Hot Potatoes

Remember years ago when sweet potatoes had a moment in pop culture history, akin to the fervor perpetually surrounding everyone’s seasonal darling, pumpkin spice? Oprah Winfrey essentially discovered the orange spud, according to online sources- And you know that if it’s on the internet, it must be true. All of a sudden, health gurus and foodies alike raced out to clear supermarket shelves of the tubers. It was as if no one had ever noticed them before, or at least, fully appreciated their flavorful potential.

Like all food trends, the extreme pitch and tenor of that enthusiasm quickly died down to a low roar, eventually settling back into a quiet hum of indifference. Where are all the sweet potato proponents now? Is there really only room in the oven for one autumnal vegetable superstar?

This year, I’m bringing sweet potatoes back. I’ve already professed my support for their simpler starchy brethren, so it’s time we dig a bit deeper into the root cellar for more colorful, flavorful possibilities.

Warm spices and dark, rich molasses join forces with the supple amber flesh, transforming the nostalgic, simple pleasure of the humble rice crispy treat into a seasonal delight. The satisfying crunch of toasted pecans punctuate the chewy, tender squares, rivaling the experience of a full slice of Thanksgiving pie.

Better than baked custard or scratch-made pastry, though, the instant gratification of transforming basic ingredients into a instant dessert surely squashed the competition. That’s definitely something to be thankful for.

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All Jacked Up

Gather ’round the campfire and pull your loved ones in close. It’s time for a ghost story more haunting than the Winchester Mystery House, more frightful than Frankenstein, and more bewitching than the lovely ladies of Salem. I’m talking about the tale of Stingy Jack.

Naysayers may call it a myth, but legend has it that Stingy Jack was a classic con artist, scraping by on someone else’s dollar while swindling his way into another man’s coin purse. He was already a man on the fringes of society, making more enemies than friends, so it should come as no surprise that eventually, the only creature willing to share a drink was the Devil himself. When last call came, predictably, Jack didn’t have the means to pay for his drink, so he made a dangerous bet with the devil instead.

Calling out his demonic power or lack thereof, he suggested that there was no way the devil could turn himself into the necessary coinage. With enough taunting and cajoling, already somewhat tipsy himself, Satan proved his prowess, transforming into a gleaming golden coin without any difficulty. Snapping up the opportunity along with the cash, Jack decided to ditch the bill and keep the money instead. Securing it in his pocket next to a silver cross, the Devil was prevented from transforming back into his original form.

Only when Jack died was demon freed, and quite peeved, to put it lightly. Hell was too good for this malicious man, so he set him off into the night, with only a piece of burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. Somewhere along the line, repeated reiteration of the story turned the turnip into a pumpkin, and that’s how we ended up with Jack-o’-lanterns.

Mea culpa; perhaps that was more of history lesson than a horror story. I can’t help but find myself enchanted by the origins of our strange holiday traditions. If you made it this far through my rambling tale, though, you definitely deserve a drink. How about a shot of applejack, on the rocks?

Better yet, let’s put it in the pumpkin.

That, my friends is the TRUE history of how the Applejack-O’-Lantern Pie came to be.

Cradled in a flaky pastry crust lies a layer of spiked and spiced apple filling, topped by a creamy pumpkin custard. Tender fruit mingles with brown sugar-infused pumpkin puree; each bite is highly spirited, in all meanings of the word. It’s a sinfully good treat to commemorate villainous old Stingy Jack… Just don’t make any deals with the Devil to secure a second slice.

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Take It Easy

In a world rampant with tough choices and difficult situations, just getting a decent meal on the table shouldn’t take a herculean effort. Take it easy, and take a page from Laura Theodore‘s Vegan-Ease. This veteran cookbook author knows her way around the kitchen, boasting a solid arsenal of crowd-pleasing recipes. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of cooking from her archives on multiple occasions, and am confident there’s not a single failure nor even slight disappointment in the bunch. While so many people promise quick, easy, healthy dishes, few actually deliver like Laura can.

Already an essential resource, Vegan-Ease has been re-released in a first edition softcover just a few weeks ago. If you somehow neglected to stock your bookshelf with the original, prepare to immerse yourself in chapter after chapter of Laura’s creative, inspiring, yet completely practical culinary concepts. More than mere recipes, you get a full-featured guide for how to put a meal plan into action, along with shopping lists, nutritional information, and helpful advice every step of the way. Naturally, it’s great for new vegans or uneasy cooks, but there isn’t a soul out there who couldn’t benefit from simpler, more satisfying meals. Each recipe is ranked by “ease factor” so you know what you’re getting into before even pulling out a knife.

Though there are over 130 recipes spanning from breakfast to dinner and everything in between, I’m naturally drawn to the back of the book first, starting with dessert as my entree. Fool-proof, crowd-pleasing, and devilishly decadent, one of my favorites out of a plethora of winners is the understated and underrated Peanut Butter-Chocolate Mousse. Greater than the sum of its parts, scant, simple ingredients come together in some magical alchemy to create a sweet treat that defies expectations. Willpower be damned, each luscious spoonful seems to disappear in the blink of an eye. Effortless to prepare at a moment’s notice, the real danger is that it’s almost too easy to make. There’s no reason why you can’t always have a little bowlful of indulgence whenever the craving strikes.

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Scoby Snacks

While the rest of the world came down with a serious case of sourdough fever, I remained immune. In San Francisco, of all places, where starter was almost literally growing on trees, nothing could convince me to try taming the wild yeast once again. Multiple attempts have proven that I’m just the neglectful sort of child that would repeatedly kill their own mother, and the last thing I needed was more heartbreak. Watching bakers boast of plump, golden loaves all across the internet, I was impressed, but remained unmoved. The only living organism I wanted to tend to was my beloved fur baby, and maybe myself, I suppose, on my better days.

Then, out of the blue, a kind neighbor offered extra kombucha scobys for free. Far less demanding dough-mestic responsibilities, all you need to do is brew a big pot of tea, plop in a disc of fungus, and forget about it for a few weeks. I could do that!

More accurately, a scoby is not a mushroom, but a “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast,” thus the acronym. Touted for its powerful probiotic quotient, the yeast is what converts sugars into CO2 and ethanol, and the bacteria then convert the ethanol into amino acids, trace minerals and vitamins. Though the resulting flavors are quite complex, the procedure is not. The most important ingredient is time, which was the only thing I had in abundance at the beginning of quarantine. After 2 – 4 weeks, you have a refreshing brew to quench your thirst, and a brand new scoby to do it all again.

After a few batches, of course, the scobys start to stack up. It’s wise to keep backups in a scoby hotel if everything should go awry, but even with robust reserves, there’s bound to be excess eventually. There’s no such thing as a useless scoby, however! I may not kill my mothers anymore, but sometimes, I will confess to eating them.

Yes, you can eat your scobys! They look like disgusting sheets of phlegm, but trust me, their culinary value far outshines their initial appearance. (Notice I did not include a photo of my scobys. I just can’t make that look appetizing.)

Puree any amount to seamlessly weave it into your daily diet, particularly in:

  • Smoothies
  • Blended Soups (especially chilled soups, like gazpacho)
  • Fruit Leather
  • Baking (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1 large egg)
  • Creamy Dressings or Vinaigrette (Use 1/4 cup scoby puree to replace 1/4 cup oil)
  • Dog Food or Treats

While brainstorming new ideas for using up this bounty, it’s most useful when I think about it like yogurt. Once blended, it’s thick and somewhat creamy, sour and tangy, and works well as a binder. Given its origins, I typically pair it with tea or coffee flavors by default, which is how this verdant verrine came about.

A fresh batch of green tea booch inspired this simple layered snack. Excess scoby is blended into the matcha base along with non-dairy milk for a creamy, pleasantly bitter, subtly sweet start. Set with agar like conventional Japanese kanten, a second stripe of translucent kombucha gel rests on top, almost like an adult Jello cup. Since each component is only lightly cooked, brought to the brink of a boil just to properly hydrate the agar, you’ll get the greatest benefits from all those live probiotics, and the freshest flavor from the tea.

There are some things in life you can never have to much of: love, fresh air, chocolate… And now, I’d like to add kombucha scobys to that list. Before you start cooking, don’t forget to spread the joy with your neighbors. You can cut a scoby into pieces and each fragment remains as potent as the whole for kick-starting a new brew. If you’re nearby in the area, hit me up for a scoby fix to dive into this fuzzy ferment yourself! Otherwise, it’s just as simple to start from scratch with store-bought culture. I promise, it’s much easier than sourdough, and the results are just as gratifying.

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Honey-Do List

I think we can all agree that the end of year 2020 cannot come soon enough, for all its trials and tribulations. However, I’ll settle for striking a line through the year 5780 for now. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year arrives at sunset tonight. Offering an opportunity for a fresh start, rebirth and renewal, the significance of this holiday feels especially salient this time around.

Apples and honey are practically synonymous with the occasion, expressing edible wishes for a sweet new year. There’s usually a loaf of challah on the table, a lustrous golden crust shining beside tall pillar candles, perfumed with that same nectarous sweetener, too. In celebrations past, maple syrup was the default replacement, and plain bread the only alternative. Now we have truly ambrosial bee-free honey, either store-bought or homemade, and egg substitutes galore.

Rather than simply veganizing the classic round loaf, I felt that we could all use an extra measure of sweetness to rebound from such a miserably bitter 12-month cycle. Honey cake is a common addition to the festive table, but probably not like this one.

Kasutera, the Japanese interpretation of Portuguese castella sponge cake, is the perfect non-traditional dessert for Rosh Hashanah. Light and fluffy, yet still dense and rich, it glows with a golden interior crumb singing with floral aroma. The top and bottom are deeply caramelized from the high sugar content, but the interior remains as bright as a sunny day. Having the opportunity to enjoy such delicacy, tenderness, and indulgence strikes me as an ideal catalyst for a truly sweet new year on the horizon.

Chag sameach! Sweetest wishes for the year 5781!

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