Shell Shock

Everyone in my family is a fidgeter, a picker, or a combination of the two. We simply can’t sit quietly, motionlessly, and we certainly can’t keep our hands still. As if possessed, they move with minds of their own, searching and groping into empty space for something to latch on to, work through, touch and feel.

If not for knitting, I would have long ago torn my nail beds to utter ruin, all without realizing precisely what those devious hands were doing. I’ve noticed that my mom often tries to redirect that energy into more positive channels as well, typically working knots out of yarn or twisted lengths of jewelry, impossibly tangled by yours truly. My sister’s gift, however came as a complete surprise. It turns out, she’s a gifted and endlessly enthusiastic sheller.

Failing to locate shelled pistachios for a recipe in need, I resigned myself to a frustrating night of cracking open about a million half-smiling green nuts, their tiny smirks mocking me from the safety of their hard cocoons. Somehow detecting the need for help, my sister was there in an instant, popping them out left and right, until only a pile of clean, perfect pistachios remained. Stunned, I could only stare at the heaping bowl of nuts, dumbstruck. This girl hates nuts, had never willingly or knowingly eaten a nut of any variety, and yet relished this horribly monotonous duty to free them from their shells.

Of course, this discovery came years ago, when we all lived together under one roof. Now separated by hundreds of miles, I can’t help but think of this moment wistfully as a new heap of nuts sits before me, cocooned in their impenetrable cloaks.

In the times of quarantine, though, it’s not the worst way to pass the endless hours. Any project that ends with a delicious result is a worthwhile investment in time.

Most cream of [fill-in-the-blank] soups are good only as ingredients, possessing little redeeming culinary value alone, but this pale green pottage was designed specifically to fly solo. Lush toasted pistachios are blended to both flavor and enrich the silken brew, dazzling with simplicity and subtlety. Glorious spring greens enhance the color, of course, while adding a light, peppery bite. Fennel, typically a bit player, is essential for this unique concert of seasonal flavors, not to be overpowered by the standard array of aromatics.

If you don’t start with shelled pistachios, it will definitely take a minute to prepare, to which I say: All the more better. Consider it an act of productive meditation. Don’t rush the process, but embrace it instead.

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Frequent Fryer

It’s the culinary equivalent of the Tickle Me Elmo craze that swept children into a nationwide temper tantrum in the final late days of the 1990’s. All the cool kids have one, or are getting one, because no other toy can compare. This particular modern marvel is considerably more functional, more respectable, but one could argue, no less frivolous than the furry robotic puppet. I’m talking, of course, about the air fryer.

Leading holiday sales for retailers of small appliances all across the map, these wildly popular contraptions are in no danger of selling out, unlike the door buster deals of yesteryear that would inspire fist fights in minimal parking lots. There’s a different model for every day of the year, and well beyond. Demand hasn’t waned but supply has exploded with such a surplus that prices have fallen to irresistible rates, even without a Black Friday discount. Paralyzed by an overabundance of choices, where does the tentative, newbie fryer begin?

First, we need to talk about what an air fryer really is. Purportedly an alternative to deep frying, without any mandatory fat, hyperactive home shopping network hosts would like to shout from the rooftops that it’s a miracle device guaranteed to change your life. Imagine: all the mozzarella sticks, tater tots, and corn dogs you can eat! Welcome back to childhood and Merry Christmas to all! …If only it really worked like that.

It would be more accurate to describe the device as a super-heated countertop oven. Convection heating circulates air at scorching temperatures and breakneck speed, allowing food to cook faster than in a conventional built-in appliance. It works more efficiently because it’s also smaller, although that brings us to our first drawback: The size can be a limiting factor if you want to cook for more than two or three. Larger models are now available, but you will never be able to fit as much food into one as a full-sized kitchen appliance as a simple matter of physics.

The “frying” effect is most successful with prepared, frozen snacks, which have already been at least partially cooked with a fairly generous amount of fat. French fries are the clearest example of this phenomenon, especially since they’re hands-down the most popular order for this short cook to tackle. Crinkle-cut, curly, waffle, skinny, or home style wedges all come out golden brown and impeccably crisp, fluffy on the inside, glistening with the sheen of success- And oil. If you tried the same set-it-and-forget-it approach with raw potatoes sticks, it would a sad, starchy story, with a real limp ending. Set your expectations accurately and understand how to harness the unique abilities of the machine, however, and this toy starts to regain some of the initial shine.

If you’re still craving a healthier alternative to cool satisfying meals from scratch, there’s hope for this crazy contraption yet! I relying on mine primarily as a toaster alternative, since I don’t have space on my counter for both. Set to low temperatures, it can also function quite efficiently as a dehydrator, to preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs, or make some tasty snacks with minimal effort. Best of all, and especially critical as we enter the sweltering summer months, it keeps the kitchen cool, as opposed to the full-sized oven that radiates heat like a genuine furnace. As a general guideline for converting existing recipes, reduce the temperature by 25 – 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) and the baking time by 25%. It will take a bit of trial and error if starting from scratch, but plenty of resources and general guidelines are already out there to make the process painless. You can also find handy charts for best practices regarding specific produce picks.

For your initial voyage on the SS Air Fryer, it will be much smoother sailing if you let the experts pilot the ship. Start with recipes specifically designed for complexities and eccentricities of the machine to turn out hits right from the beginning. My favorite cookbooks are The Vegan Air Fryer by JL Fields, Vegan Cooking in Your Air Fryer by Kathy Hester, and The Essential Vegan Air Fryer Cookbook by Tess Challis, in no particular order. These three highly respected authors also have many other tips and tricks folded into the mix, so you’ll be well educated on the capabilities of your shiny new gadget by the time you read them cover to cover.

Okay, so what about the air fryer itself? Of all the colors, shapes, and sizes, how could you possibly choose the perfect model? I can’t claim to have tried them all, but over the course of two years, I have gone through three different unique types: The Philips GoWISE 3.7-Quart, the Power Air Fryer XL 5.3 Quart, and the Power Air Fryer XL Pro 6 Quart. Which did I ultimately chose to keep?

Presenting, the winner of this round, the Power Air Fryer Pro (previously named the “Oven Elite” at the time of purchase)! Shaped like a miniature, traditional oven with moveable racks, it’s simply more versatile and easier to use than models that only provide a solid basket receptacle. This one provides that too, along with a rotisserie spit, rotating metal skewer attachment, and wire mesh basket. Furthermore, it’s a bit more spacious than the aforementioned options, and the separate racks allow you to cook multiple foods at once. Breaking down all the finer points to consider:

Pros:

  • Much more space! Wire racks allow you to separately cook different foods at the same time.
  • Rotating mesh basket means no more stopping and shaking food halfway through the cooking process to ensure more even browning.
  • Works brilliantly as a dehydrator; minimum temperature of 90 degrees.
  • Excellent and seamless toaster oven replacement. Creates a consistently golden crust on bread, bagels, and beyond. There’s even a dedicated pizza button for reheating leftovers.
  • Removable and non-stick drip tray makes for easy cleanup afterwards.

Cons:

  • Not exactly plug-and-play. Had a hell of a time figuring out how to install the skewers, and still couldn’t stop them from falling out eventually, regardless of the configuration.
  • The window is nice, but it would be more helpful if the light inside the unit stayed on after you closed the door. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose if you can’t see when the food is done?
  • Maximum temperature of 400 degrees. I’d wager that’s enough for 90% of all cooking needs, and most foods could just be cooked for a little bit longer to compensate, but it can be limiting for more precise, high-heat preparations.

Ready to embark on your exciting journey towards extra crispy, perfectly tender, and simply easier homemade meals? With expectations appropriately set and temperatures properly dialed in, the much lauded air fryer is a handy little helper that can make it happen. Naturally, all those years of testing and tasting have built up a considerable backlog of my own recipes to share, so stay tuned for much more!

Fee, Fi, Fo, Fonio

Move over, quinoa; there’s a new ancient grain in town. Protein-rich, gluten-free, and quick-cooking, fonio is the best kept secret in wholesome superfoods. Though little known in the western world, this African staple has all the makings of the next big healthy craze.

Neutral yet subtly nutty in flavor like good old brown rice, fluffy like fresh couscous, and faster to whip up than a pot of pasta, the only barrier to mainstream adoration is distribution. Though the supply chain is especially stressed by the current pandemic, fonio has long suffered from inaccessibility. No one’s out there flying the fonio flag, demanding more, so most consumers and home cooks simply don’t know what they’re missing. They say ignorance is bliss, but this is more akin to an act of negligence, cruel and careless.

Uses for fonio know no limits. Receptive to marinades and sauces the world over, it thirstily drinks in the flavors of a stew while retaining toothsome tenderness. Use it cold in salad; serve it hot as a side; form it into patties and pan fry; blend it into batters, cakes, and cookies; don’t even bother cooking it, and use it instead of breadcrumbs; the only way you can do fonio wrong is to keep it off the menu.

For basic cookery, all you need is 1 part fonio to 2 parts boiling water. Combine and let rest for about 5 minutes, fluff with a fork, and enjoy. You don’t need a stove, a microwave, or even electricity; it’s really that simple. Your hard work will be rewarded with a nutritional dynamo, rich in B-vitamins, iron, and calcium.

That said, there’s no need to stick with the bare basics, of course.

Golden grains spring to life with savory aromatics and a touch of spice. It’s the kind of side dish that could very well steal the show, and considering the protein quotient, which is bolstered by tender chickpeas, it’s not a stretch to call it a one-pot meal all by itself. Kernels of corn enhance the sunny yellow appearance, but a bit of contrast would be a nice option, be it from green peas, red bell peppers, or even dark, chewy raisins.

Oh, little fonio, this is just the start. There are big things in store for this tiny grain. Just wait until the rest of the world catches on. Quinoa had better watch its back.

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Americas Made

When is a bean more than a mere legume? Arguably, all pulses, big and small, have their own stories to tell, but some would spin epic tales encompassing history, heritage, and a whole lot of heart, if only they could talk. The oldest-known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE. Can you imagine what those tiny seeds might say? Though we still lack bean-to-human communication, the best translation you might find today would be through Fillo’s. Born of two brothers determined to share some of the beloved Latin American foods from their childhood with a broader audience, each savory selection speaks clearly and boldly through the convenience of modern packaging. Celebrating the unique character of each bean and their diverse origins across the continent, you might be surprised by what tiny pulses are capable of with just a bit of time, gentle seasoning, and love.

Placing equal value on authenticity and convenience without sacrificing either, each flavorful blend is fully shelf-stable and ready-to-serve, filled with fresh vegetables, olive oil, beans, water, and spices. Otherwise known as sofrito, this cooking method extracts bold flavor and nutrients. Clocking 10-16 grams of plant protein per pack means that they’re ideal, complete meals on the go. What sets this pouch apart from others is the fact that it’s actually built for ease and accessibility. Fully microwavable, there’s a top notch to tear and pour, and a second, lower notch that can turn the entire thing into its own bowl; nothing more than a spoon needed.

Celebrating the cultures responsible for so many of our favorite foods today, there are six different options to shake up the bean routine in an instant.

Cuban Black Beans dazzle with savory notes of cumin and bay leaf simmered into every tender, toothsome morsel. The taste immediately struck me as a perfect pairing with chips, like a chunky dip, straight out of the bag. Adding freshly diced bell pepper to harmonize with those stewed within, the harmonizing flavors yet contrast of textures was simply sensational. This brilliantly simple combination is clearly a party-starter waiting to happen.

Mexican Mayocoba Beans shine the spotlight on a lesser known legume, bathing the creamy, if not downright buttery beans in a waterfall of onions and garlic, accented by piquant ancho chile and epazote. Swaddled in soft corn tortillas, they turn any day of the week into a flavorful fiesta, not just Taco Tuesday.

Puerto Rican Pink Beans, spiked with achiote and a hint of cilantro, are unbelievably rich, satisfying comfort food cravings without using excessive oil or salt as a crutch. Adding a scoop of steaming hot yellow rice alongside was merely a ploy to soak up every last drop of that thick, velvety gravy.

Peruvian Lentils manage to maintain an ideal half-dome shape, not mushy nor unpleasantly crunchy, which is quite a feat for this fickle little legume. As a meal in frequent rotation now, a touch of zesty aji verde enlivens the umami medley stuffed into a ripe avocado. If I had one shred of patience come mealtime, this has the makings of the ultimate avocado toast, but I’d rather just skip straight to the good stuff. An extra slice of bread would just be unnecessary filler here.

Tex-Mex Pinto Beans invites a punchy smattering of jalapenos to the party alongside the warmth of chili powder. Though mild, they’ve got a zesty kick that plays beautifully with the earthy flesh of baked sweet potatoes. Loaded with an extra punch of fresh, fiery pepper confetti on top, it’s a cozy yet invigorating union that will keep you on your toes.

Panamanian Garbanzo Beans ranked as one of my personal top picks, though it’s hard to really rank favorites when all the options are winners. Adding just a touch of vegetable broth created a rich stew that tasted as if it had been on the stove, cooking for hours. These particular beans have a subtle tomato undertone carrying notes of verdant oregano, perfectly al dente, in a way I can only dream of when cooking from dried stock. I was so thoroughly inspired by these chickpeas that I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After downing two or three packages straight, I had to take them into the kitchen to play.

Traditionally tinted a blushing pink hue with steamed and sliced beets, Ensalada de Papas is the Panamanian answer to potato salad. Incredibly popular for special occasions and everyday meals alike, there’s no bad time to break out a bowlful of this creamy dish. Simply adding a pouch of Fillo’s garbanzo beans transforms it into potential entree material, while still remaining flexible enough to serve as a side. My version adds the crisp bite of water chestnuts for variety, but at it’s core, all you need are potatoes, beets, and beans. The key is to keep it simple to allow the ingredients to speak, like Fillo’s Americas Made does in the first place.

Fillo’s is available online and in many retail stores such as Whole Foods, Jewel Osco, and more, but I want to share the legume love with you directly. Generously provided by the folks at Fillo’s Americas Made, you have an opportunity to win a full set of beans! Get a taste of each unique bend with a variety pack including one pouch of each flavor. To enter, all you need to do is fill out the form below and tell me your own little legume story in the comment section: What is your favorite bean, and how do you like to prepare it?

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Sticky Situation

So deeply rooted in history, so utterly essential that in many cultures, the word for “rice” is the very same word for “meal,” or just simply “food.” The whole world as we know it could have quite plausibly begun from a single grain of rice. Trying to break down the myriad varieties though, from ancient to modern hybrid, is where things start to get sticky.

That’s exactly what I want to pick apart today: Sticky rice. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common long grain white rice, and no amount of special preparation will come close to its unique characteristics. Don’t let any blissfully thrifty cooks tempt you into thinking that any overcooked long grains, gummy and swollen with too much water, are even remotely acceptable substitutes. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed. It all boils down to its starchy constitution. Glutinous rice contains just one component of starch, called amylopectin, while other kinds of rice contain both molecules that make up starch: amylopectin and amylose. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking, which keeps grains separate and fluffy. Without that buffer, you’ll find a range of creamier or downright cohesive results.

Thai sticky or glutinous rice has been the object of my affection and frustration since the very first forkful I enjoyed in Thailand itself. Back at home, understanding the culinary transmogrification happening to turn out such a familiar yet entirely unique staple has been a fascinating, humbling experience.

A medium-to-long-grain rice hailing from South East and East Asia, glutinous rice does not actually contain gluten, but the name refers to the rice’s glue-like sticky quality, which easily binds it into rice balls and cakes. Black Thai sticky rice is simply the wholegrain version, meaning the bran has not been removed. Contrary to the name, it’s actually more of a mottled, deep purple color and has an exceptionally chewy, toothsome bite. Like other unmilled or brown rices, it takes slightly longer to cook than white varieties.

Typically soaked overnight, gently steamed in a special bamboo basket, and painstakingly tended all the while, traditional methods of cooking are as intimidating as they are ultimately gratifying. Every minute of planning and preparation is well worth the effort, but not exactly an endeavor for an everyday meal. If you’re willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of almost-instant satisfaction, I’m happy to share a secret shortcut to get those sticky morsels on the table in a fraction of the time.

Use 1/4 – 1/2 cup dry grains per person and bundle them up in a nutmilk bag. Plunge into a pot of boiling water, keeping the top drawn tightly closed and out of the water, as if you were steeping an oversized tea bag. Turn off the heat and let soak for 10 minutes. Bring the heat back up to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Elevate the bag in a large strainer, raise the heat to high, and steam for a final 10 – 15 minutes. If using black sticky rice, soak for 15 minutes and simmer for 25.

Most Americans might be familiar with mango sticky rice, a simple dessert featuring ripe mango slices crowning tender grains in a pool of sweetened coconut cream. The combination is hard to beat, tried and true, but so easily adapted for further flavor sensations. Consider the avocado, if you would, as an alternate fruit to feature. Straying a bit from the beaten path, I played around with this Blue Lagoon Sticky Rice by adding a touch of butterfly pea tea powder to the rich and creamy sauce, since it’s also a native Thai ingredient.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh, hot sticky rice straight-up, ungarnished in all its fully fragrant, tenaciously clingy glory.

 

 

 

Thai It; You’ll Like It!

Laap, laab, larp, lahb, larb; there’s about as many ways to spell the dish as there are to make it. Regarded by many as the national dish of Laos, it shows up in numerous different forms in neighboring countries. Thai cooks present their own fiery rendition of the traditional minced meat salad flecked with aromatic herbs and bold spices in perfect balance, but meatless versions aren’t hard to find in the surprisingly vegan-friendly nation. Inspired by my own journey to the Land of Smiles, I’ve taken to a hearty blend of tempeh and mushrooms, swaddling the hot mixture in cooling lettuce leaves. The combination of so many contrasting tastes and temperatures creates incredibly satisfying, harmonious little bundles.

If the original inspiration remains of reach, fear not. You can take a trip to Thailand in less time than it would take to order takeout! Join me at the Sacramento VegFest this Saturday, January 26th at 11:30 AM when I’ll share my secrets for whipping up a quick fix tempeh larb without compromising flavor, nutrition, or your budget, even during the busiest weekday dinner rush. Pick up more tips and tricks for faster, tastier meals across the board, based on my latest cookbook Real Food, Really Fast.

If only for the free samples, you won’t want to miss this. Hope to see you there!