Thrill of the Grill

Labor Day is right around the corner, signifying the dwindling days of summer while offering one last chance to celebrate. That means it’s time to gather up all your friends, neighbors, and coworkers, throw down an ice bucket packed with refreshing beverages, and uncloak that glorious grill in the heat of the midday sun. It’s your last best chance to fire that baby up, so make it count!

I’m probably the last person to ask about expert grilling practices, but I’d like to think that my novice status is actually my greatest asset here. I’m not about to pull some crazy, unreasonable, daredevil tricks when the metal grates get hot and the smoke starts blowing. While I can’t weigh in on the timeless debate of gas vs. charcoal, steering clear of debates over specific fuels or equipment, it shouldn’t be so complicated just to start a fire and get cooking outdoors. No matter what that means to you, even if the party gets rained out and you use a simple grill pan over the stove instead, it’s still important to start searing and making a mark!

Speaking of which, there are a few key principles to remember for emblazoning perfect stripes every time:

1. Start with a VERY hot grill. Give it at least 15 minutes, if not 25, to preheat before lubing up. If the food is par-cooked or semi-cooked (like meatless hotdogs or burgers, fruits or softer veggies,) aim for about 400 degrees.

2. Grease well to prevent sticking but do NOT use an aerosol non-stick spray over a hot grill! Trust me, you don’t want to light your backyard up like a torch here. Opt for an oil with a high smoke point, like rice bran oil, avocado oil, or peanut oil.

3. Don’t walk away, but don’t fuss with your feast either. Once you throw something on the hot grates, leave them there! Don’t start pushing them around, flipping again and again, repositioning them closer or farther apart. To leave a dark, solid mark, you need to allow full, uninterrupted contact. Yes, the food does still need to be turned over to even cooking, but just once, and only after a solid 5 minutes at minimum.

4. Use tongs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased around ears of corn with a flat spatula because I was too stubborn to go back inside to get the right utensils. Seriously, save yourself the frustration, potential burns, and charred food. Just use the right tools for the job.

5. Go ahead and grill EVERYTHING! Once you’ve made the effort of dragging that beast out of storage, cleaning it up, and bringing it back to life, keep it busy from noon to night. Grill your tofu pups and corn on the cob, of course, but don’t stop there. Grill the buns! Grill the avocados! Grill pineapples and watermelon for a palate cleanser! Keep the party going and grill s’mores for dessert! Heck, if you’ve still got fire to burn and time to spare, grill any leftover veggies in the fridge to start meal prep for the coming week. After all, Labor Day is but a short respite from the daily grind… It’s right back to work tomorrow, ready or not.

Do you have any simple grilling secrets to share? I’m all ears, and not just with yellow kernels of corn. There’s a wide world of charbroiled delights to discover; I’m just getting started.

Many thanks to LightLife for simply providing meatless dogs to inspire this post. All content remains my own original creations, free of bias, and dedicated to an honest appreciation of cruelty-free food.

Sushi Cups for the Rest of Us

Love sushi but hate the fuss and mess of making it at home? You and me both. Despite best intentions, such ambition inevitably leads to walls spackled with sticky rice, sesame seeds burrowed deep within kitchen tiles, and nori plastered across the table. Rolling up the compact parcels isn’t such a demanding task on paper, but in real life when deadlines loom and hunger gnaws with terrifying ferocity, all bets are off. If it’s still reasonably edible by the time I give up and scrape the mangled scraps into a bowl, I’d consider the venture a reasonable success.

For anyone else in the same sort of sushi boat, I’d like you to meet your new life (and sanity) preserver. Edible cups made of classic nori seaweed, crisp and delicate, in addition to more avant-garde carrot and daikon papers, are here to save the dinner. Swaddle your rice in flavorful wrappings without the need to roll. More elegant than the usual mess of fillings dumped into a bowl, these savory cupcakes are just as charming as they are delicious. Feed yourself or a number of last-minute guests with ease, even if some visitors aren’t fond of the “fishiness” that traditional maki rolls possess. Pale orange carrot cups have a subtle, natural sweetness that makes them an ideal offering for more picky eaters or younger palates, white the daikon option has a slightly bitter edge, perfect for cutting the richness of creamy avocado or a generous drizzle of miso mayo. In both cases, the only additional ingredient in the mix is agar, holding these thin edible vessels together.

It’s with equal parts excitement and frustration that I share this fantastic innovation, though, if you might have guessed from the previous product links. I first encountered these savory sushi cupcake papers at the Winter Fancy Foods Show, and regrettably, have yet to hear a word from or even about the company since. Why on earth hasn’t this concept caught on to spread like wildfire? There might be more competitors on the horizon, which is a relief, since my small stockpile has long since been exhausted. It’s an idea that’s just too good to keep to myself, regular availability not withstanding.

In lieu of perfectly formed nori, carrot, and daikon cupcake papers, what’s your quick fix solution when sushi cravings strike? Temari sushi or larger onigiri are probably the most direct conversions, offering single-serving bites of rice and vegetables without the need to roll, while temaki would be ideal finger foods to pass at a party.

Though this feels like another tale of “the one that got away,” I’m holding out hope that these sushi saviors will make a big splash on the market in the days to come. Either that, or someone will devise a press to turn nori into cupcakes at home. A hungry but lazy cook can dream, right?

In the Palm of My Hands

Glowing like a bold orange beacon in my kitchen, the allure was irresistible. Undeniably handsome, complex yet versatile, and as rich as Croesus, this new infatuation had all the makings of a wild, illicit love affair. Uninformed outsiders would find it shocking or downright offensive, but the truth is far less controversial than gossip may lead you to believe. Palm oil sourced from Malaysia has a lot to offer for the passionate cook, baker, and eater alike.

Mom’s Meet provided me with the opportunity to dig deeper on this topic, shining a light on an incredible ingredient often overlooked by the average American shopper. Malaysian palm oil is sustainably sourced, committed to orangutan conservation, wildlife biodiversity, renewable energy with zero waste, and deforestation avoidance.

Being a tropical oil that’s solid at room temperature, most comparisons are drawn to the latest superfood darling, coconut oil. Aside from the obvious differences in color and flavor, palm oil distinguishes itself in its versatility, with a smoke point of 450 degrees, far beyond that of coconut oil’s 350-degree limit. That makes it excellent for high-heat preparations like frying, grilling, or broiling. Melting at around 70 degrees, the fact that it remains solid at room temperature makes it an excellent substitute for harmful trans-fats in commercial products.

If you thought coconut oil had the movie theater popcorn game on lock, be prepared for a snacking revolution here. Brilliantly buttery yet still mild in flavor, all it needs is a pinch of salt to make bare kernels shine brighter than any rising star on the silver screen.

Once liquefied, Malaysian palm oil can even be emulsified into a golden vinaigrette. Inspired by the Sweet & Spicy Harissa Slaw in Real Food, Really Fast, I tossed my fiery blend with a dab of this orange elixir instead, which was received with positively glowing reviews. That glorious color comes from an abundance of carotenoids, by the way, bearing 15 times more vitamin A than the carrots themselves.

Lest you thought I was ignoring my sweet tooth this whole time, rest assured that rigorous testing proved it a highly qualified applicant for baking operations. Chocolate chip cookies came out of the oven soft, moist, tender, and quite beautiful, if I do say so myself. Sink your teeth into one of these behemoths for a healthier taste of a childhood classic, no dairy nor eggs in sight.

For my final trick, I must admit that my attempt at making a nut-free cheese went terribly awry, but in the wake of that failure came an even greater culinary coup…

Cultured butter, infused with both probiotics and luscious flavor, creamy and spreadable, meltable, and downright delectable. No dairy, no nuts, no gluten, no nonsense. I couldn’t keep it in the fridge long enough to test it on loftier goals like homemade croissants or puff pastry, because with just one smear on the average ear of corn or slice of toast, I was hooked. This recipe alone is enough reason to deviate from the typical shopping list and stock up on a new pantry staple.

Malaysian palm oil deserves a place in every kitchen across the globe, including yours. Undoubtedly, you’ve eaten it before in packaged foods or used it in cosmetics, but have you cooked or baked with it? With a sustainable source close at hand, unleash your adventurous side and try a splash in your next succulent creation.

Palm Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 Cup + 2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
3/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/4 Cup Maple Syrup
1/3 Cup Red Palm Oil, Melted
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with either parchment paper or a silpat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt so that all of the dry goods are evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Add in the chocolate chips and toss to coat.

Separately, combine the sugar, maple syrup, melted palm oil, and vanilla. Stir well, and then add the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry. Using a wide spatula, mix just enough to bring the batter together smoothly without over-beating it. Use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to portion out cookies, and place them with at least 1 1/2 between each cookie on your prepared baking sheet. They spread out to become sizable cookies, so I usually bake about 9 per sheet.

Flatten them out slightly with lightly moistened hands, and bake for 10 – 12 minutes, until barely browned around the edges and no longer shiny on top. They may looks a bit underdone, but they will continue to bake once removed from the oven, and you want to keep them nice and chewy. Let the cookies rest on the sheets for 10 minutes before cooling completely on a wire rack.

Makes 6 – 8 Large Cookies

Printable Recipe

Cultured Butter

1/2 Cup Plain, Unsweetened Vegan Yogurt
1/4 Cup Aquafaba
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Teaspoon Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Red Palm Oil, Melted

Place all of the ingredients into your blender except for the palm oil, and blend until thoroughly combined. While allowing the motor to run on high speed, slowly drizzle in the melted palm oil, allowing the mixture to emulsify smoothly.

Transfer the mixture to a glass container and cover. Let it solidify in the fridge for at least 6 hours, or the freezer for 1.

The butter will be soft and spreadable straight out of the fridge. It melts beautifully and you can cook with it, too! I haven’t yet tested it for baking, but if you do, let me know about it in the comment section.

Properly sealed and chilled, the butter should keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Printable Recipe

Flavor Your Life

It’s one of the most common cooking staples across the globe, found in even the most sparsely populated pantries and in the hands of extraordinarily reluctant cooks. Olive oil’s ubiquity is owed in large part to its accessibility, as a vast number of brands have become available in recent years. Such a vast range of options should immediately suggest that not all oils are created equal, yet few shoppers pause to think about the origin of those original fruits before popping a sleek new bottle into their carts. For such a beloved, indispensable ingredient, there sure is still an overwhelming amount of misinformation out there.

Inspired by the Flavor Your Life campaign, supported by the European Union, Unaprol, and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, the goal of debunking common misconceptions resonated with me in a powerful way. Moms Meet provided a bottle of Zucchi Extra Virgin Olive Oil to demonstrate the difference, but I’ve long been a devotee of quality European olive oils even without that delicious perk.

Let’s not beat around the olive tree, and get down to business. It’s time to talk about the top olive oil myths that need to be put to rest, once and for all:

You can’t fry with it.

Contrary to the single most frequently perpetuated false fact, olive oil has a 400-degree smoke point and can hold up beautifully (and tastefully) to the task of deep frying. Raising the heat beyond that temperature will only result in burnt food no matter the carrier, so keep a thermometer clipped to the pot, tend it carefully, and your taste buds will be rewarded.

Only extra-virgin will work in dressings.

Though there is a drop of truth in that statement, extra-virgin is merely a title bestowed to the very top grade of oil, cold pressed; extracted without heat or chemicals. That isn’t to say that other grades are of any lower quality. If anything, their flavor has a lower impact, which might actually be a welcome quality if your vinaigrette has bold seasonings that would otherwise obliterate the delicate nuances of a top grade oil. On the reverse side of the spectrum, this more neutral palate could be a benefit for baked goods where you don’t want such a savory note to shine though.

Kept in a dark, cool place, it should keep pretty much indefinitely.

Those volatile oils would beg to differ! Like any other fresh food, it should be refrigerated, and for no more than 6 – 8 months, ideally. It does go rancid at room temperature, although most people are so accustomed to using sub-par varieties, they may not realize the truly superlative, ephemeral nature of the genuine article.

Terroir is only for wine.

Extra-virgin is top shelf quality, but bottles bearing that designation manifest that grade through a wide spectrum of flavors. The greatest contributors to taste are the types of olive trees (cultivar), the region (which affects climate and soil) and time of harvest. Early in the harvest season, under-ripe fruits produce oils that are greener, more bitter and pungent. By contrast, olives harvested towards the end of season are over-ripe, resulting in a more mild, sweet, and buttery character. Other variables can yield oils that skew more nutty, peppery, grassy, floral, and beyond.

Considering the incredibly varied range of options being produced in all corners of the European continent, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A full education on this essential ingredient can be gleaned with just a dash of culinary curiosity, and a pinch of knowledge from the Flavor Your Life campaign. Eating better starts with cooking better, and there’s no substitute for quality components.