Working for Peanuts

Grazing my way through the day, it can be hard to sit down to a proper meal. Time constraints often create an imposing barrier to reasonable meal prep, leaving me at the mercy of my pantry when hunger strikes. Granted, there are just as many instances where my only excuse is a basic, child-like craving for snack foods, conventional lunch or dinnertime fare be damned.

For anyone else affected by these same cravings, take heart in knowing that you’re not alone, and that there is a cure.

Peanut sadeko, a Nepalese appetizer that satisfies like an entree and tastes like a snack, doesn’t translate easily to a typical American eating agenda. Some call it salad, but of course there are no leafy greens and scant vegetables, so my best advice is to enjoy it with an appetite for adventure, anytime it you see fit.

Biting, lingering heat from pungent mustard oil envelops warm peanuts, mixed with a hefty dose of ginger, jalapeno, and chaat masala for a savory, spicy blend. “Sadeko,” sometimes romanized as “sandheko,” simply refers to the basic seasoning that blends these sharp, distinctive, yet somehow harmonious flavors together, infusing a wide range of recipes throughout the Himalayas. Though nontraditional, crispy roasted edamame join the party in my personal mix for a resounding cacophony of crunch in every mouthful.

Unexpected, undefinable, yet undeniably addictive, it hits all the right notes for instant gratification.

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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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Lettuce Eat Celtuce

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”

Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?

Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.

Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.

Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.

Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.

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Holy Crêpe!

Shrove Tuesday, perhaps better known as Fate Tuesday (Mardi Gras) or Pancake Tuesday, is nearly upon us. Established as the final feast before the famine of Lenten austerity, pancakes once represented all things indulgent, blending sinfully rich sugary, fatty ingredients in one shameless dish.

Beyond the iconic short stack, fluffy and soft, a wide world of diverse pancakes exist. Be it blini, latkes, injera, dosa, jeon, or bánh xèo, there’s a whole lot to flip over on this day, and everyday of the year for that matter.

Delicate, gossamer thin French crêpes follow the same basic blueprint as their thicker American brethren, but most notably take shape with a higher ratio of liquid to flour while omitting chemical leaveners. Even at their most basic, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a touch sugar, they will never disappoint. Flavors and fillings are truly unlimited, showing up in savory formats just as often as sweet, making the ideal vehicles for seasonal vegetables, soft cheese spreads, fresh fruits, and fudge sauce alike.

It all starts with one basic batter. Flying in the face of conventional crêpe construction, no eggs, butter, nor any debauched ingredients are necessary for the most exquisite, soft sheets of pancake goodness to emerge from your skillet. These righteous treats should stay on your menu all year long.

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Barking Up the Right Tree

Regardless of holiday party plans, as host or attendee, no matter how long or short (or nonexistent) gift and wishlist’s may be, I have two words for you: Peppermint Bark.

All it takes is chocolate and crushed candy canes, yet it can elicit the same level of enthusiasm as a laborious multi-tier Christmas cake. You’d think the stuff was sprinkled with pure gold judging by the way some people clamor to snap up piece after piece, as if they had struck it rich at the dessert buffet.

Something about the combination of creamy chocolate slabs, festooned with crunchy red and white striped mint confections seems to strike a chord with everyone, young, old, jolly, and curmudgeonly alike. It’s all about the ratio and quality of ingredients that always hits the sweet spot.

For all the breathless praise this classic confection receives, the real beauty is in its simplicity. Even the fanciest renditions, decked out in layers of dark and white chocolate, can be made by the pound in a matter of minutes, for pennies on the dollar. If you’ve forgotten someone in need of a sweet holiday greeting, or need a last-minute contribution for a party, peppermint bark has your back.

This year, my bark is even better than a quick little bite. Blending cocoa butter with brilliant, full-bodied vanilla, freshly ground candy cane, and rich cocoa, I’m starting from scratch, building my bar from the ground up. Maybe I took it a bit too literally at that, but I couldn’t resist the double entendre of making it look like bark of the earthier sort while I was at it.

Of course, it’s still the very same straightforward concept at heart. Any shape will do, be it a bar or snowflake or edible spoon. The only way to mess this one up is to not make it at all.

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Feed Two Birds with One Scone

Early victories in the kitchen were hard-won for me because, quite frankly, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know how to bake before going vegan, didn’t seek schooling on how to after, and to this day, I’m still not keen on following recipes. My parents suffered through some truly abysmal creations that could only loosely be described as “food.” One of my first notable successes came in the form of a simple scone, too easy to mess up even if I tried.

Cobbled together from odds and ends on hand, dried cranberries punctuated the rough, triangular biscuits, while thin flecks of orange peel appeared as faint confetti just beneath the surface. Barely sweetened, crisp, yet tender and buttery, I suppose they were special because in a way, they weren’t. There was no mystery, no magic to them, but something made them particularly compelling, both for the maker and the eater. Instant gratification; reliable satisfaction.

My mom, also known as my original number one fan, was effusive at the first bite. (In hindsight, I’m sure she was overjoyed that it was just finally something edible.) It became her go-to request, sometimes taking the form of hearts on Mother’s Day or rectangles arranged to spell out an “M” on her birthday, but always the same, year after year: Cranberry-orange scones.

Having committed the recipe to memory from repeated use, I realized with horror that it never got its fair time in the spotlight here on the blog. Finally, almost two decades later, I’d like to celebrate my mom’s birthday today by doing just that. Happy birthday, mom! As tradition would have it, these scones are for you.

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