Smart Sweets

March is National Nutritional Month, which focuses not on good or bad foods, but emphasizes the importance of making informed food choices. This is an approach I can fully support. As a vegan with a huge sweet tooth, alimentary harmony is all about balance, which isn’t black and white. No single diet is best for everyone, but society at large would no doubt be happier and healthier with greater awareness of exactly what they’re eating. That all starts with simply reading the label!

Plant-based eaters are already seasoned pros at packaging interrogations, but it’s a skill that everyone can benefit from. Knowing which nasties to avoid goes a long way. Questionable ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and trans-fats should be on the permanent no-fly list for every conscious consumer. It might surprise you which brands do and don’t fit the bill. Voortman has been baking treats tirelessly since before superfoods were trendy or keto was a thing, but their consistent commitment to quality makes their cookies an ideal example of healthy indulgence.

Speaking of trends, charcuterie boards are all the rage these days, capitalizing on human nature to snack, graze, and nibble through the day. It’s a simple approach to hosting friends without putting out a full dinner menu, while still satisfying with a wide range of delights. Of course, there’s the stunning visual impact made by so many shapes, colors, and textures. Composed of simple staples that may not wow by themselves, the collection of complementary bites add up to far more than you would expect.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about meat and cheese. Dessert boards are where it’s at!

Dessert charcuterie is the new fun way to serve dessert. You don’t need to be a baker, spend a ton of money, or squander your precious time to assemble your own. In fact, you probably have everything you need already on hand!

Balance is the key, like anything else in life. Truly anything goes, and having a wide array of options ensures there’s something for everyone. Crisp wafer cookies are the most important feature for me, which guides the selections that follow. Voortman has so many bold flavors, I like to use one or two to get the party started. From there, I’ll match corresponding fresh fruits, pair dips that both contrast and heighten those flavors, and fill in the gaps with some additional treats. Your only limit is the size of your board!

In truth, you don’t need to spend a minute in the kitchen for this show-stopping composition. Just remember, it’s all about balance! Wholesome fresh ingredients, decadent chocolates, and healthy treats create a harmonious, natural union.

There’s a lot to be said for chocolate hummus if you wanted to go all-in on desserts with benefits, but I’m a fan of darker cacao endowment here, given the other lighter components. You can whip up this dip in one minute flat, and it’s great on ice cream, too.

Another crowd-pleaser is cheesecake, which graciously accommodates any flavors you can throw at it, while still retaining a tart, tangy vigor. More than just vanilla, it provides the light and lemony contrast to the darker, earthier additions.

Rounding it all out with something nutty, peanut sauce is often seen as a spicy topper for Thai food, but makes a rich addition to the final course, too. A touch of maple syrup and a pinch of salt is all it takes to flip the script over to the sweeter side.

A lot is said about the path towards health and wellness, but for me, it’s one that must still lead to dessert. At the end of the day, I’ll always crave something sweet, so I’m careful to stock only smarter choices. It’s all about creating a happy balance that starts on the plate, or in this case, charcuterie board!

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If it Ain’t Got That Spring, Then it Don’t Mean a Thing

Fleeting warm breezes tease on cool mornings, while sporadic rays of sun manage to break through cloud cover, gently kissing still frozen earth. Tempting, taunting, spring arrives in maddening snippets too short to savor at first. Right when you begin to peel back layers of heavy sweaters and fold up thick comforters, winter rages back in with a vengeance, more brutal than before, crystallizing budding sprouts into frosted popsicles or piling on a fresh coat of ice, depending on your locale. Every time it seems certain that the seasonal shift has taken place, hopes soar high on those fresh winds of change, and crash hard like a kite with no string, back down into the forbidding frozen tundra.

For the first time in recent memory, the calendar date actually seems to align with the weather. Spring resonates through dewy grasses, shouting its arrival from the rooftops of micro gardens across the urban landscape. At least in the bay area, the changing of the guard has officially occurred, and I’m more than ready to reap the benefits.

Spring is all about fresh greens in so many forms. Tender, sweet curlicues branch out from between soft pea leaves, one of the best if underappreciated parts of the whole plant. Though it’s a tough sacrifice to cut these vines down in their youth, before pods appear bearing those toothsome green caviar, the greens themselves are a true delicacy that are worth a splurge. Typically found in Asian cuisine, stir-fried very simply with a splash of wine and a handful of garlic at the most, their full potential has yet to be realized in western culture.

Borrowing inspiration from Spanish tapas, the term “cazuela” simply indicates the terra cotta cooking vessel for the dish, much like you would refer to a tagine. Contents of that pot vary widely across countries, always encompassing some sort of vegetable, though sometimes meat as well. The version from Barcelona Restaurant, based on spinach and chickpeas, inspired my springtime spin-off.

Deceptively rich and complex but full of verdant, simple vegetables, think of it like a warm spread that falls somewhere between hummus, pea puree, and spinach dip. Masses of fresh pea leaves wilt down into a concentrated tangle, amplified by the fruit of the pods themselves with a garlicky, cumin-forward taste that will linger with each bite.

If Mother Nature remains stubbornly resistant to embracing a timely spring conversion in your area, sunflower sprouts or baby spinach might just be able to suffice in a pinch… But the best things remain for those who wait. Ask around at local farmers markets, search ethnic markets for dòu miáo (豆苗,) or head to the backyard and get growing. Though it may sound like great lengths to go for just a handful of tiny sprouts, you’re only 1 – 3 weeks away from the best taste of the season, and it won’t get any fresher than that.

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Unholy Guacamole

Don’t judge a book by its cover, a person by their clothing, or a dip by its color. The comparison is inevitable so I’ll go ahead and say it: The following recipe, no matter how brilliantly described or lovingly plated, will always and forever look like a glorious mountain of cow plop, steaming away on a hot summer’s afternoon.

Just avert your eyes and dig in. The smoky, spicy, earthy flavor of cocoa mole awaits your taste buds if you can suspend disbelief. Presenting a bold alternative to the ubiquitous green guacamole filling bowls across the country for Super Bowl festivities, it won’t score any points for presentation, but may just win the snacking game.

Yield: 2 Cups

GuacaMole

GuacaMole

When guacamole meets mole, the results may not be pretty, but the flavor is out of this word. This creamy, smoky, spicy, and earthy mashup will tempt you to double (or triple) dip.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
  • 1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
  • 1 Teaspoon Chipotle Powder
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/8 Teaspoon Ground White pepper
  • 2 Avocados
  • 2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
  • 1 Small Heirloom or Medium Roma Tomato, Chopped
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
  • 2 Tbsp Fresh Cilantro, Minced
  • 2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Instructions

  1. Combine the cocoa, spices, and salt in a medium bowl and mix well.
  2. Pit, dice and scoop the avocado flesh out, adding it to the bowl along with the lime juice. Very roughly mash with a fork, incorporating all of the dry ingredients but keeping the texture rather chunky.
  3. Mix in the tomato, garlic, cilantro, and scallions last, stirring until the vegetables and herbs are equally distributed throughout the dip.
  4. Serve with chips or cut vegetable crudites.

Notes

Enjoy right away or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two days.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

8

Serving Size:

1/4 cup

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 68Total Fat: 6gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 71mgCarbohydrates: 5gFiber: 3gSugar: 0gProtein: 1g

Schmear Campaign

Whoever first looked at a cashew and thought, “Hey, I think this could taste like cheese!” deserves some kind of gold medal, if not a Nobel Peace Prize. Though this tropical nut has quickly been adopted as the staple ingredient to many dairy-free delights, it truly shines brightest when blended to a creamy consistency and inoculated with savory cultures. Something about the fermentation process brings out all the best flavors, not to mention the probiotic benefits, locked away inside those unassuming beige kernels. Recipes have flooded cookbooks both print and digital within the span of just a few years, and you don’t have to look very far to find evidence on the grocery store shelves, too. Just take the new line of schmears from NuCulture for example.

Based in the Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon, I was lucky enough to stumble upon these fresh blends while visiting Seattle for the VegFest this past spring. Availability is still limited, but growing at a steady clip, as more savvy consumers catch on and get hooked. Very rich and buttery, each flavorful option is so much more than just plain pureed cashews.

Garden Herb is the best entry point for the uninitiated; think of it as an upgraded cream cheese, simply begging for a bagel. Scallions take the lead here, bringing onion flavor to the fore, while gentle notes of parsley, thyme, and oregano play backup in perfect harmony. For whatever reason, it’s the thickest of the three, making it less of a contender as a silky smooth dip, but still perfectly creamy and spreadable.

On the other hand, to all you nostalgic southerners out there, your pitch-perfect pimento cheese dip dupe has arrived. Paprika Pimento bears a mild kiss of red bell peppers, lending a gentle warmth without a bite. An irresistible savory spread with subtle, balanced sweetness, it was the first to disappear when the snacks hit the table.

If you like it hot, though, Bacony Chipotle has your number. Beware that it’s not a treat for the meek! This one is packing serious heat. It starts with a smoldering, smoky, meaty flavor but quickly progresses into a blazing finish. The fire definitely builds as you eat, which can catch up quickly if you’re a serial snacker, unprepared to face the flame.

For all you keeping score at home, mark this one down as yet another win for cashews. Though currently a regional specialty, I hope that the love of this nutty schmear will continue to spread through all 50 states soon, and beyond.

Dip into Summer

The original significance of Memorial Day has become lost to most modern revelers, happy enough to celebrate a day off of work for any reason. According to the tireless research of WalletHub, 60% of Americans are eating at barbecues, beer sales will be higher than any day except the Fourth of July, 41.5 million people are traveling, and about 41 percent of us are shopping Memorial Day sales.

Over the years, it’s become a joyful day demarcating the unofficial beginning of summer, as we cast off heavy knit sweaters and relegate plush quilts to the back of our closets at long last. Even for those still dutifully clocking in today, there’s a sense of optimism in the air, looking ahead to the long hours of sunshine. Most importantly, though, is the promise of fresh produce both sweet and savory; an abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and all the culinary possibilities they bring. Hard-hitting journalism by the New York Times uncovers and ranks the tastes of summer, and while I might dispute many of those findings, it’s a good indication of what might be on grocery lists and dinner tables in the coming months. To that questionable index, I’d like to suggest another category to consider: The essential dips of summer.

Here’s what you’ll find on my table as the days heat up:

Hummus-Tzaziki, otherwise known as Hummiki, blends the best of both worlds with a refreshing crunch of cucumber woven in. Zesty lemon and dill brighten the flavor profile further, imparting a bold and sunny flavor throughout.

Composed of rich, creamy chunks of avocado, contrasted by crunchy cubes of jicama, this Chimchurri Avocado Salsa is a clear departure from the more typical tomato-based dip. Peppery, lemony, herbaceous, and vinegary all at once, it’s perfectly suitable to serve with with chips, crowning soups and salads, or an hors d’oeuvre in and of itself.

Take advantage of the tender baby spinach shooting up from gardens across the nation and use it in this creamy Saag Paneer Dip! Impressively cheesy, the cashew base carries delicately nuanced spices that put bland old sour cream spinach dips of yore to shame.

Back in the dark ages when eggplant was my foe, I invented this zucchini-based work around to babaganoush, dubbed Zukanoush. Even though my intolerance seems to have died down and I can enjoy the purple nightshade again, I’m still hooked on this version, packed full of everyone’s favorite green squash. You’ll never feel overwhelmed by a glut of zucchini with this formula on hand.

Caramelized Onion Dip is really a staple food all year long, but it’s such a crowd-pleaser, it should have an automatic, honorary invite to every party. If you can get past the terrible photos from over a decade (!) ago, you’re in for a real umami treat.

Given all the delicious options, how are you celebrating the start of summer? Do you have the day off, or are you quietly plotting your next adventure for the coming months?

Dip, Dip, Hooray

In the battle for snack supremacy, the competition is fierce, but a few front runners have emerged from the pack. Potential winners are obvious from any vantage point in the bleachers, if you just take a moment to look at the odds. Think back and try to remember the last time you attended a decent party that didn’t have a bottomless bowlful of hummus on display, for starters. And what would Taco Tuesday be without nacho cheese in ample supply- Maybe just Tortilla Tuesday? All bets are off when it comes to picking a winner between the two, but I think I have a solution that neither side would see as a compromise.

Nacho hummus, bearing all the cheesy, spicy decadence of a good queso dip with the more substantial heft of a chickpea spread. The two rivals complement and contrast one another with surprising ease, a natural union that has been long overdue.

Whether you smear it in a pita, thin it out to drizzle on corn chips, or just set it out with cut vegetable crudites and let the crowd go wild, it’s a fool-proof formula deserving of a gold medal.

Yield: Makes 6 - 10 Servings as an Appetizer

Nacho Hummus

Nacho Hummus

Nacho hummus, bearing all the cheesy, spicy decadence of a good queso dip with the more substantial heft of a chickpea spread.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Total Time 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 14-Ounce Can (or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained and Rinsed
  • 1/2 Red Pepper, Seeded and Roasted, Chopped
  • 1/3 Cup Nutritional Yeast
  • 1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
  • 1 Chipotle Pepper Packed in Adobo Sauce
  • 1 Clove Garlic, Chopped
  • 1/4 Cup Lemon Juice
  • 3 Tablespoons Tahini
  • 1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
  • 1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
  • 3/4 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
  • 1/4 – 3/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
  • 1/4 – 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
  • Thinly Sliced Scallions, to Garnish (Optional)

Instructions

  1. Like any other hummus variant, this dip couldn’t be easier or quicker to prepare. Toss the chickpeas, roasted red pepper, tomato paste, chipotle, and garlic, and lemon juice into your food processor. Pulse to being breaking down the ingredients and pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add in the tahini, mustard, and all the seasonings and spices, starting with just 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.
  2. Puree, and while the motor is running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil, until the mixture is silky-smooth and it reaches your desired consistency. If you’d like it to be more of a sauce than a spread, follow that with water or vegetable stock, as needed. Adjust the spice level to taste.
  3. Top with sliced scallions and dip the day away!

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

10

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 202Total Fat: 16gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 291mgCarbohydrates: 11gFiber: 4gSugar: 2gProtein: 5g