts, and so much more. It could quickly become the new savory staple that you suddenly can’t live without, even if you’ve never tasted the “real” thing.

Birthdays come and go, but the opportunity to treat loved ones to a special delicacy is fleeting. This successful, universally appealing formula may just be an ideal gift for equally discerning recipients in your life, too.

Yield: 1 Cup

Bacon Salt

Bacon Salt

A savory sprinkle of tempeh and mushrooms that's simple to make yet remarkably satisfying tor seasoning any dish.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon Liquid Smoke
  • 1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
  • 1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 8-Ounce Package Tempeh
  • 1/2 Cup Sliced Cremini Mushrooms
  • 1/4 Cup Dried, Sliced Shiitake Mushrooms
  • 1/4 Cup Coarse Sea Salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and set aside an 8 x 8-inch baking pan.
  2. Stir together the soy sauce, liquid smoke, maple syrup, oil, nutritional yeast, paprika, and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Crumble the tempeh as finely as possible and toss it in, along with the mushrooms. Mix thoroughly, coating the pieces.
  3. Pour everything, including the excess marinade into your waiting pan. Bake for 2 1/2 – 3 hours, stirring every 15 – 25 minutes or so to keep the entire batch cooking evenly and preventing it from burning. The edges can go from soft to scorched surprisingly quickly, so standby and keep a close eye on it the entire time it’s in the oven.
  4. Cook until brown all over, dry to the touch, and highly aromatic. Be aware that your kitchen may smell like bacon for the rest of the day, but I would hardly consider that a problem.
  5. Let cool completely before transferring to your blender or food processor along with the salt. Pulse until the pieces are completely broken down. Strain through a fine mesh sieve if you would like a particularly even grind and re-blend any remaining large pieces. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

1

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 683Total Fat: 40gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 26gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 30965mgCarbohydrates: 39gFiber: 3gSugar: 13gProtein: 54g

Worth Its Salt

Considering my legacy of dessertfocused cookbooks, it might surprise some to know that my salt tooth often speaks louder than my sweet tooth. Call it an inevitable balancing act, brought on by years of saccharine excess, but it seems that there’s not enough salt in the world to compensate for my reckless, sugar-coated youth. I’ll still dive head-first into a bowl of ice cream or a plate of chocolate chip cookies, but there’s a good chance I’ll spike each serving with a pinch (or two) of coarse salt before indulging.

Clearly, I’m not alone on this impulse. Gourmet salts have taken off in a category all their own, exploring new territory with different flavors far more adventurous than the classic mixtures of herbs and spices. San Francisco Salt Co. is one of the leaders of that pack, blending gourmet ingredients with high quality sea salt for a luxurious finishing touch. While various flavors of smoked salts have been a mainstay of the brand for many years, their newest release offers something unique to this crowded, salty category. Whisky Smoked Sea Salt elevates the concept to a lofty new realm, utilizing empty barrels once employed to age Teeling’s Irish Whiskey to lend deep, oaky aromas to this most humble of seasonings.

Dusty grey and fine as soft beach sand, the powerful scent that emerges from the package is stunning. Earthy and downright primal, like a carefully tended campfire, there’s no liquid smoke nonsense going on here. It’s the truly natural, unmistakable aroma that even the most advanced flavor labs could only dream of synthesizing.

The flavor is naturally a bit more restrained when paired with food. Unless you add a heaping teaspoon of salt to every meal, it’s only natural that it would take a backseat to the taste of the food itself. That doesn’t mean that it disappears into the scenery by any means. As with any good finishing salt, it serves to accentuate those savory morsels, adding subtle notes of smoke that add depth and character otherwise impossible to achieve in a single bite.

Frosting the rim of a tall, icy glass of Bloody Mary, there’s no better way to get a full-frontal hit of this richly smoked salt. Regardless of your final destination on either sweet or savory route, it’s one unmistakable, inimitable condiment that’s definitely worth its salt, and then some.